DALLAS, February 20, 2012 – The fixation that the conservative movement in particular and the US government in general has with Iran raises important questions about US foreign policy and our understanding of the Middle East. More importantly, this obsession suggests something is out of balance. We are not nearly so consumed with North Korea, a rogue state with nuclear weapons.
Perhaps thinking people should be asking why. In a world ruled by thirty-second sound bites, too many of us seem to believe that there are tidy, succinct solutions to thorny problems. The facts rarely bear this out, which is why we must first examine what the ‘Iranian problem’ is. This requires that we understand the Iranian mind.
First of all, in some ways, the Iranian problem is an ‘Aryan’ problem - and no I’m not saying they are neo-Nazis, but they are a proud Indo-European people with a rich and glorious past. They have ruled that part of the world through various empires for over 2500 years. That is not the sort of legacy that dissipates with the morning dew in the bright dawn of the 21st century.
This rich heritage gives the nation vision and purpose. It makes them dream of grandeur and yearn for respect - the same respect they enjoyed until the late 18th century. They were respected not only for their military might but because they possessed an advanced civilization, with centers of learning, trade, craftsmanship, literature and art.
They were a major power-broker in the Middle East, and they were the primary reason the Sunni Ottoman Empire was prevented from expanding further east. To ignore how the country views itself in the light of its past achievements is like starting calculus without basic arithmetic.
It is a critical part of the equation and must be thoroughly understood if we are to get inside the Iranian mind.
Another important part of culture is religion. In 651 AD, when the country had been devastated by a 100-year war with the Byzantine Empire, their nationwas invaded by Arabs driven by a religious fervor to spread the new religion of Islam. The Iranians were defeated and, over time, most of them abandoned their Zoroastrian religion and converted to Islam, but even in this matter they have retained a significant national identity as they refused to accept the Sunni teachings. The Iranians are Shiites, whereas ninety percent of the world’s Muslim’s are Sunnis.
Historically, the Shiites have faced severe persecution from their “fellow” Muslims, much like the Orthodox or Protestants were persecuted by the Catholics. Rivers of blood were shed as this religious conflict morphed into military campaigns and war.
For centuries, the Iranians have been a ‘persecuted’ Shiite minority in a sea of Sunnis. This is the second key to understanding their national psychology. They are not only ethnically different from the nations around them – Arab and Turkic tribes – but they follow a different religion.
Finally, we must consider their relations with other states in the modern era. Early on, Iran’s natural resources, primarily petroleum, drew the attention of competing foreign powers. Russia, Great Britain and, to a lesser degree, the United States, all competed for influence andpower.
When, in 1953, the democratically elected president of Iran, Mosaddegh, moved to take greater control over the nation’s natural resources, the CIA orchestrated a coup to overthrow him at the behest of British Petroleum. The president was replaced by the Shah, a very oppressive ruler.
What lesson did Iran learn from this? If you try to exercise your right to self-determination through a democratically elected government, Western powers will bring you to your knees. The Iranians have never forgotten this. They felt, and justifiably so, that their rights and national sovereignty had been trampled underfoot. Indeed, would Americans be willing to quickly forgive and trust any foreign government if it had overthrown Jefferson and restored the King of England as our sovereign lord?
This is the proper context for viewing the events of 1979, when the Iranians overthrew their ‘King George.’ They stormed the American Embassy for revenge, to send a signal that they would not tolerate Western interference in their affairs. Unfortunately, Western support for the brutal Shah drove even modern Iranians into the arms of the mullahs led by Khomeini as he was the only one who had the courage to lead opposition to the Shah. In no insignificant way, the West was responsible for this development.
If we had supported government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ instead of playing the hypocrite, the Iranian people would have almost certainly been less radical and would have integrated into the community of nations more fully.
The West’s determination to have black gold on its own terms, even when it belongs to others, will always make enemies. To make matters worse, in an effort to oppose the radical mullahs, we supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 80s, thus confirming the suspicions of the Iranian people that the West was their enemy.
With these three simple and uncontested facts as a backdrop, let us ask a series of questions.
Number One: Is Iranian support for the Palestinians and the Lebanese through Hezbollah logical in this context? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The West demonstrated that it could not be trusted to exercise good faith unless the Iranians were willing to be subservient vassals, something a nation with such a proud heritage would never accept. The expansionist intentions of first imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union were always a clear threat. The Sunni nations surrounding them have historically been their enemies. Their list of allies grows thin.
Enter ostentatious support for the Palestinians coupled with opposition to Israel and the West, and suddenly they have millions of Muslims in the Middle East joining their fan club.
They needed friends and attempted to win them by helping those who had a grievance with the West, namely the Palestinians and Shiite Lebanese, and by developing relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One can hardly blame them for this.
Number Two: Is it illogical for the Iranians to desire a nuclear weapon? Absolutely not! See number one above. They have no natural allies and recent history has only served to emphasize their vulnerability. After all, they couldn’t prevent a coup by a foreign government on their own soil just half a century ago, or a spate of assassinations directed against nuclear scientists and chemists in recent years.
Add to this the fact that no nuclear power has ever been attacked by another nation state, and it is suddenly very logical for them to desire this deterrent. (Remember this is a thought experiment.
The Iranians deny claims that they are pursuing a nuclear weapon. They are voluntary signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, which Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel have refused to join. Each of these countries, like Iran, has a short list of allies or significant perceived threats to national security).
Number Three: Even if it were to pursue nuclear weapons, would a nuclear Iran pose a threat to Israel or world peace? Highly unlikely. Pakistan is a nuclear power and one of the most radical Sunni states in the world. They supported the Taliban and appear to have aided Bin Laden.
Yet, they have not launched an attack on Israel or any other country. Why?
For the same reason that the US and the USSR never did: MADD (Mutually Assured Destruction). North Korea was ruled by an unstable, aggressive and deranged leader, yet they never used their nuclear weapons either. Israel is said to have several hundred nuclear bombs, enough to wipe out every Muslim country in the Middle East. Why would Iran attack Israel when it knows it would be totally annihilated?
Americans are very familiar with Iran’s opposition to the state of Israel. This anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from Ahmadinejad is probably sincere. But it could be just rhetoric used to curry favor with countries and peoples in the region.
So, let’s look for evidence beyond the rhetoric. Are the Iranian people anti-Semitic? Most Westerners believe they are and yet, surprisingly, the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel is found in Iran, where Jews have been treated much better than they are in the Arab countries.
In fact, the Iranian parliament reserves one seat for a Jew. Could it be that Iran mostly uses the ‘Israel’ issue to garner support in their corner of the globe from aggrieved Sunnis?
In spite of all this, I knew there are still some people who insist that Iran is mad enough to ignore MADD and that their religiously motivated leaders have some apocalyptic vision of the Mahdi’s return, which would spur them to use the bomb if they had it. Are these claims to be taken seriously? Perhaps, the Iranian leaders are crazy enough to try something like that, or maybe they are just blustering buffoons.
I don’t know how anyone could be sure. What is clear though, is that our current approach of imposing sanctions when other sovereign nations disagree with us has a dismal record of success. When has it ever worked? Cuba? North Korea? Syria? Iran? But then, therapy is for quitters, right?
Over the last twenty years, there have been numerous oppressive Middle Eastern regimes with human rights records just as dismal as that of Iran, e.g. Saudi Arabia, but they have been treated with respect. They have been cuddled and human rights abuses have been swept under the rug while every abuse by Iran makes headline news here in the West.
An objective and thoughtful person must wonder why.
Consider this: the Arab Sunnis hate and fear the Shiites, the Sunnis control most of the oil in the Middle East and wield far more “diplomatic” clout in the world than the Iranians ever could, due to their vast holdings of US Treasuries and willingness to grant the US military bases on their soil. Could this be the reason?
Is it not strange that US policy regarding Iran lines up exactly with the interests of the corrupt and intolerant Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf? Would anybody be surprised if the Sunnis were conspiring with the West against their ancient Shiite rivals?
This is, in fact, the unspoken truth of the Middle East. Last week, Leon Panetta made yet another announcement that Israel was months away from striking Iran. These announcements have been trotted out with surprisingly regularity over the last several years. Psychological warfare?
Then we have the constant talk about sanctions, US military options still being on the table, etc. etc. The rhetoric seems to be very two-sided.
If we talked to the Soviets and the Chinese during the Cold War, why is talking with the Iranians such a bad idea? Obama promised to do that very thing, so how did this vision get sidelined? What happened to his promise of foreign policy based on dialogue, free trade, and mutual respect?
Disclaimer: I am not a friend of Ahmadinejad, did not receive compensation of any kind from groups associated with the Iranian regime in return for writing this article, have no vested interest in companies doing business with Iran, am not shorting the stocks of US defense companies, and I believe that Israel has a right to self-determination and statehood in the land of her forefathers as well as the right to protect itself against all enemies foreign and domestic.
Above all, I love America, which is why I want us to return a foreign policy that is statesman-like instead of one that makes us look like a school-yard bully.
Luke Montgomery is an author (A Deceit to Die For) and researcher who lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can view his work at www.freedombunker.com and www.lukemontgomery.net or follow on Twitter at LukeM_author
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