Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Nuclear Fat Is in the Fire: Iran Is Not Some Ill-Sorted Colonial Confection like Iraq with 80 Years on the Clock. This Proud, Ancient Nation Would Resist US Invasion at All Levels

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Nuclear Fat Is in the Fire: Iran Is Not Some Ill-Sorted Colonial Confection like Iraq with 80 Years on the Clock. This Proud, Ancient Nation Would Resist US Invasion at All Levels

Article excerpt

The dispute over the Iranian government's nuclear programme is only the latest quarrel in a half-century of animosity between Iran and the United States. What makes this dispute immeasurably more dangerous than the CIA's Operation Ajax in 1953, or the anti-American riots of 1963, or the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, or the shooting down of IranAir Flight 655 in 1988, is the new world order in which it is being fought.

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In a post-colonial and post-cold war world, neither Russia nor Britain, the old historical powers in the region, nor even the institutions of international diplomacy, have much power to persuade, threaten or restrain. Each country, Iran and the US, has a deep-seated resentment of the other, which is hard to express in traditional diplomacy, or to contain. The taste they share for Manichaean rhetoric--"Great Satan!", "axis of evil!"--makes the quarrel an agony to witness.

At the heart of the threat to peace is the Iranian hankering for security. Though never colonised by the European powers, Iran was for much of the 19th and 20th centuries a battleground of Russian and British rivalry. The naive Iranian faith in the US as its champion against these old-world bullies evaporated in 1953, when the CIA helped overturn the nationalist government of Muhammed Mossadeq to protect British interests and restore the young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In Iran, Mossadeq is regarded with veneration, not least because he wasn't a clergyman. The shah went on to forge close relationships with both Democrat and Republican US presidents, dictate terms to the Ba'athist regime in Iraq and, for a while, make Iran both rich and influential.

Yet the shah, no less than his successors, dreamed of nuclear weapons and the power and authority that go with them. It was he who, in 1974, ordered two nuclear reactors to be built in Bushehr, a sweltering old port on the Gulf coast. In those days, before the nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the case for peaceful nuclear investment sounded less ludicrous than in the mouth of Iran's present nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani.

The revolution of 1979 was a failure in its capital aims of establishing a Shia paradise on earth and providing much material improvement in the lives of ordinary Iranians. Where it succeeded, beginning with the hostage-taking at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, was to turn the United States from an ally into an implacable foe.

The constitution of the new Islamic Republic of Iran was a hybrid, part clerical dictatorship and part parliamentary democracy of early 20th-century character. With the death of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, and his replacement by Ayatollah Khameini, any pretence of national unity vanished. The result, politically and in the economy, has been 25 years of stagnation, in which the reformers cannot reform and the anti-democratic right cannot stage a coup d'etat.

The right has its hands on all the levers of power, violence and wealth in Iran, including parliament, the armed services, the Revolutionary Guards and the militia or home guard (known as the the Basij), state enterprises such as the Bonyad-e-Mostazafan va Janbazan (the Foundation for Dispossessed and Disabled Veterans) and the bazaar. In the past decade, the reformers have had the backing of the masses.

The Iranian economy consists of a valuable oil industry badly in need of capital, torpid nationalised industries short of equipment and spares, an agricultural sector in difficulties and the bazaar. Prosperous industries, such as the carpet trade, have been ruined by bad management, possibly for all time.

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Official figures put unemployment at 15 per cent of the workforce, but in reality about one person in four in Iran works anything remotely like a full day. Many, perhaps most, young men want to leave the country. …

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