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Iran and the West on Revolution Anniversary: 36 Years of Futile Estrangement

By Farhang Jahanpour (first published by the Informed Comment)

Ayatollah Khomeini

Anniversary of Iranian Revolution

February 2nd marks the 36th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran after 14 years of exile. After ruling Iran for 37 years as a staunch U.S. ally, Mohammad Reza Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979, never to return. Demonstrations against his rule that had started from October 1977 intensified from the beginning of 1978, and a combination of strikes and civil disobedience that took place between August and December 1978 made it impossible for him to stay in power.

Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on 2nd February 1979, and the last government set up by the Shah led by Shapur Bakhtiar collapsed ten days later, and the Islamic revolution became triumphant after armed groups attacked the Shah’s palaces and military barracks and occupied them. Since then, the Islamic Republic marks the anniversary of those events as the “Ten Days of Dawn” (2-12 February).

Very few people imagined that the clerical regime that emerged out of the revolution would last very long. In any case, many, including Mehdi Bazargan who had been appointed by Khomeini as the prime minister of the Provisional Government, believed that the title of Velayat-e Faqih, or the Guardianship of Jurisprudent, only suited Khomeini and it would die with him. However, 36 years later, despite a grueling war with Iraq and almost constant U.S. and subsequently Security Council and EU sanctions, and many overt or covert attempts to topple it, the Islamic Republic is still very much in power, and it could be argued that it is now perhaps the most stable regime in the entire Middle East.

Many Iranians might look back nostalgically to the time of the Shah and regard it as a golden age in Iran’s recent history, but most Iranians including the diehard opponents of the clerical regime do not wish to see foreign interference in Iran which could subject their country to the same fate as Iraq, Libya or Syria. This is why practically all the reformists and the members of the opposition Green Movement, including some from inside the Iranian prisons, issued a statement supporting the ongoing talks with the West and calling for the resolution of Iran’s nuclear dispute through diplomatic means.

Since the election of the current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, Iran and the P5+1 have been trying to negotiate an agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, but above all to open a new chapter in relations between the United States and Iran. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Iran after a group of militant students attacked the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and kept 55 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The recent talks have revived the memory of hostilities between the two countries, and especially the hostage crisis, and there has been a barrage of attacks on the Islamic Republic in the media and strong opposition in Congress and among pro-Israeli politicians and commentators to a nuclear deal with Iran.

The aim of this article is not to go over the rights and wrongs of the Islamic revolution or to defend the generally negative record of the Islamic Republic. The aim is simply to put the record straight and to point out that although the taking of US hostages was illegal and a despicable act, the United States has also been guilty of many violent acts against Iran, which are generally forgotten or ignored when dealing with Iran-US relations. It is only in the light of a clear understanding of the grievances of both sides, and at least trying to see the situation from an Iranian point of view that one can make a more sober assessment of the current nuclear talks and whether it is time to forget and forgive and to move on to a more productive relationship.

Foreign aggression and interference in Iran

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran had been subjected to foreign aggression and interference in her domestic affairs. From the start of the Tobacco Protest in 1891, to the start of the Iranian Constitutional Movement in 1906, the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 to partition Iran into their zones of influence and the tacit support of Russian aggression directed against the Persian reformist and constitutionalist camp resulting in the bombardment and closure of the Majles [parliament] and supporting the anti-constitutional coup by the autocratic Mohammad Ali Shah, Britain and Russia used Iran as an arena for their imperial rivalry and for achieving their geopolitical and economic goals.

During the First World War, Britain and Russia attacked Iran despite Iran’s declared neutrality, to gain access to Iranian oil. The same story was repeated during the Second World War, again despite Iran’s neutrality, when the Allies deposed Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty and the architect of modern Iran, and sent him into exile, replacing him with his young son Mohammad Reza Shah.

With the start of oil excavations in Iran by William Knox D’Arcy in 1900 and the subsequent formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Iran became a major economic asset to Britain and the West as a whole. When the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and the Iranian parliament nationalized the Iranian oil industry, MI6 and the CIA organized a coup in 1953, toppled Dr. Mosaddeq and regained control of Iranian oil, this time with a major share for US companies.

Some of these developments may be unknown to most Americans and Westerners as a whole, but this long history of foreign meddling and Iranian humiliation is very alive in the minds of most Iranians. This is why, despite all its faults and brutality, one message of the Islamic revolution, namely the concept of independence, or in Khomeini’s words “neither the East, nor the West”, has struck a sympathetic chord in the minds of Iranians.

The admission of the ailing Mohammad Reza Shah to the United States for medical treatment revived the memories of the 1953 coup when the Shah who had fled the country was brought back and restored to power. There is no doubt that at the time of the revolution the vast majority of Iranians had revolted against the former regime and wanted change at any price. Therefore, especially at the height of the revolutionary fervor, any idea that the Shah would be returned to the country again as a result of a coup was anathema to many young Iranians and they wanted to do everything in their power to prevent it.

The Hostage Crisis

A great deal has been written about the history of the hostage crisis by many Iranian and foreign officials that were intimately involved in it, and the reason for the takeover of the US Embassy has become much clearer. The hostage crisis was the result of mutual incomprehension, because even from shortly before the revolution, the Carter Administration had reached the conclusion that the Shah had to go, and they even sent emissaries to Paris to meet Khomeini where he stayed a few months prior to returning to Iran to reassure him that the United States was willing to work with him. On the Iranian side, initially the hostage taking was not intended as an anti-American act, but was primarily as a feature of the domestic power struggle between the clerical establishment and communist and leftist groups.

Prior to the attack on the US Embassy in Tehran by the so-called Islamic Students Following the Imam’s Line, the members of the radical Marxist group the Feda’iyan Khalq attacked the Embassy on 14 February 1979, and took a US marine Kenneth Kraus hostage. Ambassador William Sullivan surrendered the Embassy to save lives, but Prime Minister Bazargan immediately sent his foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi to talk to the radicals who put the embassy back in US hands in three hours, and released Kraus six days later. In order to counter the left’s “anti-imperialist” slogans, some radical Muslim students decided to launch an attack of their own on the Embassy in order to show that they were as revolutionary as the Marxists. So a group of them got together and consulted a young cleric, Mohammad Mousavi-Kho’iniha, about what they intended to do. He warned them against it because he said that the government was bound to attack and dislodge them as it had done in the case of the earlier attack by the Feda’iyan Khalq. However, he also told them that if the takeover of the Embassy proved successful by attracting mass support, Khomeini would not oppose it. Some of the students wanted to attack the Soviet Embassy, but others thought that it would not have the same propaganda effect in neutralizing the left as the American Embassy.

So on 4 November 1979 a group of radical students attacked the Embassy in the early hours of the morning. One of the ringleaders of the attack, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, said later that initially they had intended to occupy the embassy for a few hours to object to some US policies. He said: “Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way.” However, the takeover of the embassy proved more popular than they could have imagined, with large groups of leftist and radical Islamic students gathering and demonstrating in front of the Embassy, demanding the return of the Shah.

After three days of silence, Khomeini finally put his full support behind the students, and called their action “the second revolution”. He added that the first revolution had been against the Shah, while the second revolution was against imperialism. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bazargan and the entire cabinet resigned when they failed to kick the students out of the Embassy.

After the government’s resignation, Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr was put in charge of the Foreign Ministry for a short time. Bani-Sadr has stated: “During this time, I called all the ambassadors from the European and North American countries and told them that the occupation of the embassy was in fact a strike against the Iranian government; it was we who were being held hostage. I asked them to help us end it.”

To be sure, there was a fierce battle between government officials, such as Bazargan, Bani-Sadr and later Sadegh Qotbzadeh who served as foreign minister, and hard-line clerics led by Khomeini. While the more moderate elements wanted to put an end to the revolutionary chaos and get the country back on its feet, Khomeini and radical clerics were struggling to control the state. Meanwhile, 96 per cent of the votes in the following presidential election went to the candidates who had openly opposed the hostage taking, and Bani-Sadr won the election with 76 per cent of the votes.

The Rescue Mission

The takeover achieved its main domestic aim, which was to win support for Khomeini and proclaim his radical and revolutionary credentials. However, for Iran and for the Islamic Republic it was a very costly and foolish venture the repercussions of which still continue.

The issue became more complicated when President Carter decided to rescue the hostages by force. The operation that was codenamed Operation Eagle Claw and launched on 24 April 1980 involved flying eight helicopters from USS Nimitz to a remote airstrip in Iran’s Great Salt Desert near Tabas, the so-called “Desert One”. They were supposed to rendezvous with a number of waiting Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport and refuelling airplanes, move to a caravanserai near Tehran over night and attack the Embassy compound and free the hostages. However, while landing at Desert One the helicopters encountered severe dust storms that disabled two of the helicopters, and the next day a third of the eight helicopters was also found to be unserviceable. So the mission was called off. As the helicopters were repositioned for refuelling one helicopter ran into a C-130 tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight and wounding a number of other servicemen.

With hindsight, it was just as well that the mission was aborted, because had it gone ahead it would have resulted in many casualties and probably the death of most of the hostages. After the ill-fated attack, the hostages were dispersed and their treatment worsened.

The October Surprise

There was another major twist to the hostage crisis, as according to many reports some Republicans who were campaigning for the victory of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election organized clandestine negotiations with the Iranian government persuading Khomeini to keep the hostages till after the election, a campaign that came to be known as the “October Surprise”. Bani-Sadr has argued that after becoming president on 4 February 1980, he worked very hard to free the hostages, but found that his efforts were thwarted by the clerical establishment.

The allegations that the Reagan team subverted the U.S. government’s attempt to resolve the hostage crisis were generally regarded as conspiracy theories until the Iran-Contra affair was exposed in 1986. A bipartisan House panel that investigated the reports concluded that there was no merit to the accusations.

However, strong evidence that has been revealed after the Congressional report provides little room for doubt that there was some substance to the allegations.

In addition to Bani-Sadr, the former Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh told Iran’s parliament on 18 August 1980: “Another point to consider is this fact. We know that the Republican Party of the United States in order to win the presidential election is working hard to delay the solution of the hostages crisis until after the U.S. election." He also made this point to Agence France Presse that “the Republicans were in contact with elements in Iran to try to block a hostage release.” The investigative journalist Robert Parry collected a great deal of incriminating material that he published in a number of articles and in his book, America’s Stolen Narrative (published in 2012).

US Involvement in the Iran-Iraq War

Another consequence of the hostage-crisis was the disastrous Iran-Iraq War that lasted for eight years, killed and wounded a million Iranians and caused hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage. Many Iranians believe that US officials encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in order to put pressure on Iran to free the hostages. In Barry Lando and Michel Despratx’s brutal documentary “Saddam Hussein: The Trial You’ll Never See” prepared for European television, reference is made to a secret memo written in 1982 to Ronald Reagan by the Secretary of State Alexander Haig indicating that using the Saudis as go-betweens President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to attack Iran. Furthermore, the US might have even helped the Iraqis to plan the attack on Iran. A copy of the memo is shown in the program.

An investigative reporter Richard Sale who had close ties to senior US officials says in the program that he believes the reports to be accurate. He even claims: “The Americans were also feeding trumped up information about Iran. I was in contact with a whole range of US officials, and we were clearly stuffing Saddam’s head with a lot of nonsense, to make the conditions look better than thet were, to encourage him go to Iran, that it was a breeze.”

Video: Web of Deceit Part 1

Whether one believes all this or not, the fact remains that after the war the United States and other Western countries supported the Iraqi dictator with the most sophisticated weapons, including chemical weapons that killed and wounded about 100,000 Iranians. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE also gave him billions of dollars of financial assistance.

Time to Turn a New Chapter

So, on balance, although the attack on the American Embassy was clearly contrary to international law and has to be condemned, it is clear that it cost Iran much more than it cost the United States. As Noam Chomsky says, the United States has been torturing Iran for 60 years.

After all those ugly actions and mutual recriminations, the time has come to put all that behind us and to move forward to a more balanced and normal relationship. After all, foreign policy is about realism, rather than emotions.

As Lord Palmerston said: “Countries do not have permanent friends or foes, they have permanent interests.” At the moment, the entire Middle East is in turmoil. Continued fighting in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and the rise of the barbaric ISIS have created a new urgency to review old policies. Above all, a rapprochement between Iran and the United States would best help the cause of democracy in Iran. An Iranian government that is friendly with the West, that is in constant communication, that engages in trade and diplomatic exchanges is more likely to improve its domestic policies than one that is in a state of hostility. For all these reasons, it is essential to work hard for the success of nuclear negotiations with Iran and start a new chapter after 36 years of estrangement.

Farhang Jahanpour Farhang Jahanpour, a TFF Associate and Fellow of The Royal Asiatic Society, is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. He is a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.


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