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Clouds Over Iran

Two chapters in de Bellaigue’s book make especially painful reading for Americans. One is called “Gas.” It recounts the terrible suffering that many veterans of the Iran–Iraq War, fought between 1980 and 1988 at the cost of more than one million lives, still face as a result of poison gas attacks that Saddam Hussein launched against Iran. Those attacks began in 1982. The next year, President Reagan sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to Baghdad. His mission was not to reprimand the Iraqi dictator, but to encourage him. Soon afterward, de Bellaigue writes, “the Reagan administration allowed increased sales of US equipment to Iraq, including sixty helicopters for ‘agricultural use.’”

In 1984 a United Nations report made it unmistakably clear that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran. Four years later, he did the same against Kurdish rebels in the Iraqi town of Halabja. There was no serious protest from Washington. Fifteen years later, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Hussein’s use of these weapons in the 1980s suddenly became an issue. President Bush repeatedly cited it as proof of what a monster Hussein was. His show of indignation would have been more persuasive if the United States had protested the gassing when it took place.

It did not do so because at the time of the Iran–Iraq War, the United States was Saddam Hussein’s friend. He was a friend mainly because the United States saw his enemy, Iran, as its own enemy. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis that followed, Americans were eager to hurt Iran any way they could. The long and fervent American embrace of Saddam Hussein was motivated largely by American hostility to Iran. It was another example, not the first or last, of how enmity between Washington and Tehran has had terrible consequences for both countries during the last quarter-century.

In another chapter, de Bellaigue writes of “Parastu.” His subject, Parastu Forouhar, is the daughter of two Iranians who devoted their lives to the cause of democracy. In their youth they supported the most formidable Iranian leader of that era, Mohammad Mossadegh, who served as prime minister from 1951 until 1953, when he was overthrown in a coup organized by the CIA. During the long years that followed, they resisted the repressive rule of Mohammad Reza Shah. Darioush Forouhar, Parastu’s father, spent sixteen years in jail for opposing the Shah’s regime. Like most Iranians, he and his wife welcomed the Islamic Revolution, but later turned against it. Then, on the horrific night of November 22, 1998, agents of that revolution murdered them in their house. A portrait of Mossadegh looked down on them as they were slashed to death:

They killed Darioush Forouhar because he made no secret of his belief that religion should be separate from government…. On 4 January 1999, under pressure from the president, the Intelligence Ministry announced “the involvement in this affair of a handful of irresponsible, evil-thinking, deviant and obstinate figures within the ministry.” …Then, in the spring, Niyazi, the military prosecutor who had been put in charge of the case, made this announcement: “In spite of the surveillance under which he was placed, Saeed Emami, one of the pivotal masterminds of the murders, committed suicide during bathing period on Saturday in the detention center, by swallowing hair remover.”

These days, Parastu Forouhar makes pilgrimages not to Shiite holy cities like Qom or Mashad but to the village of Ahmadabad, where Mossadegh lived after his overthrow and where he died in 1967 and is buried. Other Iranian democrats do the same. Many more would do so if they did not fear retribution from the Islamic regime, which hates the idea of secular democracy that Mossadegh still represents. The coup against Mossadegh in 1953 was the first the CIA ever carried out. It began a long series of American attempts to bring about “regime change” in countries around the world, many of which had terrible long-term results. This one helped to create today’s angry and repressive Iran.

Mossadegh was, in de Bellaigue’s words, “an eccentric but brilliant nationalist.” He was leading Iran toward democracy, but in the climate of the cold war, powerful Americans took his nationalism as a threat. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a tragically short-sighted decision to overthrow him and place the Shah back on the Peacock Throne.

Americans who now wish to intervene in Iran would do well to ponder the results of this last intervention. It imposed a repressive regime against which Iranians finally rebelled. That brought the mullahs to power and propelled Iran and the United States to their present bitter standoff.


This standoff is not an immutable fact of international life. European nations have engaged Iran in a dialogue that has already led it to accept limited inspections of its nuclear facilities. The United States has stood apart from this dialogue. Instead it has sought to isolate Iran, even refusing to endorse Iran’s application for entry into the World Trade Organization, while endorsing the applications of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Caught up in its contempt for the idea of negotiated compromise, the Bush administration seems unable to concede that Iran, like every other country, has legitimate concerns about threats to its economic and political security. Its most potent enemy in the world, the United States, and its most potent enemy in the Middle East, Israel, have large nuclear arsenals. It hears periodic threats from powerful Americans, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and is the object of harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Under the current system of sanctions, the Bush administration recently declared that eight Chinese companies could no longer trade with the United States or buy controlled technology from American firms because they have helped Iran develop its ballistic missile program. This decision showed a laudable interest in controlling Iran’s military buildup. In a world full of covert arms dealers and profit-hungry proliferators, however, sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran or any other country from obtaining whatever weapons it wants.

If American sanctions were intended to cut Iran off from world trade, they have failed. European and Japanese companies are deeply invested in Iranian energy projects. Russia and Pakistan are supplying Iran with weapons and nuclear technology. China has begun buying large amounts of its oil. American companies find ways to circumvent the sanctions. Among them is a Halliburton subsidiary, Halliburton Products & Services Ltd., which is registered in the Cayman Islands and has its headquarters in Dubai. It is bidding for a lucrative contract to develop an Iranian gas field called South Pars, said to be the biggest in the world.

There are still some in the United States who hope that Iranians will rise up and overthrow the mullahs. They even imagine that American intervention, in the form of either a full-scale invasion or air strikes against nuclear facilities, might set off such an uprising. That is an illusion. Iranians learned a bitter lesson after they overthrew the Shah: that no matter how bad life may be, a revolution can always make it worse. They will not start another one.

That leaves the options of military intervention or diplomatic engagement. The modern history of nations as different as South Korea, Russia, and South Africa suggests that when the United States engages countries politically and economically, they move toward democracy. Countries that the United States treats as pariahs, like Cuba, do not. By subjecting Iran to constant denunciation and unilateral sanctions, American leaders are making the transition to democracy there more difficult.

One of my Iranian friends, a graduate student in his twenties, recently wrote this to me:

The US government is helping Iran’s government with its continuing hostility…. Every time the State Department or White House speaks about human rights conditions in Iran, our government uses this against reformers. It says that reformers are supported by the United States. Many reformers are in jail because of these accusations. Many newspapers have been closed. The United States should be concerned about Iran’s problems, but this policy is hurting the reform movement. Non-intervention is the best help the United States can give to Iran’s people.

This is no longer a radical or marginal view. Last year a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by two prominent members of the American foreign policy establishment, former CIA director Robert Gates and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, recommended “a revised strategic approach to Iran.” In their report they concluded:

It is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the “democracy deficit” that pervades the Middle East…. A basic statement of principles, along the lines of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and China, could be developed to outline the parameters for US– Iranian engagement, establish the overarching objectives for dialogue, and reassure relevant domestic political constituencies on both sides.4

There is every possibility that in time, Iran will return to the democratic course from which the United States so violently forced it in 1953. If Americans allow events there to proceed at their own pace, they will finally see the result for which they hope. It is also the result most Iranians want: an Iran that respects the will of its people and helps to stabilize a dangerously unstable region. By lending their support and power to the European negotiating effort, Americans might reach a “grand bargain” with Iran that would address not only the nuclear issue but also concerns about human rights, terrorism, and Middle East security. Without active American participation, these negotiations are unlikely to achieve anything important.

On June 17, Iranians will elect a new president. Various politicians and factions are maneuvering for position in advance of the election. Since the reactionary Council of Guardians will use its power to veto candidates, there will be few if any who will arouse enthusiasm among voters. In fact, the election is likely to deepen the regime’s crisis of legitimacy. This crisis may continue for years, but that does not mean it cannot be resolved.

The thirteenth-century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most brilliant figures in the rich history of Persian literature, had boundless confidence in people’s capacity for change. In one of his poems, he wrote:

It’s good to leave each day behind,
Like flowing water, free of sadness.
Yesterday is gone and its tale told.
Today new seeds are growing.

Zealots who hold power in Washington and Tehran are not known for their interest in poetry, but they might ponder that verse. For the United States to continue treating Iran as a pariah will produce no positive result. Seeking to destabilize it will intensify its leaders’ sense of isolation. Attacking it will turn its remarkably pro-American population into America-haters once again. Military interven-tion could set off a wave of patriotic indignation that will solidify the mullahs’ regime rather than weaken it, and would probably set the cause of democracy back a generation. “Regime change” would probably not even turn Iran off its nuclear course, since most Iranians of all persuasions agree that their country has at least as much right to nuclear power as Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Treating Iran as a member of the world community with its own set of reasonable hopes and fears, however, might lead it toward responsibility, peace with its neighbors, and perhaps even democracy.

Such an outcome would hardly be a foregone conclusion. Issues that divide the two countries are serious, and ideologues on both sides have invested great amounts of psychic and political energy in the idea of continuing confrontation between Washington and Tehran. But, as de Bellaigue has written, there is no more promising option than serious dialogue.

It is in the urgent interest of the United States to turn Iran away from a course that will endanger many nations, including Iran itself. To do so, it must recognize that Iran has genuine concerns of its own, and address them. This could remove other obstacles that have prevented Iran from joining the world community. If the US acts wisely, it might even turn Iran into the kind of partner it so desperately needs in the Middle East.

—February 23, 2005

  1. 4

    See the report, “Iran: Time for a New Approach” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004), pp. 2 and 5.

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