Well, I guess I’ve procrastinated long enough. I think it’s time to talk about Iran. I’ve tried to ignore the topic as if it would go away, but of course that’s not happening. Give me the Arab world or Israel any day. But Iran? The complexities of the place are overwhelming. You just don’t want to go there.
And neither does our President and for good reason. America’s “Iran strategy” over the past several decades has been – how shall I say this tactfully? – less than stellar. There are several reasons for this, but I think it can be boiled down to a few key factors.
Let’s just begin with the basics. First, Iran is not an Arab country. Call an Iranian an “Arab” and see how far it gets you. The great Persian dynasties go back millennia. The most renowned are the Safavids and the Qajars, but there were several others that I can never remember or keep straight. But the most important thing that should be remembered is that long before anyone was paying the least bit of attention to the Arabs, the Persians (“Iran” is a modern creation, like so much of the developing world), were doing incredible things in the fields of science, art, and technology.
So yes, we Westerners may struggle to know the difference between Persians and Arabs. But from a Persian perspective, the Arabs were still herding goats and living in pre-Islamic disorder while their ancestors had already formed vast empires stretching across much of what today is Turkey, the Arab Middle East, and Central Asia.
And another thing: About 87% of the world’s Muslims follow Sunni Islam, with the remaining 13% following Shi’ism. But in Iran, those numbers are reversed; about 90% of the Iranian population is Shi’ite. Now, it is impossible here to get into what the differences are between these groups. Essentially Sunnism is orthodox Islam, while Shi’ism is heterodox. What this means, in a nutshell, is that since the 7th century, the Sunnis have sought to stick to original dogma to the degree possible while the Shi’ites have gone in new directions, following a different interpretation of the Qur’an and its teachings which, they believe, is truer to the righteous path.
To fully understand Iran’s role in the Middle East, it’s essential to realize that they are in a constant tug-o-war with the Saudis for regional supremacy. But this dynamic is surely not about religious dogma any more than the conflict in Northern Ireland was about how to interpret the Gospels. Rather, the goal of exercising control over land and resources merely parallels these religio/ethnic divisions, and is often expressed through tribal allegiances and alliances. It’s as simple as that.
Well, no, not so simple, as the U.S. has discovered. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the Arab world was slowly emerging from an era of well over a century of European colonization, evisceration and humiliation. Arab nationalist beliefs meant that throughout this period, the newly evolving Arab states wanted little to do with the U.S.
By comparison Iran believed that it could emerge somewhat less scathed. The Pahlavi Dynasty that took control after the War was in truth hamstrung, largely dependent upon the West for improving its prospects going forward – and more willing to accept that help. The Shah was an opportunist, seeking out assistance to grow his country wherever and whenever the possibility arose, including developing ties with Israel in the late 1940s and ‘50s.
And yet by the 1970s this western-oriented dynamic had unintended consequences. Iran’s economy was experiencing growth yet not in all sectors; those working in agriculture, for example, were being left behind. Dependence on oil exports continued to increase, but many blamed the West for artificially suppressing prices, keeping exporters at a distinct disadvantage. And so the stage was set for anti-westernism/anti-Americanism to raise its ugly head. And so, in walked Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The rest, as we know, is history. The American Embassy was stormed. Hostages were held for 444 days, freed literally as President Reagan was being sworn in. Why? To embarrass and humiliate in the only way they could.
And now more recently, American ships are attacked. A drone is shot down. Again, one may ask why.
For us Americans, things like “humiliation” may sometimes sound trite. But when you are dealing with a civilization which, were we to be speaking of a person, was graduating from med school while we were all in diapers and yet is now told that it is HE who has to wear the diaper, well, maybe things like “pride” and “dignity” shouldn’t be poo-pooed as if they are meaningless drivel.
Just remember this folks. In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. The Iran-Iraq War that ensued lasted until August 1988 – basically all of President Reagan’s administration. Iran experienced 300,000 casualties and 500,000 injured in the war. Given that Iran’s population at the end of the war was 60 million, this would roughly be the equivalent in the U.S. to 1.5 million deaths and 2.5 million casualties.
And we all remember whose side the U.S. was on during this, the bloodiest war in the history of the modern Middle East? Yes, of course, we supported the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. We provided Iraq with several billion dollars’ worth of economic aid, military intelligence, and training (though much of this was done indirectly through third parties).
As many sources note, none of this was a secret. Not to Congress, not to the American people, and no, not to the Iranians.
So it’s quite something that a couple weeks ago Mr. Trump decided that he didn’t want to start a war with Iran, and that he called off the attack he’d planned at the last minute fearing “too many casualties.”
Because from the perspective of the regime in Tehran, it’s a little too late for that now.
Steven C. Dinero, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.