Iranians Have Memories Too

When it comes to Iran, most North Americans are historical creationists. They believe that current events regarding Iran did not evolve, but emerged ex nihilo, out of nothing. Some may have shadowy memories of the hostage taking incident, but this too is remembered as springing spontaneously, causelessly, out of the chaos of the Iranian mob. But that North Americans have no historical memory of the causal events that led to the current events of today does not mean that they didn’t happen. The people of Iran remember them.

Surely how Iranians understand and react to the events of the present is, at least in part, a response to their memory of similar events in the past. Though the events of today tend to be seen by North Americans as discrete events springing fully developed from an ahistorical present, like Athena from the head of Zeus, Iranians have a historical awareness of the connections between their painful past and present.

As part of a British and American plan to destabilize the Mossadeq government and return the Shah to power in the 1950’s, General Mahmoud Afshartous, the chief of police, was kidnapped and tortured to death. One of the perpetrators went on to join SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. Upon completion of the 1979 revolution, when the Shah was once again removed from the Peacock Throne, that perpetrator was executed for the murder of Afshartous. Twenty-six years had passed. But the historical continuity of the first attempt to remove the Shah and the attempt to remove him again after the Americans and British returned him to power was not lost on the Iranians.

Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian says that “on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, Abul-Hussein Bani-Sadr—soon to be elected the first president of the Islamic Republic . . . accused the [Shah’s] regime of ‘fifty acts of treason in fifty years of tyranny’. The list began with the 1953 coup and the undoing of oil nationalization”. Again the continuity was starkly present to the Iranians. Both movements attempted to remove the brutal, West serving Shah and both stressed the need for nationalization and sovereignty. As it was for Mossadeq, seizing autonomy form puppet Iranian governments that served Western interests and resurrecting a state that looked to the interests of its own people was central to the platform of the Khomeini government. The birth of the Islamic Republic recognized the historical connection to the death of the Mossadeq revolution. The difference between the two concepts was that, while Mossadeq grounded his nationalist movement in secular ideas of justice and fairness, Khomeini grounded his in Islamic ideas of justice and fairness. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett explain that Khomeini argued that it is a “religious duty for Muslims to oppose corrupt and illegitimate rulers and to confront injustice . . . . These principles are themselves grounded in Islam; in Khomeini’s reading, they imply staunch opposition to hegemony and domination in all forms”.

Similarly, while Westerners were left baffled by their historical creationism as to the reasons for the 444 day American hostage crisis, Iranians, with their historical memory, were not. Professor Vali Nasr of Tufts University has explained that “In the popular mind, the hostage crisis was seen as justified by what happened in 1953”. In 1953, the Iranians, led by Mossadeq, chased out the Shah only to have the U.S. and Britain intervene and put him back on the throne; in 1979, the Iranians finally chased him out again, only to have the U.S. take him in and provide him with sanctuary. The Iranians saw the hostage taking as an attempt to prevent American midwifery from delivering the same fate again. As John Limbert, one of the hostages said,

In October 1979 the American administration thought it could somehow placate Iranian public opinion by announcing that the United States was admitting the deposed Shah for medical treatment and for purely humanitarian reasons. The American people may have accepted such a statement. Given the history of Iranian-American relations, however, no Iranian cognizant of that history would have believed it. The statement, rather than reassure its Iranian audience, insulted its intelligence and seemed to confirm what many, in the highly charged atmosphere of late 1979, already suspected: that the United States was plotting against the revolution and was looking to restage the events of 1953.

This memory, which endows the leaders and the citizens of Iran with a sense of historical evolution, must give them a very different perspective of current events than North Americans, with their lack of memory and sense of historical creationism, have. So the current international showdown over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program must look a little different in Iran.

In 1988, Iran acquired 23 kilograms of enriched uranium for medical isotopes used in the imaging and treating of cancer. Those 23 kilograms are now nearly used up. But when Iran went to the International Atomic Energy Association to request help in purchasing a new batch of 19.5% enriched uranium so she could keep her hospitals functioning, which, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, she has every legal right to do, the U.S. and Europe prevented her from making the legal purchase. With that avenue blocked, Iran then, on a number of occasions, agreed to a nuclear swap in which she would send her 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country to be enriched into fuel rods for the medical reactor and sent back to Iran. Most recently, when Brazil and Turkey brokered a uranium swap deal, Iran agreed, but the U.S. and her allies not only ignored it, but reprimanded meddlesome Brazil and Turkey and pushed ahead, instead, with more sanctions on Iran.

This isolation and abandonment by the international community, which left Iran with no option but to enrich her own 19.5% uranium, must be a terrifying reminder of the dangers of international abandonment. In 1982, when the Iraqis, who had invaded Iran, began using chemical weapons, Iran went to the Security Council begging for help.  But help never came. Fact-finding mission after fact-finding mission confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, but, for several years, the Security Council left Iranians to die. And 10,000 of them did. As many as 90,000 more soldiers and civilians were victims of chemical attacks that America and the world knew about.

So when the international community abandons Iran in her legal quest for medical isotopes to treat cancer patients in her hospitals, it may be a discreet, unemotional event in the west. But Iranians remember what happens when the international community leaves you on your own, and they have learned to be self sufficient. Hence, the–from their perspective–historically learned and rational decision to enrich their own.

But Iranians remember not only what it is to be left on your own, but what it is to be ganged up on. Of course, they remember what it is to be ganged up on from without. While America was helping Iraq with her chemical weapons, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries were bankrolling the Iraqis. But, perhaps as painfully, Iranians remember what it is to be ganged up on from within. Once an ally in the revolution, Iran’s mojahedin-e khalq (MEK) split from the Islamic revolution and, with outside support from Iraq—and, perhaps, the U.S., began bombings in Iran that killed more than a hundred leaders of the Islamic revolution. The MEK also fought alongside Iraq.

Iranians remember that the last time the MEK used foreign support to bomb and assassinate Iranian leaders, the goal was regime change. And that is the historical backdrop for their current understanding of the MEK’s activities inside Iran. Since the beginning of 2010, there have been at least three assassinations and one attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Two senior officials in the Obama administration have revealed to NBC news that the assassinations have been carried out by the MEK. They also confirm that the MEK is being financed, armed and trained by the Israeli Mossad and that the assassinations are being carried out with the awareness of the Obama administration. The Americans, too, have secretly trained and supported the MEK. So, where the West sees a mysterious series of assassinations in Iran, Iran sees the Western hand behind regime change. And the case of those in the West who might cry “paranoia” has not been helped by the 2012 U.S. decision to remove the MEK’s long time designation as a terrorist group: a decision that frees up the U.S. to support the regime change seeking group.

And foreign support for MEK assassinations is not the only current event that would remind Iranians of foreign support for regime change. The increasingly strangling sanctions on Iran cannot hide from the Iranian memory the intention of regime change. In the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, as Mossadeq and the Iranians finally claimed Iranian oil as their own, British hands clasped the Iranian throat in similar strangling sanctions. Britain pressured all of her workers to abandon the Iranian oil industry and pressured other European governments to prevent their citizens from filling those jobs. Britain then froze Iranian assets in England and, in partnership with the U.S. State Department, prevented companies from doing business in Iran. Britain successfully pressed for assurances from several other countries that they would cease importation of Iranian oil, and independent companies were deterred from buying oil from Iran. In addition to the sanctions, Britain sent warships to enforce an embargo. Britain threatened to impound any oil tanker that dared leave Iranian ports and actually seized some ships who tried to break her embargo. In the eighteen months following nationalization, Iran only managed to export the equivalent of one day’s production of oil. And the intent of those sanctions is surely known by every Iranian who suffers under the current round of sanctions. Henry Grady, the U.S. ambassador to Iran at the start of the oil nationalization crisis, explained to his government that the British were determined to destroy Mossadeq through the sanctions. The sanctions aimed to set the stage for regime change. The British did not believe that sanctions alone would bring down the government, but they expected the economic strangulation to lead to spasms of internal conflict in the Iranian government. So where the West sees international sanctions, every Iranian who is hungry or who can’t get medicine because of the contemporary embargo remembers, or has been taught, that when the West applies sanctions on Iran, they are laying the groundwork for regime change.

While the world attempted to starve Iran into regime change, the British and the Americans also tried to paint Mossadeq, the target of that regime change, as mad, both to lay the blame for the crisis on him and to justify the need to replace him. Publicly, the media and the politicians broadcast a collage of lunatic adjectives to discredit Mossadeq. Ervand Abrahamian, in his book The Coup, has collected a number of them: “impervious to common sense”, “bewildered and desperately short sighted” and “marred by nervous instability”. He was called “hopelessly irrational”, “eccentric”, “hysterical”, “mentally unstable” and “crazy”. He was consistently portrayed as childish, erratic and emotional. Abrahamian says that government officials frequently likened him to a character out of Alice and Wonderland. They painted a picture of Mad Hatter Mossadeq.

Their private recollections of him belied the propaganda. Sam Falle, a British foreign office expert on Iran, said years later that Mossadeq was “a sincere and honest politician”. He said, “He was non-violent and . . . people loved him, and saw him as a sort of Iranian Mahatma Gandhi”. He added that Mossadeq was “brilliant”. The Mad Hatter publicly; Gandhi in private: quite a different allusion.

The British were not alone in their private praise for Mossadeq. Henry Grady, the U.S. ambassador to Iran at the start of the crisis, admitted, when safely retired, that Mossadeq was “a man of great intelligence, wit and education . . . . He reminds me of . . . . Mahatma Gandhi”. Gandhi again! Grady’s successor, Loy Henderson, who played a decisive role in the coup against Mossadeq, remembered him as “a charming person” with a “high sense of humour”.

When the current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is similarly portrayed as mad, Iranians might remember that the last time their president was portrayed that way, the intent of the portrayal was to blame the failure of negotiations on his unreasonableness and to justify the road to regime change.

I don’t know whether Ahmadinejad is mad: I am no more a psychologist than the politicians and journalists who irresponsibly diagnose him. But, though the diagnosis is accepted as unquestionable in the West, he is not seen that way in the Middle East where survey results consistently single Ahmadinejad out as one of the most admired leaders in the Arab world.

Nor do the reasons for the diagnosis of insanity stand up. Ahmadinejad is regularly portrayed as mad for his crude threats against the existence of Israel and for his rabid hatred of the United States. However, despite the stubbornly persistent reportage by the media and charges by politicians, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has never threatened “to wipe Israel off the map”. The mistranslation has been irresponsibly repeated despite the constant authoritative corrections. Amongst the translation errors, Iranian expert Trita Parsi states that “Ahmadinejad’s statement has generally been mistranslated to read, ‘Wipe Israel off the map.’ Ahmadinejad never used the word ‘Israel’ but rather the ‘occupying regime of Jerusalem,’ which is a reference to the Israeli regime and not necessarily to the country”. Not only is the “Israel” part mistranslated, but so is the “wiped off the map” part. The line, according to Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, is properly translated as, “this regime occupying Jerusalem must disappear from the page of time”. This statement is a reference to a wish for a future time when the Israeli government no longer occupies Palestinian territory. This wish is not for the end of the state of Israel or her people, but for the end of the occupation, and is not, therefore, a threat of aggression, but a wish no different from the official wish of the United States and others. Jonathan Steele adds that Ahmadinejad went on to make an analogy between the elimination of the regime occupying Jerusalem and the fall of the Shah of Iran, clearly showing that he is wishing for a regime change and not the elimination of a nation and her people, unless he is wishing for the elimination of himself and his own country. Most recently, Dan Meridor, Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy and the deputy prime minister at the time, admitted to his Al Jazeera interviewer that “They didn’t say ‘we’ll wipe it out’. You are right”.

As for his rabid hatred for the United States, hatred it may or may not be, but rabid or without reason it is not: to this madness there is method too. Ahmadinejad has been vocal in criticizing governments who “impose their values and wishes on others,” who govern in such a way that “looting the wealth of other nations is called development efforts, occupation is introduced as a gift toward promoting freedom and democracy, and defenseless nations are subjected to repression in the name of defending human rights” (General Assembly address, September 2009). A year later, he said,

The influence of the people of Iran, the role of the people of Iran in regional relations and interactions is quite clear to hegemonic powers. . . . They oppose us because they want to dominate the Middle East and the whole world. A free Iran, an advanced and powerful Iran, is considered an impediment to this objective. This is the secret behind the opposition to the Iranian nation in the past thirty-one years. They want us to be kept weak and under the domination of dictators, to make us dependent on others and to eliminate the freedom and independence of Iran” (translation by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett).

As a reading of the recent and not so recent history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, these comments are not crazy: critical, but not crazy. It is interesting to note, too, that, at the time of the Iranian hostage taking of 1979, the event that generated the most American anger at Iran and the event considered the most revelatory of Iranian madness, Ahmadinejad, at the time a young and very prominent prorevolutionary student leader, was against the taking of the American embassy and her hostages.

And the “Mad Mullahs” behind the President demonstrate no more madness than the President. Their responses to trying world events have been exemplary in their restraint and reason. Iran has never attacked or threatened to attack another nation. When Iraq attacked her and rained down chemical weapons on Iranians, Ayatollah Khomeini did not retaliate with Iran’s own stockpile of chemical agents. In 1998, when the Afghani Taliban massacred hundreds of Shi’a in Mazar-e-Sharif and then murdered eight Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist, Iran neither went to war nor retaliated. Imagine what America would have done. Iran, though, chose a course of diplomacy through the U.N. and worked with Afghanistan’s neighbours and the world’s superpowers to develop a policy for handling the security concerns in Afghanistan.

That Iran’s leadership is not mad is recognized by the people who need to know the most. Israeli military chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, speaking last year about Iran’s nuclear program, said, “If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”

But if you portray your interlocutor as irrational, you don’t have to deal with the substance of his argument or of his accusations against you; if you portray a nation as irrational, you don’t have to negotiate with her seriously, and, to the extent you do negotiate, you can blame the failure of the negotiations on the irrationality of your interlocutor. The irrational and erratic behaviour of the regime also sets the justification for the change of regime. The West, with its historical amnesia, sees Ahmadinejad as an isolated actor in an insane play. Iran, with her historical awareness, may see a very different play. For, Mossadeq was cast in the role of jester a mere half century ago, and that play ended in a coup and regime change.

Leading up to that 1953 coup, the British and the Americans first staged a series of negotiations that were designed to demonstrate the Iran was irrational and intransigent and that a compromise with her was not possible. But the negotiations were an act, a mask to fool the world when the British and Americans never had any intention of accepting the nationalization of Iranian oil or arriving at a compromise with Iranians. The act took on two forms: the first was deception, and the second was offering a deal that couldn’t possibly be accepted.

In Mossadeq’s day, the deception took the form of offering a phantom nationalization to the Iranians: allowing Iran to nationalize her oil industry in title while maintaining complete control of the industry in fact. Abrahamian quotes one British delegate to British-American meetings as defining the goal as paying “lip service to the notion” of nationalization while “keeping effective power of this asset in our hands”. In his memoirs, Assistant Secretary of State Georg McGhee admits that the solution to the Iran crisis was to accept nationalization while the States, Britain and her partners would, at the same time, “retain control”. Mossadeq was never fooled by the deception. He recognized the scheme as a “disguise” for continued British control of Iran’s oil that would “revive the former AIOC [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] in a new form”. A 1951 document from the British Ministry of Fuel and Power smugly admits that he was right: “ . . . we must not forget that the Persians are not so far wrong when they say that all our proposals are, in fact, merely dressing up AIOC control in other clothing.”

After deception came offering Iran a deal she couldn’t possibly accept. That strategy was intended to show the world that the British and Americans had made offers to Iran, but that Iran refused to negotiate, leaving only the removal of Mossadeq as an option. Abrahamian says that the British and American governments offered a final compromise that “they knew would be unacceptable”. In the final compromise, Britain would agree to accept nationalization and to lift the sanctions in return for an international panel determining what fair compensation for lost oil revenue would be. But Mossadeq was not fooled by this trick either, rightly suspecting that the compensation would be set so high as to make nationalization impossible. Christopher Montague Woodhouse, chief of the British MI6 operation in Iran, would later admit that the negotiations were never serious, since the British government had no intention of ever coming to an agreement with Mossadeq.

The frustration of this two pronged approach to negotiating a settlement, deception and the impossibility of acceptance, may well still be felt by the Iranian memory as it plays out again a half century later. And that its goal was never an honest attempt at compromise but a deceptive preparation for regime change may well be the historical understanding that shapes their interpretation of the negotiations over the contemporary crisis with Iran.

As in the 1950’s, deception was employed. In 2009, the U.S. proposed a nuclear swap in which Iran would send its 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country where it would be enriched into fuel rods for the medical reactor and sent back to Iran, avoiding the need for Iran to further enrich uranium. Iran agreed in principal, showing her lack of desire to further enrich uranium, but did not agree on the details, because, like Mossadeq before them, the Iranian leadership realized her negotiating partner was being disingenuous: it was a trick.

According to both Scott Ritter, who was a leading U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, and investigative journalist Gareth Porter, the real objective of the American swap plan was to get every bit of the 3.5% enriched uranium out of Iran to buy the U.S. several months, or even a year. And there was another problem from Iran’s perspective. The American plan called for Iran to send away all its 3.5% uranium immediately even though it would take a year, or even several years, to receive the 19.5% enriched uranium crucially needed for its medical reactor. That would not only leave Iran without its 3.5% enriched uranium needed to force the Americans to take Iran seriously in negotiations, but it would defy the point of the whole plan: leaving Iran without medical isotopes for imaging and treating cancer and forcing its medical facility to shut down. So Iran made a counterproposal. She would send out her 3.5% uranium in batches, and when the enriched uranium for medical isotopes was returned, she would send out the next batch: a so-called “simultaneous exchange”. America ignored Iran’s counterproposal.

As in the oil nationalization crisis of the 1950’s, deception is again being complimented by offers that are known to be impossible to accept. Iran has been clear that all negotiations over her nuclear program have to be consistent with international law. Iran will not allow herself to be made an exception of by being denied rights to which every other nation is entitled. Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, guarantees that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”. So Iran rightly insists that she will not accept any proposal that compels her to give up her right—the same right every other country has—to a full civilian nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium to 3.5% for energy and to 19.5% for medical isotopes. Any proposal that demands Iran surrender her right to enrich uranium for energy and medical use is against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is, therefore, not only illegal, but clearly a proposal that Iran has been clear that she cannot accept.

And yet, from the beginning, this condition is precisely what America and her European partners have demanded of Iran. The EU3 and the United States made it clear that the point was not discussion of the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, but indefinitely stretching out the suspension of nuclear activities that Iran had offered as a confidence boosting measure. They even began to make it clear that the only acceptable agreement might be one that indefinitely suspended uranium enrichment. As with Mossadeq, they were making an offer they knew Iran could not accept. Once again, Iran was unfooled by the West’s intent. Iran objected harshly to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA):

Regrettably, Iran received very little, if anything, in return and instead has repeatedly expanded its voluntary confidence building measures only to be reciprocated by broken promises and expanded requests. . . . [I]t became evident the E2/EU simply wanted prolonged and fruitless negotiations, thereby prejudicing the exercise of Iran’s inalienable right to resume its legal enrichment activities. . . . It is now self-evident that negotiations are not proceeding as called for . . . due to the E3/EU policy to protract the negotiations. . . . This protracted continuation is solely geared to serve the purpose of keeping the suspension in place for as long as it takes to make the cessation a fait accompli.

Former IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei agreed, saying in 2011 that the Europeans and Americans “weren’t interested in a compromise with the government in Tehran”: they were determined to achieve “regime change—by any means necessary”.

The EU3 would be replaced by the P5+1—America, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany—but nothing would change for Iran. The U.S. insisted that the condition for the U.S. entering into negotiation with Iran was Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment. In one sentence, the U.S. both made negotiations impossible by demanding the one thing she knew Iran couldn’t accept and committed the negotiations version of what logicians call “begging the question”, assuming the one thing the argument is intended to resolve.

Under the current U.S. administration, the impossible offer remains the only one left on the table. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say that Obama “has aimed only at a narrow and lopsided deal whereby Iran would stop enrichment at the 20 percent level, surrender most (if not all) of its [3.5%] stockpiles, and close its new, IAEA-safeguarded facility near Qom—without Western recognition of its right to enrich even at the 3-4 percent level.”

Since North Americans see the current set of negotiations as the only set of negotiations, existing discreetly without historical context, they do not recognize the pattern or, therefore, the conclusion. For Iranians, who may see the current set of negotiations, not as historical creationists, but as people with a historical memory, because it is their history they are remembering, recognizing the historical pattern may just lead them to the same conclusion arrived at by the former head of the IAEA: that, as was the case for Mossadeq, the intent of deception and impossibility in negotiations is not, as with international abandonment, foreign support for internal attacks, sanctions and being portrayed as irrational, an agreement with the Iranian regime, but a replacement of the Iranian regime.

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