Friday, July 27, 2012

"Iran: And What to Do About It" by Mustafah Dhada

Why is Iran so anti-Western? How does it see itself as a power in the region? These questions should ideally prove easier to tackle in two historical contexts: its distant past as a former Shiite empire, and its near recent neo-colonial past that severely undermined its sovereignty.

Kaluts Desert, Iran. PHOTO: yeowatzup

Iran began the 20th century as a secular state under the Pahlavi rule, a rule that saw unrest as its politicians, civil society leaders, and intellectuals grappled with shape-shifting searches for a post-neocolonial identity. In the process, a plethora of political activists and parties proliferated, leading savvy visionary leaders to seek coalitions, and form alliances to address Iranian self-determination. For Iranian politicians and political activists steeped in social reforms and social consciousness-raising it really did not matter who adhered to what ideology. As long they were united to tackle the task ahead, to liberate themselves from intrusive tyranny, that is all that mattered.

Note that Iran had had at least two long imperial reigns. The first period was brought to its knees by the Macedonians, under Alexander. The second more in the recent past had enabled Iran to re-craft its destiny and leadership in the region as an alternative force to three forms of Islam: Saudi Arabian Sunni Islam under the pre and then post-Wahhabist period, Sufi-based contemplative Sunni Islam from the Ottomans, and a broader swath of Sunni congregationalists elsewhere. That Shiite leadership role ended with Russian and British dominance in the region, crippling Iranian economy after the First World War. By 1940s Iran had been economically re-engineered to fuel Western needs (mostly British) for oil.

To the Russians, Iranian nationalist coalition with Iranian communist party and activists served its interests well during the forties and early fifties. They could through such an alliance expand their influence into the rest of Iran using Azerbaijan as a communist stronghold, and eventually reach the Persian Gulf – a warm port. To the British, the prospect of Russians perilously close to its oil wells, and infrastructure proved alarming, posing a real threat to its flow of revenues, gushing almost literally, from Iranian soil.

The nationalists inside Iran, saw the external powers as singularly insensitive, exploitative, and uncompromisingly inflexible in the face of their own desires for meaningful self-determination. It was in this context that Mossadeq rose to power! As we know, his government took unilateral action on oil and related issues – leaving the British with little choice but one. They gerrymandered sanctions on Iran using its powerful seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In addition, Britain was nearly poor at the end of the World War II. Yes, it had won the war. Hitler was defeated – but in large part that was accomplished with American money, American power, and American political will. Britain has borrowed heavily form colonial and other imperial coffers to finance its warring enterprise in Europe.

To the Americans, the alliance with communists, and the alignment between nationalists and their cohorts in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Tehran was yet another manifestation of Soviet empire building – and a good reason to nip it in the bud. Politically then, British and American interests coincided here. In terms of energy needs however, they did not.

In the meantime, America was on its second catapulting stage of consolidated rise as a global power, and its fuel needs were on the rise. Britain was economically weak. It could hardly dictate its own terms to resolve the nationalization crisis in Iran. America could. Its intervention there could once and for all, stem the tide of Russian march to the south, and enable Britain to extricate from Iran and save face in return for a forty percent share in the oil revenue. Further, it would introduce the United States into the Middle East directly as a major player. The pawn in all of this was – Iran.

Its democratically elected government had to go. It was replaced with a US – backed regime that would guarantee US tenure in Tehran for some time to come. To ensure the latter was accomplished, the US tied some of the Iran’s revenue to imports of military hardware; and ensured that the new regime publicly stated its neutrality over Israeli conflicts with its neighbors, and over Palestine which was about to be a hotly contested terrain. Little wonder then that today Iran views the United States as it does – a malevolent power with little to offer Iran and its people as a sovereign nation state!

Secondly, Iran as an Islamic Shiite republic has roots that stemmed from its immediate pro-American past and went deeper still to both its Islamic and pre-Islamic history. Mention was made earlier of the Iranian pre-Islamic imperial past. That past gave us the first ever bill of human rights recorded on baked clay adorning a cylinder, shaped like a djembe. The artifact sat on display in the British Museum ever since it was brought from Iran where it was originally found among ruins from the reign of Cyrus. That past hid several other gems – Zoroastrian monotheism, abolition of slavery, 1700 miles of freeways, a highly developed regional governorship, poetry as discourse, oral historiography, and architecture. This text of the imperial past is kept alive even today, by specially trained oral historians, by authors in historically inspired poetic narratives, by puppet masters, and by travelling cultural emissaries.

Islam once introduced in Iran tapped into this institutional and instructional richness, capitalizing on these to promulgate the new faith. The experiment proved a resounding success, so much so that the Iranian aristocracy, politicians, patricians, bureaucrats, and diplomats at one point dominated the Abbasid caliphate before the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in the 13th century. The American-backed regime under Reza Shah negated Iran’s Islamic past while attempting to craft its legitimacy to a Zoroastrian-based past under a new militarized modernity, a la Ataturk!

What the Shah regime failed to understand was that his opponents and the clergy saw him as an American backed usurper to the Pahlavi throne; and that the old pre-Islamic priestly class had not disappeared. In fact, the latter had proved to be a resilient historical force, highly adaptive to tumultuous and sudden changes in Iranian history. In this case, it had re-invented itself some centuries earlier to embrace the new faith, an equally monotheistic faith!

Under the Shah, they sat languishing at the margins, simmering under pressing economic conditions. The Shah’s reforms had failed to bring a deeper structural transformation of society in Iran. In fact, it had strengthened corruption and cronyism. It had forced the religious leaders back behind the portals of mosques and madrassas. Eventually, the two margins of society, the disfranchised and the clergy found a common cause behind which to rally. The Shah in the meantime had exiled clerics and other leaders overseas. There they sought to craft and re-craft a vision of a new Islamic republic under Shiite leadership. It was only a matter of time for a Mossadeq-like revolt to ignite Iran.

When the mid-1970s unrest flared, the clergy this time stood uncompromisingly firm. The Shah and all influences that had enabled him to govern over Iran had to go – and that meant the US in and around Tehran. By the time Khomeini returned in 1978/79 to lead the country spiritually, he had already refined his blue print to guide Iranian politicians and the political process towards an Islamic Republic.

The new republic therefore, saw itself as a new hope for the Muslim world. It was to right a past, a past that even the Abbasids had failed to maintain beyond the Muttawakil era. It was going to finally supplant the Ottomans and their heirs who ruled an empire but failed to provide a firm and clearly defined theologically inspired, as opposed to Sufi-inspired, leadership to the Ummah. Finally, the new Iran was going to show the way for others to combat hegemony.

As such they challenged an US backed Saudi Arabian Wahabism riddled with contradictions and corruption. They vowed to reverse the Shah’s neutrality towards what they saw as an US “province”, namely Israel. They declared their support of anti-Israeli and anti-American influences in the region through a variety of measures, from financing Hezbollah activists directly and through the Hawala system, to achieving nuclear weaponry to be at pares inter pares at it were with America. At least that was the original vision!

Today, we stand at loggerheads with Iran. We sabre rattle with threats of preemptive strike directly, or via a proxy. Israel stands button-poised to do it for us! In the end neither measure will work. All it will do is to remind Iran that for them the politics of the Cold War is not over yet. They were once invaded, taken over, and ruled for quarter of a century by an American-backed Satrap disguised as a Shah. If they are not careful this time over compliance on nuclear technology, they could witness another long debacle with foreign-baked rule.

It is time to bring Iran in from the cold. As it is, with the removal of Saddam under false pretenses, we created a leadership vacuum below Baghdad. Under Saddam, the southern region kissing the fringes of the western marshland had kept in check the Shiites and its leadership. The war with Iran had further cemented this Ba’athist’s highly secular view of a nationalist Iraq. Under him, it had little room for religious sectarians to play a role in his politics. The Iranians knew this. The Shiite in southern Iraq knew it too. They could push the envelop of political religiosity to a point – and no more. As long as they confined to sentimental and occasionally intense expression of Shiite martyrdom and annual pilgrimage to holy sites in the south, they were largely left alone, with periodic and violent reminders to eschew anti-Saddam politics.

With Saddam’s removal all hell or prospects of Shiite heaven broke lose! The vacuum was rapidly filled with Tehran-backed Iraqi Shiite leaders vying for prominence in the new US backed Iraq. In effect, what we see is a trifurcated Iraq. The Sunnis marginally hold on to the Iraqi midriff. The area above the midriff is squelched by the self-governing Kurds. The Shiite south is now on an osmotic rise to political power, making a national unity government in Iraq a dollar-backed American fiction. In fact, “the mission accomplished” results are in: Iraq has reverted to a de facto Ottoman province at the cusp of the First World War. There is no going back.

Let us recognize this. I wonder if we should not invite Iran to the table and in the process recognize it as a prospective power in the region. Should we in the West consider facilitating a post- CENTO regional security force with Iranian, Kurdish, Turkish, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian contingents? Syrians too could be invited, once the dust settles down north of Damascus. Their task would be to take over when the US and the NATO leave the region and then draft a regional security agenda. I wonder if a measure akin to this will not blunt the edges of Iranian antagonism while restoring power to those who live, love, and die in the region and call it their own? Here I am reminded of what Salahuddin, the Kurdish-born Muslim commander, and chevalier said to his Crusader opponents over occupied Jerusalem. Something to the effect that, “please know that you are from overseas. You will leave eventually. We will be here.”


  1. I have several Iranian friends and from what they say a lot of general public in Iran would love to be closer to the west. The government doesn't represent this group at all.

    I agree that coming together instead of isolating that country is the only possible way to effect any positive change in our relationship. I read the J Curve a few years ago and was interested in the author's theory. His main point was that opening negotiations, re-establishing a dialog and allowing exchange of ideas between our cultures will take a long time, but otherwise there will be no hope of anything except stalemate and worse.

  2. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment!

  3. Hi, visiting from the IWSG. I had Iranian neighbour who was married to a Britisher. They were a sweet couple who had made India their home.

    Rachna Chhabria
    Co-host IWSG
    Rachna's Scriptorium

  4. Hi Rachna, thanks for stopping in from the IWSG (Insecure Writer's Support Group) and thanks for your nice words. :)