Relations between Iran and the United States have been turbulent for almost 60 years now. Before the Second World War, the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, sought to maneuver between the outside demands and pressures of Great Britain, the U.S.S.R. and Germany. When the war broke out, he proclaimed neutrality. This led to an allied Soviet-British invasion in 1941. The allies forced the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son.
The Soviet forces remained in northern Iran and in 1946 made demands for an oil concession there. The British considered Iran to be part of their sphere of influence and controlled the very profitable Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The Cold War had started and the British did not wish to countenance such a demand. The Soviet forces withdrew from Iran, more or less as part of the implicit Yalta agreement on division of spheres of influence.
In 1951 however, Mohammed Mossadegh became Prime Minister, as head of a nationalist party, and he nationalized the AIOC, a move to which the Shah, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was opposed. In the struggle between the two, Mossadegh obtained enough popular support to marginalize the Shah and force him into de facto exile.
The British were at this point in effect turning over their role everywhere in the Middle East to the United States. It was thus the CIA that orchestrated a coup in Iran on August 16, 1953 and arranged that the Shah return to Teheran and resume full political control. The oil nationalization was cancelled and the British firm reinstalled.
The Shah of Iran became a firm ally of the United States, suppressing all opposition. At this time, the United States was not objecting to the Shah’s nuclear ambitions, nor even was Israel. The Shah’s regime was increasingly oppressive and this resulted eventually in the nationalist revolution of 1979 led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One of the main grievances of the revolutionaries was the subordination of Iran’s national interests to U.S. policies, as incarnated in the CIA coup of 1953.
The Shah fled and soon thereafter, on November 4, 1979, the U.S. embassy was invaded. The diplomats inside it were held hostage by the Iranian regime. They remained hostage for 444 days. Relations between the two countries have been hostile ever since. In 1980, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, supported materially by the U.S. government.
The war was long and bloody and ended after eight years more or less in a draw. Soon thereafter Iraq invaded Kuwait, in part to alleviate the costs of the war. Iraq expected U.S. "understanding" of its actions, and instead found itself in the first Gulf War.
The United States was now at odds both with Iraq and Iran at the same time. When Al Qaeda launched its attack of September 11, the Bush administration accused both Iraq and Iran of being in collusion with them, whereas Al Qaeda was in fact hostile to both regimes. The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 in the presumed hope of obtaining friendly regimes in both countries and their support in its ongoing struggle with Iran, which had begun serious efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
So, where are we today? The Iraqis have just held elections and are currently negotiating the future government. When the various parties with a strong base in Shi’a areas wanted to hold political bargaining discussions, they went to Teheran. One of the reasons adduced was that they didn’t want to be overheard by U.S. listening devices. They apparently weren’t worried about being overheard by Iranian listening devices. The largest party that has strong support in the Sunni areas has just announced that it will visit Iran as well. And the Iranian government has urged Shi’a parties to include the Sunni politicians in any government that was formed.
It isn’t that Iran is controlling Iraqi politics. Far from it. But after a long U.S. occupation, the outcome seems to be that Iran has more influence in Iraq than the United States. Iran is especially thankful to the United States that it eliminated the one fearsome enemy it had in Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
In Afghanistan, the United States installed in power Hamid Karzai. He was, from the U.S. point of view, the ideal person, indeed the only one who could possibly hope to resist successfully the Taliban and hold Afghanistan together. He was himself a Pashtun by ethnicity, and was someone willing to make deals with the various warlords dominating non-Pashtun zones.
After recent elections, there were charges that Karzai had manipulated the results and was highly tolerant of both corruption and drug cultivation. The United States put strong pressure on him to modify some of his policies. What did he do? He invited Ahmadinejad to visit Kabul, said he might himself join the Taliban, and openly denounced the U.S. military for its wanton killings of civilians.
Since the United States has no one else who can fill the bill, it has backed down and tried to restore relations with Karzai. This is particularly true of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces there, who has much invested in achieving at least a partial victory over the Taliban. After nine years of U.S. (and NATO) involvement in Afghanistan, their surest ally plays the Iranian card against Washington, and there seems to be not much the United States can do about it.
Meanwhile, at home, Ahmadinejad faces a strong opposition which he has been working hard to suppress. And the United States is engaged in a major campaign to obtain sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to abandon the development of nuclear reactors. What results have there been for the campaign for sanctions (or more), led by the United States and vociferously supported by Israel?
At home in Iran, it has strengthened the internal political hand of Ahmadinejad greatly, as it enables him to pose as the defender of Iranian sovereignty. And despite all the pressure of the United States, it seems doubtful that Russia and China (especially China) will support serious, as opposed to nominal, sanctions. Meanwhile, as the Israelis correctly state, time is on Iran’s side in the attempt to become a nuclear power.
Thirty years of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran seem to have backfired terribly. (Or perhaps we should talk of almost 60 years.) Iran is today stronger than ever, in large part because of U.S. policies. If you were Ahmadinejad, would you not say, thank you America?
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]