According to the White House, Iran and its controversial and opinionated President, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, lead the next wave of “The Axis of Evil” in spearheading the nuclear annihilation of the United States. Despite a recent intelligence report released in December 2007 concluding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a paranoid fear still lingers that Iran might acquire such WMD’s and use them first and foremost against America. Iran’s global image, undoubtedly and unfortunately personified by “shoot from the hip” Ahmadinejad, emerges as a reactionary, anti-Semitic, and militant theocracy strategically organizing a Shia majority power bloc in the post 9-11 Middle East.
The origin of this constant barrage of back and forth accusations and deep rooted mistrusts that exist between both countries has been examined by journalist Steve Kinzer in his popular best-selling book All the Shah’s Men. This fast-paced and well written, non-fiction history book takes the readers back to the “roots” of Iranian anger towards U.S. foreign policy: the 1953 CIA led coup of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minster Muhammad Mossadegh in favor of cruel, puppet dictator Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. We speak with Kinzer as he describes how the sins from the past inevitably color the quagmire of the present.
You have a revised edition of your best-selling book All the Shah’s Men with a new foreword essay entitled “The Folly of Attacking Iran.” Many say, “Steve, you’re jumping the gun. No one is talking about attacking Iran – this is just knee jerk hysteria.” What’s your reply to that?
KINZER: I fear that the impulse to push this issue back on to the back burner – the feeling that there isn’t going to be an attack and this is not something to be worried about – is actually something that will make an attack more likely. If there is a sense in Washington that people don’t really care about it and really aren’t worried about it, I think there are people in the White House who might want to go ahead and do it. We have heard President Bush say that he doesn’t think the National Intelligence Estimate [The report concludes with “high confidence” that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program and currently does not possess a nuclear weapon], which was issued in December, should have any impact on people’s opinion about Iran.
More recently, we have seen that Admiral William Fallon, who was the military commander most outspokenly critical about the idea of attacking Iran, resigned in a surprise move after just one year as Commander of the U.S. forces in the Middle East. There are a number of alarming signs suggesting that sometime between now and next January 20th the United States might actually carry out this attack. To protest after it has happened is too late.
Let’s lay a foundation, which is rarely laid down by American media, and take it to back nearly 50 years to Mohammad Mossadegh. He was the democratically elected leader of Iran. Why was his decision to nationalize Iranian oil such a threat to global superpowers?
You have to go back to that time period in the early 1950’s. There had not been any leader of a poor country who had stood up to challenge the masters of the world in such a direct and important way. Mossadegh was essentially saying that the company [Anglo-Iranian Oil company now known as British Petroleum], that was richest, most lucrative property owned by Britain anywhere in the world, was actually not Britain’s property at all. He was saying that the oil under Iran’s soil belongs strictly to Iran.
The British responded to this by complaining that Iranian oil was the private property of a British company and for Iran to nationalize it would essentially be theft of that private property. There has never been the leader of a country who decided to try to nationalize such an important resource in a way that so outraged not just Americans but even big countries around the world. What effect that had in Britain, of course, was obvious.
Oil from Iran had been the basis for the standard of living the people in Britain enjoyed all during the 1920’s and 1930’s and 1940’s. Every factory in Britain was being powered by oil from Iran. Every truck and bus and car in Britain was running on Iranian oil. The Royal Navy, which projected British power around the world was fueled 100% by oil from Iran. But, there were other reasons that alarmed other countries, particularly the United States. At that time the Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles who had spent his career as a lawyer for large multinational corporations. The idea that foreign and American companies should be allowed to operate as they wished and use the resources of other countries as they sought fit was a sacred principle to him. He believed if Mossadegh and the Iranians could get away with nationalizing their oil industry this would set a terrible precedent that would undermine the power and authority of multinational companies everywhere. This was a huge challenge to the way the world was run.
So, Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader, was later deposed and replaced by the Shah of Iran. Why did the U.S. decide on a petty, tyrannical leader like the Shah when a well intentioned, but ineffectual one like, say Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, could have done?
I’ve had the chance to study not just the U.S. intervention in Iran in 1953 but a number of other cases in which the United States had overthrown foreign governments. My most recent book Overthrow is a history of all the times that the U.S has done this. When you study these overthrows together, certain patterns emerge and this certainly applies in Iran. After we overthrow the person we don’t like, then we have to decide: “Who do we want as a replacement?”
Usually, we want a person who fills two qualifications. One, it should be someone who is popular. Someone who could rule with popular support and maintain a stable government. Two, we also want someone who will do what we say. We didn’t overthrow someone we didn’t like just to put someone in who won’t do our bidding. Soon after the overthrow we realized that you couldn’t have both. You can’t have a leader who is going to place the interests of the United States first above the interests of his own country, who will also be popular. That means you have to choose. Either you’re going to choose someone who is going to be popular, but won’t do what the United States wants, or someone who will do what the United States wants but won’t necessarily be popular.
We always choose someone who will do our bidding. This is what happens in Iran. We knew if we placed the Shah in power, he would do what we want. Why, we asked ourselves, would we go from a coup and not place someone like that in power?
Now we’re up to 1979. We’re witnessing one of the largest, most popular revolutions of the 20th century [Iranian Revolution led by Khomeini in ’79.] Was this a reflection of an entire society’s hatred and dislike of “Westernism” and modernism? How could so many diverse elements in Iran come together and be unified in their dislike of the Shah and, one could argue, even the U.S.?
When the United States overthrew the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the Americans thought they had won a great victory. After all, we had gotten rid of someone we didn’t like and replaced them with someone who would do whatever we wanted. Later on, however, as we look back from the perspective of history, we can see that the operation doesn’t seem so successful at all. It was the Shah’s repression that produced the explosion of the late 1970’s: the Islamic Revolution.
That revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically, anti-American clerics who spent decades there after acting intensely and sometimes very violently to undermine American interests all over the world. That revolution inspired radical fundamentalists in many other countries including next-door Afghanistan. That revolution also weakened Iran enough so that Iran’s biggest enemy, Saddam Hussein next door in Iraq, decided to invade Iran. That invasion not only produced the horrific 8 year long Iran-Iraq war, it brought the United States into a military alliance with Saddam Hussein. We supported Saddam with helicopters that he used to drop poison gas inside Iran and intelligence that allowed him to target and attack inside Iran. It was our death embrace with Saddam beginning at that moment that brought us into this downward spiral that led to the current quagmire in Iraq.
The Islamic Revolution of the late 1970’s terrified the Soviets. They were afraid there would be a whole series of copycat fundamentalist revolutions around their Southern flank. That fear led the Soviets to invade Afghanistan. That invasion in turn brought the United States over to Pakistan and Afghanistan to sponsor a huge scaled, covert operation where we trained tens of thousands of jihadis in terror tactics and encouraged them to go out and kill the infidel. Those jihadis later became the Taliban, and we Americans became the infidels they wanted to kill. So, that operation in 1953 set off terrible consequences that are still shaping the world today and are greatly undermining the security of the United States
Let’s take it up to modern times. You mention in the preface of the book that the new Iraq War is seen as one of the worst strategic disasters in the history of U.S. foreign policy. However, you follow that by saying that attacking Iran would even be more disastrous. That’s a bold claim. How can it be more disastrous than what we are seeing in this Three Trillion Dollar War?
We can easily foresee some of the terrible consequences of an American attack on Iran. First of all, Iran is the only country in the Muslim Middle East where most people are pro-American. That pro-American sentiment in Iran is a huge strategic asset to the United States. We can build on that for generations to come. We will liquidate that asset in 1 hour if we start to attack. We profess to be great enemies and harsh critics of President Ahmadinejad. He is very unpopular in Iran. He’s likely to lose next year’s presidential elections. He knows this. There is only one way he can become a hero in Iran and to Muslims all over the world. That is to be attacked by the United States.
His provocative rhetoric is kind of calculated to try to bring on this kind of an attack. If we do bomb Iran, we will be strengthening the very regime that we claim to be opposed to. An American attack on Iran would certainly lead Iran to revenge attacks on Israel and on U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf. That will bring Israel into the conflict probably with terrible results, such as bombing attacks on Iran. It would also set off a huge explosion of anti-American violence in Iraq, probably also in Afghanistan. It would greatly destabilize Pakistan, which is probably the last country the U.S. needs to destabilize at this moment. And, if you are afraid today that nuclear scientists in Iran might share their knowledge with terrorists or the anti-American groups, then just bomb their houses and kill their children and then see how eager they are to participate in anti-American activities.
However, let me add one other point. These are just the consequences we can foresee. To me the greatest lesson of the 1953 intervention is that the worst consequences of these interventions are ones that no one could predict. There was nobody alive in 1953 – even the most far sighted analyst – who could have possibly predicted the long term results of that intervention. Nobody could at that time have said, “If we overthrow Mossadegh, ultimately the radical clerics are going to take over in Iran and that is going to produce the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and that’s going to lead the U.S. having an operation that will bring a terrorist group to Afghanistan that will then later attack American soil.” These were totally unpredictable. So, I think that will happen. The worst consequences, ones far worse than the ones I’ve just listed, would be ones that nobody could even imagine today.
You make an interesting point that will surely shock most people in saying that the Iranian people are pro America. What’s the pulse of the Iranian people and compare it to Ahmadinejad. The latter’s rhetoric, as you know, is all but passive. He talks vehemently against Israel, Jews, and against America. Lot of times people say he is merely a foil or front for the velayit-e-faqih, or the guardianship of the jurists in power. These three characters: the Iranian people, the jurists, and Ahmadinejad. Who should we fear? And even if the people are pro American, how come we don’t hear about it? Shouldn’t we at least fear Ahmadinejad?
Part of the reason I think for our misconception about Iran is that President Ahmadinejad has a title that misleads us. As far as we understand, the President of the country is the most important person, who has been freely elected and has the power to decide what the government is going to do. That’s not true in Iran. In Iran, there are several circles of power above the President. This President was elected as an upset winner, something that could never happen in countries that are U.S. allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Now, a lot of people are very unhappy with him because of his mismanagement of the economy, and also because many Iranians feel very embarrassed to have such a figure representing them.
Now, why don’t we hear about the pro American sentiment inside Iran? Part of the reason is that it is so difficult for Iranians and Americans to get to meet each other. The United States makes it impossible for most Iranians to come and visit the U.S. This is a very important policy for Washington to follow because keeping these two people separated makes it easier to demonize the Iranians. Once it were to become clear to Americans that there is a huge pro-American sentiment in Iran, then the idea of an American attack would find far less support here.
That’s why I’d like to see the United States reverse this policy and instead of trying to prevent the Iranians from coming here, we should invite them. We should have the farmers from Iran having exchange programs with the farmers from the United States. And the schoolteachers, and the women’s groups and the members of Parliament, there should be a constant flow of people back and forth so we start to understand each other. But, if you are promoting the idea of war then you want to prevent that, because preventing it makes it easy to see the other side as kind of a caricature and use someone like Ahmadinejad to give the false impression that everybody in Iran is militantly anti-Israel, militantly anti-American, and militantly in favor of theocratic rule.
Sy Hersh, whom I interviewed recently, said Ahmadinejad and Iran are doing what they’ve always done in helping Shias in the Middle East. He says he doesn’t see anything different about their behavior now then he did in the past. Perhaps he could be referring to Iran supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and even the Shia insurgents in Iraq. Critics say this help in turn directly affects the United States because these forces attack U.S. soldiers, posts and allies. So does this tangible relationship give enough credible evidence to attack Iran?
I’m actually very troubled by Iranian support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The support is also very unpopular inside Iran. It is repeatedly cited by people who complain about the economic shortages inside Iran. People in Iran don’t want to see hundreds of millions of their dollars going to support these militant groups. I would simply argue that the more worried you are about Iran’s support for these groups, then the more troubled you are by Iranian nuclear ambitions. The more outraged you are at the way the Iranian government represses democratic forces inside Iran, the more urgent the negotiation option becomes.
We are not going to be able to reduce Iranian support for militant groups in the Middle East, or to make Iran curb its nuclear ambitions or to change its behavior in any other way by bombing them! The way to make Iran calm down and feel like it doesn’t need to pursue policies that are highly destabilizing in the Middle East is to make Iran feel safe. Israel also needs to be made to feel safe. It’s through a negotiating process in which every country is led to see that it has a fair place under the Middle Eastern sun, then we can produce the kind of stability that will make it less necessary, less urgent, less tempting for Iran to pursue policies that are highly destabilizing.
We know on record that U.S. helped depose Mossadegh in 1953 with the CIA intervention called Operation Ajax by infiltrating Iranian society in order to overthrow him. Is there something like that happening now? Is there going to be an Operation Ajax in the 21st century?
The United States has appropriated $75 million to go to – what we call – democratic forces inside Iran. This has been a terribly negative appropriation from the point of view of those democratic forces in Iran. All the people in Iran that support what we might call basic American principles want the United States to stop offering this money.
What it does is it makes every person in Iran working for democracy look like a traitor. Essentially, the United States is trying to send money to activists in Iran, and at the same time the United States is calling for the overthrow of the Iranian government. That has lead to a hugely brutal and repressive crack down on people in Iran that are working for democracy and for a more open society. There is a unanimous agreement in Iran that U.S. should try to pursue a calmer and more sophisticated approach to Iran. If you talk to people like the recently released political person Akbar Gangi or the Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, they will tell you what all Iranian democrats say, “Let the United States stop threatening Iran. Let the United States deal with Iran and see if we can’t produce some kind of a new paradigm.”
Now, we don’t know whether some unconditional, comprehensive negotiating process would produce the results that we hope for. Nonetheless, this is such a low cost option. It is completely immoral to go to war with a country before you have truly exhausted all the peaceful options. All we need to do is make this effort in a serious, good faith way. If that doesn’t work, then we are in a new situation. But it’s not possible or legal or moral or good for the national security interests of the United States to be thinking about an attack on Iran without first thinking about other alternatives.
Photo courtesy of Babak Fakhamzadeh.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.