What You Should Think About Iran

“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one — but no one at all — can tell you what to read and when and how.”

–Doris Lessing

False narratives thrive on oversimplification. Take the recent debate about Armenian history. The Presidential stance on a formal recognition of genocide in an old Turkish-Armenian conflict amounts to, “this could make the war more complicated, so we need to avoid it in order to support the troops.” Really?!? Supporting American soldiers in the field means denying genocide? If polled, would the men and women presently in harm’s way over there affirm that they wish genocide to be denied on their behalf?

Of course, the real irony here is that this relentless obsession with Iraq has placed the White House in the position of emulating the behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the American administration has not disputed the numbers or context of wholesale slaughter perpetrated against the Armenian people. Then again, Ahmadinejad’s own “Holocaust denial” was also less a dispute of historical facts and more a semantic ploy. Neither denial deserves praise, yet both seem only to strengthen their perpetrators’ popularity within their own increasingly narrow base of support.

What is real, and what people really say, often is not reflected accurately in public perception. In some instances this is due to quirks of human nature, commercial media, or a particular culture. Yet in some cases it is because political operatives succeed in popularizing misinformation for the express purpose of preventing the public from understanding what is wrong with a particular policy or proclamation. For example, the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech told a tale of Iran from the late 1970s. For quite some time up until that speech was given, Iran was a much different place. Government censors exercised a light touch, principles of secular governance were broadly popular, and a wave of liberal reformers were set to take power in the next election.

Frightened people look to strong authority figures for comfort. The unprovoked outburst of rhetorical hostilities from the world’s lone superpower was cause enough revitalize religious extremists at the core of the last Iranian revolution. A traumatized Iranian citizenry largely acquiesced to a new wave of censorship, the disqualification of many reform candidates from pending elections, and even a resurgence of militant nationalism. Deep down, an overwhelming majority of Iranians long for the liberty and prosperity of a non-theocratic republic. Yet when warnings about the Great Satan are validated by actual threats of wrath and ruin delivered courtesy of Uncle Sam, it is hard for Iranian progressives to motivate any sort of actual progress.

Just over the border is a nation-sized chamber of horrors illustrating why the United States is so damn scary to people in nations like Iran. Against all reason and tradition, American aggression has transformed Iraq into a seething cauldron of raw violence. The idea that the United States might rain down fire upon Iran, or even invade outright, should seem ridiculous to all concerned. Because instead it seems plausible, the usual nonsense that anti-American nationalists around the world always spout is suddenly much more sensible. Supporting theocracy and rapid military growth may not actually be wise choices for Iranian citizens at present, but the threat from the U.S. provides some reasonable ground to support the right wing of Iranian politics.

To truly understand how all this came to be, it is important to look back some distance in Iranian history. Recognizing that foreign nations were extracting tremendous wealth from Iranian oil fields while paying virtually nothing more for the privilege, President Mohammad Mosaddeq plead with the United Nations for an opportunity to renegotiate petrochemical rights. Rather than succeed in connecting the people of Iran in some reasonable way with a share of the proceeds from extraction of their nation’s natural wealth, President Mosaddeq would soon find himself deposed and imprisoned.

His only crime was to do as Hugo Chavez has done more recently — kick out foreign profiteers in order to see to it that the people of his nation could partake meaningfully of the wealth generated by pumping oil from public land. While Chavez merely faces a campaign of demonization in American media, Mosaddeq and the Iranian people saw and end to healthy democracy in that nation. Some might say that the Shah who took command in his place was a truer reflection of what the people wanted. Of course, propaganda like that is flatly contradicted by the end of his reign.

Americans too old to remain in the “young adult” demographic probably have clear memories of the Iranian hostage crisis. Public outrage at the role the United States played in installing the Shah meant that the popular revolution to overthrow him was rife with anti-American hostility. By sheer force of numbers, rebels were able to seize control of the American embassy. Fifty-two workers and guards were taken hostage and held for 444 days. This was not some random burst of outrage or a question of “hating freedom” as the sitting President might contend. Americans were targeted because of overt support for the coup to install the Shah.

Of course, some people became very rich from all this mess. That does not justify it in the least, but it may have justified the act in the minds of those involved with it. The Shah’s government continued to support the depletion of Iranian oil fields with little more than token compensation to the nation or its people. In essence, his position as head of state was one of the largest corporate kickbacks in history — his reward for making this form of economic rape possible.

American manipulation of Iranian government is only one of many complaints fueling anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Funding the Israeli Defense Force without so much as an unkind word for their most brutal operations also generates ill will. That dovetails with a grave miscommunication that convinced Saudi royalty being the U.S. would vote against a UN resolution to place much of inhabited Palestine under the control of the newly formed state of Israel (our ambassador did just the opposite.) We may talk about being in favor of democracy and freedom. Yet in the Middle East our reputation for inflicting unwanted regimes on harmless, and virtually helpless, people results from a track record of doing precisely that.

Even one amazingly successful liberation from tyranny would not offset the installation of so many autocrats. Heck, our government still remains fiercely loyal to the leaders of Saudi Arabia — a 21st century monarchy where crime and punishment is largely a matter of draconian religious law. In order to truly understand Iran, I believe it is best to make some effort to understand how the people of Iran see us. Some do understand America’s core principles and our history of championing freedom in the abstract. Still, most Iranians probably understand better than the average American just how much our government has done to promote oppression in the name of waging the Cold War . . . and sometimes for no better purpose than to increase profits among a few well-connected energy companies.

If we do not become entangled in the misrepresentations espoused by White House foreign policy “experts” who have consistently revealed themselves to be detached from any sort of underlying reality, we can begin to reach for some underlying reality of our own. There we find the people of 21st century Iran well aware of the crossroads at which they stand. Most wish to walk the path of civil liberties with a political process open to all ideologies and organizations. Yet that path remains barred by giant American sabres, rattling with so much sound and fury. It was entirely predictable that our belligerence would instigate and perpetuate the heavy political censorship of newspapers, television, and books inside Iran.

The people of Iran will not surrender to the terror of a threatening superpower anymore than the people of the United states would surrender to the terror of Al Qaeda. However, they would make many choices in harmony with George W. Bush’s stated goal of democratizing the region — if only they were given enough respite from American threats to start voting more out of hope and less out of fear. History reveals with surprising clarity just how much worse outcomes are when the politics of a nation become stuck in panic mode.

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