To Understand Iran, Try History, Not Hysteria
Most Americans think that the U.S.-Iran conflict began in 1979 with the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran by Islamic revolutionaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The actions of those brave young Iranians were a response to more than half a century of U.S. and Western meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, a mostly one-way relationship in which Iran’s vast oil wealth was terribly exploited by foreign corporations and the Iranian people were brutally oppressed by a U.S.-backed dictator.
During World War II, the United States government and business interests began cozying up to Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. At first, it seemed like a symbiotic relationship. The Americans got access to Iranian oil and achieved a reduction of British and Soviet influence in the region, while the Shah garnered valuable support and security for his regime. But Washington’s true intentions were no secret: “The obvious fact is that we shall soon be in the position of actually ‘running’ Iran,” said State Department official Wallace Murray in 1942.
In 1951 the people of Iran, perhaps emboldened by President Harry S. Truman’s promise to “assist free people to work out their own destinies in their own way,” elected Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh as their new prime minister. He soon nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil company which, despite its equitable-looking hyphenation, was a British-owned virtual monopoly known today as BP. Mossadegh expelled British technicians from Anglo-Iranian’s refinery and broke off relations with London. His actions made his the most popular and democratic government the people of Iran have ever known. Time magazine called him “the Iranian George Washington,” naming him 1951‘s “Man of the Year.”
But the British were furious. They hatched a plot to depose Mossadegh and sought American assistance. President Truman would have none of it. But Eisenhower, his successor, warmed to the idea. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles and his brother, C.I.A. director Allen Dulles, were keen to see Mossadegh go. Both brothers had also been attorneys at a law firm that represented the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
In 1953 the C.I.A. launched Operation AJAX, fomenting unrest through street violence and a vigorous propaganda campaign. A reluctant Shah was quickly restored to his throne and the wildly popular, democratically- elected Mossadegh was deposed and imprisoned. Iran’s oil industry was once again firmly in the hands of foreigners, but with one major difference: this time the United States seized 40% of the oil for itself. Washington would later claim all of this was done to prevent Iran from “going communist,” but a 1953 State Department report concluded Mossadegh had no communist sympathies. He had, in fact, opposed Soviet meddling in his country, and the main Iranian communist party was dead-set against his rule.
What really mattered to the U.S. was control of Iran’s natural resources. In order to help the Shah maintain an iron grip on the country, the C.I.A. (along with Israel) created SAVAK, Iran’s brutal internal security service. SAVAK specialized in horrific tortures taught using C.I.A. instructional films that ‘starred’ live human subjects, including women.
Five American presidents enthusiastically supported the Shah over the next quarter century, showering him with a billion dollars in aid and selling him the latest high-tech weaponry. Jimmy Carter, the “human rights” president, feted the Shah at the White House (in the face of angry public protests) and toasted him at a lavish state dinner in Tehran on New Years Eve 1977. “Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world,” Carter declared. “There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.”
“Stability,” of course, is Washington-speak for “under U.S. control.”
American actions in Iran beginning with the 1953 coup understandably bred tremendous long-term animosity towards the United States, which culminated in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Islamic revolutionaries. We would do well to remember this inconvenient history whenever our leaders portray Iran as irrationally hostile towards the United States.
After America’s embarrassing loss of Iran, the Carter administration provided Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, with intelligence assessments that intentionally underreported Tehran’s military might in order to encourage the dictator to invade Iran. He did, starting a bloody eight-year war of attrition that would ultimately cost a million lives. And although the United States proclaimed its neutrality in the conflict, Washington provided Baghdad with valuable military intelligence. President Reagan removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982, opening the door for billions of dollars of U.S. and Western aid. Reagan repeatedly dispatched a special envoy named Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to seal the deal with Hussein; you’ve probably seen the infamous video of the two men shaking hands. That handshake led to the transfer of deadly chemical and biological materials– including anthrax– from the U.S. and its allies to Iraq, materials which Saddam Hussein promptly weaponized and unleashed on both Iran and his own people.
Hostility and agression characterized U.S. policies and actions toward Iran throughout the 1980s. The U.S. Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988, killing all 290 crew and passengers, including 66 children, an attack which President Reagan indignantly tried to blame on the “barbaric Iranians” and about which Vice President George H.W. Bush infamously remarked: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
Fast-forward to the second Bush era, when saber-rattling toward Iran reached epic proportions. Sometimes this aggressive posturing was almost comical; Republican presidential nominee John McCain infamously sang “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” while campaigning in 2007. It was also McCain who, upon learning that $158 million worth of American cigarettes were exported to Iran (despite sanctions), declared that “maybe that’s a way of killing them.”
But usually Washington’s warlike provocations against Iran are anything but funny. In fact, preparations for an attack on the Islamic Republic have been underway for many years. During George W. Bush’s tenure, a second aircraft carrier battle group was dispatched to the Persian Gulf. A list of more than a thousand targets in Iran was drawn up. Bush also directed the U.S. Strategic Command to plan a massive attack against Iran, and U.S. special forces troops were already on the ground inside Iran forging alliances with Azerbaijanis and Kurds in the north and Baluchis in the south.
You’ve probably never head of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (known by their Farsi acronym, the M.E.K.), a Baluchi Islamic-Marxist terror group that carried out a string of attacks in the 1970s (when Washington supported the Shah) in which six U.S. officials were assassinated. Exiled in Iraq, the M.E.K. was supported by Saddam Hussein, who used the Sunni group to terrorize Shi’ites and to torture non-Sunni Iraqis. Other Baluchi extremists include Ramzi Yousef, a leading figure in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and leading 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The M.E.K. also carries out many deadly terrorists attacks inside Iran. They were on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations from 1997 until 2012.
But that didn’t matter much to high-ranking Bush officials like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft and leading Republicans in Congress, all of whom strongly supported utilizing the M.E.K. to do America’s dirty work in Iran. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was once again the rallying cry. Bush officials, some of whom were involved in arming and training the Afghan mujahedeen during the Reagan years, seemingly learned nothing from their role in helping to create the 9/11 monster. Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, writes:
“It is bitter irony that the C.I.A. is using a group still labelled as a terrorist organization, a group trained in the art of explosive assassination by the same intelligence units of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, who are slaughtering American soldiers in Iraq today, to carry out remote bombings in Iran of the sort that the Bush administration condemns on a daily basis inside Iraq.
Perhaps the adage of ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ has finally been embraced by the White House, exposing as utter hypocrisy the entire underlying notions governing the ongoing global war on terror.”
Former C.I.A. officer Philip Giraldi says that U.S. special forces have supervised M.E.K. reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions inside Iran so that the Pentagon can identify potential targets for an American attack. They may be useful now, but what will Washington do when the M.E.K. turns on the United States, as they are all but sure to do one day?
As if playing with terrorists isn’t bad enough, the Bush administration also considered carrying out a “false-flag” attack against American troops to force a war with Iran. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, senior Bush figures met in Dick Cheney’s office to discuss sending Navy S.E.A.L.s in small boats disguised as Iranians to attack U.S. ships in the Straits of Hormuz.
The saber-rattling against Iran grew more menacing as the Bush years progressed, when more than just threats were issued. The U.S. pressured the World Bank into suspending relief aid payments for the 2003 Bam earthquake that killed more than 26,000 Iranians and left more than 100,000 homeless. Later, President Bush imposed harsh new economic sanctions against Iran, designating the country’s Revolutionary Guard as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and the elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism.
Hypocrisy ruled the day once again, as Bush completely ignored the fact that U.S. allies Israel, Pakistan and India (not to mention the U.S. itself) are the true “proliferators of weapons of mass destruction” in the region. And as far as supporting terrorism, while Iran does back Hamas and Hezbollah, the U.S. backs the M.E.K. against Iran, Saudi Arabia (whose royal family generously funds Islamic terrorists) and Israeli state terrorism. And let’s not forget the terror visited upon millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and others by American attacks, invasions and occupations.
The menacing of Iran continues unabated during Obama’s tenure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to attack Iran during her ill-fated presidential run. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, readily admits that plans are in place for war with Iran. The Pentagon has shipped billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry to friendly countries in the neighborhood. There is already a covert war, most likely waged by the United States, Israel, or both, against Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists in which bombings, sabotage, cyber attacks, support for and training of terrorists who carry out attacks against the Iranian regime, and targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists have frequently occurred. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta coyly admits that he has “some ideas” who is responsible for these attacks, which would surely been seen as acts of war subject to severe retaliation if committed against the United States or Israel. Crippling economic sanctions are also seen as US provocation by the Iranian government.
The hawkish rhetoric of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been embraced and continued by Leon Panetta, his replacement. Former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden, speaking in the summer of 2010, said an attack on Iran “seems inexorable.” This, despite the fact that all 16 US spy agencies concluded that Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli military chief Gen. Benny Gantz, who called Iran’s leadership “very rational,” all agree that Iran is not currently trying to develop nukes.
That’s not to say Iran won’t try to build a bomb. The lesson that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling mullahs must certainly have learned is that the most sure-fire insurance against U.S.-imposed regime change is a nuclear arsenal, however feeble. They must surely look to Iraq and North Korea– the two other charter members of the ‘Axis of Evil’– and draw the conclusion that the former, which gave up its WMDs, was still the victim of regime change while the latter, a far greater threat to world peace, is left alone by Washington largely because it has successfully developed a nuclear deterrent. You can add Libya’s Gaddafi, who also gave up his nuclear ambitions but still got ousted, to that list. It is perfectly logical, therefore, to assume that the Iranian regime sees nuclear weapons as the surest way to avert being attacked by the United States.
Speaking of Ahmadinejad, no one knows American demonization quite like he who, like Saddam Hussein, has been called “the new Hitler” on many occasions. And let’s be honest, he’s an easy man to dislike, with his buffoonish bluster, his deadly repression of his people, his disgusting Holocaust denial and his calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But wait. That “wiped off the map” comment that Bush, Obama and Israeli leaders, not to mention just about everyone in our government and mainstream media constantly references to prove what a dangerous madman Ahmadinejad is? It turns out he never said it. Allow me to explain:
Delivering a speech titled, not helpfully, “The World Without Zionism,” Ahmadinejad gave a nod to the late Ayatollah Khomenei, the George Washington, if you will, of Iran’s Islamic revolution. He said, in Farsi:
“Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad as safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.”
Translation: “The Imam (Khomenei) said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” The Israeli regime. What Ahmadinejad was advocating was not the destruction of Israel, but regime change in Israel– the very same thing that the United States had just done in next-door Iraq (and was perhaps considering doing in Iran itself). Never in the speech did he mention wiping anyone off the map. Never did he utter a word about killing Israelis. His beef is with the Israeli regime that is occupying Jerusalem and Palestine against international law and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of humanity.
Still, Israeli leaders and their American supporters have ran with the specious “wipe Israel off the map” comment as they clamor for war against Iran. And all the while, the U.S. mainstream media dutifully parrots Washington’s anti-Iran line, preparing a war-weary public for the next chapter in the never-ending War on Terror. Perhaps this is why fully 70% of Americans erroneously believe that Iran already has nuclear weapons. Sometimes the press is downright barbaric in its bloodlust. “The Iranian people,” writes Forbes’ Melik Kaylan, “may need to wade through mountains of rubble to rebuild and count the cost in blood and wealth for some time, as the Iraqis have.”
Never mind that the Iranian people are arguably the most pro-American in the entire Middle East (excepting, of course, Israel). Never mind that thousands of Iranians publicly mourned the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that it was the Iranian government that provided invaluable intelligence to the United States prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, or that Tehran was among the first to recognize the Afghan and Iraqi puppet governments installed by the Bush administration. Never mind that the Iranian regime, by reining in hostile Shiite militias (admittedly after helping those same militants kill Americans), is directly responsible for a significant drop in U.S. troop deaths in Iraq.
The reality is that despite its deplorable internal repression, the Iranian regime threatens none of its neighbors. Iran, which has not launched a war of aggression since 1739, is literally surrounded by hostile forces: the Americans to the west in Iraq and to the east in Afghanistan, semi-secret U.S. bases to the north in Azerbaijan, U.S. ally Turkey to the northeast and hostile Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies to the south. Iran’s military spending is only about 2% of America’s and is lower than most other countries in the region. Screaming headlines in the U.S. mainstream media announcing Iran’s development of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial drones ignored the fact that these crude weapons are decades behind the technology possessed by the United States, which also has hundreds, if not thousands, of times as many of them. And even if Iran did ever develop nuclear weapons, it would never use them, as doing so would mean swift and certain annihilation of their country by the United States, Israel or both.
The Iranian people have every reason to despise the United States, but they don’t. Quite the opposite.
Thomas Schelling, an American Nobel Prize-winning economist, was invited to speak at Tehran University. He said that most Iranians he met admire the United States and dislike their own leaders. “My strongest impression… was the extraordinary enthusiasm about America,” he said, citing the high number of Iranians who have lived and studied in the U.S. and married Americans. “They all seemed to like the U.S. and… Americans. They don’t think much of Ahmadinejad. They think that Ayatollah Khamenei is the real source behind any serious foreign policy, and that… we shouldn’t take [Ahmadinejad] too seriously.
“I thought people would be throwing stones at us in the streets. And when I got there, I have never felt a more friendly welcome because I was an American. It was just incredible. I was in a traffic jam in Tehran, a city of 10 million people, and a guy in the next car saw me in the back seat and had my driver roll the window. He then handed over a bouquet of flowers and said, ‘Give this bouquet to the foreigner in your back seat and apologize for our traffic.’”
Iranians, it seems, possess a trait that many Americans don’t– the ability to discern the difference between a country’s government and its people.
Attacking Iran would be disastrous not only for the Iranian people but also for U.S. regional objectives. Iran wields great influence over the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq and can stir up a hornet’s nest of anti-American violence both there and in Afghanistan, its eastern neighbor. Tehran can also beef up support for Hezbollah and Hamas, destabilizing Lebanon and negatively influencing the feeble yet real attempts of the Obama administration to achieve some sort of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. More importantly, Iran can wreak havoc on the international oil market by disrupting transport in the Persian Gulf or even choking off the Strait of Hormuz.
There is really only one entity, besides the military-industrial complex in the United States, that stands to benefit from a war with Iran that would (ideally) result in regime change. That would be Israel, which has been pushing the United States in a hawkish direction on Iran since at least the Clinton administration.
“Iran is Germany, and it’s 1938,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spuriously declared, purposely ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of Jews live peacefully in the Islamic republic. There is a Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, a Jewish newspaper and 11 synagogues in Tehran alone. There are kosher restaurants and Hebrew schools. Jewish burial rites and other laws are recognized and accepted by the country’s Islamic courts. There are Jews in the military.
The Association of Tehrani Jews issued a statement flatly contesting false and misleading assertions like the one made by Netanyahu and many American lran hawks, declaring: “We Iranian Jews condemn claims of the U.S. State Department on Iranian religious minorities… We are fully free to perform our religious duties and we feel no restriction on performing our religious rituals.” Not exactly “Germany in 1938,” is it?
Compare that to the perilous existence of religious minorities in U.S. ally Iraq. Iraqi Christians are the targets of genocidal violence in a land they’ve called home since biblical times. Before the 2003 U.S- led invasion, there were 1.4 million of them. More than half have since fled. And the Jews? Emad Levy, Baghdad’s last rabbi, said being a Jew in Iraq was like “living in a prison” before he left the country. Most Jews stay shuttered in their homes “out of fear of kidnapping or execution.” There were once more than 100,000 Jews in the capital. There is some debate about how many remain; some say seven, others eight.
You hear a lot about how much Iran’s Ahmadinejad hates Jews, even though this is a lie. You hear next to nothing about the outright ethnic cleansing of Jews and Christians in Iraq.
The greatest challenge for the forces of peace going forward into 2012 is to separate lies and warmongering propaganda from truth, and to shout that truth from the rooftops as loudly as possible. At the root of the U.S.-Iranian conflict lies the sobering truth that Washington poses a much greater threat to world peace than does Tehran. The United States has literally surrounded Iran with hostile forces, and all the world is acutely aware that Washington won’t hesitate to strike. And as more than 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians would tell you if they still could, the U.S. has no qualms about slaughtering innocents by the tens of thousands. Sadly, by waging war against Iran, the United States will once again mostly harm innocent people. And in doing so, the U.S. will actually prolong the reign of the ruling regime. Perhaps most frightening of all is the specter of a wider regional conflict that could be sparked by U.S. or Israeli aggression against Iran.
It is not Iran that must be stopped. It is the United States, the world’s greatest threat to peace and a true state sponsor of terrorism.
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