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Misunderstanding Iran | The Nation

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Misunderstanding Iran

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In truth, Pollack's book is less analysis than psychoanalysis. He begins it by casting the United States and Iran as "former lovers who went through a messy divorce" and concludes with the assertion that until Iran comes to grips with its "emotional baggage" and its "unresolved pathologies," it is simply not "psychologically ready" to have a "meaningful relationship with the United States."

About the Author

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (...

Also by the Author

Iran Awakening is the memoir of Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to hold Iran's clerical regime accountable for its gross human rights violations.

On November 4, 1979, a few months after the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the inauguration of Iran's Islamic Republic, a group of college students calling themselves the Muslim Students Fo

In Pollack's narrative, the two countries first met in the dark and heady days at the end of World War II. At the time, Iran was a wracked and weary nation reeling from a colonial ménage à trois it had stumbled into with the British and Russians, while the United States--rugged, buoyant and flushed with victory--was only just beginning to sow its oats as a virile superpower. Aghast at the "imperial ambitions" of its wartime allies and supposedly motivated solely by its desire to see an "independent, stable, and prosperous Iran," the United States grudgingly asserted itself in Iranian affairs to free the country from the iron grip of Stalinism and to temper the rapacious greed of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Yet, having come to Iran's rescue, the United States suddenly found itself shackled with a frail and emotionally needy country that viewed itself as "the center of the universe" and cleaved to its new benefactor as though America were a savior with the ability to control its destiny.

At first, the United States tried to live up to the responsibilities of its new affaire de guerre by funneling money and resources into Iran. But this only "whetted Iranian appetites for more, and when it was not forthcoming they felt betrayed." Unhinged at the thought of sharing America's attention with the younger, budding nations of Europe and East Asia, Iran grew enraged and, like a jilted lover, lashed out at the United States for failing to live up to Iran's unreasonable expectations.

This, then, is what Pollack believes is the recurrent theme that runs through the history of US-Iran relations. Time after time, the United States has sought to push "political, economic, and social reform" by interfering in Iranian affairs. And yet, despite "America's good intentions," it has received "little credit from the Iranian people" for its efforts, only anger and blame. Perhaps there were times when American interference was carried out "in very unpopular ways," but in Pollack's view the extent of that interference has been "wildly exaggerated by Iranians."

Take, for example, the 1953 CIA-engineered coup that reinstalled Muhammad Reza Shah after he had been ousted in a popular revolution led by the nationalist forces of Muhammad Mossadegh. In Pollack's version of events, the CIA did not so much orchestrate the putsch as intensify "trends already under way." Pollack argues that Mossadegh's "undemocratic actions" had "effectively made [him] dictator of Iran" (an appellation he never applies to the Shah, the actual dictator of Iran), thereby eroding his support among the masses and making his political demise inevitable.

That there were deeply divisive factions vying for power in the chaotic aftermath of the nationalist revolution is hard to deny. But it is another thing to suggest that, had the United States not engineered the coup, the "Iranians would have done it themselves." Despite the fact that the overthrow of Mossadegh was given the highest priority by both Eisenhower and Churchill; that it was endorsed by Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles; that it was personally managed by CIA chief Allen Dulles, who sent $1 million to Iran to be used "in any way that would bring about [Mossadegh's] fall"; that four-fifths of the newspapers in Tehran were at the time run by the CIA; and that the so-called popular demonstration of clerics, peasants, soldiers, criminals and street thugs that ultimately brought Mossadegh down was rounded up, instructed and bribed by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt--despite the overwhelming evidence of America's hand in destabilizing Iran, Pollack somehow cannot accept that Mossadegh's political and religious opponents were acting "in response to Western overtures." Pollack attributes this view to the "tragic-mythic version" of events fabricated by an Iranian imagination prone to blame "everything but the weather on foreign subversion." And yet, after all his apologetics and revisionism, Pollack admits that "there is a kernel of truth" in the Iranian version: namely, that "the United States did help to overthrow Mosaddeq, and it was culpable in the establishment of the despotism" that followed.

Therein lies the principal failing of The Persian Puzzle. Pollack's thesis is that "the only way to understand the twenty-five-year confrontation between Iran and the United States is to know the history of the relationship." This is no doubt true. But Pollack's grasp of that history is too often myopic and sometimes startlingly jingoistic. In fact, his chief purpose in recapping the history of US-Iran relations seems to be to argue that while many of our problems are "a product of American mistakes made twenty-five or fifty years ago," those mistakes have been so "embellished and exaggerated to grandiose proportions by the Iranian imagination" as to make rapprochement all but impossible.

Pollack is not even sure what the use of rapprochement with Iran would be. Casting aside Iran's strategic and geographical importance in an increasingly unstable region, Pollack writes, "I don't think the United States 'needs' Iran; we have been isolated from Iran for twenty-five years and in that time have experienced the most extraordinary economic prosperity in our history.... Clearly, the lack of a warm relationship with Iran has not exactly held us back."

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