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Iran: Still Struggling toward Self-Determination

by Dino E. Buenviaje on Jun 21, 2006

For the Bush administration, its conflict with Iran began with news of the Iranian nuclear enrichment program. For Iranians, the conflict started in 1901 when the British took advantage of a weak government to obtain a highly profitable oil concession. Since then, Iran has been locked in a struggle to control its own destiny, even at the risk of confrontation with the international community.

In persuading the Iranian government to be more forthright with its nuclear program the United States has continued simplistic and at times condescending colonial attitudes, assuming that the Iranian people are unable to manage their own affairs.

There was a time when the United States was not the “Great Satan.” During the first half of the 20th century, Great Britain was considered Iran’s foremost enemy. The British exploited Iran’s enormous oil reserves for the Royal Navy, while the Iranian people gained few benefits. This earned the bitterness of the Iranians and sowed the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism.

Since then, the Iranian people have been repeatedly denied the right to use their own energy resources, a fact that seems to have escaped the attention of the Bush administration. The assertion of Iran’s right to exploit nuclear power has its root at the beginning of the 20th century, when the interests of Iran were first placed at the mercy of global politics.

After the Second World War, the United States displaced Britain as the pre-eminent power. At the dawn of the Cold War, the United States believed that it faced the threat of communist expansion in the developing world. Iran looked like a case in point.

Sensing Britain’s weakness, in 1953 prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh shocked the world when he moved to nationalize British oil assets. However, the American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, feared that Iran would soon fall to communism as China had, four years earlier.

Having all the elements of a James Bond movie, the Dulles brothers launched Operation Ajax. This covert operation overthrew Mossadegh and replaced him with a more pliant successor. However, it caused long-term damage by undermining a fragile parliamentary democracy.

Bitterness from this episode exploded into the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis in 1979. Since the installation of the Islamic government, which overthrew the Shah, the United States has pursued a policy of isolating Iran. Successive American administrations have followed this policy, which has only fueled anti-Americanism in Iran.

The Bush administration and its successors must face the reality that the United States cannot claim to be a friend of democracy by using the threat of force alone. Rather, it must help other nations achieve their desires for self-determination; this has been the announced cornerstone of American foreign policy. If the Iranian government is interested only in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as it claims, then a multilateral effort in cooperation with the Iranians should be in place to meet that end.

For its part, the Iranian government appears more interested in regaining lost glories than in facing the realities of the 21st century, such as the need to find a diplomatic solution to meet its energy needs. The last few months have shown President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs playing a dangerous game of jingoism and saber-rattling.

Perhaps the only solution to restoring normal relations between Iran and the United States is by recognizing Iran’s historical perspective on the nuclear controversy. When Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1953, it was not a move toward Soviet communism, but rather an anti-colonial blow against Britain. Because the Eisenhower administration misread that cue, the United States missed an opportunity to be a friend to Iran and compounded that mistake by supporting a government that destroyed Iran’s fragile democracy. The United States, as a result, has been paying a heavy price.

The current nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West must be approached with cool and level-headed diplomacy. The United States could benefit by a much better understanding of the hard road the Iranian people have had to travel for over a century. A long-lasting solution is one that addresses global security and Iran’s need for self-reliance while according Iran equal status in the family of nations.


Dino E. Buenviaje writes for the History News Service and is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, email:dino.buenviaje@ email.ucr.edu.