Author: Emanuel Pierobon – 18/05/2019
The Trump administration seems to have brushed up a dream of global hegemony called “Project for a new American century”, developed in the 90s by thinkers and strategists belonging to the neocon universe, such as Robert Kagan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor.
The ambitious goal of the think tank, now dissolved, but whose ideas continue to permeate the Republican Party, the religious right and the American exceptionalism’s world, was to adequately exploit the Cold War victory to extend American hegemony on a world-level, with a particular focus on the Middle East.
The new American century supporters are often remembered for the alleged influence played on the Bush Jr. era’s foreign agenda, particularly in the launch of the so-called War on Terror, during which Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was hit by a regime change. It was the beginning of the chaos in the Middle East: it were scattered the seeds for the spreading of chronic instability, proxy wars, interreligious violence, feeding a twenty-year-long prosperous Islamic radicalism, of which not Al-Qaeda but the birth of the self-proclaimed Islamic State undoubtedly represents the most emblematic experience.
The problem was not Iraq itself, but the presence of Saddam Hussein, who was a valuable strategic partner for the West during the Cold War, armed and funded to declare war on Iran, but with over time he had become intolerable due to its expansionist ambitions in the Arab region.
Iran, on the other hand, was described by the think tank as a threat of a different nature, namely not eliminable through a mere regime change but deserving a long-term containment strategy due to a series of geopolitical and cultural characteristics.
Recently, The New York Times published a very interesting analysis by Carol Giacomo entitled “Iran and the United States: Doomed to Be Forever Enemies?”. Giacomo describes carefully the phases that have led the two countries to transform themselves from strategic partners to bitter enemies, and the conclusions are sharable: both countries should find a way to cooperate in order to avoid an international-level dangerous escalation.
The real problem, which analysts of international relations seem not to understand, is the following: between Iran and the United States there can never be a long-lasting peace, because Tehran, just like Moscow, is doomed to be considered a natural-born enemy by the American empire.
Iran and Russia share a similar story and destiny, and it was precisely the perennial feeling of encirclement by foreign powers willing to deprive them of their natural spheres of influence, and to subdue them by means of puppet governments, that pushed them to forge a close relationship in the last decade.
The anti-Iranian and anti-Russian containment also share also a common starting point: the Great Game. At the time, however, it was not the United States that led an expansionist agenda in the Middle East and Central Asia, but the United Kingdom and Russia.
Some countries are victims of the so-called “resource curse”, others, like Iran, are victims of what can be called the “curse of geography”. Iran is the true meeting point between the Middle East and East Asia, between Russian Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is the site of a millenary civilization that has flourished for centuries exploiting this geostrategic position, and which boasts contacts dating back to ancient times with the European, Russian, Ottoman, Indian and Chinese civilizations.
Unlike the other countries in the area, Iran has a long-standing tradition of political and social stability, a deep-rooted national identity which has been strengthened to every attempt of westernization, also because it is linked to a precise (and not artificially-constructed) history, on the background of a significant disposal of strategic resources, such as oil and natural gas.
It is because of these factors that Iran has been at the center of hegemonic clashes between the world-greatest powers since the so-called Great Game, a period of opposition mainly between the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire that lasted from 1830 to 1895.
The British feared that Russian adventurism in Asia would end with the fall of the Persian and Ottoman empires in Moscow’s sphere of influence, with inevitable repercussions on the control of the Indian subcontinent and, therefore, of the entire Far East.
At the same time, Russians feared that the British could use their influence on Muslim-majority lands to provoke anti-Russian uprisings throughout the empire and in Russian-friendly khanates.
The declining Persian empire was between two fires, led by the Qajar dynasty. Eventually, the royal family had managed to survive the Great Game, succeeding in the difficult task of satisfying both Russian and British interests in a precariously-balanced way.
In the post-WWIr, the British took advantage of the Soviet Union’s moment of weakness to depose the Qajar dynasty because judged too incompetent to defend the interests of the British crown. It was established a new dynasty, based on the Pahlavi family.
Reza Shah was chosen by the British as the dynasty’s leader and the country and, at least initially, he satisfied the requests coming from London. Since the 1930s, however, his political line had progressively changed direction, revealing the Shah’s will to emancipate Iran from the British subjection.
In 1932 he canceled the oil concession to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to retract a new division of profits more favorable to Iran, obtaining a new compromise the following year. Then, he transferred the right to print money from the British Imperial Bank to the National Bank of Iran, and issued a series of laws to limit the presence of foreign personnel in strategic sectors.
In line with his nationalistic ambitions, in 1935 he changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran, on the background of the reduction of trade with the Soviet Union and Great Britain in favour of new partners, including Nazi Germany.
At the outbreak of World War II, London and Moscow jointly decided to depose the Shah, invading the country in August 1941 and occupying Tehran. The British forced the Shah to abdicate, leaving the throne to his son Mohammad.
Mohammad initially met the British needs, continuing his father’s path of cultural and economic westernization but, just like him, he gradually turned towards a nationalistic policy with the aim to reduce British influence.
In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddegh, a fervent nationalist, was appointed prime minister, marking the start of a battle season that ended three years later in the Ajax operation. Mosaddegh was the leader of the most intransigent wing of the nationalist front and the nationalization of strategic sectors, including the oil industry, was his most important workhorse.
Mosaddegh convinced the Shah, politics and society of the need to fully control Iranian oil, both to achieve economic and political independence, in order to deprive Britain of its main instrument of domination over Tehran.
Britain asked for US assistance to remove the uncomfortable PM and bring the Shah back into line, emphasizing the (false) possibility that the nationalization program might actually hide communist ambitions, even in light of the anti-Western and anti-imperialist rhetoric used in Iranian panorama.
With the help of military disloyal to the government, CIA and SIS spread chaos and violence in the country as part of the so-called Ajax operation. The Shah was forced to depose the PM in favour of the pro-American General Fazlollah Zahedi.
The Ajax operation marked a watershed moment in the Arab-Islamic world’s recent history: on one side it sanctioned the definitive end of the British rule over the Middle East and the entry of the United States, on the other its cultural legacy played a key role in feeding the Islamic revival occurred some decades later.
In post-Ajax, the Shah invigorated the policy of forced westernization, known as the “white revolution”, and he started encountering the harsh opposition of the Shiite clergy, but also of a good part of society. Furthermore, on US initiative, he established close diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, giving rise to the so-called two-pillar policy: Tehran and Riyadh had become custodians of US interests in the Arab-Persian area.
In the 1970s, the Shah gave new life to a new political course based on nationalism, though weaker than in the Mossadegh era, establishing relations with Gaddafi’s Libya, supporting and encouraging OPEC countries during the 1973 oil crisis, criticizing the influence of the Israeli lobby in US policy, and signing the Algiers agreements with Iraq, without prior consultation with the United States, on the basis of which all forms of support to the Kurds were ceased and the US and Israel were prevented from using the Iranian territory to send them aid.
The westernization of society and the gradual return to anti-imperialism in foreign policy took place on the background of the country’s fall in instability, due to the increasingly frequent and violent protests led by the Shiite clergy and the Communists. In 1979 the country was on the brink of civil war, a situation that convinced the Shah to flee, receiving asylum in Anwar Sadat’s Egypt, and the temporary government led by Shapour Bakhtiar to call back Ruhollah Khomeini, the protests’ moral leader, to homeland.
On April 1, 1979, Iranians were called to a referendum to transform Iran into a sharia-based Islamic republic: they voted “yes”. Later the same year Khomeini assumed the role of Supreme Leader and quickly transported the country out of the Western orbit.
40 years after the revolution, it is still a source of debate if there was an actual interest by the West to overthrow the untrustworthy Shah. It was precisely him, from exile, to spread conspiracy theories expressed in the famous sentence: “If you lift up Khomeini’s beard, you fill find ‘Made in England’ written under his chin“.
Some CIA declassified documents, whose authenticity is disputed, seem to prove that Khomeini tried to approach the US to overthrow the Shah since the 1960s. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly true that the higher ranks of Iranian army were infiltrated by US-paid men since the post-Ajax and no shocking revolution would take place without their consent in such a strategic country.
We should take into account Shah’s claims only because history teaches that even when a revolution may be spontaneous and bottom-up, it always takes place an external influence aimed at taking advantage of the newly-created dynamics.
But even if the Shah was right and Khomeini was truly helped by the West, nothing changes the fact that the West eventually lost the one-century-long match against a misunderstood freedom-aspiring nation. Indeed, Khomeini’s Iran quickly ended the two-pillar policy, by engaging a proxy war with Israel and Saudi Arabia, challenged the US hegemony over the Muslim world, and started spreading the revolutionary values all over the world.
The West tried to overturn the situation by instigating Saddam Hussein to declare war on Iran, but Tehran showed to the world an incredible will to survive and resist.
To date, despite the Mossad-backed campaign of targeted killings that deprived the country of its best minds, hindering Iran’s arms race, the 20-year-long harsh sanctionatory regime, and the periodic attempts to provoke colored revolutions, Khomeinism continues to permeate deeply the Iranian society, culture and politics, and Tehran has gradually succeeded in exporting revolutionary values all over the world, as shown by the unstoppable growing of Twelver Shi’ism in the Middle East and Latin America, and to extend its sphere of influence up to Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, with the aim of giving rise to the so-called “Axis of resistance”.
The Trump administration has recovered the new American century’s project and, together with it, the idea of exerting maximum pressure on Iran to provoke a bottom-up regime change. The war, in fact, is not a valid option: the costs, both human and economic, would be too high and, contrarily to Saddam’s Iraq, Iran has all the potential to extend the war to the entire Middle East, up to the gates of Israel and Saudi Arabia, thanks to the galaxy of proxies built in the last twenty years.
But even if the Bolton’s hard-line proved to be successful and the Khomeinist regime fell, it is the application of geophilosophy to the reading of history to show that cultural and geopolitical peculiarities make vain any attempt to subdue Tehran.
A pro-Western order would not last in the long run, because the people, the intellectual world and the political class would demand greater autonomy. It were always the same men carefully chosen by London and Washington to protect Western interests that, in the end, decided to break the chains of oppression, despite the awareness of the risks, to gain power. and independence.
Political realism must take into consideration the existence of only-marginally-alterable variables that make not practicable the coercive diplomacy with Iran, such as a deep-rooted national consciousness, a resistent and resilient culture, both expressions of a millenary civilization. This set of variables should push the US to accept the presence, and the existence, in international relations of players willing to have their own spheres of influence.
The Iran deal signed during the Obama era has shown that the two countries can, and must, replace rivalry with mutual respect in order to achieve goals whose importance is of global interest, even if the price to pay is the sacrifice of purposes considered of vital importance.
Emanuel Pietrobon, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, Russia