The infinite containment of Iran
Iran as Russia, two countries that share the curse of geography, condemned to experiment containment policies that will not end by the great world powers
The Trump administration seems to have dusted off an old dream of global hegemony called the “Project for a New American Century”, developed in the 1990s by thinkers and strategists from the neoconservative universe, such as Robert Kagan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton, Trump's current national security adviser. The ambitious goal of the think tank, now dissolved, but whose ideas continue to permeate the environments of the religious right, of the Republican Party and of the American exceptionalism, was to adequately exploit the victory in the Cold War to extend American hegemony throughout the world, with particular attention to the Middle East.
Supporters of the American century are often remembered for the alleged influence played in writing the Bush Jr. era's foreign agenda, in particular for the launch of the so-called War on Terror, during which Saddam Hussein's Iraq was hit by a change of regime. It was the beginning of chaos throughout the Middle East, the seeds were scattered for the spread of a chronic instability, proxy wars, inter-religious violence, fueling the now twenty-year Islamic radicalism, of which not Al-Qaeda, but the birth of self-proclaimed Islamic State undoubtedly represents the most emblematic experience.
The problem was not Iraq itself, but the presence of Saddam, a precious strategic partner for the West during the Cold War, convinced, armed and financed to declare war on Iran, but which over time had become intolerable for way of dangerous expansionist ambitions in the Arab-Persian region. Iran, on the other hand, was described by the think tank as a threat of a different nature, ie not eliminable through a simple regime change, but requiring a long-term containment strategy, due to a series of cultural and geopolitics peculiarities.
Recently the New York Times published a very interesting analysis by Carol Giacomo, entitled “Iran and the United States: Doomed to Be Forever Enemies?” Giacomo carefully describes the phases that have led the two countries to transform themselves from historical partners to bitter enemies, and the conclusions can be shared: both should find a way to cooperate to prevent the escalation from becoming even more dangerous, with repercussions on entire international relationships.
The real problem, which analysts and politicians seem not to understand, is this: between Iran and the United States there can never be a lasting peace, because Tehran, just like Moscow, is condemned by the defenders of the American empire to be seen as a natural enemy. Iran and Russia share a similar story and destiny, it was precisely the sense of perennial encirclement by foreign powers aiming to deprive them of their natural spheres of influence and subdue them with puppet governments, pushing them to get closer and closer in the last decade.
Anti-Russian and anti-Iranian containment also share a common point of origin: the Great Game. At that time, however, it was not the United States that had an imperialist agenda in Central and Middle East Asia, but London and Moscow. Some countries are victims of the so-called resource curse, others, like Iran and Russia, are victims of what can be renamed the curse of geography. Iran is the real meeting point between the Middle East and East Asia, between Russian Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is the site of a millenary civilization that has flourished for centuries exploiting this geostrategic position, boasting remote contacts with European, Russian and Ottoman civilizations , Indian and Chinese.
Unlike other countries in the area, Iran also has a long-standing tradition of political and social stability, a centuries-old national identity that resisted any attempt at Westernization, precisely because it was well defined and not artificially constructed, against the background of a considerable provision of strategic resources, such as oil and gas. It is because of these factors that, since the Great Game, Iran has been at the center of hegemonic clashes between the great world powers. The Great Game was a period of conflict, mainly between the Russian and British empires, which lasted from the 1830s to the 1890s.
The British were afraid that the Russian adventurism in Asia could end with the fall of Persia and Turkey in the Russian sphere of influence, with inevitable repercussions on the control of the Indian subcontinent, and therefore of the Far East. The Russians feared that the British could use their influence on lands with an Islamic majority to provoke anti-Russian motions both in the empire and in the prorussian khanates. A situation that continues today, but that sees the United States replacing the British.
The declining Persian empire was between two fires, led by the Qajar dynasty. The family managed to stay in power until the First World War, finding a way to satisfy both Russian and British interests, albeit in a precarious manner. Which is why in the first post-war period the British took advantage of the Russian revolution to depose the Qajar in favor of the Pahlavi, considered more competent and willing to defend the British national interest.
Reza Shah was chosen by the British as the head of the dynasty and the country, at least initially, met the demands coming from London. Since the 1930s, however, the political line changed course for a radical change, revealing the autonomist and the anti-British ambitions of the Shah. In 1932 he canceled the oil concession to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to reach a new division of profits mostly in favor of Iran, obtaining a compromise the following year. Then he transferred the right to print money from the British Imperial Bank to the National Bank of Iran, promulgating a series of laws limiting the role and presence of foreigners in institutions and strategic sectors.
In line with these nationalistic ambitions, in 1935 he changed the name of the country, from Persia to Iran, in the background of the beginning of a sharp reduction in trade with the Soviet Union and Great Britain in favor of new markets, including Nazi Germany. At the outbreak of the Second World War, London and Moscow jointly decided to depose the Shah, invading the country in August 1941 and occupying Tehran. The British forced the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad.
Mohammad initially continued the path inaugurated by the father of cultural and economic westernization but, soon, just like him, he veered towards a new politics imbued with nationalism and anti-imperialism. In 1951 the fervent nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh, leader of the country's most chauvinistic and anti-British political wing, was appointed prime minister, starting a battle that ended three years later with the Ajax Operation. Mosaddegh had made the nationalization of strategic sectors, including the oil industry, his most important workhorse.
Mosaddegh convinced the Shah, politics and society, of the importance of controlling the country's oil, because it was functional in achieving the dreamed political and economic independence, ousting the British from an instrument of domination over the country. The British asked the United States for help in removing the inconvenient prime minister and bringing the Shah back to order, declaring (falsely) that the nationalization program could hide Communist ambitions, also in light of the anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric used by Mosaddegh's followers. With the help of a part of the armed forces, the CIA and the SIS spread chaos and violence in the country as part of the Ajax Operation. The Shah was forced to depose Mosaddegh in favor of the pro-American general Fazlollah Zahedi.
The Ajax Operation represents a watershed in the recent history of the Arab-Islamic world: on the one hand, it established the definitive end of British hegemony over the Middle East and the entry of the United States; on the other hand, its cultural impact played a key role in nourishing the Islamic awakening that occurred shortly thereafter.
In post-Ajax the Shah strengthened the policy of forced westernization, known as the white revolution, beginning to clash with the opposition represented by the Shiite clergy and the communists, but also by the non-aligned society. Furthermore, on the US initiative, he established close diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, giving rise to the so-called two-pillar policy: Tehran and Riyadh would have guarded and defended US interests in the Middle East.
In the 1970s the Shah gave birth to a new nationalist political course, although more timid and weak than in the Mosaddegh era, establishing relations with Gaddafi's Libya, supporting and encouraging the OPEC countries during the 1973 oil crisis, criticizing the influence of the Israeli lobby in American politics and, above all, concluding the Algiers agreements with Iraq, without prior consultation with the United States and Israel, preventing them from using Iranian territory to send aid to Iraqi Kurds.
The westernization of society and the gradual return of anti-imperialism in foreign policy took place against the backdrop of the fall in the country's instability, due to the increasingly frequent protests by Shiites and communists. In 1979 the country was on the brink of civil war, a situation that convinced the Shah to flee, receiving asylum in the friend Anwar Sadat's Egypt, while the temporary government of Shapour Bakhtiar called home Ruhollah Khomeini, the moral leader of the protests .
On 1 April 1979 the Iranians were called to a referendum to transform the country into an Islamic republic based on the Shar'ia: it won the "yes". The same year, Khomeini assumed the role of supreme leader and quickly transported the country out of Western orbit.
40 years after the revolution is still a source of debate, if and in what way there was some intervention and interest from the West to depose the increasingly uncomfortable Shah. It was he, from exile, who spread conspiracy theories condensed in the famous phrase: “If you raise Khomeini's beard you will find writing on the chin Made in England”.
Some declassified CIA documents, whose authenticity is disputed in Iran, seem to prove that Khomeini tried to convince the United States to overthrow the Shah in the 1960s. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly true that the highest military ranks of the time had been infiltrated by men on the US payroll since the post-Ajax period and that, therefore, no traumatic revolution could have taken place without a “consensus” in a country of such vital geostrategic importance.
We should also take into account the accusations of the Shah also because history teaches that even when a revolution seems spontaneous and born from below, an external influence always takes place to exploit the dynamics created.
But even if the Shah had been right and Khomeini had really been helped by the West, nothing changes the fact that the West has lost the clash over a century against a country always misunderstood and in search of freedom. Indeed, Khomeini's Iran immediately ceased the policy of the two pillars, giving birth to a cold war with Israel and Saudi Arabia, challenging US hegemony over the Islamic world, and starting to spread revolutionary values around the world.
The West tried to reverse the situation by pushing Saddam to declare war on Iran, but Tehran showed the world an incredible capacity for survival and resistance.
To date, despite the campaign of targeted killings led by the Mossad that deprived the country of its best minds, hindering the country's arms race, and the sanctioning regime in place for twenty years, and periodic attempts to unleash colored revolutions, Khomeinism continues to deeply permeate Iranian society, culture and politics, and the country has also managed to succeed in different fields: the export of Khomeinism to the world, as manifested by the extraordinary growth of the Imamites Shia in Middle East and America Latin, the extension of its sphere of influence to Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, with the ultimate goal of creating the so-called Axis of Resistance.
The Trump administration has recovered the project of the New American Century and, together with it, the idea of exerting maximum pressure on Iran, to provoke a regime change from below. The war, in fact, is not a valid option: the costs, human and economic, would be too high and, contrary to Saddam's Iraq, Iran has all the potential for and the desire to ignite the entire Middle East, bringing the war to the gates of Israel and Saudi Arabia, thanks to the galaxy of allies built over the last twenty years.
But even if Bolton's hard line were to succeed and the Khomeini’s regime were to fall, it is the application of geophilosophy to the reading of history that shows us the uselessness of trying to subdue Iran which, for the aforementioned geopolitical and cultural characteristics, will show autonomous will in the long run. In fact, they have always been the same men chosen by London and Washington, because they are considered reliable, to decide, at the end, to break the chains of oppression, while aware of the risks, to give the country power and independence.
Political realism must take into consideration the existence of only marginally alterable variables that make Iran's diplomacy of force impracticable, due to its deep-rooted national conscience, resistant and resilient culture, both expressions of a millenary civilization. These variables should push the United States to accept the presence, and existence, in international relations of players eager to have their own spheres of influence.
The nuclear agreement signed during the Obama era has shown that both can, and must, replace rivalry with mutual respect to achieve goals whose importance is of global interest, even if the price to pay is sacrifice of objectives considered of vital importance.
Original column by Emanuel Pietrobon:
Translation by Costantino Ceoldo – Pravda freelance