Published on East & West, Sept 1, 2019
In July, after Iran shot an American drone over what it claimed was its territorial airspace, the Unites States was minutes away from launching a strike on Iran. “How many people will be killed?”, asked President Trump to his military advisers. The answer was around one hundred. And so, Trump decided to call off a strike on Iran in the very last moment. For this he was attacked by much of the US media, like for example the TV station CNN, that accused him of being inconsistent and projecting indecisiveness. When you are the most powerful in the United States, decisiveness apparently means everything. Showing unwillingness to kill 100 people in retaliation for a drone, as Trump explained why he decided not to proceed with the attack, is unforgivable.
This last narrowly avoided confrontation reminded of a similar development in the early months of 2012. Then US officials accused officials of planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US on US soil. Iran denied the claims. Iran’s President at the time was the former mayor of Teheran Mahmud Ahmadineżad, who the US and Israel suspected of wanting to work on Iran nuclear program. Ahmadineżad was often been quoted for saying that “Israel should be wiped off the map of history”, although it is not clear whether he really said it. The tensions persisted over several months but the United States under Obama, who had campaigned as an anti-imperial candidate who wanted to stop his country getting involved in “dumb wars” (that’s how he called the Iraq war started by his predecessor George W. Bush in 2003), was unwilling to enter another potentially disastrous conflict just after the debacle in Iraq, from where Obama retreated US troops in 2011.
In Germany that winter the Nobel Prize winner writer Günter Grass even wrote a poem criticizing the right of a first attack against Iran, and pointing out that there was another country, Israel, who had secretly built nuclear weapons the world knew and still knows little of, because international inspectors have never been allowed near them. For this poem Grass was ferociously attacked in Germany by a furious press who called him antisemite. And in post-Auschwitz Germany, being called an antisemite is the ultimate crime and can signify the end of somebody’s intellectual and moral authority career.
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Before the Islamic revolution that shook the country in 1979, Iran had arguably been the United States most reliable ally in the Middle East. The Shah Reza Pahlavi, who had been the ruler of the country since 1941, knew that he owed almost everything to the support of received from the United States and to a lesser extant the United Kingdom. In 1953 the Shah had already fled the country after a series of unrest and he was brought back to the throne only with the help of the CIA who removed the Iran Prime Minister Mossadegh, a socialist who had promised to nationalize Iran’s biggest resource, oil, up to that point firmly the hands of the Anglo-Iranian company. Iranians remember very well that episode to this day.
Iran’s nuclear program that worries so much experts and politicians today actually dates back to this period. In 1957 the United States provided Iran with its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel and then years later with enriched uranium that could be used for military purposes. In recent years Iran always claimed that its nuclear was intended only for scientific and energetic purpose, but neither Israel nor the United States wanted to believe this.
It has become common place to recall the time under the Shah as a period of secularisation, modernisation and economic development. This might well have been the case, but many Iranians certainly were angered by the fact for example that the primary beneficiaries of the country’s new economic prosperity seemed to be Shah and his family. And when the country resorted to austerity measures to fight galloping inflation in 1977, this was affecting mainly the poor and unskilled workers, among the most traditional elements of society that went on the become the footsoldiers of the revolution, under the spiritual guide of the elusive cleric Khomeni, who had been living in exile for more than a decade. The Shah proved unable to provide a definitive blow to the protests, in spite of the then US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski promising the Shah that the US would back the attempts to crush the demonstrations using all necessary force. In January 1979 the Shah left the country, this time for good. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeni was back.
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The scale of resentment towards the Shah and the Unites States, his enabler, was very high. In November of that year Iranian students broke with the rules of international diplomacy and assaulted the embassy of the despised United States. The protesters had tried to take the embassy on two more occasions before and finally in November they succeeded and took 66 American personnel hostage. The hostages would not be released until a year and a half later, on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated President of the United States, 20 January 1981.
The revolution of 1979 had taken the Americans by surprise. In September 1978, in spite of widespread protests and malcontent across the country, the assessment of the intelligence services was that the Shah was going to rule for another ten years. Once the revolution happened, the Americans did not really know what to do. The main concern was to avoid that in the state of chaos following the revolution Iran could turn communist. The Soviets had been involved in neighbouring Afghanistan for the last five years, but Brezhnev had until then refused to assist the Afghanistan Communist government that was asking for support. The Soviets would intervene only in Afghanistan only in December 1979, after the leader of the Communist government Taraki had been murdered by his rival Amin. The Soviets fell into a trap constructed by Brzezinski, hoping to create a Soviet Vietnam. History would show that Brzezinski strategy of supporting the Muslim radical fighters against the Communist government worked in the short term, but would have some unwanted consequences for the United States a bit more than 20 years later. However, embroiled in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union had no intention of invading Iran, whose new government could have been accused of many misdeeds, but certainly not of sympathy for Communism. As one C.I.A. official observed: “We now had a plan to defend those who don’t want to be defended against those who are not going to attack.”
The country that tried to profit of the revolutionary chaos was one of Iran’s neighbours, Iraq, lead by Saddam Hussein, a ruthless general who had been at the helm of the country for some years until he became officially its leader in 1979. Of Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld, then the American special envoy to the Middle East, said: “He is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch”. In September 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The war was long and brutal, and for some it remembered World War One, with trench fighting and widespread use of chemical weapons. Allegedly the United States had helped Saddam get poisonous gas, that Saddam would later use to attack Kurdish villages in the North of his country too. The war ended only eight years later, with no territorial changes, and almost one million people dead.
The last year of the war was marked also by the tragedy of the Iran Air Flight 655, a passenger plane between Teheran and Dubai that was shot down by the US Navy over the Strait of Hormuz. All passengers on board died. The United States claimed that it believed that the air plane was in reality a war plane, that it was outside the civilian airline corridor and did not respond to radio contact. The US would later express regret over the incident but never apologized to the Iranian government.
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One after the Iraq-Iran wars that brutally characterized the first decade after the Islamic Revolution, Khomeni, the ascetic leader who lived on rice and garlic, was dead. His successor, Ali Khamenei, remains until today, 30 years on, the supreme leader of Iran. Three years after the end of the the US would fight Saddam, when he invaded Kuwait, but the US forces retreated without trying to depose the Iraqi leader. In fact, the years between 1989 and 2001 would represent a relative thaw in the relationship between Iran and the United States. Diplomatic relations were not resumed, but at least during the period same of the economic sanctions against Iran and the embargo were partially lifted. Everything changed after the 9/11 attacks. The Iranian supreme leader actually condemned the attacks and according to some reports even temporarily suspended the traditional “Death to America” chants at Friday’s prayers. The United States, under George Bush son who had by now find his role as a war president, described Iran as one of the countries making up the “Axis of Evil”, together with North Korea and Iraq, in his famous State of Union Address of 2002. When Ahmadineżad became President of Iran, he famously sent an 18- page hand-written letter to his American counterpart. In this document, the first written communication between Iran and the US since the revolution, the new Iranian President was proposing “new ways”, particularly around the issue of the Iran nuclear programs. The letter, however, was left unanswered, probably as some sort of revenge, because the Americans had tried to communicate with the Iranians on two occasions under Clinton, but the American overtures did not provoke any reaction. “We’ve got to continue to work to convince them that we’re serious; that if they want to be isolated from the world, we will work to achieve that”, commented Bush.
In 2007 when confronted with the question of how he would deal with Iran, the then Republic presidential candidate John McCain began to sing, on the tune of a Beach Boys song, “Bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran”. In those years, however the United States was too busy trying to sort out the mess after the Iraq invasion to start another war in neighbouring Iran. The United States had acted like the Russian revolutionaries, hoping that by removing the top of the pyramid, the tsar and in this case Saddam, “democracy would suddenly fall on the people from sky”: it was, however, hardly the case with Iraq becoming embroiled in a brutal civil war that prepared the ground for the birth of the Islamic Caliphate. Iran was accused of supporting the new Shia sectarian fighters in Iraq and since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011 of backing Assad through the Hezbollah fighters.
So it was very surprising in 2015, after the narrowly missed attack of 2012, to see the United States, the European Union and Iran sit around the table to reach an agreement on Iran nuclear program. Iran would allow international inspectors and comply to a nuclear program only for civilian purposes, getting 100 billion dollars of frozen assets in return and some sanctions lifted. The agreement, however, did not survive Donald Trump who unilaterally pulled out of it last year. This move shocked America’s European allies like France and Germany too. The recent incidents in the strait of Hormuz, with the Iranian revolutionary guards accused of planting bombs on foreign oil tanks, is just the latest episode in the 40 year war between Iran and the West.