Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Ayatollah And The Great Satan

The past couple of days have been public holidays. The holidays commemorate the passing away of Ayatollah Khomeini, though they're meant more as days of mourning rather than celebration. This, coupled with the fact that I haven't done anything particularly newsworthy (things are far too crowded over the holidays), makes it an opportune time to talk about history and politics. Iran seems to be hogging the international news headlines lately and I think it would be a good idea to have a look at how things have got to be as they are now because the causes of a situation are often omitted from news reports. (Watch out, this post is rather long. You have been warned.)

Before I start I ought to put forward a small disclaimer that this post, being written about a topic I feel something for, is probably tinged with a slight bias, though I have made the utmost effort to put down the facts that I know (if there are any errors then please write to me so that I can correct them) and let them speak for themselves. Anyway, on to the heart of the matter. To properly understand the state of play we'll have to start at the beginning of the last century when Iran, or Persia as it was still known at the time, was ruled by the feudal Qajjar dynasty and the country was pretty backward with the British controlling a lot of the oil wealth via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and then BP). In the early 20's an army officer, Reza Khan, overthrew the Qajjars and began to drag the country into the 20th century. Originally Reza Khan probably wanted to be an Ataturk-like president but was persuaded to crown himself king (shah), taking the name Pahlavi. It is generally agreed that, although his rule was rather autocratic, he initiated many changes that were very beneficial to the country like setting up schools, roads and other infrastructure and sending people abroad to be trained as technocrats.

With the advent World War II Iran sought to remain neutral, but its position was far too important strategically, both as a supply line for the Russians and as a source of oil, that the allies occupied it until a few years after the end of the war, removing Reza Pahlavi from the throne and replacing him with his young, inexperienced son, Mohammad Reza. Initially things went OK with parliamentary elections and the Shah staying out of politics, but when Mossadegh was elected prime minister on a nationalist platform the Western powers, Britain especially, got nervous. You see the oil contract that was signed between the Iranian government and AIOC stipulated that profits should be shared equally between the two sides. AIOC, however, refused to let the Iranian government see their accounts, meaning that the Iranians had to take it on blind faith that they were getting their fair share of their oil money. Naturally this pissed them off no end and so Mossadegh took the, hugely popular in Iran, step of nationalising AIOC. This move, along with the nationalist rhetoric against the Cold War backdrop prompted the Americans (following a request from the British) to instigate a coup which removed Mossadegh from power and put much more of it in the hands of the Shah, whilst at the same time, of course, renewing highly favourable oil contracts for British and American oil companies.

During the next 25 years the Shah became more and more autocratic, and corrupt, concentrating power and money into a small coterie of people surrounding him. Despite the oil money coming in very little was spent on public institutions and infrastructure. The regime became terribly repressive - no criticism or dissent was tolerated - and the CIA-trained secret police, the SAVAK, became so brutal and ruthless that Iran came top of Amnesty International's list of repressive states several times in the 70's. State-sponsored kidnappings, torture and murder of dissidents were not at all uncommon. All this didn't just happen with the approval of America; they were the ones calling the shots. This, of course, pissed off the clergy no end, as they were seeing their power eroded and the cultural mores changing too fast for them. Their leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was exiled from the country in the 60's for speaking out against the Shah. But it wasn't just conservative religious groups that were unhappy: liberals, communists, intellectuals, the poor majority, pretty much everyone had an axe to grind against the Shah's regime.

Therefore when the revolution happened in 1979 it wasn't just a religious revolution, but it was a truly popular revolution, drawing support from all corners of society. And funnily enough, many Iranians lay a good chunk of the blame for the revolution, or at least for the revolution being hijacked by the religious extreme, at the door of a not-very-revolutionary institution: the BBC. You see it was the BBC who decided to broadcast Khomeini's vitriolic speeches to Iran. In the late 70's people would regularly tune in to Auntie Beeb to hear what he had to say. Of course everyone wanted the Shah out of the way, but, despite all his sweeping promises, Khomeini didn't have a plan for post-revolution Iran. In the aftermath the one thing that he concentrated on was consolidating power for himself and the clergy and installing his vision of Islam. Despite all his anti-American rhetoric it was the Americans that actually helped Khomeini do this, because they would have rather had a repressive theocratic regime than one in which communist parties had a say.

Following the revolution two events caused a further souring of relations between Iran and America. The first was the hostage crisis where a group of Iranian students held over 50 American diplomats hostage, demanding that America hand over the Shah for trial and refrain from interfering in their internal affairs. Both sides stubbornly refused to budge (instead the Americans launched a couple of disastrous rescue and coup attempts) until over a year had passed, by which the Shah had died of cancer, the Americans had elected a new president and Iraq had attacked Iran. Under persuasion from America, Saddam Hussein attacked southern Iran in a speculative land-grab, hoping to take advantage of the internal turmoil. However he had overestimated Iran's weakness and soon the war drew out into a long, protracted quagmire that would produce nothing for either side, claim close to a million lives, many of them young teenagers, some as young as 14, and leave the economies of both countries in tatters (it is estimated to have cost over a trillion dollars). The only thing it did achieve was to bring a squabbling country firmly behind the new regime against a common enemy. During the 8-year stalemate America sold many millions of dollars of weapons to Iraq, including chemical weapons (the hypocrisy of it is that the current American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was involved in many of these sales), which were used on Iranian as well as Iraqi Kurd populations (the issue of Iraq's chemical weapon use did come up at the UN Security Council in the 80's but was stymied by the Americans). On top of this the Americans were also selling weapons to the Iranians as well, via Israeli intermediaries, at inflated prices because of an arms embargo (initiated by, you guessed it, the Americans themselves). The profits from these arms sales were then channelled to right-wing death squads, the Contras, in Nicaragua. The so-called Iran-Contra affair, as it became known, almost brought down the Reagan administration when the details became known, but Reagan himself managed to evade serious censure with his "I can't remember, I've got Alzheimer's" defence). Towards the end of the war American warships were patrolling the Gulf to protect oil shipping and one of them hit an Iranian mine leading to a brief retaliatory skirmish where they sunk several Iranian boats. Now that I can understand in terms of international politics. However, several days later, an American ship "accidentally" shot down a scheduled Iran Air flight (no. 655) on a routine flight from Iran to Dubai. All 290 people on board died. Of course the official investigation came to the conclusion that it was not deliberate, but there are many inconsistencies in the various accounts of the events. Anyway, since the end of the Cold War America has not interfered to any real extent in Iran's affairs (apart from their own trade embargo) until it recently started pushing the nuclear issue.

So what about this nuclear issue? Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? The answer is that nobody, except those in charge in Iran, really know. All the Americans and the Europeans have come up with are allegations, accusations and conjecture, none of which would stand up in a court of law. Not that that bothers the Americans, we have only to see what happened in Iraq to realise that. In actual fact, under the provisions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), they are entitled to develop their nuclear technology. Not a single piece of tangible evidence has been shown to say that the Iranians are planning to build a bomb, instead all we hear is that the regime is full of "bad people", and although I thoroughly agree with that statement, it is not enough. No, what worries me more is the fact that of the 8 countries with nuclear weapons, only 5 have signed the NPT (the USA, the UK, France, China and Russia), and the other 3 (India, Israel and Pakistan) don't like they're going to any time soon. What's telling is the stance of the USA towards these 3 countries. Israel and America have always been the staunchest of allies (in a recent, non-binding, vote at the UN General Assembly Israel was condemned by 184 countries whereas only 4 voted to support them: themselves, of course, the USA and two paltry little island groups in the middle of the Pacific that even I have never heard of); Pakistan has become America's newest best friend in the "War On Terror", getting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year; and India has just been granted a deal to buy nuclear technology from the States. It seems that instead of punishing countries that develop nuclear weapons they are being rewarded for it. Then, if one were to look at things from the Iranian point of view, the Americans have just invaded two neighbouring countries and installed favourable governments. They have military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Georgia, Tajikistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Diego Garcia and Saudi Arabia, completely encircling them. Christ, even I'd be more than a little paranoid under the circumstances. Or, as one Indian general said, when asked what he had learnt after the first Gulf War, "don't fight the Americans without The Bomb."

So, what's the answer? I'm not sure (I'm not even sure there was a question). But I think this shows that the current situation is more complicated than we might be led to believe. I also think that Iran (and Iranians) can feel justifiably hard done by in their dealings with America and have legitimate grievances. But most of all I think it shows that in diplomacy and politics, an area where one would hope reason, logic and common sense prevail the actions of countries, and their leaders, are more like squabbling children: America, because it was ignominiously kicked out of Iran, still bears a grudge and would like to get its own back (just like with its embargo on Cuba, still going strong almost 50 years after the revolution whilst the rest of world has moved on in its relations with the island); and Iran, because it is feeling forced to do something, refuses all the more vehemently even though the course of action may be in everyone's best interests. But most of all I think the hypocrisy, double standards and refusal to admit mistakes and apologise of the Western powers leads to resentment in developing countries (where people know their history).

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