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Just days before his arrival in New York for the UN General Assembly, advisers to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced their government’s willingness to directly negotiate with the United States in order to end the decade-long nuclear standoff and to remove international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. “We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart,” Rouhani wrote in an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post.
If sincerely pursued, these promising developments have the potential to repair fraught, decades-old cleavages in the American-Iranian relationship. While many on the American right would prefer to believe those frictions began with the Islamist-led revolution of 1979, many Iranians still remember the US-backed coup of 1953 which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically-elected prime minister—its well-known participation in which the CIA only officially acknowledged last month—and how, for decades after, American companies and government officials exploited the Iranian economy and directly assisted in the suppression of its people.
Throughout those decades, Nation writers reported from Iran about the discord, anger, and frustration American meddling had instilled in the Iranian people. After 1979, writers like Kai Bird and the late Fred Halliday reported on the promise and eventual disappointment of the revolution. Reading these articles today, perhaps at the dawn of a new era in Iranian-American relations, gives a sense of how much has gone wrong between the two countries, but also how much could be set right with smart diplomacy and new leadership.
In the September 24, 1960 issue of The Nation, a Fulbright scholar named Stanley Cooperman wrote a remarkable article, “Iran’s False Front,” detailing the extent of American activity in the country and the bitter resentment it was causing among the people. With telling detail and astounding prescience, Cooperman’s article provides a window onto life in Iran during the Shah’s regime and, in hindsight, shows why the revolution which eventually did come bore such ill-will toward the United States:
Teheran seems almost a boom town. Construction is proceeding at an enormous rate, and there is hardly a block, especially in the northern or ‘European’ sections, that is without its new apartment building. These new buildings, however, are inhabited almost exclusively by Europeans, especially Americans; the rents are extremely high by any standard, and astronomical for an economy in which an experienced engineer earns $200 a month, or just about the cost of a decent apartment…
It is, most certainly, a typical Alice-in-Wonderland situation: American dollars are being spent on structures only Americans can afford to rent. One Persian, an office supervisor, explained it this way: “I hate the sound of foreign aid. Before American dollars started coming here, I had one job and a decent apartment. Now I have three jobs and still had to leave my apartment because the landlord wanted to rent to an American. Who is being ‘improved,’ anyway? …
Several men in the American Embassy here…admit that the middle class has become increasingly disaffected under the Shah’s regime. They add, however, that these ‘dreamy individualists’ could never take matters into their own hands…
Until the Persian Government realizes that a politically disenfranchised middle class is potentially dangerous; and until the Shah himself realizes that Westernization, as it is now proceeding in Iran, has increased rather than decreased social and economic pressure, the Imperial Army must continue to train its guns upon the capital city. There is, certainly, no impending ‘revolution’; political apathy, for the time being, is no less marked than the cynicism voiced privately by so many Persians in all walks of life. But political apathy is a poor foundation for any government, especially in the Middle East. Given the emergence of a powerful personality at the right moment, or a shift in world power alignments, and the ‘dreamy individualism’ of Persia may explode once again, with serious consequences.
Cooperman eventually became a well-known poet and critic, but he died in 1976, just two years before he would have seen that prediction come almost entirely true.
Mass protests against the shah did explode in 1978, uniting in opposition disparate elements of a long-seething population. Linda Heiden, a longtime freelance journalist who still writes about the Middle East, wrote an article for The Nation that October, “Iran Against Pahlavi: The Peacock Throne Under Siege,” in which she countered the view, then prevalent in Western media, that Pahlavi had suddenly turned into a reformer—one, as Time magazine wrote at the time, “deeply wounded by events spawned from his own dream for Iran…searching for ways to calm his troubled people.” That, Heiden wrote, was bunk:
One does not have to dig very deeply to find the roots of the dissent. The Shah’s economic development programs, designed and executed with considerable U.S. Government and corporate assistance, have been disastrous for Iran’s workers and peasants. Land reform implemented through the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ has forced millions of peasants into the cities, pushing pay scales for unskilled labor below subsistence levels. Meanwhile, the most fertile land has been increasingly turned over to capital-intensive agribusiness concerns owned or controlled by such multinational corporate interests as the Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical and John Deere Corporation…
This economic pattern contributes handsomely to the profits of certain sectors of the Western economies, but it neither strengthens Iran’s productive capacity nor relieves its pressing social ills. Even the massive industrialization envisioned by the regime depends heavily on foreign technology, investments and skilled labor. Furthermore, these projects are affected by international price structures and markets for their successful operation and thus inflict the burdens of foreign inflation rates, market fluctuations and monetary crises upon the Iranian economy. By the time the Shah’s costly nuclear energy program, highly sophisticated communications network and labyrinthine, corrupt bureaucracy have been funded, there is little left to alleviate the social ills that are now pushing his unwilling subjects to revolt.
Today’s readers might be taken aback by the reference to the shah’s nuclear program, supported by the United States and its European allies, which reportedly included a clandestine weapons component. Ayatollah Khomeini discontinued the program after 1979, believing it contravened Islamic law and morality, though a few years later he reversed course.
By January, the opposition movement had forced the shah to flee with his family. Momentarily, at least, it looked as if the motley collaboration between Iranian liberals and Islamists could help a modern Iran move beyond its authoritarian inheritance. Nation editorial board member Richard Falk, in “Iran’s Home-grown Revolution” (February 10, 1979), wrote:
Not only is the political, economic and cultural destiny of an important country at stake, not only is a fundamental challenge to American foreign policy involved, but a completely new revolutionary process is unfolding in Iran that is independent of the legacy of all previous revolutions. Its success or defeat will inevitably exert an awesome impact on the overall prospects of some 700 million Moslems elsewhere, and, quite possibly, on non-Moslem peoples throughout the third world…
For religion to assume a revolutionary posture is to challenge Western pre-conceptions that a religious outlook is irrelevant, or even hostile, to social change. The religious core of the Khomeini movement is a call for social justice, fairness in the distribution of wealth, a productive economy organized around national needs and a simplicity of life style and absence of corruption that minimizes differences between rich and poor, rulers and ruled.
That optimism soon yielded, in The Nation as well as among many in Iran and around the world, to great frustration and acute discontent. After visiting Iran in the spring of 1979, Kai Bird—then Nation assistant editor, later a Washington correspondent, acclaimed writer, and now a contributing editor—wrote in “Making Iran Safe for Theocracy”:
The Iranian revolution has soured the hopes of many who expected so much more in the way of radical economic reforms and a genuinely indigenous, albeit Islamic, democracy. That the leading actors turn out to be flirting with the authoritarian ways of the Pahlavis can only arouse disappointment, but there are other, more democratic actors waiting in the wings. And they have witnessed a revolution that felled a hitherto unchallenged dictatorship. That momentous precedent will not soon be forgotten.
But two years later, the situation had only deteriorated, leading the late Fred Halliday, a widely-respected expert on Iran and the wider Middle East, to declare it a “stolen revolution.” The Islamicization of Iran represented anything but the true, “indigenous” spirit of the country, he wrote:
Khomeini ceaselessly preaches the message that he stands for pure Iranian and Islamic values against the alien, corrupt and foreign values of the Westernized elite. But Iran was never a country with a homogenous Islamic culture. It has pre-Islamic values and traditions, and a great degree of ethnic diversity within it…Under the guise of elevating indigenous values over alien ones, and by invoking anti-imperialism, the Khomeini forces are trying to impose their narrow set of values on a culture which has long been heterogeneous. And there are some Iranians who point out ruefully that nothing is more alien that the Bedouin religion which the Arabs imposed on the country in 642 A.D.
Now thirty years later, there appears to be a potential for a US opening with Iran that is almost on historical par in its significance with the opening with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985-86. It seems that for economic and broader international reasons Iran's political establishment has decided to pursue an opening to the United States that could lead to a nuclear agreement, make Iran a constructive partner in securing the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and in arranging some kind of negotiated settlement, help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace with its positive influence on Hamas, and stop the rush toward sectarian war in the Middle East. President Obama, who for the first time has written directly to an Iranian President (the contents of his letter still unknown), now has a historic opportunity—one in the US's national security interests—to craft an accord with the country's new leaders. Yet it remains an open question as to whether, given his foreign policy team and the fractious politics of Washington, he will be able to do so.
The days ahead will reveal if President Obama acts boldly and constructively to takes steps that could re-define, some might say salvage, his second term. As the Syria crisis demonstrates, if the US is to achieve long-lasting resolution to the Middle East's security challenges, it must test and seize all diplomatic and political solutions.
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