Let’s Give Iran A Break
By Terrell E. Arnold
2-27-12
 

As of this writing, the United States has been badgering Iran for almost sixty years. Openly declaring the beginning of that cycle, in March 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright is reported to have stated: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeqh.” Her modest portrayal of the act left unstated the fact that the CIA had overthrown the popular Prime Minister and that the act had been carried out under the leadership of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, then CIA director Allen Dulles.  

President Eisenhower’s administration averred that Mossadeqh had been overthrown for national security reasons.  However, the simpler truth was that well ahead of other Middle East oil producers, Iran had publicly declared intent to nationalize its oil industry and take it away from foreign operators, then mainly British and American.

With that move, Mossadeqh initiated a process that was to mature less than a decade later (1960-1961) into the creation of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Founding members of OPEC were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. By 1969 there were ten members, and in 2010 there were 12. The production and export, and of course the pricing of petroleum would never be the same again.

The US thought it would fix the Mossadeqh problem by overthrowing the Prime Minister and his government.  In its place the United States simply reinstalled the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi.  He was already the king in fact, who became ruler of Iran in 1941 on the death of his father Reza Shah. In the face of rising popularity for nationalizing the oil industry, Reza Shah Pahlavi lost policy control over the Mossadeqh government.

But the real kink in this schematic was the western turn against Mossadeqh. In the first year of his prime ministry (1951), Mossadeqh was popular, referred to by Time Magazine as “the Iranian George Washington” and lauded as the Man of the Year on the cover of Time.  That obviously was before it became clear to official Americans that he was an Iranian nationalist who would—with the help of the Iranian parliament (Majlis)—take control of Iran’s oil industry from its British and American managers. When he moved to nationalize the oil industry both the British and the Americans were outraged and the coup was arranged by an American team under Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. with British help.

Following the 1953 coup the United States reconfirmed the Shah of Iran as Iran’s head of state.  An immediate question was what would happen to Mossadeqh’s nationalization of the oil industry, and how would that sit with the growing body of popular Iranian support for a petroleum industry that would belong to the Iranian people.  Under the deal struck by Reza Shah in the 1930s, the Shah and his cohorts were well taken care of (the pattern for dealing with the ruling class everywhere in the oil producing region) but there were no royalties to the Iranian people. Evidently under heavy pressure from his US and British supporters the Shah prevented Iranian parliamentary approval of a 50-50 oil revenue sharing plan between the oil companies and Iran.

Even so, not long thereafter, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia began meetings—nominally within the Arab League Petroleum Bureau in Cairo, Egypt—with a goal basically to nationalize regional oil production.  Those meetings began in the latter part of 1960, and they included representatives of Egypt and Lebanon as well as Venezuela. Key players included Iraq’s Adnan Pachachi, Iran’s Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Lebanon’s Emil Boustani, Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Tariki, Egypt’s Mohamed Selim, Venezuela’s Perez Alfonso, and a Kuwait al Sabah family member.  As a young economic officer of the US Embassy, I was an avid follower of these discussions—as close as a westerner could get to them. I think that Adnan Pachachi is the only presently living member of the original OPEC club.

Restoring the Shah did not really calm Iran’s troubled waters. National sentiment for kicking outsiders out of Iranian political life and for making the oil industry wholly Iranian continued to bubble, and so far as Iran’s young nationalists and their growing revolutionary movement was concerned, the situation had to change, and it was only a matter of time.

These thoughts were not squelched by the Shah’s creation—with US and Israeli help—of his spy agency Savak.  The Savak agents were brutal in their efforts to root out and suppress political opposition. In effect, Savak became the Iranian Mossad and acquired a similar record for human rights violations.  However, it appears very likely that Savak behavior only added to revolutionary energy.  
Despite the Shah’s repressive efforts, in 1960 Iran emerged as a key player in creating OPEC.  When OPEC creation was announced, it was not clear how rapidly it’s key move—nationalizing all of the region’s oil industries—would actually be finalized.  Indeed some time passed as OPEC expanded its membership, defined its personality, and struggled through relationships with downgraded private oil companies.

 In the meantime Egypt went out for western company bids on the opening of that country’s Western Desert to oil exploration.  While nationalist movements clamored for ownership of the industry, the technology still resided with the major western companies, and relationships would emerge that recognized this reality.  After all, the supply side (more than half OPEC) and the buyer, refining and marketing side (almost entirely Western) had to get together for oil markets to work.

Relations between Iran and Britain as well as with the United States were, at the very least, tense.  However, the Shah continued to be well settled as the principal US ally in the region.

That more or less stable condition began to erode as the Shah concluded that in the interest of his country he (oil exporter) could not be on the same side as the United States (oil importer) on matters such as oil pricing. Basically he could play that game for the US only by agreeing to send money to the United States via the spigot of low oil prices.  While he was under pressure from the US to do that, he refused.

Events took a Middle Eastern turn in 1973.  When Israel launched the Yom Kippur War and the US began to resupply Israeli war fighting needs, the Arab countries in OPEC launched an oil embargo which had the effect of sharply raising prices and limiting supplies worldwide—a mess the Japanese called the “oil shock”.  The immediate effect of the shock was a disruption of oil flows worldwide, but the long term effect of that shock was the affirmation by OPEC members that they had the leverage to raise oil prices to their advantage, and with a little rigging their share of the global market was big enough to keep prices where OPEC wanted them.  Here began the long term reign of high oil prices that persists today.  OPEC essentially agreed among its members on how much each member would sell and what the club would charge for it.

However, the issue of who owned and should reap the benefits of Iran’s oil wealth remained potent. Agitation continued through the Shah’s second reign, and a real revolution slowly took shape. In January 1979 the Shah (ill with cancer at the time) came under growing pressure for change and departed Iran for the United States.  The revolutionaries rapidly took over.  

Americans seem startled by the fact that the Iranian revolutionaries saw fit to take over the American Embassy in Tehran. However, most people in the United States had no idea just how rigorously American and British players manipulated the Shah.  In essence, the Iranian revolution was as much against US and British meddling in Iranian affairs as it was against the Shah who was so manipulated by outsiders. The young rebels were seeking to take their country under the control of Iranian nationalists.  

The revolutionaries said they were prepared to release the American hostages if the US returned the Shah to Iran for trial. But that announced goal aside, revolutionaries appear to have concluded that they needed some leverage over the Americans to stop US meddling in Iranian affairs.  Taking the American officials of the Embassy hostage was the only real lever they saw.  Holding the hostages for more than 400 days enabled the movement to gain control of Iran without, as they saw it, outside interference from the most likely source. Jimmy Carter sought to disrupt that state of mind by a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in late April 1980, but nothing appears to have interfered with the effort of young revolutionaries to hang on to their hostages.  Meanwhile, they went laboriously through American Embassy documents, both shredded and un-shredded.  That appears to have given them all the proof they needed of US manipulations. After negotiations they did return the hostages, cleverly timed to coincide with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981.

But all of that was thirty years ago you might say.  Why has the animosity persisted? The short answer to that question is matters between the Iranians and the Americans only got worse. For starters, beginning in September 1980 the US supported Iraq in starting a war with Iran.  On a premise that Iran would be an easy mark immediately after the revolution, Iraq invaded and for the first couple of years seemed to be on top of it.  By the end of that period, however, the Iranians, with a much larger population than Iraq, had gotten their act together. The tide turned.  For the remainder of this 8 year conflict the initiative lay with the Iranians.

The Iran-Iraq War was practically over when on July 3, 1988 the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airliner over Iranian waters, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board.  Vincennes crewmen said they confused the A-300 Airbus for an Iranian F-14 fighter plane. Since the US and Iran were the only countries flying the F-14, and that fighter was to say the least miniscule compared to an Airbus, the Vincennes crew story sounded pretty thin.  However, Iran could not effectively challenge it. The United States finally settled outstanding claims in 1996, but the US has never apologized. Saying something thoughtful like “we are sorry” was apparently not considered appropriate by US leadership.

Here we run into a war enumeration problem.  Some people consider the Iran-Iraq war to be the First Gulf War. Since the United States was involved at least on the Iraqi support side of that engagement, this counting works.  However, the Second Gulf War was a bit different. Fought in 1990-91, this war was a conflict between Iraq and a US-led and largely political coalition of some 34 countries to end Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was a success as far as it went. The Third Gulf War was initiated in 2003 by US Operation Iraqi Freedom to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Although that mission was accomplished in a matter of weeks, the US still has forces in Iraq nine years later.

The United States remained in Iraq after the fall and execution of Saddam Hussein with the stated objective to assure establishment of a democratic government in Baghdad. However, since the Hussein government had been led by Sunni Muslims and the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, a leadership transformation had to occur.  That government today is at best a work in progress.

That the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims and the holiest sites of Shia Islam are in Iraq has greatly complicated Iraq’s political reformation.  At the same time it has given Iran a window on Iraqi life that it was unable to exploit throughout Saddam Hussein’s regime.  That fact has cast a shadow on US efforts to help the Iraqis achieve national unity, because Iraqi Shia Muslims look eastward to Iran for spiritual leadership. The physical boundaries between Iraq and Iran have become, to say the least, porous, while US leverage has been correspondingly diminished.

Meanwhile, the Israelis, who have been assiduously spying on Iran with the help of Kurdish connections in northern Iraq, are promoting a different gambit for curbing Iranian power and influence in the region. For years the Iranians have been pursuing low level work on nuclear energy.  As they aver, under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, the Iranians have the right to spin up centrifuges to refine raw uranium at least up to the low levels necessary for electric power generation.  As early as the restored reign of the Shah, Iran has had known interest in developing nuclear capabilities.  The Shah apparently was seeking nuclear weapons and present Iranian leadership is accused, particularly by Israel and the United States, of working toward creating nuclear weapons.

Current accusations are based on IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) analysis that appears to be at least five to seven years old and even that is ambiguous. Successive visits by IAEA professionals have been unable either to define Iranian intentions or to pinpoint any Iranian processes that definitively point to weaponizing. An IAEA team entered Iran on February 20, 2012 to try to improve its picture of Iranian intentions and activities.  In the same time frame Iran announced that it had fabricated and installed its first nuclear fuel rod.

The situation is that Israel now faces a number of hard facts.  First, approaching 75-80 million people, Iran has a population more than ten times the Jewish population of Israel. Second, with 35-40% of the world’s Shia, Iran is the seat of Shia Islam.  It is the protector of the holiest of Shia sites at Karbala and Najaf in Iraq,  which gives it an influential spiritual role in the lives of roughly 250 million Shia Muslims worldwide. Third, Iran is the spiritual, not the political, leader and a supporter of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas—both now successful Shia Muslim political parties. Hezbollah is now a leading figure in Lebanon’s political system. Hamas has the lead political role in Palestine’s Gaza Strip, and it has a sizeable minority following in the Palestinian West Bank.

Fatah, the Mahmoud Abbas led principal party in the West Bank, and Hamas have just entered into an agreement to form a unity government. Israeli objections to a Palestinian unity government aside, both Fatah and Hamas have clearly articulated the agenda for the Palestinian people. Israel does not want to talk to Hamas, and the reason is simple:  Hamas wants all the issues concerning any future peace agreement on the table, no holds barred, from the first day of any talks. For decades Israel has gotten away with postponing discussion of the critical issues: (1) Territory—that is fixing boundaries, (2) the right of return for displaced Palestinians or compensation, (3) the formation of two states with (4) both capitals in Jerusalem. Abbas and Fatah have temporized, thus allowing Israel repeatedly to postpone decisions on those matters, whereas Hamas makes it clear that those issues must be on the table from the beginning of any talks.  Ergo, to the Zionists, Hamas is anathema.

Israel’s gambit in these circumstances has been to change the subject. Trying to nudge the US toward action against Iran, for months Israel has tried to link a settlement with Iran—whatever that would be—to any further movement on the Middle East peace process.

Meanwhile, Israeli hawks have been watching Iran’s nuclear program with a jaundiced eye, and they have presented the Iranian nuclear program as “an existential threat” to Israel. Working with an Iranian terrorist group MEK to identify and assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, the Israeli premise is that if Iran achieves a bomb it will drop that bomb on Tel Aviv. Nobody except the Israeli paranoids suggest the Iranians would risk their country in that manner. Numerous high level present and former Israeli officials have labeled the idea of any Iranian attack as nonsense. However, any alleged threat plays well in the media of the United States. Moreover, such a threat fits the Israeli posture of victimhood that Zionists have used for decades to bamboozle the West.  

At the end of sixty years, the threat of military assault, possibly an Israeli nuclear attack, hangs over the people of Iran. Israel has an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, and the unspoken threat that they might use one or more on Iran hangs in the air. In an American presidential election year, our country has few active politicians who will publicly contradict Israel’s arguments or reject its proposed gambit.  Thus Israeli paranoia—the guilty mirror image of sixty years of Palestinian repression—may well dictate the next move.

As the truth of the situation of the Palestinian people has become much clearer, the task of the Israelis to defend their continuing oppression of the Palestinians while continuing to steal their land has become much harder to defend.  The broad Israeli approach is to deflect attention from it. In the middle of the past decade the Israeli effort, with American support, was to focus attention on Lebanon and the role of the Shia group Hezbollah while they pursued systematic destruction of Hamas in Gaza.  That effort came a cropper when the result proved to be that much of Lebanon physically was destroyed by Israeli bombing, but the role and the political power of the enemy Hezbollah was materially enhanced.  In short, Israel won battles, but lost the war.

Israel has had a similarly awkward experience with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Successive Israeli assaults on the largely unarmed population of the Gaza Strip have virtually destroyed Gaza’s economic infrastructure, but those military excesses have resulted in increasing the power and influence of Hamas.  In effect, it appears that the idea of Hamas is now imbedded in the minds of the Palestinian people. Destroying the Gaza infrastructure challenges Hamas to extreme orders of effort to help its people, while demonstrating that the Palestinians trust and respect Hamas. In addition to Lebanon, Gaza is Israel’s second major engagement with winning battles while losing the war.

In the sober estimate of many observers, any Israeli or US supported attack on Iran would turn out the same way.  There is no question that both the US and Israel have the equipment to do Iran significant damage in air and missile attacks.  However, it seems increasingly clear that the weight of opinion, especially in the Middle East region, would favor Iran. In short, the Israelis—with or without US involvement—could do significant damage to Iran at the expense of shooting themselves and the region in the back.  Continued heavy threats against the Iranians will simply accelerate any movement of Iran toward acquiring a nuclear weapon and consolidate Iranian support around that objective. However, Iran’s politico-religious leaders are not fond of weaponizing.  Therefore, a smarter US/Israeli strategy is to back off, cool the situation and convince the Iranian leadership that they do not need nuclear weapons. If that approach is demonstrably genuine, it is likely to carry the day.

**************************
The writer is the author of the recently published work, Palestine: In Need of a Just God, now available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, Syria, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of the Ambassador for Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at wecanstopit@charter.net

 

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