- MIDDLE EAST
Due to its nuclear ambitions, Iran is heading toward a showdown with the nations of the West, particularly the United States. The bitterness and resentment between these nations can be traced to events that occurred decades ago.
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Relations between Iran and the United States have been unstable for decades. Iran has been indirectly involved in numerous terrorist activities (through financial support and other resources). And the U.S. has intervened in Iranian affairs.
Following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, Iran quietly offered support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan. In a historic gesture, then Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi at U.N. headquarters. It seemed as though the animosity between the countries might end.
However, on January 29, 2002, relations began to sour again. In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said that Iran and its “terrorist allies” are part of “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Two days later, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice announced, “Iran’s direct support of regional and global terrorism and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, belie any good intentions it displayed in the days after the world’s worst terrorist attacks in history” (PBS Frontline).
Iran’s current geopolitical situation is rooted in the country’s recent checkered past.
Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran existed as an autocratic, pro-West monarchy. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled as Shah (the title of the hereditary monarch) from 1941 until 1979. There was a brief interruption in 1953, when he was forced to flee the country. The Shah was reinstalled as Iran’s leader with the aid of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The operation was codenamed “Ajax.”
The first stage of the revolution was an alliance of liberal, leftist and religious groups, who banded together to overthrow the Shah. The second stage, often referred to as the Islamic Revolution, was the rise to power of the ayatollahs (high-ranking Shiite leaders).
Though the Shah maintained good relations with the American government, his policies conflicted with traditional Muslim views on alcohol, gambling and premarital sex, all of which he refused to ban. He faced continual opposition from religious figures (who were generally poor) and the urban middle-class—who did not benefit from his extravagant lifestyle.
One such example that contributed to their disdain for the Shah occurred in 1971. During a three-day party in recognition of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, $300 million was spent on festivities, including more than one ton of caviar prepared by 200-plus chefs who were flown in from France. Ironically, thousands of Iranian citizens went without food.
The poor and middle-class opposed the Shah’s efforts to bring about modernization. In effect, they opposed being westernized. Instead, they yearned for a return to the Islamic lifestyle, which is at odds with the decadent lifestyle now found in every western country. The Shah’s reforms were viewed as self-serving, and his march toward supposed progress was seen as a lie, based on the huge gap between the rich and the poor.
In the early 1960s, opposition began to take shape, with Ayatollah Khomeini as leader. He claimed that the Shah’s reign was tyrannical, and was exiled for his opposing views. When the Ayatollah’s followers rioted, the Shah responded by arresting and executing those who took part.
Later that decade, Iran’s economy started to boom, as the value of oil and steel exports rose considerably. While the leaders in the Shah’s regime benefited, as well as did those involved with western companies, the lives of the middle-class and poor failed to improve.
During the 1970s, a rise in oil prices widened the gap between rich and poor, which added more pressure for change in government policies. As many citizens fled Iran, others organized in mosques and listened to sermons condemning “Western wickedness” and “indulgence.”
In the face of increasing opposition from religious leaders, the Shah introduced extreme measures to limit the role of Islam in his kingdom, such as abolishing the lunar calendar in 1976 and censoring Muslim publications. He also eliminated the feudal system, causing the dissolution of property owned by Shia clergy; this fueled intense anger. The Shah’s goal was to promote the achievements of the pre-Islamic Persian civilization.
In response to pressure from U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Iran freed more than 300 political prisoners, relaxed censorship laws and reformed the court system in 1977. Many small groups seized this opportunity to voice their opinion, as writers were able to freely declare their anti-government views.
In early 1978, Iran’s official press published a defamatory story about Ayatollah Khomeini, sparking protests by students and religious leaders. The army ended the demonstration, killing several students.
In accordance with Shiite customs, a memorial service was held forty days after the incident on February 18. In conjunction, groups in various cities marched in protest of the Shah’s rule—and more than 100 demonstrators were killed in one city. One month later, more protests erupted across the nation. Symbols of the Shah’s reign, such as luxury hotels and theaters that showed “unethical movies,” were destroyed. Security forces intervened, killing many protestors.
Iran was quickly imploding. Its economy took a severe beating due to the protests and inflation. The government suspended many public works projects and imposed wage freezes, which led to widespread unemployment and labor problems.
September 1978 was the beginning of the end of the Shah’s reign. With major protests occurring regularly, the Shah introduced martial law and prohibited all demonstrations.
On September 8, in response to an overwhelming protest, the government unleashed tanks, helicopters and machine guns upon the protestors. This day, now known as Black Friday, embittered more of Iran’s population toward the government.
Then, in December, the crisis began to reach a final boiling point, as hundreds of protestors were killed each day. In spite of this, demonstrations increased. The army began to collapse—soldiers refused to open fire upon the protestors, instead killing their officers and taking control of military bases.
In a desperate measure, the Shah agreed to institute a constitution—but it was too late. The majority of Iranians were now loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah was forced to flee Iran in January 1979.
After ousting the monarchy, much disagreement ensued over how and by whom Iran should be governed. Liberal, secularist, Marxist, anarchist and religious groups were eager to take control of the country.
Initially, two groups were in control: A liberal secular group named the Freedom Movement and an Islamic Republic party comprised of clerics led by the Ayatollah. Tension abounded between the two groups.
In June 1979, the Freedom Movement introduced a draft constitution that declared Iran an Islamic Republic. However, the constitution failed to give precedence to Islamic law. When it was sent to the legislature, which was dominated by supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, it was rejected.
Eventually, a new constitution was drafted, based solely on Islamic law. The extremely powerful post of Supreme Leader was instituted and given to Ayatollah Khomeini. He became the Head of State for life and later became the “Supreme Spiritual Leader.” Only two people have held this office, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei currently in command.
Iranian resentment toward the United States increased toward the end of the revolution, as it continued to aid counter-revolutionary activity, including support for the overthrown monarch. When the White House accepted the Shah into the country for cancer treatment, supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini took hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The Iranian hostage crisis, in which 53 American hostages were held for 444 days, sent a clear message: Iran was able to defy the United States of America.
Iran’s surrounding nations disapproved of the revolution, fearing that such an event might occur in their countries as well. As a result, in an attempt to end the revolution in its beginning stages, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. It received significant backing from the U.S., which supplied Iraq with intelligence, economic aid and weapons.
During the war, Iraqi-leader Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical and biological weapons upon Iran. Thousands died instantly; thousands more receive regular medical treatment to this day. (Iran has sustained greater damage from biological/chemical/nuclear weapons than any country except Japan.) Iran blames the West for aiding Iraq.
In April 1988, an Iranian mine severely damaged an American missile frigate. This spurred the Navy to launch its largest engagement of warships since World War II. During the operation, a U.S. warship accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted more than eight years, and failed to bring about any changes in Iran. One thing it did accomplish, however, was to fuel increased hatred toward the United States. In the face of the external threat, Iranians rallied around their new leadership, and past differences were all but forgotten.
In “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001,” the U.S. State Department reported that Iran is “the most active state sponsor of terrorism,” and indicted the nation as abetting terrorist groups Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad (a wing of Hezbollah) and Hamas. According to the U.S., Hezbollah is responsible for attacks against various American targets, including bombing the U.S. Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983; bombing the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984; and helping the Saudi Arabian branch carry out the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996, in which 19 American military personnel were killed.
Hezbollah has also been accused of helping to fuel the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. American and Israeli intelligence have indicated that the mastermind of the Marine Barracks bombings was sent to assist the Palestinians in their cause against Israel in September 2000.
The New York Times reports, “Israel and American officials believe that the 18-year struggle by Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed by tens of millions of dollars worth of arms from Iran, provided a model for what Tehran would like to recreate on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. ‘The strategy is to make the West Bank another Lebanon,’ said one senior American intelligence official.”
Iran has denied any involvement in terrorist activities. Of course, what the U.S. views as terrorism, Iran may view differently. For example, Iran’s ambassador to Canada stated, “We never have supported any groups which take act of terrorism. We have morally supported groups who are fighting for their independence or for their being out of occupations, like Hezbollah…Terrorism is a menace of this world. We are against terrorism. We differentiate between terrorist acts [and] those legitimate rights of people who had been or are under occupation” (ibid.).
More recently, Iran is thought to be playing a role in the opposition to America’s presence in Afghanistan, which Iran might view as a threat to its interests in the area. U.S. and Afghan officials have stated that Iran shipped food, clothing, weapons, money and Revolutionary Guard troops to western Afghanistan. This contradicts Iran’s quiet support of the U.S. campaign, in which it has given safe passage for humanitarian aid and agreed to conduct search-and-rescue operations if American pilots were downed in its territory.
Iran’s government is an Islamic theocratic democracy; yet, in many ways, it resembles the U.S. government. Both have an executive branch headed by an elected president, a legislative branch and a powerful judiciary.
Of course, there are also many differences. Iran’s Supreme Leader is in charge of outlining and supervising “the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He is the commander-in-chief of the military, and controls intelligence and security forces. (Iran is the only country in which the executive branch does not control the military.) He has the authority to appoint and dismiss judiciary leaders, radio and television network leaders, and the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. He can even deny candidates from running for office.
The president is under the Supreme Leader. Though this person occupies a high public profile, his power is limited by Iran’s constitution. For instance, unlike the U.S., Iran’s president is not in charge of the executive branch of the government (the Supreme Leader is). His main responsibility is setting the economic policies of the country.
Other branches of the government include the Parliament (similar to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives), Assembly of Experts (comprised of “virtuous and learned” clerics), Council of Guardians (determines if laws passed by Parliament are compatible with the constitution and Islamic law), the judiciary (similar to the U.S. judicial branch) and the National Security and Intelligence (comprised of the Supreme National Security Council, the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security).
Often, disputes between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians reach the point of stalemate. To combat this, in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini created the Expediency Council. Its purpose is to mediate disagreements between the two branches of government.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush called for a reform of the Expediency Council. He denounced this body as the “unelected few” who repress those with democratic aspirations.
Source: PBS Frontline
One particular Afghan warlord is said to have received support from Iran. A Washington Post article stated, “[Ismail] Khan’s long ties with Iran have led to allegations that he is a conduit for Iranian arms and influence that could keep Afghanistan unstable. Khan denies it…Yet there are persistent reports of Iranian arms coming to Herat. One military officer insists that a small private army of 320 Iranian-trained fighters under Khan’s personal command called the Sopah e-Mohammad, or Soldiers of Mohammad, is secreted around three bases in town.”
It is also reported that Iran is providing sanctuaries within its borders. The infamous Abu Musaab Zarqawi is said to have found refuge there. The New York Times reported that, earlier in 2005, he “fled the western Afghan city of Heart after the American military campaign began [and] has turned up in Tehran under the protection of Iranian security forces, according to senior Israeli and American officials.” Of course, Iran has denied such allegations.
However, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said, “We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of al Qaeda.”
Adding to the animosity that the U.S. and Iran have for each other, Iran has decided to resume uranium enrichment activities—in spite of international demands. In response, President Bush stated that, if Iran does not comply with such demands, “All options are on the table.”
Could Iran be heading toward a military showdown with the United States—or possibly Israel, America’s close ally? What alliances does Iran have with other countries that could threaten Western interests? And what effect will Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, have in today’s nuclear stand-off?
In part two, we will examine these questions and the latest controversy surrounding Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons.