Teaching Forrest Gump the History of the Middle East Part I – Iran

February 20, 2013 12:00 pm

forrest gumpOne of the memorable refrains from the film Forrest Gump is “for no particular reason”. Tom Hanks’ character seems to have little understanding of consequence or causation. Gump runs America coast to coast for no particular reason, Mark David Chapman kills John Lennon for no particular reason. Forrest’s take on the Vietnam War and Détente get similar treatment.

The British and American media maintain a similar attitude towards international news. At best, events happen in reaction to events a day or so earlier. 9/11 happened because the naughty Arabs were indiscriminately angry. 7/7 happened because they were still angry (and still naughty). Israel just bombed Gaza, not because of a 70-year (or 1400-year) dispute, but because Hamas struck Tel Aviv with rockets. Hamas struck Tel Aviv with rockets because Israel assassinated Ahmed al-Ja’abari, Hamas’ militant leader. Israel assassinated al-Ja’abari because Hamas had fired rockets at southern Israel. Etc. Such blame-throwing is counterproductive since rather than helping the sides negotiate a mutually agreeable solution, it merely gives each tu quoque justifications to bomb the other.



The media’s response is understandable. The history of the Middle East is, well, history. The media is concerned with current affairs – it isn’t journalists’ job to explain why the world is as it is. But the wider public do not regularly read history books.

This is dangerous, very dangerous. It means that politicians can shape what the public believes to be true of past traditions and actions, and thus conjure policy motives and justifications.  It allows the likes of Netanyahu, Romney and Bush to blame Palestinian and anti-American terror on vague concepts like ‘Salafism’, ‘Islamiscism’, ‘Jihadism’ and the most  meaningless old chestnut, ‘Fundamentalism’. These ideologies exist, but we must understand the whole picture – that Arab violence is not simply based on Qur’anic interpretation.

nick griffinMisappropriation of history is a concrete threat, since it can win votes and rouse political action. We tend to pat our collective back when, upon hearing the British National Party’s Nick Griffin talking bollocks about the pride and purity of Britain’s “indigenous people”, we say/think/holler “that silly man is lying, don’t vote for him!”

We’re similarly distrustful of Northern Irish politicians presenting narratives in which one or other religion represents Pure Evil, and the other an entirely oppressed Innocent Party. The breakup of Yugoslavia saw ethnic tensions exacerbated by extreme accounts of Bosnian Muslim ill deeds, which were partially used by Serbs to justify the Bosnian War. Palestine-Israel is a current metaphorical battleground, in which wildly divergent accounts of the past are plastered across tube stations, student protests and of course, the news.

Because I am omniscient, perfect, and objective, I thought to write a short series attempting to deal with some of the worst myths surrounding the Middle East. I am, however, writing in gross summary, and anyone who wants to form an opinion on such matters is advised to research, and research lots. It turns out that the past is rather complicated.

This week…


Standard Line: They hate Israel, America and Salman Rushdie because…well…y’know…Islam.

Whilst Israel and Syria currently dominate the news, Iran is the elephant in the room. Iran’s the one Israel might invade, dragging America with it. Iran’s the one that nearly closed the Strait of Hormuz, blocking 22% of world oil shipping. Iran’s the one facing crippling international sanctions. Iran’s the one Mitt and Barry talked about as if it were two miles east of Hell. It’s particularly important to appreciate how and why Iran is as it is today, and the West’s hand in it. This is not so we ‘take the blame’ (as, for example, Tony Blair apologised for slavery) but simply that we understand the whys and the wherefores. It might help level-headed policy. You never know…

Imperial Era – Grab the Oil

After centuries of wrestling Imperial Russia for central Asian influence, Britain discovered oil at Khuzestan in 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was established, and flourished. To conclude the ‘Great Game’ Russia and Britain split ‘Persia’ into spheres of influence, although the Shah (king) remained in nominal power.

Britain attempted to set up a Protectorate following WW1, already having dominance in Egypt, Aden (Yemen), Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Quatar, Bahrian and the Trucial States (later UAE). In Iran, however, the British failed, only managing to destabilise the country. Coups and assassinations followed until Reza Khan declared himself Shah, and with Majli Parliament’s support, established the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925.

His rule had mixed results, bringing aspects of modernity but also authoritarian hallmarks – strict censorship, state propaganda, police corruption. Moreover, Reza Shah Pahlavi embraced limited Westernisation, enforcing laws encouraging women not to wear hijabs and allowing both sexes to freely congregate. Many enjoyed this licence but the regime had to face down the religious-based Imam Reza Shrine Rebellion in 1935.

During World War Two the Shah declared Iran neutral, but was seen as sympathetic to the Axis powers. Soviet and British Commonwealth troops invaded to safeguard vital oil supplies. The Allies forced the Shah to abdicate in favour of his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.  The Tehran Conference (1943) guaranteed Iran’s future independence and borders, but when the war concluded USSR troops aided short-lived socialist republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. The Red Army withdrew only when US President Truman moved his Sixth Fleet to threaten Russia and the Shah promised Russia future oil rights.

Transition Era – Lose the Oil

Notice, America just got involved.

reza shah pahlaviMohammad Reza Shah aimed to be a ‘Constitutional Monarch’, i.e. one controlled by a constitution, similar to British royals post-1689. He allowed parliament significant freedoms, although aforementioned corruption meant politics was very unstable, Iran seeing six different prime ministers from 1947-51.

The man elected in 1951 was Nation Front leader Mohammad Mosaddeq. By ‘nationalist’, I don’t mean like the English Defence League are nationalist. I mean ‘wanting less foreign imperial influence in your country and wanting better democracy’. See also: Mohandas Ghandi.

Mosaddeq’s main policy was the nationalisation of Iran’s oil fields since APOC paid Iran little revenue. The Communist Party, Tudeh, agitated in favour of nationalisation, organising strikes for poorly treated workers.  Mosaddeq, with the Shah’s support, introduced reforms including unemployment benefits, sick-pay to injured workers, stronger rights for peasants (previously forced to work a landlord’s estate) and development projects.  After negotiations for the British to pay more and to extricate themselves from political corruption failed, 1 May 1953 Mosaddeq nationalised the oil industry.

Britain organised an international boycott on Iranian oil. The revenue loss threatened Mosaddeq’s spending and weakened his government; he had to suspend the subsequent election when he learned that British spies had bribed the media, army, religious institutions and street gangs. The Shah, alarmed by developments, forced Mosaddeq’s resignation.

However Mosaddeq’s supporters protested in over 200 towns and cities. The Army was overwhelmed so the Shah quickly reinstated Mosaddeq, then temporarily fled. Parliament granted Mosaddeq Emergency Powers to deal with the economic crisis. Enjoying national popularity, he limited the Shah’s extra-constitutional powers, banning him from conducting diplomacy, and attempted to reform the countryside’s feudal system.

1953 Coup d’etat – Reclaim the Oil

After British diplomats were expelled, Winston Churchill made ‘invasion noises’. Fortunately for him, Eisenhower was elected in America. Old Ike needed to keep Britain sweet to ensure participation in the Korean War!

Churchill convinced Eisenhower of Iran’s economic instability and of Mosaddeq’s dependence on Tudeh and Russia – despite Mosaddeq’s overt distrust for socialism. Ike ordered the CIA to action. Published CIA documents show deliberate planning to oust the democratically elected, popular leader. They broadcasted royalist propaganda and bribed opposition leaders. The CIA and MI6 plan, Operation Ajax, funded street gangs and off-duty soldiers to protest in Tehran. In ‘reaction’ the Shah sacked Mosaddeq. The militants allowed retired monarchist general Fazlollah Zahedi to arrest Mosaddeq, who was convicted of treason and confined to house arrest.

The Shah, indebted to America, restored diplomatic relations. He violently suppressed the National Front and Tudeh. The Shah exerted autocracy and martial law, all with American backing.

For the next 25 years, foreign companies (Exxon, Texaco, Shell and APOC’s rebrand, British Petroleum) ran Iran’s oil industry, giving Iran a nominal 50% of the profits but not allowing Iranians onto the directors’ board or to audit their accounts. Iran joined CENTO, a Middle-Eastern version of NATO which allowed America to fund/protect the Shah.

In 1961 the Shah began land reforms (‘The White Revolution’) to strengthen traditional support, but this alienated religious landowners; Ayatollah Khomeini was arrested in 1963, prompting widespread rioting. The secret police, SAVAK, strengthened operations after the White Revolution’s architect, PM Hassan-Ali Mansur, was assassinated outside the Majlis. SAVAK killed over 100 political opponents, and arrested or deported many more.

Following Arab defeat at Israel’s hands in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) agreed to limit world oil supplies until Palestinian rights were recognised. The Shah did not join OPEC’s embargo and instead increased production, benefiting from rocketing prices.

Not everyone in Iran was delighted by this fraternal decision.

Islamic Revolution – Avenge the Oil

In 1978, mass demonstrations began against the Shah’s hardline reign and pro-Western policies. Strikes and civil disobedience paralysed the country. Revolutionaries exiled the Shah and overwhelmed loyalist troops. Iranians chose theocracy by referendum and elected Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader.

iran hijabThe Ayatollah banned political parties and even the word ‘democracy’, purging universities and expurgating Western influence. Khomeini crushed rebellions from the leftist, Kurd, secular and even traditional-Muslim groups. Shariah judges executed over 500 civilian and military leaders in mock-trials. Amnesty International estimates thousands have since been killed. Gender partitioning and mandatory hijab use was re-exerted.

Komeini’s popularity was cemented by the Iranian hostage crisis. When the (ex-)Shah travelled to America for cancer treatment, Iranian students retaliated by seizing the US embassy for 444 days, with implicit popular and government support. America retaliated with economic sanctions, which didn’t exactly help their popularity or aid their cause. Khomeini began referring to America as the ‘Great Shaytan’ and tightened control of the oil industry, reducing revenues. Iranian per-capita income never recovered to pre-revolutionary levels.

Iran-Iraq War – Pun Involving Oil

In 1980 Saddam Hussein claimed Iraqi ownership of the oil-rich Khuzestan region on the basis of its Arab (i.e. non-Persian) population and history. He invaded. Donald Rumsfeld normalised diplomatic relations with Iraq, despite manifold evidence of chemical weapons use. Iraq enjoyed the military/diplomatic support of America, Britain, France, Germany, the USSR, Egypt and China.

Despite initial defeats, the Iranian army had pushed the Iraqis back into Iraq by 1982. However, Khomeini wanted to export the Islamic Revolution, given Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, so the war continued until 1988. Iran never used chemical weapons.

By 1989, opposition had again flared, so again tens of thousands of political prisoners were executed, mainly from the Tudeh and Mujahedin. To regain religious momentum, Khomeini issued a fatwā (here: kill-order) against Salman Rushdie on the basis that The Satanic Verses was blasphemous. He refused Rushdie’s apology.

Modern Era

mahmoud ahmadinejadAli Khamenei succeeded Khomeini in 1989. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election largely ended opposition hopes as government supremacy was re-exerted. The Iranian government strongly opposed the Iraq War, but enjoyed the aftermath as the Shi’ite south gained political power. The international community is terrified by developments in Iran’s nuclear power programme, despite Khamenei’s 2005 fatwā explicitly condemning the use of nuclear weapons.

Supreme Leader Kamenei’s’ opposition to Israel and Zionism is evident – he announced, “No one will allow a bunch of thugs, lechers and outcasts from London, Washington and Moscow to rule over the Palestinians.” However, he opposed Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical threat to ‘wipe Israel off the map’, claiming “[Iran] has never threatened and will never threaten any country.” His foreign policy advisors admit the Holocaust genuinely happened, and was a genocide. Yay.

In any case, Ahmadinejad’s threat was mistranslated. This lengthy discussion suggests he wasn’t expressing a desire for war, but a vague wish that the current Israeli regime be “removed/wiped from the page/s of history/time.” He didn’t mean he wanted Israel itself to be destroyed – the same phrase has been used describing the Iranian Revolution. It denotes regime change.

In Summary

The Iranian people’s hatred for America is profound. The reason for this [hatred] is the various plots that the U.S. government has concocted against Iran and the Iranian people in the past 50 years. The Americans have not only refused to apologize for their actions, but have continued with their arrogant actions.

-Ayatollah Khamenei , 29/10/2008

Early colonial meddling destabilised Iran, which nevertheless elected secularist, modernising leaders. Twice. To protect oil imports, American and Britain usurped the popular, elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq and installed an authoritarian dictator in his place. The Shah resorted to despotic tactics to retain power, his military funded by the US. He was eventually ousted by an understandably anti-Western government, whose hostile religious motivations have only been strengthened by subsequent US pressure.

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