have always been deeply proud about their venerable national
history. I think in some ways it is natural that Americans fail to
grasp this, given that our own history extends back little more
than two hundred years. But even today, all Iranians young and
old, identify deeply with their ancient history. Though Iran is a
diverse country in many ways, varying widely in religious
observance and political belief, almost all Iranians are united in
their reverence for Persian history, poetry and culture – and it
is from this culture that they have developed their common sense
of national identity.
is another aspect to their identity that runs just as deep: a deep
sense of resentment over the foreign subjugation of their nation
over the centuries. It is a profound frustration and when you
study Persian history it is not difficult to understand why. In
the modern era, Iran was dominated
primarily by Great Britain, who
seized Persian territories as well as most of Persia’s
industrial resources. Britain would later gain control of Iran’s
army, treasury, transportation system and communications network,
and finally in the early 20th century, they would control Iran’s
significant oil industry as well. The proceeds from Iranian oil
powered the British Empire during this time, while most of Iran
lived in abject poverty.
you ask most Americans who Mohammed Mossadegh
was, more often than not, you’ll probably get a blank look.
But I’ll willing to bet that if you ask the average Iranian of
any age, every single one will tell you who he was. Mossadegh
became Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and to this day, he
represents what was the last and best hope for democracy in Iran.
Mossadegh was a highly educated, enlightened leader and he was
truly committed to liberalizing Iranian society. But unfortunately
for the British, he was also a nationalist committed to ending
foreign domination of his country and shortly after taking power
he called for Iran to nationalize its oil industry.
British resisted of course, and together with the
CIA they overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. The British and the
Americans then installed the Shah as the sole leader over Iran and
he proceeded to rule the country with an increasingly repressive
regime. Indeed, those of us who accuse the Islamic Republic of
being totalitarian shouldn’t forget our support of the Shah’s
totalitarian rule for over twenty-five years. At any rate, you can
be sure that contemporary Iranians haven’t forgotten this.
Americans, this is all ancient history if they even know about it
at all. For most Americans our collective memory of Iran begins in
1979, when the Islamic revolution took place and 52 Americans were
taken hostage in the US embassy. This is an image that continues
to burn indelibly in our collective consciousness: angry Islamic
extremists holding our citizens against their will, burning
American flags, chanting “Death to America” in the streets.
For most Americans, this image is Iran.
also need to understand that for Iranians, these events
represented something else entirely. After all, the overthrow of
Mossadegh was directed by the CIA from the basement of that same
American embassy. Iranians, who had been frustrated for centuries
over foreign meddling and domination, were now venting their fury
on America, the country who had deposed their democratically
elected leader and supported the Shah’s repressive rule.
believe that most of us are ignorant of this history – and that
we ignore it at our peril. We need to study and understand this
history – and face up to our role in it – if we want to
maneuver through our volatile relationship today. For most
Americans, Iran is simply a belligerent regime that hates the
West, supports terrorists and now, dangerously enough, is seeking
nuclear capability. But to Iran, America is just the latest
foreign power seeking to subjugate them to its will, a superpower
that deposes regimes it doesn’t like, and now wants to deny Iran
access to technology, modernism and independence.
truly ironic about this story, however, is that though Iran has
great historical resentment toward the US, a significant
percentage of Iran’s citizens – particularly its young people
– admire America for its freedoms, its liberalism, its
ingenuity, its openness to modernity – and they wish the same
for their country. They also have a strong desire to meet and
learn from Americans, but what they don’t want is to be dictated
to about what is best for them by Americans. And you can be sure
that if we bomb or invade or attempt yet another regime change in
Iran, their citizens will be inflamed against us in ways we cannot
even begin to imagine.