Monday, April 17, 2006

A Little History Lesson

The biggest part of the news coming from the Near East in recent weeks has not been from Iraq. That some other piece of news would eclipse the ongoing trauma that that country is enduring is somewhat surprising, and definitely depressing. The last thing that region of the world needs is more drama, more aggression and sadness. The Near East is a truly remarkable place; the so-called birth place of civilization, it has seen empires from the Greeks to the Persians to the British cross its sands, and at one point harbored the greatest wealth of knowledge and scientific advancement on the globe. But the news today is about Iran. Specifically it is their continued nuclear development program, the end result of which is the spark behind the current news. Some think it will be nuclear weapons, bent on exterminating the Israeli people and re-introducing a nuclear-enforced Persian Empire. Iran claims it is for domestic energy production. Yet the constant vitriol put forth by the president of Iran makes this claim, to say the least, suspect. And, interjecting itself into the politics of the region is the United States. There is wide-spread debate on what should be done about Iran, be it economic sanctions or military action. No option seems to be extremely enticing.

However, quite lost amongst all of the clamor over what to do now that Iran has the potential to join the elite group of nuclear-capable nations, is the lesson we learned 50 years ago about meddling in Near East politics. A lesson we should have very much taken to heart. A lesson that seems to have fallen from view, and should be remembered, as it has grave consequences for how we came to be in this current situation.

The British controlled Iran for a long time. They were there for colonial purposes, until the first decade of the 20th century, when oil was discovered under Persian soil. This began a long string of unjust agreements and corrupted officials that kept Iranian oil flowing for British business interests. In the meantime, democracy stagnated in the country, and public ire grew. People had long protested these abuses, these neglects, but they mostly fell on deaf ears. In the late 1910s the Iranian people wanted freedom from Britain. After WWI their chance came, and they were supported by the United States in the form of Woodrow Wilson. He went against our allies’ desires and gave his support to the Iranian people. America was supporting democracy in the simplest way; to allow a people to decide their fate on their own terms, without foreign threats or influence. We were loved as a country there.

Britain did not follow suit, and continued to keep a ring of bribed officials to maintain their now-substantial business interests – oil. They were very effective at keeping Iranians as workers, while bleeding the country of their oil resources. There was thought to be no hope, as the Shah was kept isolated from the anger of his people by the relative comfort brought in by the oil. (In fact, Iran was going bankrupt from the Shah’s policies… he kept borrowing money to furnish homes, vacations, and the lot… all gladly loaned by British banks and persons.) No hope, at least, until Mossadegh came. This simple man was fiery in his approach, and his love, of his native country. He worked his way up the political ladder until he reached prime minister of Iran in 1951.

Then came the unthinkable. He had the power to put his ideas into place. Mossadegh demanded Britain release their oil interests in the country; he wanted to nationalize the oil industry. Britain balked at the offer, turning again to America to mediate. This time it was Harry Truman who again sided with the Iranians, refusing to back Britain’s claims to the oil fields. Britain took its case to the World Court and the United Nations, where Mossadegh repeatedly came through the victor. He became wildly popular at home, championing leftist policies of land redistribution and poverty reduction. He was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1951. Mossadegh even had the support of the more moderate mullahs in the country. Democracy was moving forward. Dawn was on the horizon for Iran. Britain attempted to plan a coup, but Mossadegh found out and threw all British diplomats out of the country. Britain needed help.

Their help came in the form of Eisenhower’s ascension to the presidency of the United States. Churchill and Eisenhower both held that a military coup would be the only way to oust Mossadegh and keep Iran under control. As well as grant Britain its oil fields once again. For 8 months they worked on this plan, the CIA being majorly involved (since the Brits were exiled from Iran). And then in August 1953 the plan was sprung. Uprisings, military occupation, the whole works. Mossadegh was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, and the Shah was ushered back in as the main political authority in Iran. Concessions were made to the British, and life seemingly resumed. But it hadn’t. People in Iran knew the US was behind the coup. With the Shah returned, he resumed his despotic ways, bringing Iran further into debt and poverty. He retaliated against anyone who had supported Mossadegh, including the clergy. A young Ayatollah Khomeini was among those ostracized. His later role in Iranian history is well documented, and the revolution in 1979 had Anti-American rallying points focused on Mossadegh.

Even now, Mossadegh’s importance in Iran is officially mild (as he was against creating an Iranian theocracy), but his importance, and the importance of American infiltration into the politics of the region, remains very current. In March 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated her reflection upon the ousting of Mossadegh: "The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America."

After all of this, there are many conclusions that can be drawn. The most glaring to me is one of missed opportunities. America in the 1920s was well-loved by the Iranian people, as much as they hated the British. We were seen as champions of democracy, harbingers of good futures, justice and the triumph of people over aggressors. In less than 30 years we had reversed that position in the minds of the Iranians 180 degrees. Now we were the suppressors; we were the greedy people aiding the colonial ambitions of Britain. It was a hard lesson for the Iranian people, one they have never forgotten. Now all of our actions regarding Iran are skewed by this instance. We even re-enforced this opinion when the US supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Another missed chance to help be the true spreaders of peace and democracy. Then in 2003 with the final deposing of Hussein from Iraq’s throne. Still no democracy.

And now this saber-rattling from Iran in the face of American opposition to its policies? Is it any wonder Iran questions our motives and our abilities in the region? Is it any surprise that they feel the need to stand up against us now, as they once stood against Britain? Is it a shock to find them still angry by this betrayal, inflamed by the theocratic rhetoric of the current leaders? But this time it is not oil that is the dividing issue, it is something much more terrifying. I am not debating whether a nuclear Iran is a good or bad option for the world. Rather, I would like to counsel how we once had the influence in the region for good, and we threw it away for short-termed gains. How we squandered the opportunity to be the guiding light in this region that has brought so much trouble to modern times. It is the aim to gain a bit of perspective as to the current thought trends in that troubled country, and to hopefully remind Americans we once stood for positive ideals which won us admiration and respect the world over, two attributes we are sorely lacking as a nation right now.

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