Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What You Need to Know about the History of U.S.-Iranian Relations

Key Historical Facts
1. 1953 - U.S. coup destroys Iranian democratic movement to protect Big Oil profits
2. 1950s-1978 - U.S. supports Shah's dictatorship
3. 1979 - U.S. embassy personnel captured
4. 1980 - Saddam invades Iran in 8 year war, supported by U.S.
5. 1983 - U.S. sends troops to Lebanon after Israeli invasion and supports Israel, provoking nationalist attacks on troops with Iranian support
6. mid-1980s - Iran-contra fiasco increases mutual distrust
7. 1987 - U.S. shoots down Iranian civilian airliner
8. 1993 - U.S. campaign to isolate Iran
9. 1996 - terrorist attack against Americans in Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran
10. 1997 - U.S. offers negotiations with preconditions and Iran refuses
11. 1998 - Iran suggests cultural exchanges
12. 2001 - Iran helps U.S. defeat Taliban
13. 2002 - Bush labels Iran part of "axis of evil"
14. 2003 - Iran offers to negotiate all bilateral issues and U.S. refuses


In the heady early days of anti-colonialism just after WWII, an old but liberal patriot, Mossadegh, decided to take his country into the modern world, so in 1953 he stood up to Big Oil and tried to nationalize the wealth his poor people needed to modernize. Big Oil, Washington, and London were of course infuriated at this insolence and when the conservative, landowning mullahs, who disliked democracy just as much as the Western elite, cut a deal with them, Washington and London were able to overthrow the patriots and put Iran firmly in their pockets for another generation.

Puppets of foreign powers tend to distrust their people, and the people tend to resent governance for the benefit of foreigners. This contradiction leads to a drift toward mutual extremism. The extremism of the Shah’s secret police generated the extremism of Khomeini. By the time the mullahs won power, they were no longer content to be simply rich landowners running a peasant society. Now, they wanted a Shi’ite calliphate. They wanted to lead both their own mistreated country and all of the outcast Shi’ite minority in Islam into a new society governed according to their own preferences – not under the thumb of Sunnis and certainly not under the thumb of Big Oil.

Events moved quickly. When hotheads kidnapped U.S. diplomats during the early, disorganized days of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini saw his chance to cement his personal control over the new revolutionary regime by exploiting the crisis. Khomeini was able to seize control…at the cost of provoking extreme resentment in the U.S. Next, up-and-coming Iraqi dictator Saddam took advantage of the chaos of Iran’s revolution to attack, and Washington saw its chance to punish Iran by supporting Saddam. Global support for Iraqi aggression left Iran feeling that it could trust no one and would have to rely on itself for survival.

In the midst of the war with Iraq, the 1983 U.S. military intrusion into Lebanon that rapidly shifted from peacekeeping to supporting the Israeli invaders provoked Iran to provide support to the anti-Israeli uprising of the poor Shi’ite South Lebanon. The Lebanese nationalists not only formed an anti-Israeli resistance movement that battled Israel until it withdrew from Lebanon some 19 years after its 1982 invasion but also attacked a U.S. marine barracks, killing over 200. Americans, deep in denial, refused to see this attack as a Lebanese effort to defend its sovereignty provoked by the American pro-Israeli bias, deepening the gap in perceptions.

Iran’s foreign policy focus for the rest of the decade, however, was fighting Saddam – first resisting his invasion and then trying to get even. Playing both sides of the street, Reagan’s ludicrously inept efforts to sell arms to Iran even as the U.S. helped Iraq militarily only reinforced distrust on both sides. The U.S. not only armed Iraq but shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 on board and refused to make a clear apology, thereby sending the signal that the U.S. attack had been not the claimed “accident” but an intentional act of state terrorism. Whatever the truth, the impact on Iranian perceptions was as negative as the impact on the US of the Soviet attack on a Korean airliner.

Both sides made occasional efforts to improve relations during the 1990s, but they were uncoordinated, inconsistent, and ultimately fruitless. In 1993 Clinton launched a campaign to isolate Iran. Clinton greeted the election to the Iranian presidency of Khatami in 1996 with a demand for preconditions as the price of diplomatic recognition (withdrawn after the Islamic Revolution). In 1997 Clinton requested Iranian help in solving a bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 Americans; argument about Iranian complicity in this bombing continues. In 1997 Clinton also offered negotiations – but with preconditions; Iran declined. In 1998, reminiscent of ping-pong diplomacy, Khatami advocated cultural exchanges to mitigate distrust.

9/11 changed the tone – temporarily toward cooperation, rapidly followed by U.S. hostility. Tehran immediately condemned al Qua’ida’s attack and followed up by helping the U.S. invade Afghanistan. Bush responded by insulting Iran twice – not only by calling it a member of an “axis of evil” but also by the fact that this put Iran on the same level as its despised enemy Saddam. Nevertheless, Iran offered to negotiate all bilateral issues in 2003, an offer the U.S. spurned, thereby fatally undermining the moderates, who suffered defeat in the next Iranian presidential elections; the U.S. continues to reject negotiations without preconditions, ie., it continues to demand Iranian surrender first, negotiations later.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq, even though this completed a U.S. military encirclement of Iran, Tehran acquiesced, occupying itself by supporting Dawa and SCIRI, the two leading Shi’ite parties making up Iraq’s government that the U.S. also supports.

With the lesson that non-nuclear enemies of the U.S. are subject to invasion now clear to all, Iran’s efforts to gain the technical ability to produce nuclear weapons intensified. Suggesting that security rather than a desire to commit aggression was indeed primary in Tehran’s reasoning, Iran and the European Union agreed that Iran would give up its uranium enrichment program, despite its legal right under the NPT to conduct it, in return for EU security guarantees, but the EU did not fulfill its side of the bargain. Later, El Baredei, head of the IAEA, proposed a deal giving Iran a full enrichment cycle plus monitoring. Washington appears to have been responsible for scuttling both plans.

After soft-spoken Khatami was replaced by outspoken Ahmadinejad, the tone of relations became characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and emotion on both sides. Ahmadinejad found irresistible the temptation to exploit the rising pro-Israeli bias in Washington and blatant Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people in order to portray himself as the natural leader of Mideast Islamic nationalism. Choosing to interpret this rhetoric, which was making Ahmadinejad’s political reputation in the Islamic world, as indicating an Iranian military threat against the regional superpower Israel, Israeli and U.S. advocates of nuclear war to protect Israel became steadily more strident. By 2007, Washington’s pressure on Iran was publicly intensifying, as Washington sought to excuse its increasingly obvious failure in Iraq by blaming its problems on Iran, as though neighboring Iran had no right to support its traditional friends in Iraq while the distant U.S. should have a free hand remaking Iraq.

The underlying reality of bilateral relations in the 21st century was determination in Washington to achieve dominance over the Mideast clashing with determination in Tehran to become a regional power that the world would treat with respect. Day-to-day relations by 2007 were focused on accusations by each side over the other side’s intentions, a problematic foundation for resolving disagreements after a half century of interactions leaving each side with a profound distrust of the other.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Democracy Does Not Come for Free

Our hearts go out to courageous Benazir Bhutto and her courageous supporters, who--given the public threats and history of Pakistani military-civilian tensions and sectarian conflict--surely knew they were putting their lives on the line in defense of democracy.

In reacting to this disaster, it is critically important to withhold judgment until the facts come in. As is almost always the case with political murder, a wide variety of people could benefit in numerous ways from either killing former prime minister Bhutto or from ruining her chances of conducting the type of open campaign she will most likely need to win election and wrest any meaningful degree of power away from the military dictatorship.

Many will be tempted to assert that this sad event "proves" the validity of their pet theory. It does not. Until we know the facts, it is absolutely not obvious who was responsible. What is evident is that Ms. Bhutto retains an extraordinary degree of popular support. It is unfortunate that the media will no doubt dwell on the attack and forget the massive demonstration of popular support for Ms. Bhutto that preceded it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Washington Needs to Bomb Iran

The danger of an unjustified and inexcusable war with Iran is great because
there are many reasons why Washington needs to bomb Iran.

Reason #1. Washington culture is a "blame culture." There are two broad approaches to a problem – focus on finding a solution or focus on blaming someone. The Washington culture plays the blame game. Laying blame is much more important than finding a solution. For a superpower to admit that it cannot can’t beat a "ragtag" bunch of Iraq insurgents is simply embarrassing. The Washington culture, however, unfortunately does not permit the acceptance of personal blame. Officials hardly accept responsibility for their behavior, almost never voluntarily retire, and certainly don’t commit suicide to atone for their errors, as, say, a Japanese official might. So…the looming U.S. defeat in Iraq must be someone else’s fault, and we are certainly not going to blame those close friends of the Bush family, the royal family of Saudi Arabia no matter how many Saudis join the insurgents. Washington is trying to blame the Iraqi government, but since Iraq is a U.S. colony, blaming the regime we installed is a pretty thin cover. And almost everyone in the U.S. must now understand that despite al Qua'ida’s efforts to exploit the U.S. predicament in Iraq, neither the Iraqi internal struggle for power nor the fight to free the country from American control really has much of anything to do with al Qua'ida. Washington also tried blaming little Syria – but that was simply pathetic. So, who else is left but the mad mullahs of Tehran?

Reason #2. What right do the Iranians have exerting influence over a neighboring country or maintaining ties to their fellow Shi’a living next door, anyway? Don’t they realize Iraq is now in the American sphere of influence? Why do they think we built those huge military bases designed for regional offensive force projection?

Reason # 3. The Bush-Cheney administration has failed on all counts, in both foreign and domestic policy. In foreign affairs, the world has been alienated, bin Laden has escaped and al Qua'ida metastasized, Afghanistan wobbles on the edge of collapse (except for its historic boom in narcotics exports), Russia and China are strengthening strategic ties, Russia is emerging again as a world oil power, Latin American populist reform movements are regaining both influence and an anti-U.S. hue. In domstic policy, civil rights have been weakened, environmental protections trashed, and the population divided into those who believe the lies from the administration and those who do not. But—given the amazingly short memory of the American public—a good war will cover all this up.

Reason #4. Trapping the Democrats. Admittedly, a U.S. attack will provoke endless problems. Our forces in Iraq will be sitting ducks, dependent on very long supply lines, and the fate of the Neo-con Armada in the Persian Gulf is not exactly clear either. Our reputation in the world will be further tarnished, with incalculable long-term consequences. Nuclear proliferation will probably surge as the world digests the lesson of a U.S. attack on non-nuclear Iran. The impact on the stability of Pakistan and Mideast regimes seen as U.S. allies is anyone’s guess. But by the time the bill comes due it will be the Democrats who will be in the White House…and having to deal with the fallout from an attack on Iran will just totally ruin their day.

Reason #5. Absence of national will to face our real problems. This country is facing numerous tough problems – pollution, corporate crime, global warming, dismal secondary education, the slow collapse of the health care system, an economy resting on the willingness of the Chinese and Japanese to keep allowing us to borrow money—but we have no national will (and certainly the White House has no will) to face up to these problems. A nice little foreign war would be such a convenient distraction.

Reason #6. When you have a hammer...Superpowers are expected to exert their power, but U.S. power in all aspects except military has been undergoing a relative decline in recent years. Our national economic irresponsibility in living beyond our means by borrowing from the Chinese and living for current consumption rather than investing in the future is undermining our economic leadership. The administration’s penchant for trying to solve all problems with force and violating international norms is undermining our moral leadership. The administration’s clear preference for unilateralism rather than diplomacy is undermining our political leadership. War is what we’re good at, and we’re a superpower. I mean, we have to do something, don’t we? If the only tool you have is a hammer…

And then there are the two main reasons we attacked Iraq in the first place…

Reason #7. Giving the Mideast to Israel. How else can Israel become lord of the Mideast? If the goal is to make Israel the Mideast superpower, destroying Saddam was but the first step toward that goal. Tehran is no more willing to kowtow to Israel than Baghdad was. Whether this plan to make Israel America's regional superpower will actually enhance the security or strengthen the democracy of the Israeli people is not being thought through at all.

Reason #8. How else can Big Oil gain control of global oil supplies? Iran’s oil and gas supplies may not suffice to give that country long-term energy security, but they certainly constitute a significant chunk of global supplies over the near-term, particularly given the catastrophic state of the Iraqi petroleum industry.
The vision of American global empire laid out by the neo-cons in public statements--long before 9/11 provided a convenient opportunity to act--cannot be realized by stopping with Iraq, which even by Mideast standards is not a large country and was very much in decline by 2003 as a result of 12 years of U.S. attack. If one opens one's eyes for a moment (admittedly uncomfortable in the dirty water of global affairs), one may catch a glimpse of sharks circling a defeated Iran: a reinvigorated Russian-Chinese strategic alliance or an Islamic and nuclear-armed Pakistan. But Iran is the snapping turtle biting the neo-con toe today... a potential regional power, and one that stands steadfastly in the road of the neo-con imperial vision.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Iran Analogies

In this time of extreme danger in U.S.-Iranian relations, perhaps reasoning by analogy can help Americans avoid confusion...but
it must be done on the basis of accurate understanding of

Analogies are a great way to reveal the essence of complicated issues but argument by analogy is a sword that must be wielded with knowledge. Republican Representative Connie Mack’s recent characterization of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s bold Latin American diplomacy as analogous to Soviet support to Cuba during the Cold War obscures what is really happening in Iranian-U.S. relations.

  • The Soviet Union was a superpower and back when it set up its ties to Cuba, it was on a roll, rapidly expanding its economy, its military, and its global influence; possessing the world’s best space technology (remember Sputnik?); and promising to “bury” the United States with its “scientific” socialism and world-leading steel productivity.
  • Iran is a weak third world country with a weak economy, trying to resist an aggressive economic warfare campaign led by Washington, and undermined by severe internal political disunity (which would almost certainly explode into clear view if Washington would only ease off on its anti-Iranian campaign of verbal abuse, economic sanctions, and military threats that serve mostly to strengthen the Shi’ite fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists currently in control).

If Washington is serious about opposing the rise of Iran, a rise greatly accelerated by Washington’s post-9/11 policy of trying to control Iraq, then it would be very much to the advantage of the U.S. to have a serious debate about Iran. One starting place for such a debate could be the development of some accurate analogies to put Iranian behavior into a context to help Americans to understand this country that so perplexes and unnerves us.

I’ll start by suggesting that an analogy for Ahmadinejad’s recent diplomatic venture to solidify ties with Bolivia and Venezuela might be the decision of the leaders of the American Revolution to cooperate militarily with the conservative king of France in order to achieve independence from the world’s only superpower of that era – Great Britain. Interestingly, at the time, London labeled those American revolutionaries, who so threatened London’s economic interests, “terrorists.”

Any suggestions for other analogies to help explain the puzzle of why the world's only remaining superpower cannot learn to live with Iran?