Trying to Understand It All

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.
— Harry Truman

I’ve become interested in Iran lately. For personal reasons. I have a new student in my ESL class who arrived recently in America by way of Switzerland and Tehran. He’s a religious and political refugee with nothing but contempt for the Islamic fundamentalists who dominate his country. Each time I’ve chatted with him, he has spoken nostalgically of the days under the Shah. I shake my head knowingly and listen with rapt attention, but my fuzzy understanding of his country’s history is formed mostly by childhood memories of the hostage crisis and by the snippets of wisdom I glean from Kiarostami, Panahi, Makhmalbaf, and those other brilliant Iranian filmmakers.

It’s a start, though. When he mentioned that his last job there had been building an apartment complex on the outskirts of the city, I said that Kiarostami’s films make those mountains look like the most beautiful place on earth. His eyes lit up, then he told me about the hours and hours he had spent hiking and rock climbing there.

With my new friend in mind, I read with great interest H.D.S. Greenway’s review of All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer. In “The Iran Conspiracy,” Greenway offers a usable introduction to the political and economic rationale for the CIA’s involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh’s secular, nationalist government. The parallels with the current situation are impossible to ignore.

In the current age of American unilateralism and preemptive military interventions, it is hard to remember that just after World War II America still stood for something quite different in the Middle East. Although the US emerged from the war as “the leader of the free world,” the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese still ruled over vast empires. To many colonized people the United States was identified with Wilsonian idealism and anticolonialism. . . .

In the early 1950s Stephen Penrose, a president of American University of Beirut, wrote: “Until recently American enterprise in the Middle East has been almost entirely non-governmental, an important difference from most other national patterns. Americans have never been seen as colonizers or subjugators and it is hard even now for most Arabs to conceive of them as such.”

When President Bush first mentioned the “Axis of Evil,” I nearly choked, knowing that, in doing so, he was drawing a line in the sand — a line that would re-establish a Cold War-like polarity and dominate foreign policy and political discourse (and eliminate nuance in the process). I’m only now beginning to understand, however, just how intimately the Cold War and Middle East have been bound.

The war in Korea changed America’s outlook and policies as surely as did the attack on September 11 in the current administration. The invasion from the north came in June of 1950, and convinced the United States that the Western nightmare of expanding, militant communism was coming true. The Korean War coincided with the growing crisis over Iran’s nationalization of its oil industry, and had the effect of narrowing Washington’s differences with the British at Iran’s expense. Korea played into the American decision to reverse its early opposition to an anti-Mossadegh coup. Coincidentally, the Korean War ended in July 1953, while [Kermit] Roosevelt was plotting his coup. . . .

In many ways America’s obsession with terrorism since September 11 is an echo of its obsession with communism fifty years ago. Today the United States and Britain claim they must occupy Iraq because of the threat of terrorism. Officially, both say they want to get out as soon as possible; but ideologues in the Pentagon dream of Iraq advancing America’s interests, and Israel’s too, in the Persian Gulf as the Shah once did. Talk of a new American imperialism is becoming fashionable among conservative academics, some of them in power. They forget the lesson of British experience, which is that when a people will no longer accept it, foreign domination is almost impossible to maintain. Kinzer begins his book with an apt quote from President Truman: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”