It’s not often the leader of the free world publicly acknowledges his country sabotaged the democracy of another country. Yet this is exactly what United States President Barack Obama did during his speech in Cairo, billed as an address to the Arab and wider Muslim world. And which country deserved this honourable mention? Why none other than Iran, referred to by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush as one of three nations making up the “Axis of Evil”.
“For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops and civilians.”
It’s little wonder the self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has defined itself by opposition to the United States.
As Obama states, the US played a key role in the royalist coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953. Mosaddeq was an arch nationalist who nationalised Iran’s oil industry. US and British agents installed Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The West resumed its near unfettered access to Iran’s oil.
The Shah was at first an enlightened monarch who focused on education and economic development. However, he succumbed to more dictatorial instincts, his ruthless secret police unleashing a brutal crackdown on any opposition, whether from leftist parties or from religious scholars led by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Not even the full backing of the United States could keep the Shah in power and he fled Iran in January 1979.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iran and the US have fought each other using proxies. America’s main agent was former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who began a decade-long war against Iran in September 1980.
I was a teenager in Sydney at the time. The internet was not widely available, and our access to news was limited to whatever we were fed by local media. We were told it was Iran that had invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein was a moderate democrat fighting the good fight against Iranian theocratic extremism.
There were other myths. Iran was just one Islamic hotspot in the world. The other was Afghanistan, where theocratic-minded tribal warlords were battling the military might of the Soviet Union. America and the West were opposing Islamic theocracy in Iran and yet were supporting it in Afghanistan. In mosques and Islamic centres across the Western world, including New Zealand and Australia, young Muslims were taught that the Iranian-style Islam was evil and anti-Western.
Meanwhile the Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Afghan mujahideen was presented as good and pro-Western. Iran’s main proxies have been various Islamist political movements and militias that have struck US interests both directly and indirectly in various parts of the Middle East. These include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and more recently the dominant faction in the democratically elected Government of Iraq.
The great irony of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the power vacuum was soon filled by America’s sworn enemy. American troops maintain security in a country effectively administered by Iranian proxies.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Iran has become a regional superpower, one of the few Middle Eastern nations with some kind of functioning democracy. Yet the battle for Iran’s future wasn’t won by the religious elite in 1979. This week, reformists will battle the eccentric conservative President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
The reformists want to see a return to the liberal days of former President Mohammad Khatami. Most Iranians are under 30. They are an educated generation that knows only a repressive revolution whose Basij or morality police regulate their lives.
Iranian Muslim youth aren’t the only ones disillusioned with theocratic politics. Many young Muslims in the West like myself, once attracted to political Islam, have now become disillusioned by it.
At the same time, we feel disenchanted with Western attempts to manipulate it, then demonise it when it suits. When politicians attempt to co-opt religion, both religion and politics lose in the end.
(Photo: Shahram Sharif)