Why do they hate us? It must be the Islamic Revolution. 1979. 52 hostages. 444 days. “It’s because they envy us.” Allow me to challenge this narrative.
On April 19, 1909, in the Persian village of Tabriz, a young American missionary, Howard Baskerville, 24, was killed, shot dead by a sniper as he fought alongside nationalist forces, some of whom were his students. Baskerville, recently graduated from Princeton, had gone to Persia as a teacher before entering seminary. Nationalist forces, supporting the Persian Constitutional Revolution, were resisting the Tsarist forces who, along with the British, were supporting a corrupt Shah trying to maintain his tyranny over the Persian people.
On Aug. 19, 1953, another American, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt Jr., succeeded on his Iranian mission. He engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and restored the Shah to power. Although the coup’s pretense, in Washington, was to keep the Soviets from making inroads through Persia and into the Indian Ocean, its true motive was protecting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company access to Iranian oil without having to share its revenues equitably. Roosevelt’s mission was successful. Mossadagh was deposed and the Shah installed, beginning a new reign of despotism over the Iranian people, supported with American arms and training, that continued until 1979 and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution and plunged Iran into a new abyss of tyranny.
Recently, in July 2009, shortly after heavily contested presidential elections in Iran, three American hikers, on no mission of their own, crossed into Iran and were arrested. Certainly one can imagine Iranian authorities, under siege internationally for their handling of the elections and its violent aftermath, being vigilant and paranoid about excursions along their borders. Two of the hikers were tried and imprisoned.
Today, in Tabriz, visitors to Baskerville’s gravesite are still apt to find fresh roses decorating his tomb. Schools and some roads still bear the Baskerville name and a silk Persian carpet, with Baskerville’s portrait, was woven by the women of Tabriz.
No such remembrances of Kermit Roosevelt Jr. grace Iran’s streets, although the memory of America’s coup, “Operation Ajax,” is still strong today — an act where the United States denied victory to Iran’s democratic forces and installed the Shah who tormented them for 26 years.
So, if there is hate for us in Iran today, date it from 1953. Not from 1979, when they seized the American Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Not from 1980 to 1988, when we backed Iraq with chemical weapons against Iran. Not from 1953 to 1979, when Americans trained the feared SAVAK secret police who controlled all aspects of life in Iran, not unlike the Revolutionary Guards of today.
Iran may be anti-Western, which is its right. It may be an Islamic State, which is also its right. But don’t make the mistake of thinking Iranians hate us because they envy us our democracy, “Sex and the City,” our Bill of Rights and “Glee.” They certainly don’t envy us our MacMansions, and our anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric.
They know better. They know there is much good, much freedom, to envy in America. But, the Iranians are proud, nationalistic, creative people who long to be free, both from their own despotic leaders and mullahs and from America’s imperial meddling. They disagree with our policies, our arrogance, our coming into their neighborhood and trying to rewrite the rules of global engagement for everyone — for everyone except ourselves.
There is much to dislike, and sometimes fear about Iran. Lack of disclosure over their nuclear program. Suppression of election results in 2009. Brutal suppression of dissent. Suppression of the rights of women and artists and homosexuals, and their support of Hizbullah and Hamas and their denial of the Holocaust and their anti-Semitism. Such actions must be repudiated.
But there is another narrative that demands respect. In May 2003, Iran, anxious not to be included in the Axis of Evil, and certainly no friend of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, sent Washington a wide-ranging letter offering both concessions and cooperation with the Americans on issues ranging from terrorism to nuclear power, including they “… offered to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for ‘full access to peaceful nuclear technology.'”
The letter was potentially a game changer, but Bush’s White House, eager to pursue its war on terror as defined by the neocons, rebuffed the Iranians, leading to more years of perhaps unnecessary regional conflict, especially in Iraq, and perhaps contributing to further American casualties in that theatre.
Iran lives in a tough neighborhood. American adventurism in Iraq, instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey’s conflicts with the Kurds, and a restive Arab Spring that augers an uncertain future for all tyrants and oligarchs fuels Iran’s sense of isolation. Surrounded by nuclear powers in Israel, China, Pakistan and India, with no supportive security alliances, it is understandable that they might seek their own nuclear deterrent. Not acceptable, perhaps, but understandable.
This week Iran, as world leaders were gathering in New York for the opening of the United Nations, released the two imprisoned American hikers. A welcome, yet perhaps cynical gesture, to raise the increasingly unpopular President Ahmadnejad’s profile as he prepared to address the General Assembly.
Because of the way America misplayed Iraq, Iran has emerged as a dominant Middle East power, whether we like it or not. America’s failure to talk to Iran is as foolish today as was its years-long failure to talk to China. There is little memory in Iran today of the events of 1979. As in America today, it needs jobs, education, and infrastructure renewal. Iran may be a wavering theocracy, stubborn, nationalistic and at times paranoid, but it has legitimate economic, security and political needs that can be addressed at the negotiating table.
Perhaps the young and innocent hikers walking unknown trails and tumbling down a dark, scary seemingly endless tunnel, free now through diplomacy, can offer an example for leaders to emulate.
This column first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.