Terra Firma

There was a Persian nationalist, there was a fading empire, and then, there was the CIA...

The deal (interim of course) between Iran and P5+1 (U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany) bodes well for the future of U.S-Iran relations. That is, if they choose to make it comprehensive in the six-month window they have. Iran has agreed to stop any enrichment above five per cent. It has also agreed to dilute the enrichment it has conducted at 20 per cent.

However, the concessions it has been offered, though substantial, are surely not enough to prop up its tottering economy. The Guardian has reported that over $4 billion in Iranian oil sales from frozen accounts would be released. This apart, restrictions on its trade in gold, petrochemicals, car and plane parts would be suspended. However, the real proof of the West's true intentions would come when it is time to end oil and banking sanctions against Tehran.

With the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia - who fear a real shift in the balance of power in the region - countries are likely to be relieved and relaxed when such a thaw emerges. Overall, the approach of the current Iranian administration and the U.S.’ reaction to it, has come as a refreshing contrast to the maximalist positions adopted by the two earlier.

Hoping that talks finally yield a deal that mark the dawn of greater stability in Iran-U.S. ties, we need to analyse what can be done to take them further forward.

Six months is a window of the sort that we haven’t had on the nuclear question in a long time. What can the administration get through before it closes? Kerry said on CNN that it would be “exploring and testing … [and] we do that with eyes absolutely wide open". He also went on to add " none of this is based on trust".

Trust involves recognition

Despite the recognition of the need for a thaw, the ‘Death to America’ day - the day on which, in 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was besieged by Iranian Islamist students and 52 diplomats held hostage for 444 days - was observed recently.

This might not stop anytime soon. The West has to recognise the wounds inflicted by it upon a proud nation - an inheritor of the great Persian civilisation - and take steps to reconcile the past with the present. Only a spirit of reconciliation can lift U.S.-Iran relations further.

Monday, August 19, 2013 marked an important day in Iran-U.S. relations. It was on this day, 60 years ago, that a CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and brought a West-backed caudillo Shah Reza Pahlavi to power.

This anniversary was different. For the first time since the coup, the CIA admitted to its role, though it was well-known even before. A series of declassified CIA documents, >published by the U.S. national security archive at George Washington University, admitted that the military coup was carried out “under CIA direction” as an act of “U.S. foreign policy”. It went on to add that it was “conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”. The statement is part of a previously excised section from CIA’s history titled The Battle for Iran.

The documents are said to include a draft internal history of the coup. It is titled “Campaign to install a pro-western government in Iran”. Its objective being the dethroning of Mossadegh through “legal or quasi-legal methods”. More importantly, it was aimed at bringing about a pro-West government under the Shah, with Fazlollah Zahedi as its Prime Minister.

In a crisp book review, Pankaj Mishra, >reviewing Christopher de Bellaigue’s Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup, traces the West’s imperialistic pursuits in Iran to the 19th century. 1891. That was the year in which Britain first tried exploiting Iran’s rich natural resources. That was also the year in which Iranian nationalism was born.

In 1890, Iran’s ruler Naser al-Din Shah Qajar had granted a tobacco concession to British businessman G.F. Talbot, in effect, a monopoly on its purchase, sale and export. Though this was cancelled because of a national boycott of tobacco, the seeds for Iranian nationalism had been sown.

Mossadegh, son of a high official working for the Shah, was nine at that time. The profound impression created by this incident made Mossadegh oppose “any concession to any foreign power”, says Homa Katouzian, an earlier English biographer of Mossadegh’s. This would surely have gone some way in making Mossadegh the fiercely proud nationalist he was. Perhaps other Iranians growing up in Iran at that time, victims of exploitation as they were, were as proud and as nationalistic in their approach to the imperialists.

Iran’s exploitation by world powers continued in the 20th century.It was always in the imperialists’ interests to keep Iran’s natural resources, most importantly its oil, under control . This was ensured in 1913, when, under a share purchase agreement for Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), it was decided that 84 per cent of profits would go to Britain. The key name associated with that agreement doesn’t come as any surprise - it was spearheaded by Her Majesty's most faithful servant, Winston Churchill.

The agreement was renegotiated successively. The end result was not. APOC, later renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, made profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951. However, only $624 of it remained in Iran. In essence, an “drain of wealth” from Iran [a term coined by Dadabhai Naoroji to denote the pillage of Indian resources by the British in the 19th century].

Iranians were excluded from its management and prevented from even inspecting its accounts. A similar approach would be followed by the U.S. in case of Saudi company Aramco later

In the post World War Two period, the sun had started setting on British empire; it was only a matter of time before nationalism of the common Iranian triumphed the skulduggery of Western politicos.

In Iran, nNation building, making Iranians productive and prosperous, had to involve securing their primary sources of revenue.

This would no doubt have to include equitable distribution of petro-profits. Mossadegh, someone de Bellaigue calls “the first and only Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains”, was appointed as Prime Minister in 1951.

In a truly radical move, he went on to nationalise Iran’s oil industry and this meant nationalising AIOC, the biggest overseas investment made by Her Majesty’s dwindling empire. Needless to say, Her Majesty could not digest this.

In a statement he made at the U.N. in October,1951, Mossadegh had said:

“Hundreds of millions of Asian people, after centuries of colonial exploitation, have now gained their independence and freedom.”

He correctly put it that following independence of colonies like India and Indonesia, British “occupation” of Iran was untenable.

How could Britain savour this? Yes, other countries were gaining independence. Yes, Iran’s petro-rich neighbours were nationalising their oil respective industries. But, AIOC was its biggest overseas investment. If it allowed Tehran to have its way, perhaps Baghdad would follow suit?

Though she was not an imperial superpower anymore British empire’s lieutenants at the AIOC could not fathom the disconnect between their imperialist ambitions and Iranians’ greater sense of sovereignty.

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ dictum was still playing in their minds. They felt Iranians should have been grateful as Britain had done a great favour by “finding and extracting oil”. Pretty “hide-bound and small-minded” (to quote Bellaigue), they even refused a U.S-backed proposal to share profits equally.

Mossadegh was extremely popular at that time, not only in Iran but also elsewhere. While the then U.S. ambassador said Mossadegh was supported by 95 per cent of Iranians, Time magazine anointed him with “person of the year” epithet.

The epithet was soon to become an epitaph.

Clement Attlee’s coming to power in 1946 was a positive development for India - he was sympathetic to Indian cause, unlike his predecessor Winston Churchill.

However, Churchill’s return to power in Britain in 1951 would prove to be disastrous for Iran. He co-opted the newly elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1953; Cold war gaining momentum, U.S. could not not see shades of “red” in Mossadegh’s democratically-elected government.

The British Foreign Office went into overdrive. It persuaded the U.S. Press, in effect, the U.S. public, of the need to get rid of Mossadegh. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal even compared him to Hitler. A rather remorseful Kennet Love [from NYT] would, later, go on to describe him as a “reasonable man” acting under “unreasonable pressures”.

Operation Ajax - name of the CIA/MI6 coup that brought a pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi to power - is a story of how a fledgling nation-state, striving to find its place as an equal with others, was subjugated to being a U.S. client; one of how the proponents of democracy became the champions of neo-imperialism; of how, in the Nasserist-era, a region that could have had an independent foreign policy of its own was reduced to being an oil basket for the West.

What Britain did to South Asia in the 19th century and Japan to East Asia in first half of the 20th century, U.S. would go on to do to West Asia in the second half of the 20th century.

Postmodernist imperialism

While studying imperialism, the definition I first came across was:

“Subjugation of a weaker country by a stronger country, either by fair or foul means, for political domination and/or economic exploitation.”

The definition acquired a new dimension that day. More than subjugation, it was skulduggery. The Means were entirely foul, the intentions unconscionable and the result subversive.

Iran helped U.S. in its efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after overthrowing Taliban in 2001, bringing about some optimism to the future of their relations. However, George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ comment made the optimism take the form of cynicism.

Iran was forthcoming under President Khatami, when Rouhani was chief nuclear negotiator. Election of the firebrand conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushed Iran to the right and the West took the opportunity to condemn it with resolutions, walkouts and sanctions - both Security Council backed and unilateral.

U.S. policy toward the West Asian region - which it self-righteously calls the Middle East - has only added to the cynicism and the sense of hurt pride in Iranians. The previous Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, had called American approach istikbar jahani (global arrogance). The situation has not changed much.

Heal the wounds

By all means, the West needs to stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. But a complete recalibration of ties needs to go back to the healing of wounds caused to Iranians in the last two centuries. A complete reconciliation needs to involve an acknowledgement of wrongs they have committed and an apology, along with compensation. A possible model to follow would be that of Germany in the Post WW-II period toward Israel.

No amount of aid or payment can completely cure Iranians from the Diplomatic and Military [now also financial in the form of sanctions] Weapons of Mass Destruction the West has unleashed on them in the last three and a half decades. However, an honest attempt at reconciliation and rebuilding can heal the wounds, bring about a sense of closure and help Iranians look toward building a prosperous future.

They can start by a dialogue between moderate leaders from both sides - quorum kept to a minimum but including the most erudite scholars. It could be a discussion moderated by someone having expertise in reconciliation, on the lines of the back-channel talks carried out by Kerry and co. that led to the recent deal. They can then proceed to draw a Constitution for constructive cooperation between the two countries based on which mutual mistrust can be progressively wiped out.

Of course, nuclear dialogue and other trade ties need to go on at the other end. But such a working relationship with Iran would be a short-lasting one. Deals would be successively derailed by any administration in Israel.

U.S. needs to convert a relationship of antagonism to a one marked by trust. Similar to its ‘special relationship’ with Israel, it would not be a bad idea if U.S. decides to have another special relationship in the region, in keeping with a recognition of the wrongs committed by it in the past and honest intentions.

To go on a limb, a friendly Iran to counter Israeli aggression and Saudi Arabia’s influence may even bode well for the Israel-Palestine peace process.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 3:02:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-terra-firma/article5394175.ece

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