Saturday, 11 December 2010


Persian civilization is one of the oldest on earth that has made invaluable creative contributions in many domains, from mathematics to textiles and fine cuisine. Despite cultural diffusion with Ottoman Turks and Arabs influencing Persian civilization, in many respects for the better, the country managed to maintain much of its rich cultural heritage and identity largely owing to the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) when Shia sect consolidated. Under the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925), Persia was reduced to a European, mostly British sphere of influence, along with most of Asia at the same time. Under the Qajar dynasty Persia fell into chronic external dependence and underdevelopment ensued as the country purchased finished goods from Europe that undercut its domestic production.

Interested in Iran for its oil and for strategic reasons as part of the Northern Tier (Greece, Turkey, Iran) against the USSR, the US under Truman continued the European sphere of influence foreign policy from 1953 when the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mossadeq until the Shah’s fall in 1979. The history of US-Iran cold war dates to the revolution of 1979 and the holding of US hostages until President Carter was out of the White House.

In the last three decades the US has been conducting an intense cold war and counter-insurgency operations against Iran. An anachronistic theocracy with policies that most people would characterize authoritarian, anti-women, and anti-pluralistic, the Iranian regime is a matter for its own people to decide. That the US found itself in a broader cold and hot war with Islamic nations (Iraq and Afghanistan) has only exacerbated its relations with Iran, which has inadvertently benefited from the US wars in the region and has used the US threat to retain the theocratic regime.

The issues that the US holds against Iran include but not limited to:
a) Iran is not a “democratic” country. Absolutely true! But neither are any of its neighbors, and that includes Israel where “democracy” is limited to followers of the Jewish faith. Is the US interested in supporting Iranian sovereignty and promoting democracy, or in integrating the Iranian economy under America’s aegis?
b) Iran is anti-US and it agitates in a number of countries in the region. Of course that is true. But so are many other nations in the region that do not suffer numerous US-sponsored UN sanctions or the impact of a US Cold War and covert operations. The US wants to prevent Iran from becoming the hegemonic regional power, while strengthening Israel and Arab allies like Saudi Arabia.
c) Iran does not respect human rights. That is also true. But are Iran’s neighbors that much better in observing human rights? Does the US have a clean record in this domain according to Amnesty International? Is cold war the way to persuade Iran to improve its human rights record, and is the US interested in promoting human rights or in using the issue to rally public support to punish Iran until it caves to Washington’s demands?
d) Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The evidence certainly points in that direction. Israel already possesses nukes and so does Pakistan that has been “playing” the US not just in the last decade but for a very long time. If Iran was in the American sphere of influence, would nukes and missiles be an issue? Was militarization an issue when the Shah was in power and cooperating with Israel and buying US weapons?
e) Iran has obtained long-range missiles from North Korea (Chinese-made) that could reach Moscow. But if Moscow is not exercised over this issue, why is Washington? US military intelligence estimates that it would be at least a year before Iran develops nukes in their primary phase, and probably five years before they can be operational to the degree that they can threaten Israel which has nuclear deterrence.
Iran is surrounded by hostile neighbors largely because it is a question of who determines the regional balance of power, but also because of US diplomatic influence in the Middle East. China and Russia are backing Iran not because they love its regime or its people, but because it is in their interest to use Iran to counterbalance US regional influence. Given that diplomacy and sanctions have not worked, the US it seems has raised the stakes in the last couple of years.

In January 2010, an Iranian nuclear physicist was killed in a bombing. The opposition charged that Iranian government killed him, while Tehran accused US and Israel working with the exiled opposition. Then there was the embarrassing story that broke in July 2010 about nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, apparently abducted and claiming that CIA offered him many millions to reveal Iran’s nuke secrets and to stay in US. In addition there are periodic stories of Iranian government computers malfunctioning owing to hackers that break in to disrupt the nuke program.

On 29 November 2010 the western press reported that an Iranian nuclear physicist was killed in a bombing in Tehran, and a second scientist injured. On 8 December 2010 another bombing incident in a copycat manner targeted Iranian scientists. These attacks are the latest in a string of apparent or suspected plots against Iranian nuclear scientists.

When elected, President Obama promised a diplomatic solution to end the cold war with Iran. One month before the Amiri went public with the story that CIA offered him $50 million to stay in US, Obama lobbied the UN to slap another round of sanctions–the fourth–on Iran. No progress is expected in a diplomatic solution, and Iran is simply buying time and trying to line up allies among them China and Russia to counter-balance the US and its allies. Last week Tehran announced that it has mined and enriched its own uranium yellow-cake. The announcement came after the death of a scientist killed by a bomb and one injured.
Iran has lived under UN sanctions and a US cold war for three decades and it has made many mistakes in its foreign policy made worse by hyperbolic and often racist anti-Semitic rhetoric by officials in the highest levels of government. Iran is feeling the pain of US pressure, but primarily for domestic political reasons, devout followers of the theocratic regime on one side, and secular reformers on the other, Tehran cannot appear that it is caving in to the US.

The US desperately needs vision and leadership to launch a diplomatic initiative as Obama had promised but never delivered. While a surgical attack on Iranian nuke facilities has always been on the table, it will not take place unless the US has the green light from China and Russia. But even if that scenario were to be realized, what are the chances that Iran would fall into the US sphere of influence as it was under the Shah? The best the US can hope for is a diplomatic solution under which Iran pledges constructive co-existence and cooperation with the US in areas of mutual interest.

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