By Gaither Stewart
While the drums of war roll and the US warships are parked along Iran’s shores, questions and more questions emerge from the disastrous past of US-Iran relations. In this climate and after the great lie about Iraq, one is justified to wonder if Iran’s nuclear ambitions or any Iranian acts at all are the problem. The answer seems obvious—not at all. Oil is the issue.
Oil is always the issue when official America speaks of Iran.
Are the President’s threats of war against Iran empty words, nothing more than electoral propaganda? Many Europeans believe so. They reason that America cannot sustain another military front. Europeans believe the President’s rhetoric is bluff, though a dangerous bluff, because it is combined with America’s historical engrained ignorance about Iran.
One recalls that as late as August 1978 the CIA predicted that the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran could easily last another ten years. Despite revolts exploding all over ancient Persia, Western businessmen believed this too and swarmed over the country in search of lucrative contracts originating in the corrupt court of the Shahinshah in Tehran. Right up to the Shah’s end, Iran was a feast for Westerners. Even after the entire nation knew of the torture the Shah’s American trained secret police, SAVAK, practiced on dissidents and anyone even suspected of being subversive in the dreaded Evin prison in the western part of the mountainside city.
As an employee and Italian-English interpreter (It seemed nearly everyone in Tehran spoke English!) for a group of Italian companies, I was in the ancient and captivating country of Iran for much of the time during late 1977 and the year of 1978, up until the revolution was underway. Iran as most foreigners who have lived there will testify is a special country, the kind that gets in your blood. Not all the foreigners were there for the money. Maybe it’s the dry heat in the summer, or the cold winters, or those enormous purple mountains ever present. I met foreigners who had been there almost forever. They didn’t want to leave. They were much like Iranians who like to travel, even emigrate, but are always drawn back home. They never leave completely.
While the CIA was making its rosy Iran situation reports, the Iran created by the American puppet, Shah Pahlavi, disintegrated. The pre-revolution was a period when curfews kept the streets relatively clear after 8 or 9 o’clock; yet young people claimed that the resistance controlled the city after midnight. University students everywhere were on the warpath. The first students were shot down by the Shah’s police in the holy city of Qom itself.
Then, on “Black Friday” in that same August 1978, the Shah’s troops opened fire on the crowds on a Tehran square killing hundreds or thousands. From day to day millions of inebriated marchers, their lances lifted toward the heavens, screamed for the heads of the Pahlavis and waved their banners for the Ayatollah and the Islamic Republic. Inexorably, but much more quickly than expected, the circles tightened around the Shah and US interests there. The “people” were exhilarated. People learned the lesson that the poor learn easily—how easy it is to die … and to kill. On the streets of Tehran you smelled stale gas and felt the terror in the air. Tensions palpitated under the plaster of the great avenues. Mystery and suspicion smoldered under the tall trees up Khiabon Pahlavi to the north. No one knew for certain what was happening but the whole city stank of greater battles to come.
It stank of revolution.
I found it strange that in the growing chaos they continued working on new streets, somehow emblematic of the enduring millenary continuity of Persia-Iran. Still alive is the image of workers sleeping in tents under viaducts, their gray-black feet sticking out of the openings, the canvas flapping in the morning breeze.
Then when the great summer heat ended, they no longer worked at night under the floodlights with the pounding jackhammers that made the earth quiver and quake. In September a general strike paralyzed the country. The young cab drivers at the traditional old hotel where I lived spoke openly of how they would hang the Shah and cut off the heads of the SAVAK beasts. All those wild kids! Leftists all, doomed to be devoured by the revolution they helped make.
Conservatives and foreign businessmen wondered when the Shah would make his move? What were their American protectors doing? Yet, you could smell it, the revolution. It was in the air. Sometimes I would try to tell the businessmen what was happening. But none of the company executives or the investors felt it; they were still intoxicated by the brilliance of past Persian glories and the apparent permanence of the Pahlavi dynasty. They didn’t want to know the reality either. Their investments in the Shah’s Iran were too great.
But the revolution was there.
In Tehran in 1978 you didn’t know who was who. Communists and Mullahs and Islamic Marxists were everywhere making the revolution.
Yet, at night in the hotel bar time stopped. It was a sad and lonesome place, like all the hotel bars in all the African capitals of all the former European colonies. A place for lonely men. Images: a businessman sitting alone in a corner holds his glass in mid-air as if considering the evanescence of love and time. American technicians in dirty work clothes are loud at a big table in the middle. A Frenchman in a far corner stares vacantly and with a forefinger traces circular images in the moisture of the plastic tabletop. A waiter passes among them all with trays loaded with drinks.
On the other side of the world, Washington was paralyzed. No one there knew what to do. No one seemed to realize that the Shah’s glass castle was cracked and breaking on all sides. While the SAVAK continued to torture subversives and martial law became more and more severe, Ayatollah Khomeini moved from his exile in Najaf in Iraq to Paris, manifestations mushroomed throughout the country, and in front of my eyes young soldiers threw away their guns, jumped down off their military trucks and sided with the people. The Shah had lost control of the nation. Yet, Westerners were still blind. They waited for the US to move. German and French and Italian and Dutch work teams drove out of downtown hotels each morning to their works sites in the mountainous surroundings as if nothing of great significance were underway.
Paradoxically in the later period I attended a meeting in a downtown office building organized by Bechtel Corporation to celebrate the opening of its huge office in Tehran with over one hundred employees. Close to political power and the CIA in the USA, the Bechtel engineering and construction company from San Francisco is dedicated, in its own words, “to making money.” But it also helps to overthrow foreign governments judged unfriendly to US interests. Still, in Iran, Bechtel and the US government could not control Iran. Bechtel could do nothing, and its men vanished. Today, I note, Iran is not even listed among the many countries where Bechtel has worked to further American interests and to make money. Its history is not only a story of duplicity but also of incompetence.
Meanwhile, in Iran, chaos reigned. It was revolution!
Washington had total confidence in the Shah’s American-armed military forces that had made Iran the gendarme of the region. The entire West seemed as surprised and incredulous as were the businessmen I was associated with, who had counted on the US Marines to put things right. It couldn’t happen here, they all thought.
The Iranian Revolution was a severe blow to US power in the Middle East from which the world power has never recovered. The miscalculations, misjudgments and blindness to reality concerning Iran of 25 years ago have led the USA down erroneous paths ever since.
The subsequent history is well known. In January of 1979 the Shah fled to Egypt. In February Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to become the leader of the emerging Islamic Republic of Iran where he was regarded as a semi-God.
Islam, the religion had invaded politics.
In February ferociously anti-American students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and its personnel became hostages. This was Iran’s sweet revenge for the US-organized coup d’état that overthrew Premier Moussadeq in 1953 for his nationalization of Iran’s oil (read Iran, stop, and think oil!) and re-installed the amenable Shah on the throne.
The American hostages stayed put for over a year. New Iran didn’t really know what to do with them. It didn’t know how to negotiate. The fundamentalists were busy making the Islamic republic and Khomeini learning to control power. What did the young revolutionaries, the mujahadeen and the Socialists and the Communists care? What did they care about diplomatic and international rules and niceties? This was not a tea party; this was revolution.
Iranians exulted again at the fiasco of the US military attempt to rescue the hostages. Another slap in Washington’s face. Oh, how they seethed on the banks of the Potomac. All their assessments were wrong, all attempts to salvage something from the disaster wrong, wrong timing, wrong policies.
So, in 1980 American-armed Iraq conveniently attacked Iran in chaos, while Washington turned up the heat and upped its own confusion by secretly selling more arms to Iran. Yep, to revolutionary Iran! In order to pay for the dirty war against the new leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contras scandal. La drole de guerre! America arms both sides. Until Iraq launched its chemical warfare, killing tens of thousands of Iranians.
Nonetheless, Iraq could never come near defeating Iran, no more than American armies today or its Blackwater mercenaries could defeat ancient Iran whose history reaches back to the beginnings of time. From the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, from villages of the Elbruz Mountains to the magic fountains of Isfahan, Iran is solidity. Iran is durability, part of our cultural heritage. This is territory of ancient peoples, according to some theories the location of the mythical Garden of Eden and Cain’s land of Nod, somewhere East of Eden.
-Gaither Stewart is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal and a seasoned professional journalist and essayist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.