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History of U.S. relations with Iran contributes to current issues

September 30, 2010

It would sound far too arrogant coming from me so as per Michael Cox, professor of international relations at London School of Economics and Political Science, Americans simply just do not understand Iran.  As an American I can understand why.  Iran behaves in ways that seem illogical from an American perspective. It is hard for us to fathom why a regional power would be so hostile to us, the global power. My aim is to alleviate this confusion and then propose how I feel policy makers should address Iran.

Starting with history there are three distinct periods of Iranian history pertinent to understanding the current situation there. The first is the pre-1979 revolution period where, since 1951, Iran was ruled by a Shah, king, and was supported, though arms deals, by the United States. It is important to note that Shah only came to power after the United States had collaborated with England to dispose of the previous, democratically elected, leader.  The Shah and Washington were very close in this period, inspiring the Shah to consider vast economic modernization. His model, while being successful in educating the population, was flawed in that it failed to provide jobs for newly educated citizens. The one thing about having unemployed, educated citizens is that it tends to lead to a revolution; a fact which the Shah was unable to escape.

The second period of Iranian history we are looking it is the Khomeini, notice the o, led period. Khomeini was a revolutionist Muslim cleric who was exiled by Iran and living in Iraq. He was very popular in Iran and subscribed to an ideology that only the clergy could best provide for the people. So, when he was chosen to lead the revolution he put in place a political system which reflected this belief. Drawing on the democratic tradition of Iran, Khomeini implemented a political system where congress and the president would be democratically elected. The clergy; however, would be represented by a Supreme Leader and council of Guardians which would have veto power over every part of the political system.

The decline in US-Iranian relations began in this period when a group of student-revolutionists took the United States embassy and everyone in it, hostage, claiming that they were a “den of spies” plotting to overthrow the new government like the United States did before. Khomeini was not aware of this operation until after it was successful, then giving it his blessing. This is the part which generally baffles Americans. Why would the revolutionists not want American support? Look at it from an Iranian perspective. They had a democratically elected government which was overthrown by the United States for a Shah. They just revolted against this Shah so arguably they had a legitimate reason to be concerned about United States involvement in their revolution. Khomeini also felt that, because of close relations between the Shah and the United States, he had to distance himself from the US otherwise he would have lost support from the people. The hostage crisis provided him the perfect opportunity to accomplish these goals.

The last period of Iranian history is the post Khomeini period, or current period. What happened after Khomeini’s death is that the Council of Guardians decided to elect a new Supreme Leader, Khameini, notice the “a”. Khameini and Khomenini both, despite having the title, were not ayatollahs; however, Khomeini was still a respected religious leader and held a lesser title of marja. Khameini does not hold any title and, being less charismatic than his predecessor, is not very well respected in religious circles. This makes him an intriguingly weak choice for Supreme Leader, suggesting that he was deliberately chosen to weaken the position of Supreme Leader, while strengthening the position of the Council of Guardians. This culminates to make the Council of Guardians the most important actor in Iranian politics.

The significance of this plays out in recent political events, mainly presidential elections. You all, I am sure, have heard of the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; however, I doubt that you have heard of his predecessor. The reason for this is that the United States’ politicians enjoy breaking things down into categories of good and bad, simplifying issues like international relations. The problem with this is it is hard to move a country, like Iran, from one category to another. The president of Iran before President Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Khatami, was actually a reformist who was seeking stronger ties with the United States along with democratic reforms. Unfortunately the United States regarded Khatami’s intentions with suspicion and even went as far as to label Iran as a part of an “axis of evil.” I cannot possibly understate the significance of that statement. It eroded the position of reformists in Iran, while giving the Council of Guardians a political tool which they use to remain in power despite popular demand for democracy.

The effects of this are the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the use of American suspicion for garnering political support for an unpopular government. This is why Ahmadinejad says what he says. This is why Iran is pursuing nuclear power despite UN condemnation and sanctions. The Council of Guardians is making an argument to the Iranian people that the international community is “out to get Iran” and every time the council or Ahmadinejad can get the United States to slap on a new sanction or condemn them they are making their case even stronger. Of course we are playing right into their hand, imposing a new sanction even as I write. All this does is artificially extend the political life of Ahmadinejad and the Council of Guardians. Let me say this again, by imposing sanctions and condemning Iran we are essentially lending our support to the Iranian government.

I propose that we actually respect countries autonomy for once and repeal the economic sanctions put on Iran. Let’s be honest they are not going to dissuade them from acquiring nuclear weapons if they so choose and are only going to cause undue distress to an already distressed population. The biggest thing that Americans seem to forget is that we started this. We caused the “Iran problem” and we are the ones who let it get out of hand. If we had not overthrown their democracy for an authoritarian regime we would not be having a debate. If we had not labeled them, while they were attempting to make democratic reforms, evil we would not be having a debate. The ball is in our court and I suggest we just put it down before we hurt ourselves. I do not support the government of Iran but I do support the people and I support allowing them the opportunity to choose democracy unmolested.

Jason Larson is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.