I got to hear a great piece about Iran on WNYC yesterday: Robin Wright gave an insightful interview on what the approaching inauguration of the new Iranian president could mean for U.S.-Iran relations, especially given that the U.S. House has voted to yet again renew and deepen economic sanctions against Iran.
Wright mentions that the relationship between our two countries has been broken for 34 years, “since Iranian students took the American Embassy hostage.” And that’s when a little bell started to ring in my head.
We mostly talk about the broken relationship between the U.S. and Iran as a story that starts when Americans were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Most reasonable people can agree that taking hostages at an embassy will wreck a relationship between two countries.
But why not start the story in 1953 instead of 1979? 1953 is the year the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Iran to put the Shah back in power so that he could maintain our political and economic interests.
To be clear — no one disputes that it was a coup, or that our CIA was behind it. Former CIA-guy Kermit Roosevelt has written a book about it. Perhaps the main fact that is unclear is how much money we spent to do it, and how much we spent maintaining the autocratic rule of the Shah from 1953 to 1979. And the exact role that our embassy played in the coup and bribes to support the Shah’s government. Yes, the same embassy that was taken over by Iranian students in 1979.
Starting the story of our relationship with Iran in 1953 instead of 1979 starts it when we are not the victim.
This is one of problems always facing us when we are talking about violence (whether it’s violence writ large or interpersonal acts of violence). Where does the story start?
Does it start when something bad happens to the party that we sympathize with? Because that’s always going to be easier, and always going to lead to short-sighted solutions that don’t address what the real situation is.
Or does it start earlier, when the party we sympathize with might be the party who is doing harm? What is the sequence of events that have brought us to the present?
Where does the story start? It’s something I have wrestled with for a long time. I did not give too much thought to Germany (except for their role in World Wars I and II) until my brother was stationed there in 1984. I had maybe seen some news stories about the Red Army Faction, but I would read them then forget about them. For me, for a few years after his death, the story of the RAF started with them killing Eddie on August 8, 1985.
It was only when I was ready to look deeper into the story that I took a long look, and realized that even though the story of my family’s connection to the RAF started in 1985, my government’s connection to the RAF started years before, and that my brother was the victim of someone else’s possibly righteous anger, even though he himself did nothing to deserve it.
But perhaps that what so much international conflict is about: governments have fights and ordinary people feel the pain of it in our daily lives. I don’t need to stay complacent, though, and I can look for places to learn about the root of some of our international conflicts, and to look for meaningful spots to intervene.
I’ve contacted by congressional delegation from time to time to encourage a diplomatic, non-escalating approach to normalizing relations with Iran. Because I know that the story doesn’t just start and end with the hostage-taking of 1979.
The harm of our current broken relationship with Iran is mostly felt in the daily lives of the people of Iran, who have to deal with the effects of sanctions. It’s mostly hidden from our view. But if you want to know about what we should be doing with Iran, here’s some good sources of information:
In addition to all the places on the web you can read about the 1953 coup, I highly recommend William Blum’s book, Killing Hope (I wish I could say it’s ironically named, but it’s not). It’s a fairly comprehensive list of American military and covert intervention since World War II.
When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Killing Hope a great resource to figure out that the story probably doesn’t start when you think it does.