For close to two and a half thousand years, Iran has been a great nation. Five empires, from the Medians to the Safavids have risen and fallen, at their height stretching from Libya to Eastern Europe to India. It is telling that though Arab armies dominated a strip of land from west Africa to the Indonesian archipelago, Iran has never long been ruled, aside from by the brief Mongol occupation, keeping its own language, Farsi, and its own Shi’ite form of Islam. Iran is a fiercely independent Nation; it remained a truly independent country until the Shia safavids fell and the new powers of Britain and Russia began imperial jockeying for power. For a long period Iran ceased to be a real state, becoming a theatre in which European, and later American, proxies (political parties, militias and kings) could vie for power, trade and influence. Iran proves that there are few things more troubled than a great nation fallen. Pride is a hard thing for people to let go of.
There has scant been a time in modern history when Iran has spent long outside the spotlights glare. Perhaps it is an echo of its grand past, perhaps it is a defiant attitude of a people who feel it to be their birthright to be noticed but for good or ill, Iran is important. It has had a state that has for over a hundred years been loathed either by its own people or by those outside, often both. Today, we are faced by an Iran headed by the conservative cleric, Supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a radical populist, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is fermenting trouble in its region, it is accused of seeking nuclear weapons, regularly spitting anti Zionist rhetoric, known for oppressing its own people, and interfering in Iraq. And yet, of all the world’s “outposts of tyranny,” Iran is the home of surprising nuance, and a more open system and culture than one might think. It has not been ground into poverty through incompetent Government; indeed it is broadly comparable to Turkey in statistics (Population and GDP per person at purchasing power parity). Unlike North Korea or Burma, it is no secretive monolith, devoid of audible opposition. Unlike Zimbabwe, Sudan or any number of other African dictatorships, it is not especially corrupt, nor is it run for personal gain. Indeed, it can claim credibly to be one of the most plural democracies in the region, in this it is only beaten by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon. Its Unicameral Parliament is fully elected through universal suffrage; the same is true for the office of president, an office with the power to appoint the government. It is often suggested that a true democracy is one that can produce a surprise result; the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad was just that. There is an 86 member Assembly of Experts, elected in eight year terms, which choose the supreme leader, and are able to fire or hire him at any time. Democracy in not just about procedure, it is as much about freedom of association and speech. In this Iran compares favourably to most Arab states; protests are small but common; the president has been heckled, even egged on occasions, without anything of the violent recriminations one would expect in Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia or from John Prescott. The press is also surprisingly free (more a credit to courageous editors and journalists than state benevolence), editorials regularly lambaste the government for incompetence and the blogosphere is alive with dissent that comes not just from noisy exiles, as we saw in Iraq and see in other dictatorships, but from those still living in the country. Reformist presidents and members of parliament have also been elected; people who sought to improve relationships with the west and pluralize the system of government, views that run counter to those of the conservative elite. Women and minorities, including a Jew, have also been elected to parliament.
That is a rose tinted picture, empty of the many just criticisms. The press is given a very hard time, a handful of political prisoners still exist, newspapers are often closed, and this became more prevalent in the early naughties, when the reformist president Khatami prompted a backlash from the Conservative elite. The Parliament and the president may be elected, but candidates must be approved by the “council of guardians,” A body of twelve, half appointed be the supreme leader and half appointed by the head of the judiciary (then they must be approved by parliament); the head of the judiciary is also appointed directly by the supreme leader. The Assembly of Experts must also be religiously trained (though liberals have challenged this). The supreme leader also holds power over the army and police, as well as appointing a hugely powerful expediency council who can manipulate politics, as they did in 2004, when they ensured that nearly all liberal candidates were barred from standing in Parliament, in a deliberate snub of the courageously reformist then president Khatami. So, the procedures of government are far from perfect and there is little separation of Legislature, Judiciary and Executive, but directly or indirectly, all arms of government are accountable to some democratically elected body. If the overwhelming will of the public was towards reform, the electoral process of changing the Council of Experts, the Parliament, the supreme leader and the President could be achieved. From this point the President could appoint a government that would change the constitution and the new supreme leader would support it. It is a very convoluted, almost imposable path to reform, but it exists, more than can be said of a truer autocracy like that of Saudi Arabia.
Ever since the Islamic revolution in November 1979, led by the first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the west, especially the US, whose embassy staff were taken hostage for 444 days, have been sour. Given Iran’s nuances, surprising appetite for pluralism and its election of a reformist president (Khatami) in 1997 and 2001, is as odd as it is disappointing. One would have thought that the West would have sought moderate partners to deal with, improving relationships, and Iran’s moderates would have been emboldened by the benefits they could bring to their country from closer ties to rich countries, especially given their vast reserves of oil, the third largest easily available reserves on earth. The key factor in maintaining the hostility has been an Iranian national psyche scarred by the series of exploitations and shameful betrayals perpetrated by the west pushing Iran into a reactionary hostility, and a lack of vision in the west, where we are often incapable of seeing Iran as anything but the autocratic, confrontational monolith that it isn’t, or at least does not have to be. The sad truth is that if you besiege a county like we have done Iran, it will inevitably gain a siege mentality. In the Past hundred years, we have done much harm to Iran, emboldening its extremists and comprehensively discrediting its moderates.
In the power tussles between Britain and Russia that followed the fall of the Shiite Safavid Empire, Britain came off better. In 1903, the D’Arcy oil concession signed over the drilling rights for Iran’s oil to the UK (Anglo Iranian (later becoming BP)); by the 1940s 85 percent of oil profits went to Britain. This concession was made by a Turkmen, a man who most Iranians saw as a foreigner and this was the basis of hatred and distrust of imperialism during the larger part of the 20th century. After World War One, the USSR had lost most of its appetite for imperialism (for a time), Iran had ceased to have value as a buffer against the now fallen Ottoman empire and had become a purely commercial exploit. Iran had signed a constitution in 1909, allowing for a degree of democracy; reformers had hoped that this would strengthen the country against Russia and Britain, but it was seldom adhered to; Reza Kahn, a Cossack army officer, staged a coup and appointed himself king, or Shah. Anglo Iranian assumed a role similar to that of the British East India Company, bribing and brokering power. World War Two made Iran even more critical; Oil was a key resource, and Iran showed some sign of strengthening its ties with the Germans, so the Allies invaded in 1941. The Iranians were hugely sidelined; by this time nearly all oil profits went to the British. It was after World War Two, a time when Iran took its first, arguably only, foray into democracy, when Iran tried to rectify this. People could smell the death of empire, Ghandi had been victorious in India, colonies were developing strong independence movements and dependencies were showing a greater appetite for nationalism. Mohamed Mossadegh was elected president in 1951; he was popular and fiercely independent. He nationalised the oil industry. Anglo Iranian was to lose out. This sparked the Abadan crisis (named after the oil town of Abadan in the south) when Britain and Iran were brought close to war (this was echoed half a decade later when Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the Suez canal, bringing Britain and Egypt to a disastrous war). Instead, enlisting the support of the United States by convincing them that Mossadegh was a communist, reliant on the communist party (which he did eventually come to be after the west undermined his other support). They launched a campaign against the man, showing that now sadly commonplace disregard for democracy when it does not produce favourable results. They accused him of being homosexual, fuelled dissident groups, openly suggested that the Shah (by then Reza’s son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi) fire him and take over, sent operatives to stir trouble and staged fake government retaliation, and eventually a coup, Operation AJAX. Mossadegh’s nationalisation may have been bad for the economy, he may have improved relationships with Russia, he may have been authoritarian, but the later two of these were mainly as a response to the unrest fermented by the CIA and the British. The Shah had at first been opposed to taking over, but changed his mind. He was exiled for a short period in January 1953, but returned soon later, and Mossadegh was forced out by a Military coup incited and supplied by the CIA. The Shah appointed a new prime minister, but essentially ruled the country. Anglo Iranian was split between British petroleum (40 percent), five US companies (40 percent) and royal Dutch Shell; in other words, once again, there was very little Iranian about Anglo Iranian. In the 16 years of his rule, the Shah had become a western puppet; he built up a vast and powerful military to act as a buffer against the USSR, supplied by the west and had a network of secret police, the SAVAK, trained by the CIA and Mossad, who tortured and enforced by fear. He was adored by the west and hated by his own people. This was the first of the West’s two great modern betrayals of Iran.
When faced with a dictator, people tend to turn either to democracy and pluralism, or to religion, sometimes both. The Islamic Revolution of February 1979, when the Shah was forced into exile and Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader who had spent years in exile, returned to become supreme leader was as much a rejection of outside interference and dictatorship as it was an embrace of religious rule. Indeed, liberals played a large part in it; the first president was Mehdi Bazargan, a democracy campaigner who resigned after the siege of the US embassy. The liberals were then crushed as the hostage crisis wore on and Iran became alienated, but they remained a political force, publishing newspapers, running and winning in parliament.
On September the 22nd 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded the newly formed Islamic republic; after initial victories, the Iranians fought back. They looked like they would take Basra and Iraq’s southern oil fields; the west’s second, more vicious betrayal of Iran began. British, American, French and German companies busied themselves selling military hardware from aircraft to nerve agents to Saddam. The Americans gave the Iraqi’s satellite images and sent the navy to “secure oil routes” out of Iraq (they shot down an Iranian airliner in the process). The Iranians, fast running out of the tools of war that the Shah had spent so much money on, were forced to buy weapons from the Chinese, Israel (yes, Israel, the Israelis saw Saddam as a greater threat than the Iranians, they were probably right) and the illegal market; this was not enough, so, under resourced, they resorted to human wave attacks reminiscent of World War One. In nearly eight years, the border moved little, at least half a million died on either side and a generation was left brutalised. More died from the gas we supplied to the Iraqis than died from gas in the Great War. The Iranian government claims that there are two million people still suffering from, or who have died from the after effects of the gas. There are a few who still claim that arming Saddam was the right thing to do; it stopped the radical Islamic government from gaining oil that would have given it the world largest reserves. In truth, it prolonged a war between a small well-armed country and a large poorly armed one. It strengthened the Iraqi dictator, giving him an experienced military apparatus he would later use to invade Kuwait and to oppress his own people. It also provided the perfect emergency in which the Radical Islamists could conduct trials in kangaroo courts and hang former officials of the shah’s Iran and crack down on liberals. Iran did not want to fight the war and if Saddam had felt he could no continue, he would have sued for peace. Just as Russian communism was forged in the cruelty of war, leaving it more callous and militaristic than it begun, and Iran’s Islamic republic was born into a world that hated it. The abused child too often becomes the aggressive adult. Is it any wonder that, after all we have done to it, Iran is so troublesome?
If it was the governments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 80s and early 90s that did a lot to create the unpleasant Iran we face today, it was Bill Clinton and George Bush junior who have missed opportunities to retrieve it. In the year after the Iran Iraq war ended, Ayatollah Khomeini died. His president, Ali Khamenei, took his position. The first elections were held in this year also, and the mild reformist, Ali Rafsanjani won. He began half-heartedly trying to reconcile Iran with the west; at first, this went well, and Iran adhered to the sanctions imposed against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. It also began a period of privatisation and economic liberalisation with a view to opening up economic ties with foreign powers. He succeeded in building a good relationship with other Middle Eastern powers, Russia and China; the latter of these relationships still lasts (though mainly due to China’s ravenous desire for oil). But when the UN force drove Iraq out, Iran felt threatened and opposed the war. Under Rafsanjani, the relationship did not heal, and the west, especially the US, refused to deal with Iran until they halted their support for Hezbollah and gave up its quest for nuclear power. It was the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami that represented a greater missed opportunity. He was a real reformer, a man who had been friends with Mahdi Bazargan while he had been a Member of Parliament until his death in 1995. Khatami’s “dialogue among civilisations” ended the sanctions and EU nations began renewing ties. A graduate in western philosophy, he made it his goal to renew Iran’s standing and negotiate with the west; it is even suggested that he was ready to recognise Israel (though he denied this). At home he put the “twin bills” to Parliament; these shored up democratic control of the government and were supposed to be a launching pad for further reforms, and he was constantly dogged by conservative foes and often by the supreme leader who outranked him, controlling the army and police. In 1998, during the World Cup, he and Bill Clinton met to watch the Iran vs. USA match. For a brief moment it looked like with the scent of better relationships with the US and all that would bring in the air, Iran’s conservatives would relent and Khatami would normalise the situation. Then, in the wake of the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Clinton’s loss of political capital during the Lewinski affair, voices hostile to Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorism, won out and Iran was once again rejected. It was in this time, after the first notable wave of Al Qaeda bombings that the fallacy of Iran’s link to Islamic Terrorism was constructed. Terrorism is a word banded about far too easily; we hear Al Qaeda called terrorists and we hear Hezballah and Hamas called terrorists. To the ill informed or to the Zionist, this has the effect of equating the two, one organisation set on destroying the west and creating a pure Islamic Caliphate across the Muslim world, an irreconcilable aim, and two organisations that seek to drive Israelis out of “Arab” land; a focused, negotiable and in part justifiable aim. Iran supports the latter but not the former. Indeed it suffers from an Al Qaeda linked Sunni militant campaign because many Sunnis see the Shiite republic as an apostasy. Iran supports terrorism of a form, but only in the way that many Americans supported the IRA and the US government supported the “Contras” in Nicaragua. This false link found a new wind after September the 11th as it became used by those who wanted to expand the “war on terror” from Afghanistan to Iran and Iraq. They managed to use it against Saddam’s Iraq, a country whose links to Al Qaeda were even less likely than Iran’s; Bin Laden regularly listed their secular Iraqi leadership among his many grievances around the Middle East. Of course, after 9/11, there was no hope of reconciliation. Khatami may have been victorious in the parliamentary elections of 2000, where the liberals he supported gained a majority, and he had also won a second term in 2001, but the conservatives in the regime became fearful and lashed out at the media, closing down several newspapers and threatening liberal groups. They were helped in this first by the Clinton government’s frostiness, then by the reckless posturing of the Bush administration. It showed Iran’s elite that the liberals could not deliver improvements, that it was better to stick with conservative fervour; at least that caused fear in the markets, driving up oil prices, making them richer. Once Iran was part of the “Axis of Evil,” reformers could no longer claim a clear goal internationally. Both the US and Europe were set on ostracising the country until the regime changed, or was changed. It was this imposed isolation, which had far more to do with the United States’ misguided agenda than any change in Iran that led to the election of the rabble rousing nationalist and former Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both he and the United States wanted a confrontation, they both got it, and they have both lost a lot. The United States lost because it became clear that their democratising adventure in Iraq had failed and could not be repeated in Iran, making them look weak and allowing dictatorial allies like Saudi Arabia to fill the void and try to contain Iran, thus destroying any claim the US might have had to a principled foreign policy in the wake of September 11th. Iran lost because its brazen leader’s brinkmanship has taken it to greater levels of isolation because of its aggressive foreign policy, nuclear program and support for violent proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. What we have seen is that oft repeated spiral of belligerence, action and recrimination. Iran continues funding Hezbollah and pursuing nuclear energy, America presses the UN for sanctions, Iran funds Hezbollah more and pushes harder for nuclear energy. And so on, and so on.
It looks unlikely that with its present leaders Iran will take the initiative and break the trend, so we, the west, must try. First we must acknowledge that there is no miracle cure; Iran will not change its government, stop interfering in the region and abandon its nuclear program whatever we offer it. Indeed, there is nothing we can do to stop the nuclear program or support for terrorism short of an invasion. We would be pushed to do that without introducing conscription. We can freeze bank accounts, only to see truckloads of cash transported, we can bomb facilities only to see them move further underground or to secret locations, we can impose sanctions only to see oil revenues go up due to increased worry on the market. If Iran wants to behave badly, it will. We know that trying to freeze them out does not work; it only alienates liberals and strengthens extremists. The truth is that being “tough on Iran” is being soft on the radicals. What we must do is open up dialogue without precondition. We must understand that when we tell Iran to stop meddling in Iraq, it seems hypocritical because we occupy it. When we tell Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons, it seems unfair because we have them and keep quiet about Israel having them. When we tell Iran to stop funding foreign proxies, it seems laughable because Israel is viewed as our proxy and we have tried to rule Iran for centuries through proxies. When Mahmoud Amadinejad claims that America is “the centre of world arrogance,” he may have a point. So long as the conservatives are able to use these depressingly justifiable arguments to prove the hostility of the west, we cannot hope for a friendlier Iran. We must prove that we are no longer the enemy, offer help with their Nuclear power program, take a more balanced view on the Israel-Palestine problem, stop military posturing in the gulf and stop making it apparent that we want to overthrow their government. Once these things are done, extremists like Ahmadinejad will be robbed of a platform and the west could no longer be used as a scapegoat. The reformers will suddenly gain a platform with open talks; they can claim that they have much to offer in normalised relations, trade and investment to offer the country. The Supreme Leader would have a hard task blocking the candidacy of liberals if public opinion was against him, which it would become due to Iran’s tenacious journalists and near universal access to the uncontrollable forums of the internet.
All in all, we must move past the old carrot and stick diplomacy that assumes Iran is a single entity like the state in North Korea, which it is not. We cannot simply resolve to reward Iran if it behaves well and punish it if it behaves badly because punishment is a present to the extremist and tends to punish only those who want to take the country closer to the west. The extremist can play the victim, and the liberal is the victim. All this would not be an easy experience, we would have to deal with an unpleasant regime, it may look like we are rewarding bad behaviour, and it may look like appeasement. But we must remember that Iran is no irrational player, bent on world domination; it has proved time and time again a willingness to act rationally in its own interest. It dealt with Israel during the war with Iraq, it tried to improve ties with the west in the 90s and has fostered good relationships (until the latest round of UN condemnations) with Russia and China. It we make it clear that it is in their interest to work with the west, not against it, that we will stop all connivances against it, Iran will, given time, move towards us. There are already signs that Iran is willing to make compromises to enter talks on its nuclear program, perhaps exchanging more comprehensive monitoring for help on civil nuclear power. There is also speculation that, tired of the conflict and isolation he has brought, the elite of Iran are losing faith in Ahmadinejad; there were rumours in the blogosphere that he was only allowed to present the release of the fifteen hostages as a reward for staying quiet for the thirteen day duration of their captivity. There is also increasing opposition from the public, many of whom are upset by the brinkmanship; and with oil prices having fallen in the last year, he no longer has such a strong economic prop to support the fiscal ineptitude of his government. Do not be surprised if Ahmadinejad is persuaded not to stand for the next election in 2009 or runs and loses. This is even more likely to happen if the next president of the US shows a greater willingness to reward Iran and a lesser willingness to condemn it. There is a lot to hope for in the next few years, there is also a lot of danger. It would only take one act; the kidnap of more Iranian diplomats in Iran (justified or not), a bombing of nuclear sites, an increase in Iran’s support of Shia militias in the face of the failing surge in Iraq or an outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Iran, to push the situation to an irretrievable situation. We must not underestimate Iran’s ability to cause trouble; it could easily precipitate the break-up of Iraq, supporting Shia genocide against Sunnis. This break-up would draw Turkey into conflict with the newly independent Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia into conflict with the Shia areas south of Iraq and Iran. We are not that far from a regional war, fought along religious sectarian lines, and we must do all we can to avoid this; being “tough” with Iran is a sure road to failure. Maybe appeasement should be given a second chance.