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Iran has had a turbulent history in just its recent past. From a democracy in the 1950s, Iran seems to have moved backwards, from an authoritarian regime (backed by Britain and the US) that overthrew the democratic one, to a religious fundamentalist regime toppling the authoritarian one and taking an anti-US stance.
The US ended its support for Iran and instead supported Iraq in a brutal war through the 1980s against Iran where over 1 million people died. More recently, Iran was described as being part of an “axis of evil” by US President George Bush, as part of his “war on terror.”
The US has also accused Iran of pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, while Iran says it is only pursuing peaceful development. Internally, movements towards moderate policies and democratic values are gaining traction, but not with hardliners in power trying to hold on. This section looks into these and related issues.
On this page:
- Brief Post World War II Overview
- Relation with Israel
- US and Iran: Thorny Relations
- US armed Iran while supporting Iraq
- US accuses Iran of being in the Axis of Evil
- US accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons
- Spin, “Diplomacy”, and Use of Fear
- US lies and exaggerates about extent of nuclear development
- US and IAEA have so far been unable to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons
- Regurgitating old stories as new information to justify sanctions?
- US initially provided Iran nuclear know-how
- US, India, and Iran
- Is the US undermining the IAEA?
- US lets Europe negotiate with Iran
- Iran takes British Soldiers Hostage
- US war with Iran?
- Iran’s real policies and actions complicate Bush’s position
- Geopolitics; US and Iran vying for interest in the region?
- Moves towards reforms, democracy?
- Future prospects?
Brief Post World War II Overview
US and Britain Overthrow Democratically Elected Leader in 1950s and Install the Shah
Iran was unique in the region for having successfully resisted colonialism, mainly by the British Empire and Imperial Russia. In the 1920s, Reza Shah Pahlavi staged a coup against the ruling dynasty and embarked on a modernization drive, building industry, railroads, national education, etc. His autocratic rule however, was disliked.
During World War II, in order to prevent a potential pro-Nazi coup orchestrated by the Axis powers, the Soviet Union and Britain invaded Iran securing the petroleum infrastructure. Seeing the Shah’s son as being more supportive, the Allies forced the Shah to step aside. Iran became a major route of arms from Allies in the west, to the Soviets during the war.
In 1951, a pro-democracy nationalist, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh rose to prominence in Iran and was democratically elected as Iran’s first Prime Minister. In 1953, the Mossadegh government chose to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed to the British Petroleum Company, now known as BP), which controlled of the nation’s oil reserves, feeling that proceeds from oil should be used to invest in the development of Iran, rather than siphoned off as profits.
This was a risky move by Iran, for they would risked the wrath of the British who stood to lose a lot of power, wealth and influence gained via control of such a major energy source.
However, this move to nationalize such an industry has to be taken in context: This was at a time amid global feelings of nationalism, with both burgeoning and fledgling movements to oust former colonial rulers who had weakened themselves during the Second World War as they fought each other. The “third world” had seen its chance to break free2, and so feelings of nationalism and revolution were ripe around the world.
Iran was one of the few early successful democratic regimes, though development would be a challenge. Nationalizing the oil company was therefore part of this drive for non-alignment away from the superpowers’ influence.
For Britain, this was another “nail in the coffin” of their once great empire that stretched across the globe. Having “lost” their prime jewel, India, a few years earlier, their world status was unofficially reduced and no longer were they the great empire. Losing other places around the world must have been quite shocking and disappointing to those who still held colonial attitudes. However, they had partnered with a new power that had risen during the Second World War: the US.
As explained in the Control of Resources section in more depth, the US now took on a role to help transform the global system into one that it could dominate but also help rebuild Europe to stave off a rising “Communist threat.”
Furthermore, as J.W. Smith puts it (see previous link), the “populations on the periphery of empire who provided their cheap resources [were] taking the rhetoric of democracy seriously and breaking free,” which alarmed historic colonial empires.
Breakaway countries posed the threat that they may side with the Soviets, rather than be associated with the West, due to the feelings of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.
Other countries, while breaking away from colonialism, may not have necessarily defected to the Soviet side, but may have attempted an independent form of development.
Iran’s nationalizing of the oil company signaled such a threat, for it was important to Britain’s wealth. Like so many other countries throughout the world in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and even 80s, popular regimes that were, or showed, democratic tendencies were treated with suspicion, for fear of “going Communist.”
Sometimes this fear would be used as an excuse to get involved in those countries for other reasons (usually economic and geopolitical ones, to continue the traditions of imperial adventures and colonial aspirations of control and dominance).
Hence, the US and Europe supported and tolerated so many dictatorships, for puppet regimes were easier to control and manipulate, and they could put their own populations in order, rather than US and Europe resorting to (too many) expensive wars. Of course, where it was deemed necessary, as always happens throughout history, military might would be employed (Vietnam being one vivid example).
After Mossadegh’s announcement of the nationalization of the oil industry, Britain responded with an embargo. The embargo had serious effects on the economy, thus allowing criticism against Mossadegh to fester. Convincing the US of a communist link, Britain managed to get the US to agree to deal with Iran. Operation Ajax, a CIA-backed plot, allowed the Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, to overthrow Mossadegh.
This operation involved a lot of illegal propaganda in a foreign country (unfortunately not uncommon), which Dan De Luce, of the British newspaper, the Guardian summarized:
For roughly a quarter-century, Iran suffered repressive and autocratic rule by the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. He was seen by the West favorably for he had a Western education and liked many aspects of “modernism” (though not democracy, it would appear).
Shah’s authoritarianism leads to Islamic Fundamentalists Overthrowing Shah
The Shah’s rule seemed paradoxical for some. While he supported women’s rights, extending suffrage to them, he also supported royalists in Yemen’s civil war. He maintained close diplomatic relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel. He also instituted land reform which wrestled away land from some elites, with the idea of redistributing it to small farmers.
However, corruption and lack of sufficient land caused resentment among many farmers. The Islamic clergy also saw various sources of their power diminishing, as clergy were also required to pass examinations, and as family and educational systems underwent changes.
However, rather than democratizing, the Shah instituted one-party rule, stating concerns and fears of a communist party taking power. His authoritarian rule caused much controversy. The religious clergy were therefore able to gather a lot of support.
The excesses of the Shah’s authoritarian rule fueled what eventually became the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 which saw his overthrow.
However, one autocratic regime was replaced by another. This revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, ushered in rule by a conservative religious clergy, the mullahs, and saw Iran become the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A documentary on PBS in 2000 (unfortunately I do not recall the name) revealed that many people had supported the revolution and overthrow of the Shah, including many women, indicating how bad life was under the Shah. They were however eventually disillusioned by the religious clergy they had supported for not fulfilling many promises they thought they would. Many women interviewed regretted how their lives had become more oppressed, for example.
Iranian students held US embassy personnel hostage for over a year, accusing them of trying to overthrow the revolutionary government and reinstall the shah. Khomeini encouraged the hostage crisis, rather than stop it, and this episode marked the beginning of thorny relations with the US, who feared Iran not so much militarily, but from its potential ability to export Islamic revolutions all over the Middle East, threatening the “stability” that the US had created for itself.
Neighboring Iraq also saw an opportunity to gain more power, as Khomeini had disbanded the once mighty military.
Just as Christianity has many branches, such as Catholicism and Protestantism, so too does Islam, with Shia and Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, culturally, Iranians are not Arabs like Iraqis are, and historically, Iraq (as Mesopotamia) and Iran (as Persia) had often been involved in conflicts, wars, and territorial disputes. The 1980s looked set to continue that pattern, as many of these these cultural and religious differences contributed to their terribly costly and destructive war of the 80s, known as the Persian Gulf War.
Iran and Iraq War Leaves Both Countries Shattered
Iran and Iraq have had border disputes for centuries. These ultimately spilled into a terrible war from 1980 to 1988 that witnessed all sorts of war crimes from both sides. This war cost 1 million casualties in Iran alone, and over $1 trillion between the two countries.
The US and the Reagan regime supported Iraq and then ruler, Saddam Hussein, because Iran’s Islamic Revolution had seen their favored “puppet regime” in Iran overthrown. Providing military, economic, and political assistance to Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s army waged a long war.
Both sides attacked each other’s oil tankers (and even tankers belonging to countries not involved in the conflict—Iran attacked other Arab countries’ tankers for example). Both also attacked each others’ cities, and as has been thoroughly discussed now in the build up to the US war on Iraq, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons (weapons of mass destruction) against Iran.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, perhaps with ambitions to be the leading Arab nation and have a strong Middle East centered around Iraq, had been favored by the US in this war who were happy to ignore Iraqi war crimes, as from their point of view, defeat of Iran was paramount.
Later, Hussein’s ambitions to unite Arab lands under one large nation (with him as ruler no doubt) was one of the concerns raised in 1991 after he overstepped his bounds (as a dictator subservient to US ambitions in the region) and invaded Kuwait. US raised the specter of a Hitler or anti-Christ type of force in the region, that had to be quashed.
As David Gowan noted in his book, Global Gamble, (Verso, 1999) and J.W. Smith in his work on Economic Democracy, (IED Press, 2006), this was an example of one power (the US) not tolerating another power (a potentially enlarged Iraq or a united Arab people) for it threatened access to important resources—a major source for US world dominance. Having served its use, Iraq was to remain subservient again, or face repercussions.
Political activist, Stephen Shalom, lists a time-line of the Iraq war from the perspective of US interest and notes the following key events:
What is interesting about the above is that the US seemed to be involved in pitting both sides against each other. The Iran-Contra scandal (US selling arms to Iran and using proceeds to fund guerrillas in Nicaragua) revealed more murky goings on, that even saw Israel being the conduit for the arms sales (discussed further below).
Internationally, other actors also backed different sides in this war: the US, France, UK, Germany, many Arab countries (including Egypt and Saudi Arabia), China and the Soviet Union all backed Iraq in various ways, from providing chemical weapons, other military equipment, financing, and more. Support for Iran came from Syria, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, and Yugoslavia. (One can see how some wars since have reflected these “sides”. Iraq later overstepped its bounds and fell out of favor with the US, which is now well known.)
Commentators note that many Iranians look back to this period with anger and sadness at Western involvement against them and for not doing anything to stop the chemical warfare, and in effect being isolated internationally.
Relation with Israel
Outside Israel, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the region. Many leading figures in Israel have come from Iran originally, as well.
Under the Shah, Israel enjoyed a good relationship with Iran. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the ruling clergy and Israel have had a more hostile relationship with Iran not recognizing Israel.
Yet, even during this non-relationship, Israel was used as a conduit by the United States to sell weapons to Iran as part of the Iran-Contra scandal (discussed further below).
In more recent years, as the US has stepped up criticism of Iran’s nuclear program as being a nuclear weapons program (discussed further below), Israel has planned for the possibility of taking out various missile and other targets in Iran5.
Although it has not admitted it officially, Israel is widely believed to have 200-400 nuclear weapons and is the only nuclear power in the region. In the past it has bombed an Iraqi facility suspected of being part of a nuclear weapons program.
Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the overflow into South Lebanon gave rise to militant opposition, Hezbollah perhaps being the most well known amongst them. Regarded as a terrorist organization by many nations, Iran and some others feel it is an organization fighting a legitimate cause and has actively backed Hezbollah.
Fred Halliday, a noted expert on Middle East affairs and professor of international relations at the prestigious London School of Economics, had managed to talk to Hezbollah’s deputy head, and its political strategist, Sheikh Naim Qassem, who noted that Hezbollah regards the Iranian spiritual leader, in this case Khamenei, as its ultimate authority7. “All major political decisions regarding Hezbollah are referred to … Iran.”
The decision by Hezbollah to enter Lebanese politics in 1992, for example, was determined by “Ayatollah Khamenei himself who took the final decision, in favour of participation.”
Qassem also admitted helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside Israel and Palestine, even though they are Sunni Muslims, not Shi’a like Hezbollah. He also said Hezbollah’s actual activities were limited to within Lebanon, and the disputed area of the Shebaa farms near the Syrian border. If true, Iran isn’t directly supporting suicide bombers in Israel as some have claimed, though it could certainly be indirect.
However, Iran has constantly denounced Israel, and various rulers and leading officials have announced death to Israel in various forms. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outrageous claims of wiping off Israel from the map and questioning the Holocaust is just the most recent episode, unfortunately.
Yet, recognizing the new geopolitical realities and because Ahmadinejad is not the real source of power in Iran, as discussed further below, the ruling clergy had actually offered peace and normalized relations with Israel and to put pressure on Hezbollah to become a fully political unit, which the US refused.
The recent conflict in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, which saw Israel suffer a humiliating defeat, on the one hand need not have happened with hindsight, and on the other hand, has strengthened Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in the region further.
US and Iran: Thorny Relations
As discussed further below, relations during and since Iran’s Islamic Revolution has been thorny to say the least. The Iran-Contra scandal revealed US selling weapons to its own enemy for other agendas. More recently, as part of the US “War on Terror”, Iran has been labeled as being part of the “Axis of Evil”, accused of developing nuclear weapons, and being threatening to other countries in the region, in particular Israel.
US armed Iran while supporting Iraq
Even though the US has seen Iran as an avowed enemy since the Islamic Revolution, and the US encouraged and supported Saddam Hussein’s long war against Iran, the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that the US sold arms to Iran.
This episode was one of the largest scandals in US history whereby the US sold arms to Iran and used proceeds to fund the Contras, a brutal anti-communist guerrilla organization in Nicaragua accused of many crimes against humanity and believed to be responsible for the deaths of some 30,000 people.
But some of these arms deals originated from the Iranian hostage crisis which had occurred during then-US President, Jimmy Carter’s watch, where he lost a lot of popularity over it.
A documentary that aired on a British cable channel (cannot recall details unfortunately) explained how Reagan, challenging Carter in the US presidential race, used a propaganda stunt that also helped him achieve popular support. Reagan and George H. W. Bush had struck a deal with the Iranian mullahs to provide weapons if they released the hostages the day after he was sworn in as President, rather than before, during Carter’s term.
Investigative journalist for Associated Press, Newsweek, PBS and others, Robert Parry, broke many of the Iran-Contra stories and is quoted here for further details and insight:
Parry continues to detail how successive administrations have sought to keep that information away from the public.
(Given some of the recent tensions between Iran and Israel, it would be natural to wonder why Israel would have agreed to deliver US weapons to Iran. Parry notes that at that time Israel, although detesting Iran, thought that being a non-Arab country might be a potential ally. It is perhaps a bitter irony that today these two nations are perhaps at complete opposites, with Iran’s support of Hezbollah as the recent crisis in Lebanon showed.)
US accuses Iran of being in the Axis of Evil
Into the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were signs of Iran moving toward a more moderate state, and increasing democratization (though only in the most earliest of forms). However, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US quickly moved to an aggressive stance against major countries it had long disliked, and labeled Iran as being part of an “Axis of Evil” trying to invoke the ominous image of Hitler and the “Axis powers.” At the same time US President George Bush called for a reinvigorated push for democracy (starting with an invasion of Iraq9, that has now seen the country immersed in a civil war).
With Iran, however, this democratization push has had the reverse effect. By supporting outside forces and openly indicating it would fund opposition forces within Iran as well, the US helped push the Iranian ruling regime to a more aggressive and authoritarian position. As such, the reformist Khatami fell out of favor with the ruling clergy who backed the more hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. (This is discussed further below.)
Forcing democracy from the outside has almost never worked, and the experience of Iraq clearly shows that (putting aside for the moment whether the realpolitik agenda of the US is actually democracy or other geopolitical aims such as consolidating power).
US accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons
Iran, with Russian assistance, has been developing a nuclear program. Iran has long insisted it is for the development of nuclear energy, not weapons, which the US Bush Administration had asserted, and the Obama Administration also maintains.
The US and some other Western countries have wondered why Iran, with such large oil and gas reserves would want or need nuclear power. Iran has answered that it wants to diversify its sources, which has not convinced the US.
The BBC asked eight commentators for their views about the Iran nuclear issue10. One of them was Radzhab Safarov, director of Moscow-based Center for Iranian Research, and an advisor to the Russian State Duma chairman. Safarov said that Russia “is not worried about allegations that Iran might possess technology of dual nature” because the “Iranian nuclear program has a completely peaceful nature, and there is no evidence to the contrary.”
He further notes that if Russia suspected a covert nuclear weapons program, Russia would “have blocked this project and suspended co-operation with Iran in this field, because it would have been against its own interests” as their common border in the Caspian sea would “threaten Russia’s national interests” in the area.
Safarov, also makes an interesting comment: “I don’t think any country has a right to interfere with the Iranian nuclear program, because it is a completely internal affair.” This is of interest for a few reasons:
- The “interference” is occurring because Iran is regarded by the Bush Administration as an enemy, part of what they call the “Axis of Evil”. If it was a nation on more friendly terms it is possible that a more reasonable approach to deterrence would be adopted rather than the hostile approach currently seen (and also leaving it to Europeans to attempt negotiated alternatives). Some limited assistance has even been given to friendly countries. For example, US assistance is possibly happening with Pakistan 11 currently. The US has also helped Israel in the past12 (as have the French13).
- On the other hand, just as the Bush Administration claims Iran is misleading the world about its nuclear program, could the Bush Administration be making claims to pursue its own political14 and economic15 agendas against Iran?
Stephen Zunes, writing for
Foreign Policy In Focus, is highly critical of the US position on Iran:
Under pressure from the US, in September 2005, the UN nuclear body responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran to be non-compliant in its NPT obligations17 and most member states voted to threaten Iran with referral to the UN Security Council in November.
It did not happen, as Iran and the EU led efforts for further negotiation.
Spin, “Diplomacy”, and Use of Fear
As award-winning Indian journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, has written in the Indian daily, The Hindu (where he is deputy editor),
there was a lot of spin and diplomatic manipulation behind the scenes to get the vote against Iran
In his report to the IAEA Board of Governors on September 2, 200519, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted that ‘all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities.’ Dr. ElBaradei said, however, that the IAEA was not yet in a position to conclude that there were no ‘undeclared’ nuclear activities taking place in Iran—a requirement that stems not from the safeguards agreement but only from the Additional Protocol20 that Iran said it would voluntarily adhere to in 2003.
It was despite that, and with US pressure, Varadarajan notes, that the IAEA Board of Governors voted to find Iran in non-compliance and that non-compliance is defined as diversion of safeguarded material for prohibited purposes, something Dr. ElBaradei had explicitly ruled out.
If the IAEA’s inability to make such a declaration were to become grounds for reporting a country to the Security Council and threatening it with sanctions, Varadarajan also adds,
no less than 106 countries—as emphasized by the European Union last year21—would have to be put in the dock because they have either not signed or not yet ratified or implemented the Additional Protocol.
As Varadarajan warns in another article, claims as ridiculous as some that surfaced during the Iraq war build-up, are appearing again about Iran as part of a propaganda effort 22. Examples he cites include the Iranian laptop discovered with incriminating evidence of a nuclear warhead, and even the US spinning Iran’s transparent disclosure of some information to the IAEA as a discovery by diplomats close to the IAEA of what appeared to be the design for the core of a nuclear warhead, even though the IAEA did not find this. Instead, this was “leaked” as “news!”
US lies and exaggerates about extent of nuclear development
An episode in September 2006, seemed to replay events two years earlier. Although already quoted further above, a part of Stephen Zunes’ report is repeated here: “When the IAEA published a detailed report in November 2004 concluding that its extensive inspections had revealed no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration responded by attempting to oust the IAEA director.”
In September 2006, the IAEA repeated this finding. The US responded with exaggerations and lies to counter the impact of the IAEA’s assessment:
A US House Intelligence Committee report claimed that Iran’s nuclear development program was far more advanced than what the IAEA and its own US intelligence had shown. (How it would know better was not clear.) The Washington Post reported that the IAEA sent the panel a letter decrying its recent report on Iran as “outrageous and dishonest” and that it contained at least five major errors.
Phyllis Bennis, from the Institute for Policy Studies, summarizes a key example of lies:
The US House Intelligence Committee report also tried to taint the IAEA head, ElBaradei by saying he removed a senior inspector that had raised concerns about Iran’s program and that there was an unstated policy of preventing inspectors at the IAEA from telling the truth about Iran.
The irony perhaps is that it was the US House Intelligence Committee that was preventing the telling of truth to the American and world public. Not only had that inspector not been removed, but the IAEA responded that the unstated policy was an “outrageous and dishonest.” Policy analyst Carah Ong has more details24, and the Washington Post reposted the IAEA letter25.
And perhaps as another warning of a looming propaganda campaign, Bennis notes, “Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon has recently opened a new Iran Directorate whose job description appears very similar to the 2002 role of the now-closed Office of Special Plans, finding or creating intelligence material that could be used to justify war against Iraq.”
(See also Democracy Now! news headlines for September 1426, and an interview with historian and Middle East exerprt, Juan Cole27, for more on the House Intelligence Committee report controversy.)
US and IAEA have so far been unable to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons
US initially provided Iran nuclear know-how
Some may also wonder how Iran managed to get the ability to develop nuclear facilities in the first place. It would be sensible to perhaps assume that after the fall of the Soviet Union nuclear technology may have been more easily available and that how Iran got it.
However, ironically perhaps, it was the US that gave Iran the nuclear know-how53 in the 1960s and 1970s when the Shah dictator was installed by the CIA, and was seen as an ally for the US in the region (until the Shah was overthrown by an Islamic Revolution, when the USA supported Saddam Hussein against Iran).
Stephen Zunes, in the same above-mentioned article also notes the US’s role in helping Iran in the past:
Rumsfeld, Cheney and others have questioned Iran’s need for a nuclear program, as Zune notes above. They argue that Iran has enough oil and therefore doesn’t need nuclear energy. Therefore, they say, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program must be for military purposes.
Scott Ritter, former UN Weapons Inspector, and outspoken critic of US foreign policy with regards to the Iraq invasion, is also critical of the policy against Iran. In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, noting the same as Zune does above, Scott Ritter adds that Rumsfeld and Cheney’s criticism of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program does not hold55, because they agreed during the Shah’s reign that Iran’s energy reliance on oil was not sound, economically, and that civilian use of nuclear energy as an alternative was acceptable. This opinion has changed only because the Islamists have come into power, not because of the belief that Iran does not need energy diversification.
US, India, and Iran
Adding India into this relationship shows further complications each country has in its foreign policy objectives, and self-interest.
India, one of the emerging countries, whom many think will be among the most powerful in a few decades, is already extremely thirsty for energy. It has long had ties with Iran in some form or another. India has one of the world’s largest Shia Muslim populations (Iran having the largest).
India also has potential natural gas deals with Iran worth billions of dollars. The US also sees India as an ally in their war on terror, and this was especially so when the previous government, the right wing Hindu party, the BJP, were in power. The US has long disapproved the Iran-India energy deal.
US leading Congressmen have warned India that it must choose between “the Iran of the Ayotollahs,” with its oil and gas, and the “democratic West,” with its advanced nuclear power technology. For now, India seems to have gone for the latter.
It may be that India has calculated that jeopardizing the multi-billion dollar natural gas deal with Iran will be worth it if the US helps with nuclear power stations instead. That would be understandable in the context of India’s rising nuclear status and its warming relations with the US on this matter.
Indeed, a number of globally interesting developments have taken place regarding Indian nuclear power. For example:
- US President George Bush described India as “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” thus admitting it to the “nuclear club.”
- India has just recently decided to pursue non-proliferation rather than a global nuclear disarmament policy which it has long held. (The difference may seem subtle, but is enormously significant: non-proliferation means preventing others getting nuclear technology while those who already have it officially can get to keep it. In other words, it is a means to maintain an imbalance in power, consistent with the idea of being in a “nuclear club” and also the same position that the US has taken.)
- This comes in the context of Indian attempts for permanent member status at the UN Security Council, which the US seems to be backing.
- The US is considering supporting India’s nuclear development56.
For some further analysis on that angle, see for example the following
Foreign Policy In Focus:
- India Abandons Global Nuclear Disarmament60, by Praful Bidwai, Inter Press Service News Agency, October 26, 2005
- The above-mentioned articles from Siddharth Varadarajan.
In September 2005, India chose to vote alongside the US and European Union in referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council (though in November when the US and EU looked to back down, India declared it would oppose further referral, which cynics see as the Indian’s government’s move to save face from domestic criticism about doing what the West tells them, rather then following their own foreign policy). India again voted against Iran in 2006.
US lets Europe negotiate with Iran
The US has been happy to allow Europe a hand at negotiations with Iran. Results appear mixed, however, with both sides always indicating that some room for compromise is possible. More recently, into October 2006, media outlets were reporting that as talks between the two were faltering on getting Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment, the possibility of UN sanctions were drawing closer.
Europe, and other UN Security Council members have tried to offer political and economic incentives in return for Iran’s promise of a long term moratorium on enrichment.
The problem has been that technically, Iran has a right to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes and so their enrichment program (which, as stated above, is nowhere near the levels needed for weapons development), is legal and so they argue that they should not have to stop it first in order to have talks.
US war with Iran?
Iran appears in news headlines more frequently. For example,
- The above concerns are often headline stories;
- The British have accused Iran of supplying some of the weaponry used by Iraqi insurgents;
- ElBaradei (head of the IAEA) won the Nobel peace prize and so threw more coverage onto Iran;
- The Bush Administration continues suggestions towards regime change.
And so on. Whether all this means that the western populations are being “softened” for a more adversarial role against Iran remains to be seen. However, there are fears that we are moving closer to such a terrible possibility. For example, Parry, mentioned earlier, also notes that “The Time magazine cover story, released on Sept. 17, and a new report by retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner—entitled The End of the ‘Summer Diplomacy’—make clear that the military option against Iran is moving rapidly toward implementation.”
Scott Ritter, mentioned earlier, argues in that same interview that the US agenda is to have regime change in Iran, and it is not interested in talks. Even Iran’s proposed peace and talks with Israel (detailed further below) are rejected, so that regime change policy can be pushed.
The US has also recently entertained the thought of a naval blockade, and has deployed warships to the region. Various media reports have also indicated other military maneuvers in the region that various analysts feel is the ominous onset of possible war, or, if the world is lucky, is just military posturing.
Writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, writes an extensive article noting the military buildup around the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf68 by NATO, the US and Israel.
Investigative journalist, Seymous Hersh, writes in the New Yorker,
In addition, the US appears to be supporting guerilla raids against Iran70, though this seems to be on a small scale at this time.
Phyllis Bennis, in an interview with Democracy Now! notes:
Iran’s real policies and actions complicate Bush’s position
Although the Bush Administration has ignored it, and most mainstream media outlets typically do not explore issues beyond reporting what officials say, Iran’s actual position on nuclear weapons, on Israel, and other issues of the region, offers some complications to the official line. For example,
- Ahmadinejad does not hold much power; the Supreme Leader does
- The Supreme Leader issued a fatwa against Nuclear Weapons, saying it was not Islamic
- Iran actually offered peace talks with Israel
- Iran even condemned North Korea’s nuclear missile test
Furthermore, the US problems in Iraq have strengthened Iran’s influence, and the nuclear weapon debate occurs within that context.
Ahmadinejad does not actually have much power. Supreme Leader does
When the hard-line Ahmadinejad came into power, his rhetoric—ridiculous and outrageous at times (such as questioning/denying the Holocaust could have taken place during WWII, and wanting to wipe Israel off the map)—proved a boon for Bush policies and propaganda efforts.
The day Ahmadinejad proclaimed that Israel will one day be wiped off the map, shortly after he was sworn in as President of Iran, journalist Lindsey Hilsum, for the British mainstream outlet, Channel 4 News, noted that Ahmadinejad holds no power; it is the mullahs that call the shots, and he may have said all this just to show to them that he is a hardliner, and that it should not be taken seriously, for others have said it in the past.
That has not stopped the Bush Administration and war-supporting mass media outlets. The media, together with the Bush Administration repeatedly point to Ahmadinejad’s outrageous statements as proof that Iran is an out of control state, but always fail to mention that he holds no power or influence on such decisions.
In the Democracy Now! interview with Scott Ritter mentioned earlier, Ritter noted what Hilsum said, but also noted that Iran’s Supreme Leader had also issued a condemnation of nuclear weapons:
Iran Supreme Leader issued Fatwa against nuclear weapons
On August 9, 2005, at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, issued a fatwa, “holy order” which forbade the stockpiling, production, and use of nuclear weapons.
This was hardly mentioned by most mainstream media outlets, rarely making headlines, while criticism of their nuclear programs did. Some, such as the BBC and CNN just about mentioned it but as subtexts to other articles, such as a question and answer series on the nuclear standoff75, and of Iran breaking seals at a nuclear plant76.
(A blog entry posted major quotes from the fatwa77, as reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), but the link to the IRNA article is now expired, unfortunately.)
What is understandable, especially from the Bush Administration and its supporters, is that this fatwa is likely to be treated skeptically. It will is easy to dismiss this as a lie or a smokescreen that will take them down the path of nuclear weapons at a later stage. (Although it is also not clear how likely it would be for an Islamic cleric to issue a fatwa under false pretenses.) It would be hard to know for sure, because under international law, Iran has the right to pursue nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy. Brazil recently announced it would be enriching uranium, for example. However, because it is not seen as hostile as Iran is by the US and UK, it is not perceived as a dangerous move.
Iran has actually offered peace to Israel. US refused
As noted above, Iran’s Ahmadinejad certainly hasn’t helped himself with his unacceptable call that Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Such claims have “damaged Iran’s standing internationally78 at a time when the country badly needs support,” says the
BBC, also adding that Iran has “blamed the foreign media for blowing the crisis out of proportion and accused the West of seizing on this issue to pressure Tehran over its nuclear program.”
However, as mentioned further above, Ahmadinejad does not hold much real power or call the shots. Instead, the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah, does. And, as Ritter adds in the above-mentioned interview, it is the “Expediency Council” that controls the instruments of power.
What may be of surprise to many readers is that not only is Ahmadinejad’s view a distraction, but the real leadership of Iran actually offered peace talks with Israel back in 2003. Furthermore, the US refused it.
The Foreign Policy organization, Just Foreign Policy details this further:
(Just Foreign Policy’s article cited above also provides links to other articles that explore this in more depth.)
Historian and national security policy analyst, Gareth Porter, reported this originally for Inter Press Service at the end of May, 2005. He further noted that,
Porter also notes that Iran is still interested in trying to get a deal with the US, “despite the U.S. refusal to respond to the 2003 proposal.” Although some conservative extremists (who backed Ahmadinejad in their previous election) may be against it, many other conservative Iranian officials support the idea.
Internal politics in both the US and Iran is therefore a possible hindrance to peaceful relations. Porter notes, for example, that the “ultimate authority on Iran’s foreign policy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was ‘directly involved’ in the Iranian proposal, according to the senior Iranian national security officials” but that Kahamenei has also “aligned himself with the conservatives in opposing the pro-democratic movement” that Khatami was leaning towards.
Some may observe that given Iran offered to try and get Hezbollah to become a political unit rather than a military one as part of a deal with the US, then why has it not done so anyway? Unfortunately, in the world of realpolitik, each country looks out for its own interests. Why would Iran do this if it can’t get anything in return? Clearly, Iran wants to be recognized by the US, and is prepared to go a long way to do so. However, this also highlights that both the US and Iran might be hypocrites. They both claim moral high ground, yet, they both choose to turn away from peace if it suits their agendas.
Iran condemns North Korea’s nuclear weapons test
When North Korea announced a nuclear weapons test at the beginning of October 2006, Iran publicly condemned it. Iran policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Carah Ong, noted in her blog that the response of Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini on state-run television said:
If Iran was intent on developing nuclear weapons and if their fatwa against it was a lie, one would have expected then to at least stay quiet on the matter. (On the other hand, Iran could be trying to call the world’s bluff!)
Geopolitics; US and Iran vying for interest in the region?
Despite Iran’s apparent steps towards more peaceful options, one cannot ignore that Iran, especially the conservative elements, may have desires for wider influence in the region, just as the United States and its conservative elements have.
US policy in the Middle East is faltering, with Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns currently appearing to go out of control. Iran is one nation in that region that seems to be in a position to take advantage, which may help explain why US is highlighting Iran’s nuclear ambitions so much.
US Problems in Iraq: Strengthening Iran’s Influence?
As US attempts in Iraq falter and throughout the Middle East people look to the US with increasing anger and hatred, Iran adds to the complication. Noted expert on Middle East affairs, and professor of the London School of Economics, Fred Halliday, summarizes this situation quite well:
Highlighting Iran’s nuclear ambitions to temper Iran’s wider interests
It is because of this increasing influence, and the fear of extending this to the wider region—afforded by the possibility of nuclear weapons—that US fears Iran.
This is of course theorizing, but if right, then it falls into a repeated pattern of history whereby one center of power will do what it can to prevent other centers of power rising. This will be accompanied by rhetoric of morals (democracy, freedom, fighting the devil, fighting evil, etc etc) from both sides to appeal to their own people, to justify more involvement. This aspect of history is detailed further by J.W. Smith and the Institute for Economic Democracy92. Meanwhile, any genuine moves in areas such as democracy have suffered.
Moves towards reforms, democracy?
Recent years were seeing signs of Iran moving towards slightly more tolerant and liberal values. Any changes were likely to be gradual to allow smooth, acceptable transition, else internal backlash from the more hard line elements would be more pronounced. However, the US’s hostile stance to Iran has encouraged the very hard line elements that the US says it is against to react.
Regime Change in Iran
Evidence of US plans for regime change in Iran emerged after Al Qaeda terrorists blew up a residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2003. The US accused Iran of harboring these terrorists, which Iran denied.
The Washington Post noted that despite Iran helping the US in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, by turning over some Al Qaeda members (and being branded as a member of an “axis of evil”), and continual meetings for “search-and-rescue missions and the tracking down of al Qaeda operatives”, “U.S. officials had repeatedly warned Iranian officials that if any al Qaeda operatives in Iran are implicated in attacks against Americans, it would have serious consequences93 for relations between the two countries.”
According to Reuters at the time, Iran did accept that some Al Qaeda members could have slipped the somewhat porous border between Afghanistan and Iran, and vowed to arrest them if they could94.
The above Washington Post and Reuters articles also noted that Bush administration officials appeared “ready to embrace an aggressive policy of trying to destabilize the Iranian government” as a result of these bombings.
This incident may therefore appear as an excuse or catalyst for an earlier plan for regime change in Iran, part of an even wider US geopolitical strategy to maintain global dominance amid new challenges95.
US Support of opposition groups actually undermines democracy further
US policy for Iran has involved supporting opposition groups in Iran. Some of these are pro-democracy groups, while others are pro-monarchists, supporting the former Shah’s son. However, as early as May 2003, the same Washington Post article also noted that,
Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service notes neo-conservative elements in the US pushing an Iran confrontation agenda97, while Marc Perelman, writing in the Jewish daily, The Forward, in 2003, observes how a coalition of hawkish elements from the US, Israel, and within Iran, have come together to support regime change in Iran98 with similarities to the build up to the Iraq invasion.
Support for Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, the exiled son of the former Shah, is supported by hawks in the US administration and some Jewish groups who see the former Shah’s reign as a “golden era for Jews,” Perelman adds.
Furthermore, an Iranian-Jewish described as an active hawk says that “support for Pahlavi among Iranian Americans may have less to do with deep pro-monarchist feelings than with his status as the most recognizable opposition figure among immigrants.”
Pahlavi has, according to Perelman, “expressed support for democracy while calling for a referendum restoring the monarchy.”
It is not clear therefore, if “democracy” is being used as a euphemism for continued authoritarian rule, but this time, favored by the US, as was the case with Pahlavi’s father.
The Pentagon and US State department have already started funding propaganda broadcasts into Iran, through outlets such as Radio Farda and Voice of America’s Persian TV. However, policy analyst, Carah Ong, also notes that Pentagon officials have lamented that US broadcasts into Iran aren’t tough enough on the Iranian regime99 and that their ideas are not working as planned because their broadcast outlets are not the main source of news for most Iranians.
Khatami has actually been pro-democracy but any reform attempts in such a country are naturally going to be very slow and difficult to achieve. An imposition of relatively quick massive changes will of course be met by resistance by those in power, and for a nation trying to be more democratic, it may unfortunately have to be a slow process so that it can get buy-in from those who fear of losing out. Of course the risk is that such attempts can be undermined as well, the longer it takes. It is not as simple as supporting democratic elements or very quickly ousting the existing regime because that may leave power vacuums that various groups may attempt to fill, as the Iraq experience has shown.
By funding opposition groups and calling for regime-change (while calling it “democracy-building”), the US makes such a task even harder, and risks actually undermining democracy because the ruling Islamic clerics will clearly see the opposition as lacking legitimacy, as policy analyst, Robert Naiman notes:
Unfortunately, this certainly seems to have been the case, as hardliners in Iran have responded to US aggressive policy by getting rid of the reformist president, Khatami, in favor of the hardliner, Ahmadinejad.
As Naiman, also notes, US policies are restricting the ability for negotiations between Iran and US. “Officials in Iran will ask, why bother trying to negotiate with someone who has an official policy of trying to overthrow you?”
Pro Democracy Reformist, Khatami, loses out to Hard-liner, Ahmadinejad
The previous leader of Iran, the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, showed precursory signs to the long march towards democracy. For his elections, he campaigned on democracy, the rule of law, and inclusion of all Iranians in the political decision-making process. When he first became president, he won elections by a landslide, showing the popularity within Iran for potential reforms.
This obviously rubbed many hard-line conservatives in Iran’s political and religious establishment the wrong way, and he was unable to implement many of his reform policies. Towards the end of his term in 2005, growing disillusionment contributed to his losing elections against the more conservative Ahmadinejad, backed by many of the more extreme ruling clergy.
Unfortunately, as noted earlier, US policies did not help either. The US pressure on Iran (from the nuclear stance, threats of war, war on terror stance, and more) have, perhaps unwittingly (though surely, to some extent, predictably?), helped emboldened hard-line elements further, and thus the nation has moved further away from democracy.
Internally, Iran appears to be moving further and further towards a hardline stance. US policy and interests have an enormous impact on any nation, and with Iran it has appeared to achieve the opposite of their stated goals. Rather than a weakened Iranian regime that can make way for democracy, chances for potential democratic reform seem wasted or lost; the extremists are in a stronger position, and have a lot of support.
By refusing dialog, as mentioned above, peaceful resolution to the current situation is hard to imagine.
The leading scholar, Fred Halliday, quoted above is worth citing here on what prospects for a peaceful future in the region are, noting an immense and potentially deadly irony:
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