Friday, October 14, 2011

Post #3 - Never the Twain Shall Meet?

In the West, Persia has for centuries been known as a place of ancient trade routes, exotic images and romantic poetry. More recently, it has been known as a place of religious and political movements that we struggle to understand. The United States and Iran have had a long and often problematic history together; the road to the present impasse has been as bumpy and curvaceous as the route of intercity bus between remote mountain towns in Iran -- magnificent views and pastoral scenes along the way, but the ever-present danger of a precipitous fall into a rocky abyss.

Meeting to plan a constitutional government in Iran
Americans have been both heroes and villains to Iranians. A first Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed during the presidency of James Buchanan and the reign of Nasser-e Din Shah, and the first U.S. legation set up in Tehran in 1883. Americans played a midwifery role in Iran's first attempt at constitutional government, which took hold in Iran between 1906 and 1925, and other Americans were at the heart of innovations in Persian governance and development in the years that followed. Dr. Badi Badiozamani, a California-based management analyst and scholar, wrote in his book Iran and America: Rekindling a Love Lost: “Between 1830 when the first Americans set foot in Iran through 1940, hundreds of Americans had established through their good and impressive activities a vast ocean of goodwill between Iran and the United States.” This goodwill has lasted even until today among the people of Iran.

Then came the planetary tumult of the Second World War, which altered the balance of power for people in virtually every part of the globe. In one footnote to that cataclysm, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran. Iran appealed to the United States, saying (in a letter to FDR), "on the basis of the declarations which Your Excellency has made several times regarding the necessity of defending principles of international justice and the right of peoples to liberty. I beg Your Excellency to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression. This incident brings into war a neutral and pacific country..." His appeal fell on deaf ears; in fact the United States joined the effort. Later, a conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin held in Tehran late in 1943 strengthened their cooperation in the war.

A U.S. War Department publication of the time notes, “Because of its prime strategic value, Iran is the only country in the world where three of the United Nations – Great Britain, Russia and the United States – are operating in daily touch with each other.” As time wore on, the interests of those foreign powers diverged, as they inevitably had to, and in 1943 the secretary of state advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “From a more directly selfish point of view, it is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia” – unless of course, it would be the United States. Thus began a long tug-of-war over Middle Eastern “black gold,” including that of Iran. (Interestingly, Colonel Norman H. Schwartzkopf, father of the officer who commanded U.S. forces in Desert Storm, actually served as the commander of the national police of Iran in 1945.)

George V. Allen, who assumed the post of U.S. Ambassador to Tehran in 1946 wrote back to the Department of State, ten thousand kilometers distant: “The best way for Iran to become a decent democracy, it seems to me, is to work at it, through trial and error. I am not convinced by the genuinely held view of many people that democracy should be handed down gradually from above.” But, as Dr. Badiozamani observes: “Unfortunately, neither Allen nor his successors followed this advice. Time and again when the shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as 'non-interference.'”

In 1953 came the event that more than any other colors Iranian perceptions of the government of the United States and its intentions toward Iran. When the elected leader of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the exploitative arrangements that governed Iran's supplying of oil to the West and nationalized its oil resources ("By 1950, the AIOC's annual profits from Iranian oil amounted to 200 million pounds while Iran's share of the revenues was a mere 16 million." according to Ray Takeyh). He was overthrown in a coup orchestrated in part by the American CIA. The coup (finally acknowledged publicly by the Government of the United States decades later) has been called, by Lee Smith, a journalist associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the United States pursued in the Middle East.” The monarchy was reestablished, and would endure, with its secret police aided by intelligence from the U.S. and Israel's Mossad, until what has become known as the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979. (It would more properly be called the “anti-Shah” or “independence” revolution; it would be several years before it was clear that a theologically-oriented government was going to take control in Iran.) Never again would American motives be taken at face value by Iranians.

Those of us over fifty will recall that the United States still had a preoccupation in those days with the communist threat. The revolution in Iran, though, was not a socialist revolution. Oil was nationalized, but private rights to own land, accumulate wealth, operate businesses and bequeath inheritances were (and still are), protected by law and enforced by the government. It was a “social” revolution, in that their constitution states that the government is required to provide every citizen with access to education, social security for retirement, unemployment, old age, disability, accidents, health and medical treatment, out of public revenue -- provisions that are now either already a part of American public policy or are under active consideration by leaders here.

Former State Department official, academic and author Francis Fukuyama observed in a February Wall Street Journal piece: "What is it that leaders like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have in common that vastly increases their local appeal? A foreign policy built around anti-Americanism is, of course, a core component. But what has allowed them to win elections and build support in their societies is less their foreign-policy stances than their ability to promise, and to a certain extent deliver on, social policy--things like education, health and other social services, particularly for the poor…."

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