Thoughts of Persia

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

Advertisements
  1. May 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Although I’m a fiction writer, I know that what you’re pointing out here is important: the facts are always our friends.

    • mburgan
      May 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm

      Definitely. I write plays as well, and getting facts straight, even when it’s not a historical drama, is important to me, and to making the world of the characters as real as possible. Of course, the facts are even more important in political discourse, though I always remember David Byrne’s views on them…Thanks for reading and for writing.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: