Iran: The Next Evil Empire?

by Alex Patico

Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen

To us in the West, Iran has been known as a place of ancient trade routes, exotic images and romantic poetry, and more recently as a place of religious and political movements that we struggle to understand. The road to the present impasse between the US and Iran has been as hard to navigate as the bus route from Zanjan to Sanandaj in northwestern Iran – magnificent views and pastoral scenes, but the ever-present danger of a precipitous fall into a rocky abyss.

Americans have been both heroes and villains to Iranians. A Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed during the presidency of James Buchanan, and the first US legation was set up in Tehran in 1883. Americans played a midwifery role in Iran’s first attempt at constitutional government in Iran between 1906 and 1925; other Americans were at the heart of innovations in Persian governance and development in the years that followed.

In his book Iran and America: Rekindling a Love Lost, Dr. Badi Badiozamani wrote, “Between 1830 and 1940, hundreds of Americans had established through their good and impressive activities a vast ocean of goodwill between Iran and the United States.” This goodwill has lasted even until today among the people of Iran.

Then came World War II. Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran. Iran appealed to Roosevelt “to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression.” The appeal fell on deaf ears. In 1943 the US Secretary of State advised Roosevelt, “From a more directly selfish point of view, it is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia” – unless, of course, it would be the US. Thus began a long tug-of-war over Middle Eastern “black gold.”

George V. Allen, who assumed the post of US Ambassador to Tehran in 1946, wrote back to the Department of State, “The best way for Iran to become a decent democracy, it seems to me, is to work at it, through trial and error. I am not convinced by the genuinely held view of many people that democracy should be handed down gradually from above.” But, as Dr. Badiozamani observes, “Unfortunately, neither Allen nor his successors followed this advice. Time and again, when the Shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as ‘non-interference.’”

In 1953 came the event that more than any other colors Iranian perceptions of the government of the US and its intentions toward Iran. When the elected leader of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the exploitative arrangements that governed Iran’s supplying oil to the West and nationalized its oil resources, he was overthrown in a coup orchestrated in part by the American CIA. The operation (acknowledged publicly by the US government decades later) was called “Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the US pursued in the Middle East” by Lee Smith, a journalist associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The monarchy was reestablished, and would endure, with its secret police aided by intelligence from the US and Israel’s Mossad, until the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979. Never again would American motives be taken at face value by Iranians.

American antagonism toward Iran stems largely from the taking of hostages in Tehran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. America became the “Great Satan.” Iran was viewed first with shock and bewilderment, later with fear and hatred, by many Americans. We failed to gauge correctly the anger of ordinary Iranians sparked by US support of the semi-democratic and often brutal reign of the Shah. It was their own loved ones who had been informed upon by the secret police, who had suffered in the Shah’s prisons and had been broken by his torturers. When the hostages were taken, it was not just a political or even religio-political move; it was also personal. The US came to stand for dictatorial rule as well as for economic exploitation, ill-considered modernization and cultural discord.

Now the situation is still more grave. A National Security document of March 16, 2006 asserted, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The document states as fact that Iran possesses weapons of mass destruction, though the IAEA has found no evidence of such. Again the abyss of war beckons.

Schoolgirls visiting the Chahel Sotun Palace

in Esfahan, Iran, May 2006.

According to Michael Chossudovsky, writing last year for the Global Research organization, the US military has “war-gamed” doomsday scenarios involving Iran. World war may be difficult for most of us to imagine, but it is always an item on someone’s to-do list. For the non-military reader, the current US presence in the Persian Gulf is hard to visualize. Just nine of the ships deployed there this year carry some 17,000 US personnel, added to 20,000 already in the area. According to reliable reports, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military blitz that would strike 10,000 targets in the first day of attacks. The proposed targets include airports, rail lines, highways, bridges, ports, communication centers, power grids, industrial centers, and even hospitals and public buildings.

A February 2006 analysis by the UK-based Oxford Research Group describes the likely scenario: “An air attack would involve the systematic destruction of research, development, support, and training centers for nuclear and missile programs and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible. A US attack, which would be larger than anything Israel could mount, would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian air defense capabilities and attacks designed to pre-empt Iranian retaliation. This would require destruction of Revolutionary Guard facilities close to Iraq and of regular or irregular naval forces that could disrupt Gulf oil transit routes…” An element of surprise would be considered critical. This means that there will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas.

Why should it have been impossible, during the almost thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, for us to have developed a way for our two governments to communicate? Neither country is the same as it was when the Islamic Revolution took place, yet leaders of both act as though frozen in time.

However, a policy shift has taken place. It presents, as former President Carter has said, “a radical departure from all previous administration policies” in its aggressive unilateralism and its embrace of preemptive or preventive action. Though a majority of Americans consistently favor limiting attacks by states to self-defense, this is not reflected in the administration’s approach to Iraq and Iran.

The two countries are hardly two peas in a pod. Scott Ritter, former IAEA arms inspector and a US Marines officer, made his first trip to Iran in 2006. He wrote in The Nation, “I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week…. I had my eyes opened…. Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation…. [It is] a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi life in the time of Saddam Hussein…. Iran has functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state…”

The signals coming from Iran over the past few years have shown both assertiveness and flexibility, both stubbornness and hints – sometimes broad hints – of possible compromise. But can we get past the one, in order to build on the other?

Recent indications are that we cannot. Though little has changed between our two countries since the 80s, the drum beats of war grow ever louder. Suddenly, women’s dress codes and human rights concerns seem to matter far more than in the past. Yet these concerns are, in truth, based on meager substantive knowledge. Not only is our hard intelligence on military, political and technical matters sorely lacking, but our direct familiarity with contemporary Iranian culture, and especially with the individuals who sit across the bargaining table, is nearly non-existent.

A February 2007 report by Network 2020 stated, “In the context of tensions between the US and Iran, American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the US and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. ‘There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,’ Burns said. ‘There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form.’” More recently, in a June 8 roundtable with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Condoleeza Rice “confessed that she couldn’t figure Iran out.” “I think it’s a very opaque place,” Rice said, “and it’s a political system I don’t understand very well.” Rice is our most senior foreign policy official.

I flew to Iran last May as part of a peace delegation of 22 Americans. After changing planes in Paris, I spoke with a young Iranian man on his way home. He had just visited a cemetery in Paris where several noted Iranian writers are interred, including one we both admired, the novelist Sadegh Hedayat. I recalled to him the opening line of Hedayat’s dark novel, Blind Owl: “In life there are sores that tear and eat at the soul, like cancer.” We agreed that the will to make war is one of these sores. Balancing the voices of bellicosity, there must be heard voices of charity and humanity. A young anthropologist in the group said, “If all I have done as a result of this trip is begin to dispel the myths that circulate about Iranians, then I have done a lot. And if I can hold up a mirror, then I have done even more. Violence begins in the smallest of spaces. Peace then, must as well.”

But instead, within America, there has been a disturbing sea-change in what has become acceptable in the public sphere. Such conservative TV commentators as Bill O’Reilly voice the opinion that Iran should be bombed into non-existence. Talking about the crash of an Iranian airliner, Don Imus remarked, “When I hear stories like that, I think: who cares?” Senator John McCain, now running for president, answered a reporter’s question on policy toward Iran by chanting, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Many in his audience cheered. An internet merchandiser is selling T-shirts, sweat-suits and underwear with a map of Iran emblazoned with the words “NUKE ‘EM!”

What is happening here? Isn’t it the process that Chris Hedges warned about in his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning – the need to demonize the enemy before the launching of an attack can become psychologically supportable? It was done with “the Japs,” “the Huns,” “the Gooks” and “the Towel Heads”; now it is the “Axis of Evil.” In this process, the other becomes a creature unworthy of our compassion.

While we are busy tarring the Islamic Republic with the brush of malevolence, the US has reached an all-time nadir in terms of how we are regarded outside our borders. We who dare to call ourselves Christians should be known, per the scriptural standard, according to how we “love one another,” yet we have a reputation as people who hate all those who are not like us. In poll after poll, fewer and fewer people around the world look up to us as a country with something of value to teach the rest of the world. A Pew Center poll, done in May 2006, showed that people in six Muslim countries – Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey – perceive the “Christian” West as “selfish, arrogant, immoral and greedy.”

For we who are Christians, the single criterion for evaluating any action or attitude is this: does it conform to the example of Jesus Christ? We are to refrain from focusing on the “speck” in the eye of the other, in this case the Iranians, without first remembering to take the “plank” out of our own eyes. Better to err in the direction of forbearance than to tilt toward smug and superior chauvinism.

Some will worry that pursuing such a path carries a risk that the adversary will take advantage of our delay. But could that not be said about any conflict situation? When, exactly, would it be prudent to “turn the other cheek”? The law of love represents a higher calling than prudence or even self-preservation. Looking at the full biblical context, we must admit that Jesus’ approach was truly radical: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:38-44)

The monk and author Thomas Merton, in his essay “St. Maximus the Confessor on Nonviolence,” wrote: “The love of enemies is not simply a pious luxury, something that [the Christian] can indulge in if he wants to feel himself exceptionally virtuous. It is of the very essence of the Christian life, a proof of one’s Christian faith, a sign that one is a follower and an obedient disciple of Christ.” (Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton, Crossroad, 1995)

Alex Patico is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America. His text is condensed from a forthcoming book, Reining in the Red Horse: An American Christian Looks at Iran. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran 1968-69. He is a member of the US Committee for the Decade to Overcome Violence, a co-founder of the National Iranian American Council, and a congregant of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, Linthicum, Maryland. His most recent visit to Iran was in May 2006.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47