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Issue Date:  September 22, 2006

U.S. and Iran: a tangled history

Iran is developing nuclear technology with the intent of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Iran’s president is a fanatic who feeds on religious extremism and hates Jews and wants to see Israel gone from the face of the earth. Iran supplies terrorist groups like Hezbollah, foments war and is a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

All of the above may be true to one degree or another, though it is clear there are questions about just how developed Iran’s nuclear technology is and how much President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outlandish outbursts are those of a true believer or how much is posturing. Maybe he is crazy enough to believe the Holocaust never occurred. Whatever is the case -- and that is not to be dismissive of the details -- the question now is: What do we do about it? And beyond that, can we do anything about it?

* * *

Such questions, however, cannot be raised apart from the consequences that flowed from U.S. involvement in Iran’s internal affairs beginning in the mid-1950s. Mohammad Mossadegh came to power in Iran in 1951. He was a European-educated aristocrat who, according to author Steven Kinzer in his recent book, Overthrow, “believed passionately in two causes: nationalism and democracy.”

The nationalism part got him in trouble. The British had dominated Iran for decades and profited from oil deals that were highly exploitive of the Iranian resource. It is estimated the British company that controlled the oil business in Iran had earned more profit in a single year, 1950, than Iran had received in royalties the previous half century.

Mossadegh, who won the TIME Man of the Year award in 1952 and was described by the magazine as “the Iranian George Washington,” wanted Iranians to control Iranian oil.

The British, appalled that an upstart nation would entertain such a notion, tried a coup but were found out and kicked out of the country. Desperate to get back at Mossadegh, the British persuaded the United States to engineer the task by pushing a foolproof button -- they told newly appointed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Mossadegh was heading toward communism. That sealed the deal.

Dulles enlisted the newly created CIA to perform the deed and, against all assessments from U.S. intelligence in the field and the overwhelming evidence that Mossadegh was competent, revered by his people, progressive and in love with democracy, he was overthrown and replaced by an initially reluctant Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, who had no great love of democracy. He did not tolerate dissent and he repressed, often brutally, all forms of opposition and expression. Those who disagreed with the government found safety in mosques, where religious leaders continued to oppose the government, and when the revolution finally came, they were its leaders. In effect, then, the United States and Britain seeded the backlash that manifested itself in November 1979 with the taking of U.S. hostages, and that continues to roil Iranian politics to this day.

* * *

That is an extremely condensed version of a significant piece of history that is not forgotten by Iranians today, particularly those who may have been on the receiving end of the shah’s brutality. So when President Bush begins declaring Iran as part of his evil axis, saying that Iranians are our enemies because they don’t like our freedom and our liberty and our way of life, one might understand that an educated Iranian --and they are many -- might hear such words through an ample layer of irony.

One might also understand how someone like Ahmadinejad or anyone else who would stand up to the United States and what is perceived as its interference in Iran’s use of nuclear technology would be very popular.

* * *

The tragedy, of course, is that the United States today stands so alone in the world, drained of moral authority and mired in a ghastly, impossible struggle in Iraq. It is difficult to see how the United States, engaged in the Middle East in the manner it has chosen during the past six years, could offer or organize a balance to others who choose violence, either directly or by proxy, as a solution to the region’s disputes. Whatever quibble one might have with the precise wording of Ahmadinejad’s now famous rant against Israel, the intent is unmistakable: a hateful wish that Israel disappear. One might hope that the United States would have the credibility to arrange back-channel agreements that would include Europe as well as Russia and China to apply the kind of pressure that would make it unmistakable to Ahmadinejad that such rhetoric is abhorrent and carries economic and diplomatic consequences. Simultaneously, we need to both nurture the considerable population of moderates within Iran and re-engage efforts in which the administration appears to have little interest -- to seek a broad Middle East peace beginning with the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

But the Bush with-us-or-against-us approach to the world leaves little room to construct a coherent policy. It is impossible for individuals, much less states, to maintain such a rigid either-or morality over the long haul. The neoconservative vision of an America that would have the ability to project its power and bring swift and deep changes to the Middle East is a miserable failure. It is too late to expect any significant turnabout in this administration. The hope is that people across the political spectrum are beginning to understand the dimensions of the failure and the need for change

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006

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