Monday, 8 November 2010

Why Do They Hate Us So Much?

The ghost book of the year is published today. "Decision Points" (allegedly) by George W Bush recounts the Texan Cowboy's eight year stint at the Whitehouse and to perhaps no one's surprise is his disclosure that he actively planned for attacks on Iran. Ultimately, these came to nothing - Bush's finger was itching on the trigger for months, but even he had to stand down when in 2008 the CIA declared that there was no evidence of a current Iranian nuclear weapons programme. His successor, Barak Obama, has however repeatedly refused to rule out a military assault on Iran and the nuclear issue refuses to go away.

Bush: linked Iran and Iraq to 9/11 with
 no evidence at all
Bush's closest (maybe only) ally, the then British PM Tony Blair had similarly wielded the figurative cudgel at Iran. Blair reportedly bleated to journalist, Jon Snow, in reference to Iran, "Why do they hate us so much?" Snow in response suggested, "Perhaps because of Mossadeq..." to the blank stare of the hapless Premier. Now while most westerners would undoubtedly have shared Blair's bafflement, the would-be war leader's ignorance of Mossadeq is in fact quite inexcusable, though it is also certainly a penetrating insight into the shallow understanding of Iran among politicians in the West.

Iran was once the superpower of the world, the Persian Empire, creating many innovations, including the first postal service. Although remaining a significant realm for much of its history, by the 19th century, it was hard pressed by the two global players of the age, Russia and Britain, who saw Iran as an objective in their "Great Game" of colonial ambition. The Qajar dynasty of Shahs (kings) tried to modernise in response, reforming Iran's education and finance systems. The Majlis, an elected parliament, was established and began to assert a degree of control over the Shah's government.

A recommended history
of ancient Persia
However, Iran's blessing and curse was the discovery of massive oil fields by a British prospector, in Khuzestan in the south-west in 1901. When British dreadnought battleships converted from coal to oil for their fuel, Iran was cajoled into major concessions to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which would later become BP). For a tiny annual fee, the country's entire oil reserves were handed over to the British, a state of affairs that would continue, with the Americans joining in, for over 75 years. And just to be sure, in 1921, with British support, a junior army officer, Reza Pahlavi, seized the throne, guaranteeing continued hegemony for the UK.

By the 1940s, however, Reza's ineffectual son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was struggling to stem calls for democracy. In 1944, elections were held which saw success for democratic nationalists. Prominent among these was Mohammed Mossadeq, a 70 year old reformist from a patrician background elected on a ticket of nationalising the oil industry. By 1951, he was Prime Minister.

Western "democracy" - tanks
correct the election result,
Tehran 1953
Prompted by alarmed British Premier Winston Churchill, the USA actively undermined Mossadeq, who continued to plan to sequester BP's assets in his country. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 sponsored a military coup d'etat which deposed Mossadeq and placed him under house arrest for the remaining 14 years of his life. The Shah's powers were reinstated, the Majlis downgraded and the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, instituted a regime of torture and suppression of anyone suspected of the vaguest opposition to Pahlavi. While the Shah and his Queen courted the western mass media with a film-star like existence, Iranian democracy was savagely crushed. The only outlet for expression became the mosques, where even many religious leaders were harassed or driven into exile - including a cleric from the city of Qom, Ruyollah Khomeini.

Ex-Premier Mossadeq was tried and
confined for life after the coup
Over the next 25 years, the Shah's regime was slowly worn down until in early 1979 it collapsed and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to head a new regime. An initially pluralist revolution was quickly subverted by religious radicals and the leftist elements led by Bani-Sadr were suppressed. Yet even then Iran never quite became the monolithic Islamic dictatorship it is portrayed as in the West. The Majlis continued to be elected, although candidates are now vetted by the "Council of the Guardians of the Islamic Republic" as opposed to by the Shah. Women continued to have the vote and by the late 1990s reformists were gaining ground. Iran also played a generally supportive role towards the USA during the 1990-1 Gulf War crisis, even although the Americans' rush to defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein contrasted sharply with their readiness to supply Iraq with arms for its long and bloody war of aggression against Iran from 1980-1988.

In 1997, President Khatami was elected on a platform of constitutional government and legal reform. Women's rights increased, with many in the cities undertaking the so-called "Lipstick Jihad" where they pushed dress code increasingly to a point of meaninglessness. The press and media became more and more plural, and some rapprochement with the USA was sought.

Following the 9/11 attacks on the US, the Iranians quickly condemned the event, with the government banning the revolutionary slogan "Death to America". In the streets, thousands of Iranians held candlelit vigils as a mark of respect for the American dead. Khatami sent envoys to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to persuade it to side with the US invasion and to accept democratic elections. The Iranians arrested and handed over scores of suspected al-Qaeda operatives to the USA and even offered to deport Osama Bin Laden's son, Saad, in 2003 - an offer that Bush rejected, to the bewilderment of the Iranians.

But all became clear shortly after when, in return for all their gestures and actions of goodwill to the USA, Bush rounded on Iran and declared it to be part of his spurious "Axis of Evil", allegedly in league with Iraq and, even more bizarrely, with North Korea. Without a shred of evidence to back his claims, Bush then trundled his tanks into Iraq, unleashing years of mayhem and over 100,000 deaths - a higher rate than anything seen under Saddam - and repeatedly menacing Iran,now just a short Humvee ride away for the huge American forces based out of Bagdhad.

Unsurprisingly, when Iranians next went to the polls, anti-American candidates performed well and the conservative President Ahmadinejad, renowned for his anti-corruption drives when he was mayor of Tehran, was elected. The gulf between the American government and Iran soon widened further. Although in 2009 the new US President Barak Obama initially offered talks, many analysts speculate that with his recent drubbing in the mid-term elections, the chances of him undertaking a military operation have grown. He has certainly left his options open following America's partial withdrawal from Iraq, possibly with Israel as his proxy.

It can only be hoped that Obama is dissuaded from such a dreadful, self-serving course. Iran is an ancient nation which does not respond positively to the posturings and threats of others. America and the West are living with the consequences of our own hypocrisy of calling for democracy as long as it gets the "right result". It is not the first time - as Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973 and Gaza in 2006 show clearly - and it may not be the last. They may or may not hate us, but it has certainly left our victims confused and sceptical about us. And in many cases bloodied and dead as well.

Does that answer your question, Mr Blair?


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