In Iran, Feeling the Heat
Dying from cancer a quarter-century ago, the deposed shah of Iran pressed on me a fundamental point about his nation that has become even more vivid over the past two weeks. What the shah said, and almost said, then sheds light on the current confrontation between Iran and the world’s great powers.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi died weeks after our 1980 conversation in Cairo. It has taken the ayatollahs and other Islamic radicals who followed him to reveal how far backward, and forward, stretched the deeper meanings of the words he spoke, which had to be condensed into a conventional news story on that May day.
Iran is after all a place where reality usually comes not in words but in meaningful details that underlie — and often belie — the words. Fooling foreigners and adversaries is an ancient Persian art form. Saying exactly what you mean is a crude and dangerous way to talk, or to negotiate.
Such a telling detail lay beneath the shah’s descriptions to me of how, in his opinion, the British and American governments deliberately helped Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini bring down his regime in 1979. His bitter Anglophobia came to mind again the other day as I watched film of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blustering his way through the histrionic release of 15 British military captives and then, in the days that followed, defying the world anew over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The detail was that the shah blamed London much more than he blamed Washington for his fate. The Americans had been children playing at complicated games of power and espionage, while imperial Britain purposely mounted the plot to win favor with the ayatollahs. Or so the shah asserted.
The 15 captives grabbed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraqi waters on March 23 simply may have been targets of opportunity. But I doubt it. They were almost certainly seized as bargaining chips. In any event, Ahmadinejad played up their nationality in ways that suggest the imprint of the colonial era has not faded much from the Iranian political subconscious since the days of the shah. It still pays to twist the British lion’s tail, even in nations where imperial control was largely indirect and economic.
Cultural history also plays an important role in the confrontation over Iran’s determination to control uranium enrichment on its own soil despite international fears that Iran’s secret goal is to develop nuclear weapons.
Every discussion I have had with Iranian officials on the nuclear program has included a pointed reminder that it was the shah — with American and French encouragement — who started the nuclear energy program that Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs are carrying forward. These officials leave hanging unspoken this political fact of Iranian life: Their giving up control of the enrichment of uranium would open them to charges of being less nationalistic than was the shah.
The historical force of past intervention in Iran’s affairs is obviously no justification for kidnapping British sailors and marines; for pursuing nuclear weapons; or for supporting terrorism in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere. But it is important for Americans to recognize how deep is the imprint of the past and how demagogues exploit it when they are in trouble. It will take broad and sustained campaigns of political and economic pressures to force change in the behavior of any Iranian regime.
Consider the bombast of Ahmadinejad and his aides in grabbing hostages again, in threatening to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and in saying they will cut off negotiations if the United Nations continues to condemn Iran’s nuclear program. The meaningful detail in Iranian threats not to talk to the West is that the Iranians are still talking to the West, however theatrically and unconvincingly. They stall, but they remain engaged, trying to fend off impending isolation.
This demonstrates that the financial and diplomatic pressures orchestrated by the Treasury and State departments are taking their toll on Ahmadinejad’s regime. They should be continued and intensified where possible. Among those voting against Tehran on the latest Security Council censure were South Africa, which often breaks with the West on political issues to bolster its nonaligned credentials, and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Those votes were body blows to Tehran’s pretense that the nuclear dispute reflects a continuing victimization of Third World peoples and resources by the rapacious British and other Westerners. So is the visible irritation of Russia’s Vladimir Putin with Iran’s refusal to consider his offers to guarantee Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy.
The diplomatic effort to assemble a united international front against Iran is paying off. One sign: President Bush displays no sense of urgency about having to decide on military action, recent visitors to the White House report. History, ancient and recent, shows that his best option is to continue on the high road of multilateral, peaceful pressures.