History as paranoia: Iran and the game of nations
BY MATEIN KHALID (AT HOME)
Khaleej Times, United Arab Emirates
June 16 2005
FEW societies on earth are as conscious of their past as modern Iran.
The philosophic poetry of the medieval poets, Hafiz and Saadi continues
to enchant Iranians centuries after their death and their marble
tombs in Shiraz are as much a pilgrimage to Persian nationalism as
the desert ruins of ancient Persepolis.
The last Pahlavi Shah gave his parvenu dynasty a touch of badly
needed class by linking it to the Achaemenid empire that was once
the superpower of the ancient world. Celebrating the 2,500 years of
Persian monarchy amid the ruins of Persepolis, in an extravaganza
created by Maxims of Paris and ornamented by Lanvin and Baccarat,
the Shah declared “Sleep, Cyrus, for we are awake!”
Even Ayatollah Khomeini, while he expunged Iran’s pre-Islamic past
from the rhetoric of revolution, evoked the poet Firdousi and scholars
of Qom to boost Persian nationalist passions in the war with Iraq. Yet
Iranian diplomacy has been the modern Bermuda Triangle of international
relations, a black hole of inexplicable web of treachery, U-turns
and paranoia. Persian history, in its third millennium, underpins
Iran’s role on the global stage, its existential choices in the game
It is ironic that Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who chronicled
Alexander the Great’s rampage across the Persian Empire, declared
Iranians to be the most open of people to foreign customs.
Yet the Islamic republic, after all, was born amid xenophobia and
extreme nationalism, the world’s first theocratic state rejected the
bulldozer Westernisation of the Pahlavi regime. The Persian concept of
Garbzedeghi is as difficult for Westerners to understand as pronounce
but it refers to the sort of “West-intoxication embodied by the last
Shah and Empress of Iran, a cultural surrender that outraged all the
enemies of the Peacock Throne, from the clerics of Qom to the Marxist
Leninists of the communist Tudeh Party to the pious merchants of the
Few societies in the Middle East have evolved as exquisite a mass
conviction of victimhood as modern Iran. Derived from the Shia belief
that history is all about suffering and injustice, an incessant
struggle between good and evil, an ethos whose roots lay in the
ancient Sassanian theology and fire temples of Zoroaster, Iran has
been the geopolitical football of the Great Powers in modern times.
The Ottoman Turks waged war against Safavid Persia for centuries for
control of the Levant and the Gulf. The British Empire dealt with the
Qajar Shahs as puppets and vassals. Iran was a sideshow in its quest to
protect the sealanes to its Indian Raj, a pawn in its Great Game with
Tsarist Russia, its tobacco monopolies and the Abandon refineries of
BP once the Royal Navy warships shifted from coal to oil. The United
States replaced Britain as the puppeteer of the Peacock Throne after
World War Two.
Washington threatened Stalin with nuclear war to force the Soviet Union
out of Azerbaijan, unleashed the CIA in a countercoup to overthrow
the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the notorious
Operation Ajax, assisted the Shah’s repressive Savak secret police
and the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces to act as the gendarmes of the
West in civil wars everywhere from Iraqi Kurdistan to Dhofar, Lebanon,
Afghanistan and Baluchistan.
Even the Shah’s hawkishness in Opec was viewed by most Iranians
as Kissinger’s Machiavellian scheme to bankroll a servile, pro-US
client regime with billions of petrodollars to reshape the politics of
the Middle East. It was therefore no coincidence that hatred of the
United States, symbol and protector of the megalomaniac, repressive
Shah, defined the cataclysmic passions of the Iranian Revolution. The
1979-80 hostage crisis was the climax of the pathological historical
experience between the US and Iran.
Its toxic images, the blindfolded diplomats, the “Death to America”
chants, Ayatollah Khomeni’s threats to export his revolution to
US allies in the Gulf, the truck bombers who massacred the Marines
and CIA spooks in Beirut, the gutted Delta Force helicopters in the
Dasht-e-Kavir, still poison the prisms of American foreign policy
History is quicksand for the international relations of Iran. The
mass slaughter on the Shatt-al-Arab, inaugurated by Saddam Hussein’s
invasion in September 1980, was Iran’s most traumatic military invasion
since the medieval Mongol holocausts of Halagu Khan and Taimur. Yet
Iran fought the bloodiest war in Islamic history.
Saddam Hussein was financed and supported by friends near and far.
The United States “tilted” to Baghdad after the epic Iranian
victorious in Fao and Khorramshahr, delivered satellite intelligence,
clandestine bank loans, Exocet missiles and Etenard fighters, even
chemical weapons (via Paris and Berlin)to Saddam. The historic Persian
sense of victimhood is not misplaced. After all, as Kissinger once
observed “even paranoids have real enemies”. The Islamic Republic,
with good reason, sees itself encircled by the friends of its sworn
enemy, the Great Satan” which continues to demonise, isolate and
wage economic war (via blocked IMF/World Bank loans, and sanctions)
against Iran. American military bases and American dollars buttress
everyone in Iran’s neighbourhood, from Karzai in Kabul, to Musharraf
in Islamabad to Jaafari and Talabani in Baghdad to the post-Soviet
republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
The tragedies of Persian history shape the violent, intrigue driven
politics of Iran. The ayatollahs were not the original architect of
Iran’s nuclear programme, the Shah built a nuclear reactor in Bushehr
with German assistance decades before the Kremlin ever got involved.
So the language of neocon imperialism in Washington, sanctions and
preemptive strikes and ultimatums, evokes Iran’s historic sense of
outrage and victimhood. History, the paranoia of the past, chokes
Iran in the new axis of crisis in the Middle East.
Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker