Accusations are swirling around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new president. Almost immediately after the Iranian election results were confirmed on June 27, the U.S. press started circulating a 1979 AP photo showing a blindfolded American hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran commandeered by Iranian Muslim students in that year. He’s flanked by several captors, one bearing some resemblance to the young Mahmoud. Five of the U.S. hostages held during that incident have claimed that Ahmadinejad was one of their captors and alleged tormentors. At least on former hostage, CIA agent William J. Dougherty, expresses what may likely become the official U.S. position: “Well, now the leader of Iran is a terrorist.”
The neocon press jumped at the story. Fox News aired an interview with Dougherty June 30 designed to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that that the CIA agent had seen Ahmadinejad “four, five, or six times” in November 1979. The ex-hostages’ claim was immediately treated as fact by David Horowitz’s neocon-aligned FrontPage Magazine. But Iranian officials have stated matter-of-factly that Ahmadinejad opposed the embassy takeover, and was not one of the organizers. The man in the photo, states an intelligence official in Iran who is not a political ally of Ahmadinejad, is someone else: Taqi Mohammadi, a militant who died in prison after becoming a dissident.
It looks like U.S. intelligence will agree with this assessment; The Los Angeles Times reports July 2 that “U.S. investigators have concluded that Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the glowering Islamic militant seen escorting an American hostage in a 1979 photograph that was widely publicized this week” This is based on scientific analysis of the shape of the ears and jaw of the photographed student and Iranian president. Of course, the intelligence professionals have been humiliated and silenced before when they made a call at variance with official disinformation campaigns. But the Dick Cheneys, Douglas Feiths, and John Boltons have been so exposed and discredited that I doubt they’d seriously at this point try to link the Iranian president to the “Hostage Crisis” without internationally credible evidence. So Stephen Hadley, Condi Rice’s successor (himself complicit in the Niger uranium lie), hesitates to affirm an embassy-Ahmadinejad link. Suggestions that the Iranian leader was involved in the situation “are allegations at the present time,” he declares. “We need to get the facts.”
Even so, it serves the Bushites’ interests that my morning paper, the Boston Globe, which has relegated the Downing Street memos to its back pages, put the photo in question on page A1 July 1, with the tendentious caption: IRAN ELECTION SPURS QUESTIONS ABOUT 1979. I don’t expect another front-page piece any time soon entitled: QUESTION ANSWERED: IRANIAN PRESIDENT NOT INVOLVED IN EMBASSY SEIZURE. Rather, I see a three-sentence AP item in the Globe this morning (July 5) concluding: “Ahmadinejad, who won a landslide presidential election victory, has been accused of taking American hostages in 1979 when radical students seized the US Embassy in Tehran.” He has been accused. I suspect many will read that to mean “He did it” and this will pass for truth in pub conversations all over Boston.
So the Iranian leader isn’t off the hook. Abholhassan Bani-Sadr, the secular “leftist” who served as Iranian president for a time in 1980 and is now in exile in Paris, says Ahmadinejad “wasn’t among the decision-makers but he was among those inside the Embassy.” That strikes me as plausible. He may have been among the multitudes that visited the site during the long “crisis.” This alone would link him, and these neocon disinformation master-propagandists are all about finding, inventing and using links no matter how tenuous. It will suffice them and their credulous base that the man checked out the situation at the compound and reported back to his spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini about what was going on. That alone could tar him with the “hostage-taker” brush. More damning, if one wants to build a case against the newly elected president, is the charge of bloody murder, or complicity in such, in Austria in 1989.
More on that suddenly publicized accusation below. But first let’s revisit the central historical issue: the much-maligned Iranian Revolution that so enraged U.S. officials, and threw their regional plans into disarray, a generation ago. One of the big lies hovering in the background of the whole Bush plan for the “Greater Middle East” is that the revolution of 1978-9 was something other than a mass-based popular insurrection against a fascist regime created and cultivated by Washington. The fall of the Shah was an enormous setback to U.S. imperialism in Southwest Asia, including the Gulf, and the imperialists have never forgiven the Iranian people for their rebellion, nor given up on efforts to reassert control over the country. So they need to misrepresent the revolution, exaggerate the role of the reactionary clergy in it, minimize the role of the secular and leftist forces, downplay the viciousness and unpopularity of the Shah, and generally depict the upheaval as a terrible setback to U.S.-sponsored “progress” in Iran.
These days they repeatedly declare that the Iranian people love the U.S., by which they really mean that the majority of Iranians are too young to remember the Shah’s rule, most chafe at the religious rules imposed by the mullahs, and many are attracted to elements of American popular culture. Tens of thousands have either lived in the U.S. and have positive feelings about the people, or have parents with such feelings. But the neocons want to depict the absence of visceral hatred against American citizens among Iran’s well-educated people as a longing for U.S. action to topple their regime. (Notice how when foreigners hate the U.S. government, the government tells the people: “They hate us.” And when foreigners love the American people, they say: “They love us.” They cannot say, “They distinguish between those of us in government, making policy, and you, the American people. They hate us but actually have no problem with all you folks.” That’d be tantamount to saying the U.S. government doesn’t represent the people, or that “our troops” in various places aren’t fighting for us but for them and their system.)
In fact, there’s much evidence that the Iranian masses do not eagerly await U.S. or Israeli strikes on their nation’s nuclear facilities, or an Iraq-based assault by the Mujahadeen-Khalq (an unusual organization with a leftist veneer now more or less aligned with the neocons), or an invasion from Azerbaijan, or CIA-organized street demonstrations à la 1953 against the regime.
I vividly recall the response to the revolution among my Iranian friends a quarter century ago. They were students, from affluent backgrounds, benefiting from the Shah’s policy of encouraging huge numbers of Iranians to study in the U.S. and acquire skills needed for their country’s “modernization.” Iranians were the largest group of foreign students in the U.S. But their impressive organization, the Iranian Students Association, was bitterly opposed to the Shah and the students I knew uniformly hated the man. He was a brute, brought to power in 1953 by the CIA, overturning a democratic regime bent upon a moderate program of nationalization of the country’s oilfields. His SAVAK security apparatus, created by the CIA, savagely suppressed dissent. His “White Revolution” of the early 1960s redistributed land but left millions of cultivators with too little to live on, while alienating the Muslim clergy. Teheran featured the world’s largest U.S. embassy (a compound since rivaled only by the U.S.’s stronghold in Baghdad) but no public sewer system. The Shah obscenely squandered wealth on spectacles celebrating Persian history, and on military expansion, serving as the U.S. gendarme in the Gulf while neglecting to invest in basic infrastructure and ruling through terror.
I recall hearing from the ISA about the Abadan theater fire on August 19, 1978, soon after the event. 400 people, watching a film indirectly critical of the regime, were burned alive in the Rex Theater after thugs barred the doors. This was blamed at the time on SAVAK, although some have recently pinned blame on religious fanatics. (If I were a psy-war specialist inclined to promote a revisionist view of the revolution decades later, I’d start with a reassessment of this episode, flip the whole thing around and say it was the Khomeini people, not the Shah guys, who triggered mass outrage by their actions at that time.) Public revulsion in any case fueled an intensifying antigovernment movement, rooted in the Shiite clergy, religious youth groups, leftist Muslim groups such as the Mujahadeen and Fedayeen, the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, and the Maoist Sarbedaran. The movement was vast and diverse, with the more left and secular forces initially more influential.
The regime responded with massive force, attacking demonstrators with tanks and helicopter gunships in September, killing hundreds, and even hundreds daily in early December. Undeterred, over two million amassed in Teheran on December 12; the Shah’s army rebelled; soldiers shot their officers and took over military bases, and the next month the Shah fled for his life to Egypt. His fall was one result of the most genuinely popular mass-based revolution to ever occur in a Muslim country. My Iranian friends were overjoyed.
In October 1979, the Shah was admitted to the U.S. for medical care. The new regime in Iran, then headed by the liberal Mehdi Bazargan requested his extradition to stand trial in Iran. The U.S. and Iran had an extradition agreement and the U.S. had been willing enough in former years to send home anti-Shah student activists at Teheran’s request to likely torture in their homeland. But there was no question that President “Human Rights” Carter was going to hand over such a long time asset as the Shah. In that context, on November 4, hundreds of Muslim students took over the U.S. embassy and held 52 of its staff hostage for 444 days. (20 women and African-Americans were released in November.) They were released after prolonged negotiations, and one spectacular failure of a rescue attempt, on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president in 1981. In return for the hostages, released unharmed having been treated fairly well, the U.S. unfroze $ 8 billion in Iranian assets.
The “Hostage Crisis” was the biggest news story I could recall. It was in your face, every day, endlessly. Walter Cronkite began his 6:30 CBS news program by counting the days from the outset of what Americans were supposed to believe was an insufferable national humiliation. “November 13, Day 10 America Held Hostage in Iran.” ABC’s Nightline program was originally called America Held Hostage and devoted entirely to national humiliation news. “The brilliance of this!” I thought at the time. Defeated in Vietnam, stricken with the Vietnam Syndrome, the American public was being remilitarized, prepared for future wars not against reds but Muslims. (Indeed, attacks on Libya, intervention in Lebanon, and actions against Iran in the Persian Gulf characterized the 1980s.) Overnight after the embassy seizure the flags were out, the yellow ribbons, patriotic lapel pins, the “Rape and Iranian Woman” bumper stickers. Dealers in rugs from Iran began to advertise carpets from “Persia” after peddlers of Iranian rugs of any nationality were targeted for racist attack in the time-honored American redneck tradition. Not as stunning a manifestation of butt-headed nationalism as we’ve seen since 9-11, but a dress rehearsal for it.
Some of us found this Iran-bashing revolting, and could even empathize with the students in the embassy. I was so pleased when a visiting relative suggested intelligently: “Why don’t we just send the Shah back?” It was comforting anyway to know I wasn’t the only one in the clan unsympathetic to the Shah in exile. Not that I was quite willing to embrace the slogan appearing on a leaflet distributed on my campus, “Hostage-Taking Right On! It’s Not Our Embassy!” I felt opposed in general to hostage taking, but I did agree that the embassy didn’t represent me and had been up to no good.
But back to President Ahmadinejad. Let’s say he had some involvement in an action overwhelmingly popular in Iran in the immediate chaotic aftermath of the revolution, an action driven by rage very understandable to anyone considering the history. No one’s saying the students who took the embassy subjected their hostages to torture. They didn’t chain hostages naked to the wall, or force them to masturbate or simulate sex acts with one another, or threaten them with attack dogs, or leave them to wallow in their own excrement, or photograph them while doing such things. What some are suggesting is that because Ahmadinejad’s a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim (more so than his rival Rafsanjani, not that the U.S. government has had much good to say about Rafsanjani), and because he like any other Iranian leader is going to be generally supportive of the Palestinian resistance and Lebanon’s Hizbollah, and because he will probably defend the right of all nations to enrich uranium as specified by international law, he’s Mr. Terrorism. This is a stupid viewpoint, but we are now by my calculation in Day 1,361 of America Held Hostage to Stupidity.
I can imagine the rhetoric already, perhaps minutes after Ahmadinejad confirms that Iran will indeed proceed with uranium enrichment plans. “America cannot afford to allow a state headed by a terrorist to produce the world’s most terrible weapons! Here’s a man who has terrorized Americans before. We must not let him do it again, this time with nuclear weapons!” And: “We stand with the Iranian people in rejecting this farcical election based on terror!” As the major land-based campaign to capture Teheran gets underway in Azerbaijan, http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0620-31.htm and the Mujahadeen Khalq having made their devil’s bargain execute their campaign of attacks in Iran, the focus may shift to “spreading democracy.” In which case, one should say, “Look. The U.S. not only supported the highly antidemocratic Shah, but later turned over to the mullahs the names of Iranian leftists who were summarily executed. (These included members of the Iranian Students Association who had became members of Sarbedaran.) The mullahs and the U.S. government cooperated in businesslike fashion to smash the communist movement.
The U.S. preferred a religious dictatorship to a secular left-leading one, and sought to cozy up to Khomeini for a time. Didn’t the U.S. sell the mullahs missiles during the Reagan-era “Iran-Contra” scandal, precisely in order to attack democratic forces in collusion with right-wing death squads in Central America? Isn’t the U.S. cultivating ties with dictators in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan specifically in order to orchestrate regime change in Iran? The attack on Iran will have nothing to do with real democracy and everything to do with reestablishing geopolitical control, if with some ‘democratic’ window-dressing as in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Anyway look for the administration to exploit the “America Held Hostage” theme, and to reapply that theme to America today, claiming that we are still victims of Iran, held hostage to evil Iranians who still don’t appreciate all we once did for their country. We are held hostage by their program to develop nuclear power!
Actually, one should mention one small detail about that last bit. That nuclear program that Rumsfeld says Iran with its oil riches simply doesn’t need? It was once promoted by General Electric and other U.S. corporations with the firm backing of U.S. administrations. So long as the Shah was in power, U.S. administrations weren’t moaning and groaning about Iranian nuclear enrichment, because they knew that their client wasn’t going to pose a challenge to Israel. Now Israel (armed by all accounts with nuclear weapons) demands of its patron that it prevent Iran from even perfecting a peaceful nuclear power program. It insists that its definition of an “existential threat” to itself should drive U.S. foreign policy. Congress embraced this stance, urged on by AIPAC and the religious right.
So yes, they will apply the strategy Bush did with Iraq, well documented by the Dowining Street memos. They’ll link weapons of mass destruction with “terror ties” and raise the specter of terrorists using WMDs, and while they’re already positing Iranian nukes in the hands of “terrorist” Hamas and Hizbollah they’ll declare the Iranian president himself a terrorist aspiring to produce a mushroom cloud over New York. If the embassy hostage-taking charge won’t stick on Ahmadinejad, they may have a back-up terror accusation: murder in Vienna.
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Reading the reports on this murder charge in the last few days, I’ve thought, “Why haven’t I heard about any of this before?” The new president was the mayor of Teheran, and the electoral process in Iran was quite prolonged, so you’d think suppose the uniformly anti-Iranian mainstream press would have raised it earlier. But no, only after Ahmadinejad’s elected to we get the interesting news that he may have personally killed the dissident Iranian Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Austria in 1989.
Associated Press in a story by William J. Kole July 2 cites the Austrian daily Der Standard which quotes a politician who says Ahmadinejab is “under strong suspicion of having been involved” in the killing. An unidentified Iranian journalist in France told this politician that Ahmadinejad had (on orders from Iranian President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani) visited Vienna to deliver weapons to Iranian operatives who broke into Ghassemlou’s Vienna apartment July 13, 1989 and killed three people. Kole mentions what I’d noticed before reading the AP piece: the Der Standard article relied on the Czech newspaper Pravo, which had alleged the Ahmadinejad murder link July 1. (Call me cynical, but I just had to recall how total disinformation pertaining to the Iraq-al Qaeda link was originally attributed to a Czech source.) So this Czech paper, an Austrian politician who says he wants a warrant issued for the Iranian president’s arrest, and an unnamed Iranian exile in France are all contributing in their own ways to the neocon case for attacking Iran. Great timing.
I have no doubt that Ahmadinejad is a religious fanatic comfortable with the brutal suppression of dissent and actively complicit in it. But there are people like him in many places, including the U.S. There are also more secular brutes, often as not doing the U.S. bidding. Leaving the Shah and dozens of other especially grotesque U.S. satraps aside, the example of Ayad Allawi, briefly puppet prime minister of Iraq, is illustrative. His organization planted bombs in Iraq in the 1990s and blew up a school bus, according to former CIA officer Robert Baer, killing children.
This was after Allawi had defected from Saddam’s apparatus to the U.S. intelligence community. Where do those sponsoring such scumbags get off, waving their fingers in judgment on Mr. Ahmadinejad, who actually seems to have some support among the poor who think he’s on their side?
My point is not that the antiwar movement in the U.S. should defend this man. We should merely watch carefully as the Bush administration perseveres in its empire-building project, in which the reconquest of Iran is the exquisite centerpiece. We should keep in mind the fact that Bush’s people blithely lie as they vilify their foes to manipulate public opinion to obtain their imperial ends. However the Iranian masses might really feel about Ahmadinejad, and the electoral process that brought him to power, we help them more by challenging the incipient vilification campaign than passing it by in silence.
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Of course the demonization of Ahmadinejad is accompanied by depiction of the Iranian electoral process as illegitimate. Before the poll none other than George W. Bush declared that “Power [in Iran] is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy.” Some Iranians must surely find humor in that, given the recent history of America’s electoral process and the processes it has imposed elsewhere. Yes, the Iranians have a system that vets candidates—in their case, through a religious body. We don’t have a council of religious leaders here who have the constitutional right to prune candidate lists. All we have is well-funded reactionary religious groups who apply pressure on the two official parties (who share one ideology) and who help ensure that any presidential candidate of those two parties professes belief in God and in capitalism. Any candidate with a shot at the presidency needs money to get his (yes, we can be gender-specific here) face in front of the masses. He needs corporate backing, advertising campaigns that sell him like a commodity handled by the same Madison Ave. firms that market other products. He needs a friendly relationship with a media controlled by half a dozen corporations, whose CEOs should they wish can destroy his candidacy in minutes (as John Dean learned). It’s a different vetting process than the Iranian one, but is it any more likely to bring into power the person best able to lead the country to greater freedom and happiness?
How does one convey in Farsi the colloquial American English expression, “Look who’s talking”? I hope that Iranian youth, however much they may oppose the power structure in their country, and the recent skewed election, will respond to Bush’s effort to exploit them and their anger with that pithy comment. And hopefully while considering the source of criticism objectively study recent world history. That should persuade them that imperialists as a rule do not liberate people. They just bring in new Shahs, and praise them as democrats. They buy everything in sight, including people, and posture as God’s agents. Then when the people rebel, as they tend historically to do, they proclaim them misled, deluded by radicals, desperately in need of such reforms as only they, God’s imperial messengers, can deliver. If they regain the upper hand, the process starts again. Should that happen to Iran—should it become the next Afghanistan or Iraq—it would not spell progress but a step backwards or sideways for that great nation.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: email@example.com