The old adage suggesting walking a mile in someone else’s shoes before rushing to judgment is probably too much to hope for, but to some outsiders at least, there is one key question largely ignored by those currently insisting that the politicians in the US revert to belligerence and lurch towards yet another stupid, ill-judged and expensive war. The continued unease is that from time to time the Iranians have made moves to develop nuclear weaponry. Although they appear to have backed off that position for the moment the real worry is that Iran appears committed to belligerence in support of Assad in Syria, apparently offering support to rebels in Yemen and continuing an unfriendly attitude to Israel. What feeds this un-neighbourly foreign policy.
Perhaps we should be unsurprised that there is little public understanding of the answer. For something like three decades the US had effectively closed its diplomatic channels with Iran and despite the recent softening of attitudes, clear lines of communication are no longer open, and as we saw with the pre-war intelligence on Iraq, the alternative does not always give accurate answers. Yet if we turn to recent history we can see the Iranian people have every reason to distrust foreign influences including those of Western powers. Ever since the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1792 the history of Persia has been one of recurring cynical outside interference.
What is now called Iran with its huge reserves of oil and natural gas, its strategic importance in its position in the Middle East and its attractive potential in the eyes of sometimes belligerent neighbours presents on-going security issues. More recently its huge deposits of natural low grade uranium have also assumed importance for the energy hungry nations eying the Iranian wealth. A cynic might now wonder if the apparent glut of oil due to the development of fracking is the real reason why the superpowers have softened their approach to Iran at least in the short term.
In considering the following the readers are invited to ask themselves how they would react if the following had happened to their country.
Rather than describe the complex modern history of the region we might remind ourselves of some of the more significant events that have shown the Iranian people they have every reason to see their situation as precarious. At the very beginning of the 20th century Britain secured the exclusive right to oil exploration in the country with the D’Arcy oil exploration agreement with terms heavily in favour of the oil exploration company. In 1908 the Anglo-Persian Oil company was established which some years later turned into British Petroleum. The terms of exploration and exploitation of the resource remained heavily in the Oil company’s favour.
A further indication of the way in which colonial powers rode roughshod over the wishes of the people of what was then Persia, now known as Iran, came with the arrangements set up between Russia and Britain. Under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to divide Persia (Iran) into regions of influence. The Russians were to be allowed exclusive rights to their interests in the northern territory, the British given the south and east; with both powers free to compete for economic and political advantage in the central neutral region. There was of course the small matter of squashing potential local opposition, so the Russians decided to back one leader who they believed would support them.
Mohammad Ali Shah, took office in 1907. With Russian backing, he attempted to rescind the recently organised constitution and abolish parliamentary government. In June 1908 he used his Persian Cossacks Brigade (led by Russian officers) to bombard the Majlis, the Assembly building. The Cossacks arrested many of the deputies, and closed down the assembly. In the event, resistance to the Shah turned out to be widespread through the country. In July 1909, constitutional forces entered Tehran, deposed the Shah, and re-established the constitution. The ex-Shah went into exile in Russia, no doubt leaving many in the population soured by what in effect had been foreign interference.
If the general public had any doubt about the Russian determination to continue interfering, it would have been dispelled when the ex Shah returned from Russia with Russian troops to try to win back his throne in 1910.
Nationalism was briefly reasserted for a short time but in 1911 there was a further crisis when the government appointed an American Finance General, Morgan Schuster to reform the country’s dysfunctional finances. Schuster’s mistake was to send tax inspectors to levy taxes from wealthy officials under the protection of the Russians. The Russians reacted strongly and again Russian troops were dispatched to occupy Tehran.
Further embarrassment for what was then still Persia came when the young Ahmad Shah and the government tried to declare neutrality at the start of World War I. Ahmad proved to be incapable of rallying sufficient support and was unable to preserve the integrity of Iran. The occupation of Persia during World War I (1914-18) by Russian, British, and Ottoman troops was an embarrassment from which his government never effectively recovered.
In the early 1920s Churchill had arbitrarily redrawn the boundaries for Persia, Iraq and Turkey and by so doing had fractured Kurdistan and presented Iran (and Iraq) with a long term security issues with the disenfranchised Kurds. The uneasy relationship between British oil interests and national interests continued with British interests continuing to take the lions share. Each time Iran attempted to gain more control of its oil industry there was a reaction.
In 1941, British and Soviet forces mounted a combined surprise attack on Iran. The British were concerned about their Anglo – Iranian Oil Company, and both were apparently partly motivated by in securing the Trans-Iranian Railway for the Allied war effort. The Soviets ended up securing petroleum concessions before their withdrawal in 1946
In 1951 (well within the living memory of many Iranians), the elected Iranian parliament under recently installed Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeqh decided that their oil industry, then under control of Britain, should be nationalized. The British responded with threats and sanctions effectively closing down the Iranian oil industry. Britain also attempted, unsuccessfully at first, to enlist the added pressure of the US under President Truman.
At this point Iran sought Russian help which turned out to be an error because the incoming US President Eisenhower was elected in a wave of anti-communist sentiment. Both the British and the US government convinced themselves that Iran might strengthen the Soviet position and engineered a CIA organized coup to displace Dr Mosaddeqh as Prime Minister. The clumsy, although ultimately successful CIA coup did indeed remove Mosaddeqh who was arrested and imprisoned, leaving many of the sectors of the Iranian population apparently resentful and outraged.
The British and more particularly the US then cultivated the Shah to their advantage but in the process convinced many Iranians that they were no longer in control of their destiny. At the behest of Britain, the Shah developed ties with Israel to the extent of getting Israeli help in setting up the Iranian secret police SAVAK . Although the Shah also instituted a number of Western type reforms in the liberation of women and in the opening of education, many of the general population interpreted this as an attack on traditional Islam. The 1979 revolution was explicitly aimed at the Shah who appeared to his people as little more than a US puppet. That the revolution started in the vicinity of the British embassy was more than symbolic.
In 1979 an Islamic revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khoemeini deposed the Shah and installed a new Islamic Republic. This set in train a raft of sanctions from outside which are periodically adjusted.
In 1981, the American hostages seized at the US embassy during the revolution were released in what is now widely acknowledged to have been secret political deal cut with representatives of the Ronald Reagan campaign organisation, a deal supplying Iran with weapons and access to US funds in return for delaying the release of the hostages until Reagan had been elected president.
The subsequent US behaviour of encouraging their Iraqi neighbours must have seemed particularly worrying to the Iranian people. The other main set of pressures came from the Iraqi dictatorship which was then aligned with the Sunni, who clearly distrusted the Shiite influences in Iran. Matters came to a head in a border dispute between Iraq and Iran. The US armed Saddam Hussein’s large standing army and the record now shows they encouraged Iraq in the disastrous Iran/Iraq war. That Saddam Hussein’s forces were prepared to use chemical weapons (supplied by the US) against the Iranians must have underlined how vulnerable they were without significant weaponry of their own.
In 1988, American forces downed an Iranian commercial airliner with two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles over the Straits of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers and crew. It had been shot down by an American cruiser which was in Iranian waters at the time of the incident, and the plane was later admitted to have been in Iranian airspace at the time it was destroyed. The US never admitted wrongdoing for the incident nor so much as apologized, although it did pay a $61.8 million dollar compensation package as a result of International Court of Justice proceedings.
(I am indebted to Charles Reed for the following quote from his website.) Nasser Hadian from the Nixon Centre summarises the position for Iran as follows.
Iran’s anarchical regional environment has all the ingredients of a strategic nightmare: hostile neighbours, a lack of great power alliances, a 25 year face off with the greatest superpower in history, living in a war infested region, contending with ethno-territorial disputes on its borders, competing with a dominant Wahhabi trans-regional movement that theologically and politically despises Iran and coping with nearby nuclear powers (Pakistan, India and Israel). In many ways, Iran is located in the middle of the uncontrollable centre that has been created by post-Cold War and post 9-11 world politics.
There is strong motivation for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. It is very evident that Israel and Pakistan are treated with reluctant caution because they have such weapons and given the frequent threats to Iranian sovereignty the thought that others might have reason to exercise restraint if they were so armed might offer some welcome respite.
There is of course a degree of hypocrisy in the current fixation on Iran’s alleged interest in developing nuclear weapons particularly since the only nuclear power in the Middle East is in fact Israel, a country reckoned to have the sixth largest nuclear stockpile in the world and unlike Iran, not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Although Israel is widely believed to have at least 100 nuclear weapons the weapons have never even been formally acknowledged, let alone inspected by the IAEA. Nor is it clear that having such weapons in Iran would constitute a realistic threat. Although from time to time Iran flexes muscle in terms of low level terrorist actions, such actions look suspiciously like counter terrorist acts. For example when Israel openly admitted assassinating a nuclear scientist in Iran, the Iranians responded by having their agents attack Israeli embassies.
There seems little doubt that the spasmodic Israeli threats to attack the reactors in Iran to prevent the further processing of uranium and plutonium have been potentially very real. From time to time Israel has led the show of warmongering over Iran, and it wasn’t so long ago Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was asking for cabinet support for a pre-emptive strike on Iran. From Iran’s view it must have been noted that on the same day Netanyahu called for such a strike reports emerged from a meeting between the Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defence Force, Lt. General Benny Gantz, and the British military chief, Sir David Richards.
We should also note in passing that quite apart from the dangers to the environment of blowing up a nuclear reactor as opposed to blowing up one still under construction that a replay of the Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor is unlikely to have the same degree of success. What it may well do is underline for the Iranians that they need better weapons to discourage their enemies. In reality since the Iranians are now thought to be in possession of at least 1000 kg of partially enriched Uranium and since the next stage can be carried out by gas centrifuges thought to be deep underground, it is hard to see that an air strike would stop the Iranians developing the weapons grade Uranium. Given that the US has only now started to recover from a long expensive war in Iraq, it is also to be hoped they will continue to be rather cautious about listening to the Hawks on Iran.
The more important issue is how the current belligerent stances of Israel towards Iran together with Iran’s Sunni near neighbours and Western nations including Britain and the US who time after time have encroached on Iran’s freedom for self determination are likely to convince the general population that they have no need to a return to nuclear weaponry. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you? Let’s see now. Another nation comes in to insist that we not use our mineral resources for our own benefit, to replace our government when our policies are not right, invade from time to time to change our policies, arm our enemies on our border, shoot down a passenger jet in our own territory – and now the latest – tell another nation who wants to buy our natural gas that they will have sanctions placed against them. Would the US or Britain really want this sort of treatment at the hands of one of their traditional enemy nations. If not, why behave that way to Iran?