In the January 17 Democratic Presidential Debate, Senator Bernie Sanders was questioned about the future of American-Iranian relations. He responded, “What we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran…Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.” His words sound odd compared to the general Republican consensus that Iran should be obliterated, which aligns with his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s slightly more delicate wording: “This proposal…breaks with the sober and responsible diplomatic approach that’s been working for the United States.” But Sanders seems slightly more in touch with the current realities of US foreign policy. The day before the debates saw the implementation of the largest change in American policy towards Iran since that country’s revolution in 1979. After complying with the conditions of President Obama’s nuclear treaty, Iran was for the first time in thirty-four years granted reprieve from some of the crippling sanctions imposed on its people by the US and the European Union.
The President’s move is far from benevolent. It is a condition of a treaty written with the sole purpose of capping Iran’s influence in the Middle East to guarantee the authority of the US puppet regimes in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey (all three of which have long histories of violating international law in regards to human rights that far exceed the worst accusations levied at Iran). It is also a tool of coercion in Obama’s illegal war in Syria, which is not a campaign against terrorist atrocities as much as it is a life-wasting display of power in a long-running game with Putin’s Russia, which has historically been Iran’s strongest ally. Like the recent deal with Cuba that Sanders invoked, the reduction of sanctions in Iran will allow Western capitalists to move into relatively unexploited territory and profit at the long-term expense of the Iranian people. And unlike the European Union, President Obama has left many of his sanctions in place. Regardless, this is the first move towards normalization and nonaggression in relation to a country of nearly 80 million.
While the establishment has long depicted Iran as a rogue terrorist state bent on the destruction of Israel and the US, any fair historical analysis will find the exact opposite to be true. To celebrate the lifted sanctions, let’s look back at the past sixty years of the American government’s illegal efforts to undermine the people of Iran for profit.
Unfortunately for the Iranian people (who are historically called Persians), they happen to live on one of the world’s largest reserves of oil, a fact discovered by British prospectors in 1901. Persia’s Shah, Mozaffar ad-Din, whose excessive personal tastes had landed him in massive debt, was happy to sell all drilling rights and profits to the Anglo Persian Oil Company, the predecessor to today’s British Petroleum. The Shah and his imperial allies, however, failed to account for massive discontent and surging nationalism in the Persian working class, and in 1906 a nonviolent revolution established a democratic parliament in the country. Afraid that a government by the people would nationalize oil revenue, the British and their allies in the Russian Empire aided Mozaffar’s son, Mohammed Ali Shah, in a bombardment of the parliament and execution of nationalist leaders in 1908. This plunged Persia, now renamed Iran, into a decade of civil war, during which British forces occupied the western half of the country, which ended with the reinstatement of the monarchy and a complete British monopoly on Iranian oil. In 1941, Mohammad Reza became Shah after helping the British overthrow his father, who was considering modifying the oil deal.
American influence came into play shortly thereafter. The post-World War II era saw the decline of the British Empire and the rise of nationalist states in their former holdings and protectorates. Iran was no exception; the early 50s brought a massive liberalization of Iranian politics and the rise of a secular socialist government under the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, while the imperial puppet Shah’s power rapidly decreased. But Iran’s massive oil reserves made it an especially valuable holding to the British, and when Mossadegh moved to nationalize oil profits to fund infrastructure and social programs, he represented a major threat. Recently declassified documents prove what the Iranian people has asserted for decades: the British government, to protect their hold on Iranian oil, turned to America’s newly formed CIA for help, and in exchange for permission for American companies to drill in Iran, the CIA delivered.
The Shah, who received millions in personal payoffs from the CIA, dismissed Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and declared martial law in the country. The CIA also paid the heads of several Iranian crime syndicates to incite massive pro-Shah riots throughout the capital, and trained a paramilitary force to terrorize supporters of Mossadegh and Iranian leftist parties, resulting in hundreds of deaths. For the next twenty-four years Mohammad Reza Shah ruled Iran with an iron fist, with widespread torture and murder of dissidents coming to a head on the “Black Friday” of September 8, 1977, when government troops massacred at least 88 (a death toll provided by the Shah’s own government; other estimates are in the hundreds or even thousands) nonviolent protesters of the regime assembled in Jaleh Square. The next year saw an increase in protests and in violent crackdowns, and in January 1979, the Shah fled first to the American puppet dictatorship in Egypt and then to New York.
The monarchy was replaced by the religious fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran, overwhelmingly supported by a populace that considered American intervention a threat to their faith and a cause of their oppression. Under Shi’ite cleric and Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, the new government undeniably violated international law in their executions of several thousand political and religious prisoners (though these were certainly smaller in scale that the massacres occurring simultaneously in Guatemala and Indonesia under US-backed regimes). The US was more concerned by the expulsion of American oil companies from Iran, and by the 52 Americans held hostage by Iranian students in the former US Embassy in protest of the asylum the US offered the Shah. President Jimmy Carter levied the first sanctions on Iran in 1979, outlawing any trade or transaction with the country and freezing over $100 billion in state assets with the deeply misguided goal of overthrowing the government by starving the poor. These sanctions would only increase for the next thirty-six years. These sanctions, which immediately caused unemployment and poverty to skyrocket in Iran, were nothing compared to what the United States would bring in the next decade.
Saddam Hussein, the fascist dictator of Iraq, saw the revolution in his neighbor as an opportunity, and in 1980 launched an invasion of Iran to energize his Sunni Arab populace in a nationalist extermination of Shi’ite Persians. Hussein, of course, was strategically incompetent and lacked the military resources to succeed in such a campaign. But the new American President, Ronald Reagan, and his Special Envoy to the Middle East, the once and future master of terrorism Donald Rumsfeld, saw potential in Hussein’s invasion. Through nominally private organizations, the Reagan administration smuggled billions of taxpayer dollars illegally to the Hussein government to cover the expenses of the invasion. Reagan moved US warships into the Red Sea to provide the Iraqi air force with tactical support. And in what is perhaps the greatest moment of irony in American foreign policy history, Donald Rumsfeld oversaw the development of chemical weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the same massive war crime that Rumsfeld himself would later pretend Iraq was committing so that George W. Bush could invade Iraq to steal their oil in 2003.
Despite its comic absurdity, the Iran-Iraq War was one of the most atrocious conflicts of the 1980s. The war killed around one million Iranians, most of them civilians targeted in bombing campaigns by the Iraqi air force using American bombs. Over fifty thousand of these people were tortured to death by chemical weapons banned globally since World War I that Iraq could not have accessed without American support (although it is worth noting that Saddam used most of his WMDs in his genocide of the Kurds in his own country, and also worth reminding the reader that he had no illegal weapons of any sort when the US invaded his country). The American military also committed direct criminal aggressions during the war; in 1988, an American missile cruiser shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing the 298 civilians on board, in what was apparently an accident (the US government has yet to apologize). The US Navy also targeted Iranian oil wells and the Iranian fleet in bombing raids that killed dozens, which seems small compared to the million Iranians killed by Iraq, but is huge compared to the 0 Americans ever killed by the Iranian government.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been one of Iran’s largest trading partners, the Clinton administration expanded the sanctions against Iran to include any firm in the world that purchased Iranian oil. This paralleled Clinton’s expansion of sanctions against Iraq, Cuba, Libya, and the Sudan, the only remaining regimes in the world to overtly defy the American economic hegemony; in all four of these instances, the sanctions had devastating effects on people already close to poverty but failed to shake the revisionist governments. The more liberal policies enacted by Ali Khamenei, who became the Supreme Leader of Iran after Khomeini’s death in 1989, largely protected the Iranian people from the mass starvation of Iraq and the Sudan through socialized health care and welfare (sponsored largely by the state-owned oil trade with China). But high employment, directly a result of the American-enforced isolation, increased anti-Western sentiments in the country.
In the early 2000s, it became clear that the Iranian government had developed a program to enrich uranium. The Iranian government maintains that its nuclear program exists solely for the purpose of energy production (right protected by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and has complied with international inspections of their plants since 2003 that have consistently reestablished Iran’s inability to develop a nuclear weapon. But the United States, as soon as the Iranian nuclear program became public, claimed that any Iranian nuclear program was a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPL) of 1968, which established the US as one of only five states allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Using its power as a permanent member the United Nations Security Council (a position that completely sabotages the UN’s entire mission of internationalist democracy, by the way), the US forced the passage of international sanctions against Iran, so that any country that traded with the Islamic Republic would be in violation of international law. Though China, India, and Japan continued limited trade with Iran, this move devastated the Iranian economy and was a leading factor in Iran’s submission to Obama’s nuclear deal, which permanently capped their uranium enrichment process.
For the United States to claim any authority on compliance to the NPL is absurd. It is the only country known to have broken the treaty after agreeing to its terms, an international crime punishable by the disbanding of government. India and Pakistan, two of the only countries not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, have both developed and continue to expand nuclear arsenals in their decades-long standoff against each other. The NPL demands signatories engage in an arms embargo with unauthorized nuclear powers; the US has done no such thing, supplying both countries with billions of dollars of weapons and even aiding India in accessing uranium. Under an unstable and often military-led government with ties to religious militant factions in India, Afghanistan, and their own country, Pakistan is possibly the closest thing to a nuclear rogue state of all time (North Korea, while similarly unpredictable, seems restrained by technological realities).
But more relevant to Iran is the American relationship with Israel’s nuclear program. There is a general consensus among experts (including former President Jimmy Carter) that Israel has for decades commanded a large nuclear arsenal, although this has never been acknowledged by active members of the Israeli or American governments. Israel is the only NPL non-signatory that has never submitted to inspections of its nuclear program by the UN, protected by its lone Security Council ally, the United States. Similarly, the US is the only signatory to the NPL which has refused to release its nuclear deals with another country; it is unclear whether the US provided Israel with technology to create weapons or even nuclear weapons themselves, either of which would be a major international crime, and the American refusal to disclose information suggest some modicum of guilt. Iran’s threat to Israel is generally cited by American and Israeli leaders as a reason to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; like 138 of the 188 countries in the United Nations, Iran has refused to recognize the American-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine, and has vocally and financially supported the Palestinian resistance. But unlike Iran, Israel has a long history of invading other countries on false pretences (the Six Day War in 1967, the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq, or the invasions of Lebanon, not to mention aggression in occupied Palestine), and the Israeli government has outlined specific invasion threats towards Iran several times in the past decade. Israel’s illegal nuclear program, only possible through American protection, is a far greater threat to the Iranian people than any Iranian threat towards Israel.
While Iran remains at the top of the United States’ “State Sponsors Of Terrorism” list, America has actually been sponsoring and often actually participating in terrorism in Iran for decades: the economic terrorism of unfair sanctions that target civilians, the military terrorism of Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion, and the political terrorism of Mohammad Reza Shah’s brutal totalitarian regime. And 62 years of American terrorism in Iran have been inspired by nothing more than the interests of American oil companies. While the new path towards normalization will help the Iranian people, we must not forget the circumstances that brought it about. The lessons of our Cold War with Iran are straightforward. There is no fundamentalism as dangerous as fundamentalist capitalism, there is no terrorism as destructive as imperial terrorism, and there is no rogue state as obstinately opposed to the will of the people of the world as the United States.
For those of you who are not offended by strong language, I found this surprisingly well researched piece that sums up this essay with much more entertaining graphics: http://thinkbynumbers.org/military/war/iran-terrorism-history/