By Robert F. Seibert
The drums of war are sounding loud and insistent in Washington these days. A call for war with Iran is rolling over the country. And as unlikely as it might seem, with all of the problems and frustrations over our ill-considered invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration and the neoconservatives are once again trying to convince us that an expansion of this war into Iran is in our national interest.
They are, I suspect, about half-way there. The Senate passed an ill-advised nonbinding resolution recently calling for the branding of Iran’s Republican Guards as a terrorist organization. Our closest ally, Israel, bombed Syria recently with administration support and suffered very little diplomatically for it. Israel’s enthusiasm for a similar raid against Iran is public and loud. Some Israeli leaders are pushing for a unilateral attack on Iran should the U.S., for one reason or another; fail to lead in a preemptive attack.
The identical cast of characters that gave us Iraq as an exercise in preemptive war, now argues publicly with no shame in favor of doing the same to Iran. Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Norman Podhoretz, George Bush, Joe Lieberman and their associates are hard at work around the world pushing the case. They are, by and large, not challenged by our mainstream media in their claims or their previous misrepresentations. They are using the same arguments: Iran has or will have weapons of mass destruction; they are terrorists, complicit in some way in 9/11; they are trying to kill us. This is a virtual recycling of the selling of the Iraq war. If we buy it again, we are fools. How did the president put it, “fool me once, shame on me, fool me again, good for me…” Something like it, anyway.
There is an element of desperation in their efforts, as the days of this administration inevitably wind down. So much to do, so little time to do it. The unprecedented concentration of U.S. naval power in the Persian Gulf (three carriers with more on call) cannot be maintained indefinitely. Strike while the iron is hot, they argue. We’ll talk about the details later. It’s not too late for another American empire, another American century.
In Seymour Hersh’s latest work in the New Yorker, (“Shifting Targets…,” the New Yorker, October 8.) he lays out the contours of the administration’s organization of this effort. Not surprisingly, it is structurally similar to the task force that gave us the Iraq imbroglio. And again, patent and manifest ignorance of our adversary hangs over the decision makers like a cloud of willful stupidity. As a long line of investigators revealed of our decision-making over Iraq, ignorance of the facts on the ground in Iran is a requirement for membership in this group of “deciders.”
They know little about Iran and they appear to be proud of it. Ignorance is bliss, they say, and this is the happiest group of plotters in Washington in the past five or six years.
Ironically, they are aided and abetted by the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad circus, an act composed of equal parts serious almost scholarly analysis paired with some of the most naēve and ignorant statements and positions of recent record. His denials of the Holocaust, for example, provide a rich target for the aforementioned neoconservatives; his point that the Palestinians weren’t responsible for it and in no wise deserved to be punished for it is as well-taken as the denial is ludicrous. Pres. Ahmadinejad’s prose and analysis of world affairs contributes to Iran’s vulnerability, just as Saddam Hussein’s public displays of machismo and brutality made Iraq’s defense immeasurably difficult.
Equally damaging is our own powerful ignorance of Iran and its history. In the interests of an open and full discussion of Iran and its role in contemporary international affairs, let me present you with a short history of Iran and the U.S. since 1945.
Iran has a very low profile in American institutions of higher learning. Very few colleges and universities regularly offer more than a pittance of courses on Persia and its very substantial contributions to the development of world civilization. This is also true, until recently, of China, India, the Ottomans and pre-colonial Africa.
One result of this academic disinterest is that the fruit of of academic enterprise, our students, are for the most part ignorant of Iran, in either its historical or contemporary dimensions. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, not the least that it provides an open invitation for ignorance and bigotry.
Why do they hate us, you ask. Well, actually they don’t, but they (Iranians, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos…etc.) have pretty good reasons to be wary of us. For example in the case of Iran:
1945-1948 — as WWII came to a close, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R become engaged in a struggle for power, the infamous Cold War between east and west. Iran, for geopolitical reasons, was at the early epicenter of that struggle, as were Greece and Turkey. For this reason the U.S., as the surviving superpower of the world, was concerned about the internal politics of Iran, fearing that it might succumb to the blandishments or intrigues of the Russians.
After a short period of turbulence, Iran managed to organize a democratic form of government. Elections brought an Iranian nationalist to power, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had the gall to attempt to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, a policy that struck at the heart of British economic interests there.
In 1953, a covert operation managed by the U.S. and Great Britain organized a coup d’etat against the democratic government, deposing Mossadegh and placing the young heir of the previous shah on the throne, reestablishing the Pahlevi monarchy. The young shah, Muhammad Reza Palaver, developed into the autocratic absolute ruler of Iran, who stayed in power until the revolution in 1979. This regimes brutality was evident, as was its successful attempt to build one of the world’s largest, most modern standing armies. The U.S. was pleased to sell the arms to Iran necessary for this venture, and to cooperate with the Iranian secret police, SAVAK. None of this is secret, I might add, or even controversial. The conspirators in the coup have written their memoirs; and in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, many corroborating documents were discovered and published.
Thus it is that the U.S. is widely understood as the international power that destroyed its early democracy and placed a tyrant on the Peacock Throne. But that’s not all of the story.
1979 — In 1979, the shah succumbed to the revolutionaries in Iran and fled the country. Eventually, he was given sanctuary in the U.S. by President Carter. Shortly thereafter, U.S. officials, including former CIA bureaucrats, visited Iran for the apparent purpose of identifying the next military candidate for US support. This effort indirectly led to the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, as Iranian revolutionaries attempted to forestall the U.S. intervention in their country. As least this is how the events are understood widely there. US historians tend to disagree with this interpretation, I concede.
1980 — Frustrated by Iran’s stubborn independence, the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, began a proxy war against Iran, using the resources of its Iraqi ally, Saddam Hussein. (That’s right not a misprint: the US ally, Saddam Hussein.) The war ran for eight long years until an exhausted Iran agreed to a deal with an exhausted Iraq. During the hearings on the illegal Iraq-Iran weapons sales, part of the Iran Contra Affair in which the proceeds of the sales were diverted to U.S. interventions in Latin America, it was ultimately shown that the U.S. shared support and intelligence with both sides in the conflict.
1990 — In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the U.S. encouraged a Shi’a rebellion in the south of Iraq and then abandoned them to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein. The Iranians, sensitive to the plight of their Shi’a brethren in Iraq, felt betrayed by the cynical U.S. response.
2001 — Iran cooperates with the U .S. in the suppression of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran exercises restraint, resists the opportunities to interfere in Iraq, supporting the suppression of Saddam Hussein. For its efforts it earns the enmity of the Bush administration.
Iranians see in the pattern of US actions after WWII a consistent attempt to control and exploit Iran. In this perception, they are conceded respect and admiration in the region for their efforts to stand up to this predatory superpower. Iran is wildly popular in many of the most important countries in the region.
This also provides Iran with a convenient rationale for their nuclear project. They have been threatened for years by the U.S. nuclear arsenal; and they are also threatened annually by the Israeli government, who insists that it will consider the nuclear option if they “must.” Iran, like the rest of the Middle East, knows that Israel has loaded its nukes on more than one occasion. They understand themselves to be in political conflict with two states: one, the only nuclear power to ever have used nuclear weapons in anger; the other a nuclear power that insists it is willing to do so if its national interest so dictates. It is simply rational to seek a deterrent.
It is ironic, given this history of engagement with the U.S., that Iranians are still somewhat open to dealing with the U.S. Iranians still have a favorable impression of American technology, culture and political institutions. They have a very unfavorable impression of our government.
I had a chance encounter with a number of Iranian tourists in Syria a decade ago. We were visiting an historical site near Damascus, fifteen or so of us, when three huge Iranian tour buses pulled up and their passengers disgorged. After confirming our identity, they expressed a desire to talk with us. The substance of their message, was that “Iranians like America and its Americans. But we dislike your government.”
I think this sentiment is still viable in Iran and in other areas around the world where we have used our power brutally and ignorantly. But time is running out. The world is changing, technology is diffusing, nuclear arms are becoming cheaper and more available. Our victims are becoming impatient…