Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
– John Adams
On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. The students, supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution which had recently deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took 52 hostages and held them for 444 days. President Jimmy Carter labored mightily to secure the release of the hostages, but to no avail. Due in no small part to the hostage crisis, and to an attempted rescue mission that ended in humiliating fashion in April of 1980, President Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in that year’s presidential election.
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The hostages were released minutes after President Reagan was sworn into office. It is widely believed that Reagan associates – most notably former president George H.W. Bush and former CIA Director William Casey – entered into secret negotiations with Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the election, so as to give the Reagan campaign a cudgel with which to beat President Carter. Such was the genesis of the term “October Surprise.” The parties allegedly involved have consistently denied this claim.
Whatever the truth may be regarding the manner in which the release of the hostages was secured, the truth remains: The Iran Revolution happened, the Shah fell and fled, Khomeini rose, the US Embassy was sacked, the hostages were taken and subsequently freed, and since that time the United States and Iran have been in a de-facto state of war. After the hostages were home and President Reagan was installed, sanctions were levied against Iran – against its currency, its weapons program, and most notably its nuclear program – which have shattered its economy.
On Thursday, it was announced that the United States and Iran have agreed in principle on a deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. In return, the ruinous sanctions that have been undermining the Iranian economy for decades would be repealed. It was reported by The Guardian and several other news outlets that, upon announcement of the deal in Tehran, spontaneous celebrations broke out, car horns blared, and people danced in the streets.
Good stuff all around, and very hopeful … but it does beg the question: How did we get here? Why have the US and Iran been blood enemies for so long? Why are we supposed to hate and fear them, and why are they supposed to hate and fear us? Exactly what the Hell happened?
The answer lies almost 65 years in the past. Remember when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of that pack of neo-cons gobbled up an ocean of TV time bloviating about “bringing democracy to the Middle East” in order to justify stealing Iraq’s oil while delivering a massive taxpayer-funded payday to the “Defense” industry? As it turns out, back in 1951, democracy came to the Middle East organically, all by itself, and we broke it across our knee because it didn’t suit our plans.
Mohammad Mosaddegh was the scion of a prominent Iranian family, schooled in leadership from birth, and educated in law in both Paris and Switzerland. After being democratically-elected Prime Minister in 1951, Mosaddegh sought to institute a number of secular progressive reforms: rent control, social security, greater rights and freedoms for citizens, and so forth.
Most importantly, however, Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry, which to that point had been controlled by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum. “With the oil revenues,” said Mosaddegh in June of 1951, “we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners.”
In short, Mosaddegh wanted to use his nation’s oil revenues – which, to that point, had flowed almost exclusively to the West – to improve infrastructure and education, and to shepherd his people into the 20th century with gusto. The West, however, would have no part of it. Very swiftly the wheels began turning, and a plot called Operation Ajax to overthrow Mosaddegh, hatched by British Intelligence and the CIA, was put in motion. After a period of violence and chaos, the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in August of 1953. He died in 1967.
After Ajax and a time of uncertainty, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – the last Shah – gained full control of Iran. The West’s oil industry barnstormed back into the country. Under the leadership of the Shah, Iran became impoverished, imprisoned and deranged until the 1979 Revolution and the ascendancy of Khomeini sent Pahlavi fleeing into the night. The hostages were taken. In the aftermath, the US tapped its ally – Saddam Hussein of Iraq – to assist in pressuring Iran, and so Iraq declared a war against Iran that lasted eight years. During that war, the US supplied Iraq with weapons of mass destruction to be used against Iran.
The rest, as they say, is history. The overthrow of Mosaddegh by the West, along with serial meddling in the region, served to establish an iron-clad distrust of the United States in Iran, which fed US distrust of Iran, and the cycle has been spinning like a clockwork now for more than 35 years.
As you, dear reader, encompass the shouting and snorting of politicians opposed to this new Iran agreement, as you encompass Israeli PM Netanyahu railing against it in the Congressional chamber, as you wrap your mind around reports that Israel spied on the US-Iran talks and supplied intelligence to congressional Republicans for the purpose of subsuming the negotiations, remember these truths.
The violently repressive behavior of Iran’s government – towards women, the LGBTQ community, and others – is monstrous. The government’s support for international terrorism is equally unconscionable. This is not up for debate. However, it is a government of our deliberate creation, baked in an oven of deceit, treachery and greed for more than sixty years.
The people of Iran are not their government; the roofs of Tehran are peppered with covert satellite dishes, through which people pull in ex-pat broadcasts from outside the country that lampoon the mullahs, the Ayatollah, and the Iranian leadership in general. These are, by far and away, the most popular shows in the country. The people are not represented by the leadership, and perhaps with this agreement, the true beginnings of change have been unleashed.
This deal – this loosening of the ice that chokes US-Iran relations – is a glimpse of the future. A nation that would have been our democratic ally has been our sworn enemy for decades, thanks to the mendacity of a few powerful people who take pleasure, and profit, from playing chess with other people’s lives. This must change, and perhaps that change has finally begun.
Here’s to the future.