Friday, December 30, 2011

Post #139 - Mid-century Madness

(More on the Limbert book -- see previous posts)

As part of his examination of the several situations he has selected, Limbert describes the Iranian perspective on negotiations. "Historical weakness has led Iranians to view negotiations [as an] instrument of survival, often against much stronger adversaries with ambitions against Iranian territory, independence, and resources." (For the latter, read "oil.") "Iran," he says, "could not hope to preserve itself by directly confronting stronger outside powers." During the 1940's, for example, "Iran survived a serious and direct threat to its existence." At its peak, the American wartime occupation involved some 30,000 troops, but Russians and British were also very much present. Their departure was by no means an assured outcome when the special circumstances precipitated by the war came to an end. In this context, "preserving Iran's independence required balancing powerful outside powers against each other -- a doctrine that came to be known as positive equilibrium. Doing so also meant that the successful Iranian politician has to act carefully to avoid aligning himself too closely with any major foreign power while remaining acceptable to all of them." (This situation seems a prescient echo of the dilemma of the Shah in the 1970's -- he was seen by many Iranians as having gotten much too close to the United States.)

"The events of 1945-47 [many of which centered around the Iranian state of Azerbaijan]...illustrate important points and lessons about Iranian negotiating [I am excerpting from the Limbert text, and the parenthetical remarks are mine]:

Ahmad Qavam, 11 times prime minister
  • "In the balance between legalism and nonlegalism, the latter prevailed." (Iranians had too often been "bamboozled" previously by legalistic snares woven by foreigners.)
  • "What appeared to be Iranian cunning may have been just improvisation." (Limbert cites the actions of Iranian leader Ahmad Qavam, who did well in the crisis but who may not always have been sure of what his next move was going to be.)
  • "Despite factional strife, Iranians were united on fundamental questions of national unity." (Many Iran experts have tried to dissuade American planners from the temptation to assume that the current regime will disintegrate with enough outside pressure; the effect often is actually to strengthen the hand of the rulers in power.  Karim Sadjadpour said as much on NPR this evening, December 30, 2011)
  • "Iranian negotiators had to make the most of a weak hand." (An example from recent history is the "constructive ambiguity" created by the internecine power dynamics of President Ahmadinezhad, the Supreme Leader and other clerics; outside observers are not quite sure what to make of it, and therefore hesitant to act; thus, the very seeming chaos of the Iranian scene provides a measure of protection.)

Limbert next trains his microscope on the events of the early '50s, when popular leader Mosaddegh pushed back against the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and was, in the end, forced from power. He describes the outcome this way: "[Iran's] British and American adversaries won a Pyrrhic victory that would culminate in a disastrous defeat twenty-five years later" -- the Islamic Revolution. The events of mid-century had "the result of converting the United States, in many Iranians' eyes, from their friend to their enemy." We became "just another outside power determined to control Iran for its own purposes."

This shift was not without foundation; "The events also reinforced a deep cynicism in the nation's political culture. Many Iranians were now convinced," after their elected leader was overthrown by the CIA, the British and the monarchy, "that every evil in their society was the fault of the foreigner and that Iranians were not, and ever could be, masters in their own house. Thus, as masters of nothing, they were responsible for nothing."

The elements at issue were complex: who owns natural resources -- the people, the state or the corporate entities that extract and transport them? Limbert notes that in 1948, Venezuela was able to secure a 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement with oil extractors and exporters; in 1950, Saudi Arabia did the same. Iran had guarantees only of a 4-shilling-per-barrel royalty, a 4% tax, a guarantee of a minimum annual payment and some promises to employ more Iranians. The leaders of the country did not even have access to the company's books, in order to know how much was being made in profits. If fact, the oil agreements and the ways in which they were implemented made Iranians feel that "the British regarded them as inferior human beings."

Mohammad Mosaddegh
Into this arena of festering discontent rode Mosaddegh, whose "appeal lay in his outspokenness, his patriotism, his absolute incorruptibility, and his record of long and consistent opposition to Pahlavi [the Shahs' monarchical dynasty] authoritarianism. He was particularly famous for his refusal to award positions to or otherwise favor members of his extended family." "...with the approval of both the parliament and the shah, Mosaddegh became prime minister with a mandate to implement oil nationization." Unfortunately, Mosaddegh and his British interlocuters "each saw the other as an infinitely devious, crafty, and ruthless adversary that was determined at any cost to impose its will and humiliate the other side. In so doing, they both confirmed negative preconceptions and created self-fulfilling prophecies."

In that era, it was not that Britain had no "Iran experts." The problem was that "the Persianists were breathtaking in their arrogance...Implict in their views was the assumption that they...knew what was best for Iran and Iranians." Limbert cites James Bill (an modern-day Iran expert who is a professor emeritus at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary) in his book, The Eagle and the Lion:

"The British felt their influence in Iran was benign and that without English technological support Iran would have remained a backward desert land. Their many interventions in the past had served to protect Iran from its aggressive Russian neighbor to the north. Therefore, even some of the most learned of the 'old Persian hands' in Britain professed horror at the ingratitude displayed by Mosaddegh and the Iranian nationalists." (Limbert points out that "Prime Minister Clement Atlee's socialist government, which had nationalized much of British heavy industry, could not well oppose the Iranian oil nationalization on principle.")

So, after President Eisenhower approved the project, a million dollar of CIA funds (big money in those days) for the Tehran "station" to use in the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government. Up to $11,000 per week were allotted for the "buying" of cooperation from the majlis (parliament). By August of 1953, the shah was able to return to Iran (he fled for a time to Baghdad and then Rome). When the dust had settled, there was a new entity -- the National Iranian Oil Company -- Mosaddegh was gone -- and the United States was much more of a player in the extraction of oil from Iranian soil.

"Now, " Limbert says, "everything the shah did, for good or evil, was interpreted as done in obedience to American commands." In a 1964 speech about a law that would essentially exempt all Americans in-country from Iranian law, Khomeini said the government of Iran had "reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog.* If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him." (For this Khomeini was exiled -- until his triumphal return in 1979.)

*Note: one must take into account, when reading these words, the status of canines in Iranian culture. Nearly all of the dogs in Iran at that time were, for all intents, feral; most of them were rabid. and would be greeted with a thrown stone rather than an affectionate petting. Iranians, unless they were well-to-do and Westernized to some extent, did not have dogs as pets (the one exception being sheepherding families who used dogs as an essential partner in the movement of herds across large distances). One of the worst insults that might be tossed off in heated argument or a fracas surrounding a fender-bender was "son of a dog" -- somewhat worse than the close equivalent in English.

(In my next post, the lessons that Limbert derives from this nadir of US-Iran relations.)

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