A popular joke in the United States of the late 1980s depicted Iran as a country that had for long generated substantial troubles for successive U.S. administrations. A U.S. President, so the joke went, had his State Department tasked with bringing him the U.S. government file on Iran. The Department was unable to find the Iran file under the letter â€œI.â€ The President asked that the search be conducted under the letter â€œPâ€ for Persia, Iranâ€™s pre-1933 name. As the second search also failed, confusion set in the White House whereupon an advisor suggested that perhaps Iran had been filed under the letter â€œU,â€ to which the President asked what it stood for. The reply: Ulcers.
Clearly many North Americans agree and consider the U.S. as the
aggrieved party. If asked they would point to the year 1979 as when it all began. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution toppled a key U.S. ally, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Later in the same year, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 North Americans captive for 444 days. Establishing time-lines that tell of origins is critical to historical storytelling. To Iranians their troubled history with the United States did not begin in 1979. For them 1953 is the key year. In that year, an Anglo-U.S. coup toppled the parliamentary government of Iranâ€™s popular Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq. The coup ended the only democratic experiment in government in modern Iranian history.
The 1979-Centered Version of History
To this day the U.S. continues to view its history with Iran by privileging the events of 1979 over any other historical account. The salient theme in their version of â€œ1979â€ is that of modernization and its discontents. Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) of Iran, so it goes, was eager to modernize his people, the majority of whom were governed by traditional Muslim ways. As he pushed modernization on them they began to view him as cruel. By 1978 bloody riots swept the country, forcing the Shah to leave the following year. Khomeini, a Muslim fundamentalist leader, replaced him and established an Islamic republic. The new regime was very anti-U.S. and keen on eradicating western cultural influences in Iran. When the U.S., in a humane act, allowed the Shah, who was ill with cancer, to come to the U.S. for medical treatment, the revolutionaries in Iran were angered and overtook the US Embassy and held its staff hostage. The fundamentalist Khomeini manipulated this rage to his advantage and further consolidated his power while fanning the flames of anti- North Americanism. The U.S. responded by freezing Iranian assets in the United States, placing a trade embargo on Iran, and taking the side of a lesser evil, Saddam Hussein, in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. In the 1990s, Washington adopted the policy of containing Iran (and Iraq) while Iran secretly worked on its nuclear programs. Now in the aftermath of 9-11, the U.S. cannot sit idly by while Iran pursues its programs to acquire nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, Iran was summed up in the minds of many North Americans with the oft repeated â€œThe United States Held Hostageâ€ headline. The U.S. public officials and media focused almost exclusively on the hostage-taking. North Americans were fed daily images of angry mobs burning the U.S. flag, and striking and burning the effigies of President Carter in front of the Embassy gates in Tehran. The display of mass rage was often staged just for the western news cameras. As a result, to most North Americans, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 became practically indistinguishable from those images of visceral mob anger. And so many North Americans simply failed to comprehend what had been unfolding before their eyes. As a result, tensions began to grow between North Americans and Iranian-Americans in the U.S.
My brother and I had a firsthand experience of this growing tension. We were attending college in the United States at the time of the hostage-taking. One afternoon we found ourselves surrounded by two dozen angry fellow students. The incident had been triggered by a student from a dormitory where we also resided who had thrown a soda can at us and a visiting Iranian friend. Our friend unwisely returned the favor by throwing the can back at the dorm floor and smashing a window. He then left the campus in a hurry, leaving us to deal with the angry crowd.
Facing grave danger, we asked if any of them knew of the real history behind the news headlines, and whether they were willing to let us tell that story before they would carry out the sordid business of injuring their fellow dorm-mates. Reluctantly, they agreed. So we began and when we had ended a good many of the students were still left standing and listening attentively, and some were visibly affected. When it was all over, no one had been hurt, and some even offered us protection from abuse in the future. That day we learned the following lesson. Sometimes history can help heal historical wounds suffered by contending communities, and that its misuse can do the exact opposite, replacing natural feelings of human empathy and solidarity with contrived animosity and aggression.
The 1953-Centered Version of History
Iranians emphasize the themes of national sovereignty and democracy, or constitutional government, in their national historical narrative. From their perspective, the years 1951-3 represent an exceptional period in which the nation came closest to achieving political independence and establishing a lasting constitutional monarchy. In 1951, the popular Mossadeq had put an end to British colonialism by nationalizing Iranâ€™s oil industry, which had been under British control since the 1910s. Naturally, nationalization angered Britain. But what surprised most Iranians was that in the end the U.S. sided with Britain. To many Iranians, the U.S. enjoyed an exalted moral status. The United States had sympathized with the Iranian constitutionalists during the constitutional revolution of 1905-11, and many Iranians tended to view the United States as an anti-imperialist great power.
In the aftermath of the nationalization act, Iran faced an embargo and a blockade from the west. Just when its oil revenues were dramatically reduced, the U.S. withheld aid and denied loans to Iran, despite Mossadeqâ€™s pleas. As this created a climate for disaffection and subversion among the people, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored a royalist coup (Operation AJAX) that put a halt to the only experiment with democracy and independence in Iran. Mossadeq himself was tried in a military court and convicted on charges of treason, sent to prison for three years and subsequently banned to his remote home village under house arrest until his death in 1967.
In the three years that followed the coup, total U.S. economic and military aid to the Shah increased by nine fold. In 1954, the oil industry was in fact (not on paper) denationalized, with the rights to, and management of, Iranian oil transferred to a western oil consortium. In 1957, the CIA, according to William Colby, its former Director, â€œcreated SAVAK,â€ a repressive national secret police agency, â€œand taught it proper methods of intelligence.â€The veteran investigative reporter, Seymour M. Hersh, reported that, according to Jesse Leaf, the chief CIA analyst on Iran in the period 1968-73, the CIA had instructed the SAVAK on torture techniques, which â€œwere based on German torture techniques from World War II.â€In later years, as the Shah became an absolutist monarch the U.S. continued to back his rule.
By the early 1970s, as the price of oil quadrupled, and Iranâ€™s state revenues expanded dramatically, the U.S. assigned a regional mini-hegemonic role to the Shah, a role which required transferring vast amounts of U.S.-made armaments to Iran. A 1977 report by a Senate committee explained: Iranâ€™s role is to block any â€œthreat to the continuous flow of oil through the Gulf,â€ which â€œwould so endanger the Western and Japanese economies as to be grounds for general war.â€ It continued, â€œâ€¦the most serious threats may emanate from internal changes in Gulf states â€¦ If Iran is called upon to intervene in the internal affairs of any Gulf state it must be recognized in advance by the United States that this is the role for which Iran is being primed and blame cannot be assigned for Iranâ€™s carrying out an implied assignment.â€The report concluded that â€œa strong and stable Iran,â€ serves â€œas a deterrent against Soviet adventurism in the region,â€ and â€œagainst radical groups in the Gulf.â€
In sum, the Shah was a modernizing dictator who pushed economic modernization initiatives, as did his father (Reza Shah, 1925-1941) before him, but who forfeited any chance of gaining legitimacy for his rule when he went along with the Anglo-U.S. coup against nationalist democratic aspirations of his nation, became dependent on foreign (U.S.) tutelage, and relied increasingly on state terror to rule. And it was the fact that the U.S. backed his rule despite the gross violations of the human rights of ordinary Iranians that alienated many of them from the United States.
The Present Confrontation
In the aftermath of September the 11Th, the paths of these two nations seem once more to be set on a collision course with ruinous consequences for both peoples. And once again history is being misused, manipulated, and ignored. One senses in the air the forming of that mindset of havoc and destruction that necessarily feeds on fear and ignorance. And again we are called upon to halt the death train set in motion towards greater ruins ahead. Letâ€™s begin by outlining what each side says the confrontation is about before lifting their rhetorical veils to see what lurks underneath.
An Issue of Security: The Bush administration presents the conflict in terms of global security. It c