Reflections on Iran

June 26, 2009

John Kemp— John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of much western comment on the unfolding crisis in Iran has been its over-simplification and lack of historical awareness. Perspectives are shaped by a single issue (western concerns about whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program) and the desire to draw a simple Manichean distinction between good guys (liberal-democrats) and bad ones (clerical-authoritarians).

The reality is far more complicated.

Part of the problem is a truncated sense of history. For most western commentators, the history of Iran’s troubled relations with the west starts in 1979 with the triumphant return of the glowering Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the head of the revolution which swept away Shah Reza Pahlavi’s western-backed regime and replaced it with a new Islamic Republic.

Western anxiety was compounded by the 444-day American hostage crisis that helped destroy the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and humiliated a United States still reeling from defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis. Iran and the United States soon became embroiled in a series of proxy conflicts fought in Iraq, Lebanon, and via terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.

But for many Iranians the country’s troubled relations with the west can be dated further back — to at least the CIA-backed coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

It marked a crucial turning point in Iranian history, something a bit like the Prague Spring, in which a popular, reforming and democratizing but also nationalist prime minister, who believed Iran should control the exploitation of its own petroleum resources, was removed by western intelligence agencies anxious to protect their countries’ interest in the oilfields.

The Pahlavist regime which replaced Mossadegh may have been modernizing and reforming, but it was also absolutist, dissolute and corrupt, and the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, ruthlessly hunted down and murdered opponents at home and abroad. While Pahlavist exiles abroad promote the memory of a modernizing golden age, there is no enthusiasm for monarchist restoration at home, and the Shah went into exile largely unmourned.

Criticism of the Shah’s regime was never confined just to religious conservatives. Even liberals were critical of the excesses of the Peacock Throne.

Iran therefore has no reason to love the western powers.

Subsequent events have deepened the mutual suspicion. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched an unprovoked aerial attack on Tehran in 1980 and sent the Iraqi army across the Shatt al-Arab in a brutal war of aggression designed to exploit the turmoil and internal weakness of the fledgling Islamic Republic, the western powers stood aside.

Iraqi forces occupied the oil-rich and strategically vital province of Khuzestan, Iran’s cultural cradle, and captured the half-million strong city of Khorramshahr — and the west did nothing.

When Iran’s regular army and the volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guard and the basij (the same groups now being used to suppress the protests) drove Iraqi forces back across the border and then moved into the al-Faw peninsula and began to threaten Iraq’s second city of Basra, Iraq resorted to chemical weapons — first the nerve gas sarin and then, when Iranian soldiers were given atropine-filled syringes as an antidote, switching to mustard gas.

Still the west did nothing. In fact, western companies were busy supplying the precursors Iraq needed to make its chemical arsenal and breach the Geneva Protocol. Meanwhile, western intelligence agencies were supplying Iraq with satellite reconnaissance photographs to aid the war effort.  Funding was catalyzed from friendly regional regimes to support Iraq’s faltering war effort and avert the risk of an outright Iranian victory.

To counter Iran’s successes on the ground, Iraq’s air force began strategic bombing of Iran’s cities, then switched to missile attacks on Tehran using Scuds, as Iran suffered its own version of the blitz.

None of this is to suggest Iran did not commit atrocities of its own, or to take Iran’s side over Iraq.

But when western leaders condemn Iran’s alleged quest for “weapons of mass destruction” and fulminate against Iran’s missile program, they betray a startling lack of perspective.

Some estimates put the number of Iranian soldiers who fell victim to chemical weapons as high as 100,000. Total casualties (killed or wounded) are put as high as 1 million. When Iran accepted a UN-mediated ceasefire proposal in 1988, Khomeini not unreasonably likened it to drinking a cup of poison.

Given this history, western leaders are in no position to deliver credible moral lectures, and it is hardly surprising that Iran’s leaders and media mutter darkly about western interference. Nor is it surprising that the Obama administration, seeking to improve relations, has been anxious to avoid the impression of meddling.


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It’s always to possible to rationalize the deaths of young people after an election. Cowardice in the face of tyranny is what I will remember most about the Obama administration. It appears the new savior is spineless.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

Don’t get caught in the labyrinth of Iran’s twentieth century history, interesting though it is. The current movement is a simple impulse by majority of the nation to want institutions of civil society rule over them, to want their votes to be counted and their voice to matter and to emerge out of the darkness, corruption and soullessness that has characterised this regime. The regime will do its outmost to blame the uprising on US/EU and characterise as it as a failed velvet revolution….IR of Iran is deluding itself.

Posted by Luri | Report as abusive

its funny how even after such a fact filled, non-biased and accurate how some people are ignorant enough to pretend to believe what they think is correct. this article is perhaps the best and most accurate written by any western journalist. its funny how nations like the U.S and U.K have their own history of commiting much worse crimes against their own citizens (jailing of the japanese during WW2 and treatment of african american during the civil rights era just to name a few) and interferring in the affairs of many countries across the world, think they have the right to condem and be outraged against tragic events like the ones in iran. this is after they blatantly support israel after its annual bombings of palestine. typical.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

john – great article, a shame it isn’t longer. the endless moral grandstanding of western governments about iran’s nuclear program is absolutely ridiculous given the context you so pointedly summarize.

every time a discussion of iran’s nuclear program comes up there is no mention of the only real nuclear power in the middle east, israel. iran’s program worries me much less than israel’s and it would be a misrepresentation to suggest iran could cause an arms race in the middle east when israel has already initiated it. it’s like mordechai vanunu spent all those years in solitary only to be ignored…

Posted by jake | Report as abusive

Iranian Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Kameini – condemned the construction of nuclear weapons as something “no civilized nation would do”. (sorry I can’t quote or date this statement because it would take a while to sift through some old articles). But he made that statement during the last few months.

Regardless of what one thinks about statements issuing from suspicious sources – isn’t it very risky for even those with vast and obscurely defined powers – to place so much prestige in a lie? Unless of course he is also being lied to? How likely is a theocrat (or even a board of experts)to know all the intricacies of a very sophisticated body of technocrats?

And I agree with Sidney – that is is so rare to see an attempt to explain the history of an issue included in it’s discussion. Wasn’t the bone of contention between Saddam and the Iranian regime also a matter of diagonal drilling from Iranian territory into Iraqi oil deposits? That’s what I recall anyway, from articles I read almost 30 years ago when the US was defending his actions. And according to some online sources I have found – that that the US Commerce Department also approved the sale of 80 shipments of chemical weapons to SH to aid him in the war he started. The WMDs the last admin. was so frustrated about not finding were apparently left over from that war.

Perhaps one of the reasons political discussion – especially discussions with a strong bias toward one side of an issue – don’t include more exposition into root causes and background, is that no one on either side tends to look like they ever really knew all that the issues involved. Not even the governments involved seem always to understand why they do what they do.

And why are so many comments willing to risk other people’s lives over issues that are so obscure? Even if many of your readers believe Iran is the modern equivalent of the Nazi regime – they haven’t launched an anschluss on the rest of the Middle East. Those same writers apparently think that’s our job.

Posted by prosa | Report as abusive

In 1971 when India sent in it’s forces to protect citizens of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, from an obvious slaughter by Pakistan army; the United States sent it’s nuclear armed USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal to threaten the Indian forces…. Despite healthy relations between India and the United States now, no one in India has forgotten this little piece of history. Given this how can one expect the Iranians to just forget and forgive the West? Conservatives may take pot shots at this article, but the fact is that NO ONE likes to see his country invaded, his countrymen murdered, and his countries enemies supported. The United States has made a mess of this world by dividing it into ‘Our Allies’ and ‘Our Enemies’. We are talking about a country that has no interest in bringing democracy in ‘allied’ countries like Saudi Arabia, which are equally bad if not worse. I wonder how the Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia will react if their women come out on the streets demanding equal rights. I would also like to see how the US reacts to that situation. The base line is this- If you cannot make your ‘allies’ to believe in principles of democracy and individual freedom, how will you ever manage to convince your enemies???

Posted by Jay Kain | Report as abusive

Mr Kay: The US alone can’t be blamed for making a mess of the world by dividing it into us and them. Every country, everybody, does that. The people(s) with the greatest power and influence just make the biggest and deepest cuts before the next strongest cuts off his piece. We are all still carving up or just trying to hang onto our territory and prey and protecting our access to it. We may not be able to do that as easily now – there are so many laws outlawing cannibalism and related activities – and we are forced to work together to distinguish ourselves from the prey. But we are civilized and I value that. I’m happy there are all sorts of laws banning cannibalism and I’m glad I have certain legal rights with those strong people who protect my status as possible (more likely probable)prey.

And perhaps an answer to your question about why the standard of states is always a double standard is because their dealings with each other are frequently double dealings. The ability to define a truly honest or fair deal in anything in life, let alone the dealing of one state to another – and all those minds at different times -,is always an improvisation and trust in it all tends to diminish the farther those dealings are from the “end-user”, i.e. you and me. And all the powers have to give repeated and very public performances of being allied (and much more importantly sign papers – that are publicly accessible) to prove to each other their dubious sincerity.

The public understanding of performances of trust varies considerably. One can even hold them in contempt as so many of us do, because they are so far removed from our daily lives as to be considered luxuries to follow at all. And that is why the luxury of the performance – the grandeur of it is important. It must be ennobling or the show is about States showing the least attractive sides to each other. Only very honest, very trusting or very stupid people will ever let the least attractive side of themselves show if they want allies. Ain’t that so?

You can be certain that the editors of the world’s organs of information must also be the retouch artists for the lapses from grace of states. They do it selectively and have enormous power. In a global world the emperor of the world is media. Doesn’t the reader of news today really need to read with several perspectives and from many sources. And no one’s trustworthy source ever seems to be the right one.

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

Jay, you can make anyone believe anything.. persuade perhaps.

While some look backwards into history, history is being written on the streets of Teheran and in the secret conversations of clerics and enforcers across Iran TODAY!

Despite threats of execution by radical mullahs an estimated 5000 Iranians joined in orderly peaceful protest through Teheran to an area near Qoba Mosque in a show of solidarity and to honor Mohammed Behesthi, a cleric killed in a bombing 28 years ago today. Mousavi had called on his supporters to participate and he made a “drive-by” appearance to the crowd but did not address them. This demonstration was the first in a number of days and reports filtering out have been scarce due to heavy electronic jamming. Meanwhile hackers are coming to the aid of the Iranian protesters by attacking websites of the regime and setting up secure networks by hosting proxies outside the nation.

While western governments (and some news outlets) are mostly supporting with words, musician and bandleader Jon Bon Jovi along with Iranian Superstar and Andy Madadian went into an LA recording with Richie Sambora to record “Stand By Me” as a musical message of global solidarity in both English and Farsi. This classic American tune will likely become a theme song of besieged Iranian people writing history on hearts. S8
— Pray for Peace — hs

Posted by Folklight | Report as abusive

Alright, I never intended to justify the acts of present Iranian regime. No doubt the treatment they have meted out to the protesters is atrocious. No one should stand by a regime like that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I am only trying to expose just one of the many ugly faces of this debate.
The fact is that the US WILL NOT come to the aid of people in Saudi or Egypt if they decide to take to the streets. Simply because it is not in their interest to do so. And that’s the crux of the problem. US interest(read greed).

Look, you can either have principles or you can have greed. It is not possible to have both. Principles are not supposed to change with geographical location. Are they? If they do, as in the case of US, no one will believe you !! and that is what the Iranian clerics are using today to rally support back home. You may not like it, but they do enjoy a lot of support.

And before I am classified a US basher, please note that I am trying to highlight just one issue. There are so many of them, most of them intertwined, that it is simply not possible to post it in one comment.

As far as the present Iranian protests are concerned, we stand by them unconditionally, but unless we look at this problem from every angle, even those that are uncomfortable to us, there will be never be a solution.

Posted by Jay Kain | Report as abusive

What is done is done, in order to solve the current problems we should not enagege wht is done in past. In doing so the world will never be satble and safe. What is happening in Iran is a local issue, it is unwise to blame the US & UK for the election fallout in Iran. People voted and they want their voice be heard. Even Mousavi-the opposition leader- is proud of islamic regime and islamic revolution in Iran. People in Iran are frustratesed for changes thats why the turnout of the election was stunning.

President Obama has repeatedly shown his interest of having deplomatic relations with Iran, so we can not blame the US fro more tensions between the US and Iran. The one who should be blamed is Iran since after 12 june election Ahmadinazhad is reluctant to start negotiations with Iran and he critisized presiden Obama for “meddling” in Iran.

Posted by Niyaz | Report as abusive

When will the proletariat wake up. There are few societies in the world that are truly egalitarian and democratic. It is hypocritical for a nation that allowed a court to appoint a President should be so outraged at developments in Iran.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Don, do you remember Kent State?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

If you’re a Bush supporter you should love Obama, he’s doubled the nation-builiding Bush started in Afghanistan and continued the snail-like pull out pace in Iraq. He’ll leave 50,000 there indefinitely too, music to your ears I would think.

What would the “manly” and “tough” thing be to do? Invade Iran? What should we do to Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Iran at least attempts to make it look like they have a democracy, you see 99% voting (lol) for the incumbents and none in Saudi Arabia.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

One thing that is often overlooked in these historical forays is that the US doesn’t operate in a vacuum. While it is true that most of the legwork in operation AJAX in 1953 was done by Kermit Roosevelt and the nascent beginnings of the CIA under Allen Dulles; the birthplace of the operation was in the British foreign service who dangled the spectre of communism in front of the US.
There was a feeling during those days that any power vacuum would be filled instantly with Iron Curtain style communist regimes – in short, that the communists were as active in manipulating new governments as the west was.
That being said, the US has had a history of misreading nationalist and/or populist movements in the world, and particularly int he middle east. Anything that smacks of socialism or communism was instantly linked to the struggle against the Kremlin, which we now know to be a falsehood.
The first rule of foreign diplomacy should be “First, Do No Harm”. Obama in, staying on the sidelines, knows what previous administrations should have known and the founding fathers knew: Independence cannot be given, it can only be seized. It is for the people of Iran (and Honduras, and Iraq, and Afghanistan) to push for their own form of government. Don’t assume the worst case scenario, that any foreign people – left to their own devices – will make the worst possible decision about their governments.

Posted by Rob | Report as abusive

Important to note that Israel intelligence services trained The notorious Savak secret police and supported the Shah’s regime supression of the iranian populace.As in Lebanon,Israel actions helped bring about radical Islam as with Hizbollah.Israel’s brutal 19 year occupation gave birth to the extreme Shia group and mideast suicide bombing as we know it.There was no Hizbollah before Isael’s invasion in the 1980’s.Hamas in Gaza as well was intially supported by Israel.

Posted by bruce | Report as abusive