Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Roozhaye Roshan

The news from the last few days has been flooded by the story of the Royal Navy personnel detained by Iran when they were inspecting a cargo boat. The incident came at a time of strained relations between the Western world and Iran, and it doesn’t really matter if the sailors were in Iraqi or Iranian or international waters: the facts are that these 15 sailors are held prisoners, and that Iran is under unprecedented international pressure. Many people have engaged in deep and complicated legal discussions for the last almost two weeks, but I think this is rather a political issue… How did we get to the present situation in and with Iran?

Let’s go back to the golden age of Persia – not the one of Darius or Cyrus, but the much more recent era of the Pahlavi dynasty. The rise of modernization of Iran started in the late nineteenth century and led to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, which marked the beginning of the end of Iran’s feudalistic society and led to the establishment of constitutional and parliamentary monarchy. Along came new institutions, new forms of expression, and a new social and political order. In 1921, Reza Khan staged a coup against the Soltan Ahmad Shah Qajar and became the prominent political personality in Iran; in 1925 he assumed the throne and became known as Reza Shah. An autocrat and supporter of modernization, he initiated the development of modern industry, railroads and establishment of a national education system. In 1941, however, due to Reza Shah’s closeness to Germany, Britain and the USSR invaded and occupied Iran, and forced the Shah to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a Western-educated 22-years-old young man, hoping that the younger prince would be more open to influence from the Allies, which proved to be the case. The increasing Western involvement in Iran led, however, to a political crisis in the early 50’s: in 1951, the Iranian parliament voted unanimously to nationalise the oil industry, which shut out the immensely profitable Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of British Petroleum and a pillar of British economy at that time. Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, became Britain’s number one enemy and, in response to the nationalisation, Britain embargoed Iranian oil and began plotting to depose him. Members of the British Intelligence Service invited the US to join them, but the US President at that time, Harry Truman, was categorically unwilling to do it. In 1953, however, his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, authorised Operation Ajax, and CIA took the lead in overthrowing Mossadegh and supporting a US-friendly monarch. The covert operation, for which the US Government led by Bill Clinton apologised in 2000, was led by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. Iranians were hired to protest Mossadegh and fight pro-Mossadegh demonstrators, which led to violent clashes in the streets leaving almost 300 dead. The operation was successful in triggering a coup and, within days, pro-Shah tanks stormed the capital and bombarded the Prime Minister’s residence. Mossadegh surrendered, was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to prison. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule became increasingly autocratic in the following years. With strong support from the US and the UK, the Shah further modernised the country, but simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition. Ayatollah Khomeini, who was popular in religious circles, became an active critic of the Shah and was imprisoned, first, and sent to exile, after. Khomeini was sent first to Turkey, then to Iraq and finally to France, but he continued to denounce the Shah. Starting in late 1977, the Shia Islamist reaction to the autocratic Shah began to build. One year later, millions of Iranians were in the streets and the country’s economy was paralysed. The Shah left the country in the beginning of 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to tumultuous, adoring crowds. The result was the establishment of an Islamic Republic with sharia and clerical rules: the land that gave birth to what is considered to be the first declaration of human rights (the Cyrus Cylinder) became, as a consequence of political mistakes and foreign interference, one of the most repressive societies in the whole World…

The Independent reported yesterday that what led to the hostage crisis was a failed US attempt to abduct two senior Iranian security officers on an official visit to northern Iraq, in the morning of 11 January. The British newspaper claims that this aggressive act provoked a dangerous escalation in the confrontation between the US and Iran which ultimately led to the capture of the 15 British sailors. I have the impression that we would all win if our leaders stopped playing war games and went back to what we pay them to do: politics!


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