Thursday, July 9, 2009

America's Tortuous History with Iran

(Note: I wrote most of this about a month ago, and have tried to update it) I've avoided posting something about all that is going on in Iran for a few reasons. One, I've got to finish up a paper soon! Two, others in the blogosphere have been posting great stuff thus far, and I'm not sure what exactly I'd contribute. Three...I'm a little confused as to what I should even say. I think the opposition party probably won the election (at the very least, the results were fishy), and I certainly don't support the use of violence against protesters, but I think some U.S. leaders are taking advantage of the situation to spew sentiments against the Iranian state, as well as their "pro-freedom" nonsense. Also, I know the history between America and Iran, and minus President Truman's ability to stop a U.S. led overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh (which eventually happened, under President Eisenhower), the U.S. seems to have done nothing good in regards to, what does that say about American support for Mousavi?

Okay, so here's my contribution to the discussion. I want to focus on the complicated history of American involvement in Iran, why that has had a huge impact on what preceded, and how that should (and is) impacting what the U.S. does now.

So, the basics...Iran's monarchs were hardly stellar rulers. In a key moment in history, the Shah Mozzafar al-din Shah Qajar conceded an incredible amount of control of Iranian oil to the British in 1901 - this helped the Shah pay for his rather lavish lifestyle. The deal gave him 16% of all future oil profits, along with a lump sum payment. While 16% is a lot for a single person, it isn't much for a total nation, which is where the problem grew from. That oil contract ultimately led to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which eventually turned into British Petroleum/Beyond Petroleum (BP), who probably have a gas station somewhere near where you live. Not only did Iran get a very minor share of the money (especially considering the fact that the oil was theirs in the first place), the British also had a bureacracy in place that made it nearly impossible for Iran to even know what APOC/AIOC profits were. Basically, they were getting ripped off.

The British made minor concessions, but ultimately, Iran still got a really short end of the stick. By the late 1940s, AIOC was making after-tax profits of around 40 million pounds...these are profits, mind you. And what was Iran's total share of money? Less than 10 million pounds. Not surprisingly, Iran wanted a fairer deal, using the US deal with Saudi Arabia (a 50-50 split) as the example. Britain refused, Iran nationalized, Britain pushed major sanctions on Iran, which ravaged their economy. The U.S. wanted the British to concede, but ultimately, the Dulles boys suceeded in framing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh as a potential "communist", the U.S. opted to join British efforts and sponsor a coup in 1953 to overthrow the popular and democratically elected Mossadegh in favor of their client, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Britain's role faded, the U.S. became the dominant power in the region, and America backed the Shah, despite his massive repression in Iran. We sold him billions of dollars in weapons, provided him billions of dollars in economic and military aid, used the CIA to train the SAVAK (essentially the Shah's thought police), looked the other way when much of the globe was decrying his obvious human rights abuses...Jimmy Carter did this as well, even though many think Carter's "human rights" agenda actually spelled the fall of the Shah. It didn't - at every key moment when Carter could have pressed the Shah to loosen his iron grip, he didn't.

Not shockingly, the Shah's brutal authoritarian rule finally fell in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not surprisingly, the opposition took a strong anti-American slant. There is a lot of research that looks at post-revolution externalizing of threat i.e. in order to quiet trouble on the home front, politicians will focus their ire on the outside foe, and this clearly happened in Iran after the revolution - and, given the US role in keeping the Shah's brutal regime around, there was certainly a reason for Iranians to not be kosher with the U.S. Of course, post-revolution Iran didn't exactly turn out the way it was supposed to, either...Khomeini and the hardline clerics silenced their more liberal allies from the movement against the Shah and turned a secular authoritarian dictatorship to basically a religious authoritarian dictatorship. All the while, America remained a prime enemy.

It is a travesty that the mainstream media has not focused a decent amount of their discussion on what is happening in Iran on this past. This history matters pretty significantly, and explains some of the nuanced posturing by the Obama administration. In contrast to his policies on Pakistan and Afghanistan, I actually think Obama is doing okay on Iran. Unlike the Republicans (I don't mean all Republicans, actually, mostly the neocons, who shouldn't even count as Republicans because they are really descendants of the supposedly liberal Woodrow Wilson school of thought) who are clamoring for Obama to pick a fight with the regime in Iran over the elections, Obama seems to be taking the history into account. The second he takes a position openly supportive of Mousavi and the reformists, they are done. They suddenly become U.S. puppets (like the Shah), the resistance becomes U.S.-manufactured (like the "resistance" against Mossadegh), and Iranians will turn on them.

The reality is, this is an indigenous resistance to the regime that has been building for a long time. It isn't this sudden Twitter revolution that the U.S. media is making it out to be. Iranian scholars like Hamid Dabashi have been writing about it for years. It has absolutely nothing to do with America. Not a damn thing, okay? Obama's speech in Cairo did not inspire it in any way. The Bush administration's rhetoric about "spreading freedom" did not provide it any backbone. This is all Iran. Iranians have not been cool with their post-revolution state. They've had a hard time actually doing something about it because, yeah, its hard to get masses on the streets when you are in an authoritarian state that has few qualms with cracking some heads. This is why it was tough to mount a sustained opposition to the was only when he went too far and pissed off too many people that things started happening. If this was an academic paper, I'd insert something about prospect theory here, but I'll leave that one alone for now. Anyway, same thing here...the election results seem very peculiar, and that may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will. Thus, massive numbers in the streets. This was too much for them to take.

So, thinking America somehow has some kind of important role in all that is happening in Iran is absolutely incorrect. Interjecting ourselves into the equation will only cause more problems, because of the particular history of U.S. involvement in Iran. That's not to say we can't do anything, but it does limit (and I would argue, clarify) Obama's options. We can't openly back the opposition, because of 1953 and the Shah years. We can't take credit for what's happening because that is a disservice to Iranians and will show our incredible arrogance yet again (because, you know, America is totally the source of all dissent against enemies of freedom, or something like that...sounds like a Bush speech).

One thought I have is to use Obama's insistence on meeting with Iran without preconditions as proof of our interest in not intervening in order to maybe help the parties negotiate a solution. Obama can say, look, we're going to work with whoever is in charge (and it's going to be Ahmadinejad - I see no way Mousavi gets in power at all at this point), so that doesn't matter. Instead, we simply want a stable Iran, which means no violent crackdowns on protesters, an action that only further delegitimizes the regime. It also means, hey, lets limit the reasons for the massive protests, which is to say, let's work out a deal between the parties. That almost certainly means Ahmadinejad is going to be the President, but maybe Mousavi can be put in some key position and most importantly, some of his platform ideas can be implemented.

Truthfully, there isn't a massive difference between the two sides in terms of their political goals - Ahmadinejad wants to improve relations with the U.S., just like Mousavi. Both want Iran to continue pursuing the nuclear option. Ahmadinejad is obviously down with the current political system more than Mousavi, but again, that is something that can be discussed in negotiations. Many of the clerics are opposing the election results, and are not okay with the political involvement of Ayatollah Khamanei. Iranians are not protesting the entire system (which would be a revolution), but are protesting specific things - the results of the election, and maybe the role of the clerics [the Khamanei ones, though, not the ones in Qom, etc., who don't want the religious scholars to play politics]. Thus, its not that the entire Iranian system needs to be changed (something that would definitely not be a negotiable point if the U.S. tried to help settle things), but maybe it needs to be tinkered, as in, the clerics need to take a less political role.

I don't mean to dictate what needs to be negotiated, of course, and the U.S. should not do so, either. I'm just suggesting some options. What is important, of course, is that the U.S. maybe try to get all the sides together to help resolve the problem, with a commitment to not interfere. Iranians might be able to do this on their own, of course. But I'm just suggesting this as one of the only avenues of involvement Obama can really take in this case. Some U.S. political leaders who are pressing Obama to take a more active role are delusional, ignorant of the past, or both. Some, like Newt Gingrich, are now suggesting we sabotage Iran's oil and gas refineries to bring the nation to an economic crisis in order to bring down the Iranian regime. Seriously. I did not make that up. Um, Newt, so-called historian, do you know anything about what the British did to Iran in response to Mossadegh in the early 1950s? Try to destroy the Iranian economy through sanctions. You honestly think Iranians are somehow going to forget that episode, because the late 1940s and early 1950s aren't really that important in Iranian history or anything, and instead just be cool with your idea? Did you stop to think that it might, I don't know, elicit a massive level of nationalism that includes both reformers and conservatives? In fact, isn't this precisely what progressives Iranians who oppose the regime have been warning about for years? Newt, I am very happy a man with your level of insanity and your complete misreading (or, more likely, no reading) of context and history, isn't running America.

I'm not really sure what else we really can do in this case that would help the situation. It would be nice if, on their interviews, they were pressed more about this point ("Senator, I hear you, we obviously don't like the violence used by the state against the people in the streets, but aren't you aware of America's complicated past with Iran, and doesn't that history make the actions you are advocating more harmful for the Iranian state?"). More importantly, if we discussed the history more, it might show us how short-sighted and problematic interventions (like the 1953 coup, and backing the Shah when we knew he was a ruthless leader who was only inflaming Iranians) really tie our hands in the future. This is the most important lesson, in my view, to take from all this. We can't really do much with Iran right now because of our particular actions in the past. This should open a conversation into backing authoritarian regimes, relying on politicized intelligence, etc., a discussion that we crucially need to have in the open now. Iran today should be a key example of why we need to have that discussion today - but only if we start looking into our history of involvement in the country, something the media has largely ignored so far.

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