In the waning stages of his career, Gore Vidal nicknamed America the “United States of Amnesia.” Although he was much derided for speculating on U.S. involvement in 9/11, and in interviews was prone to exchange factual analysis for comic mimicry of George W. Bush, his play on words was precise and accurate. There are few more salient examples of this self-imposed forgetfulness than America’s attitude toward Iran. Without delving into the sordid history of our relationship with the Persian giant at the heart of the Middle East, a glance is enough to confirm that we’ve trespassed ceaselessly in a country both blessed and cursed by its geographic patrimony. Sitting atop a wealth of petroleum and natural gas, positioned at the delta of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf—that great liquid highway by which ravenous Western powers have extracted black gold for decades—the Iranian people must be exhausted by the hectoring and rebarbative attentions paid them by our colonial legates. Nor is it any consolation for Iranians that their nearest neighbors are also tirelessly plagued by imperial interventions.
Where Emperors Love to Tread
Historical images can be instructive. In 1943, a tripartite conference among the WWII Allies was held in Tehran. The press picture from the proceedings is famous: At center sits Franklin Delano Roosevelt, suited like a Wall Street scion, gazing in the middle distance with the sanguine disposition of the world’s emergent superpower; to FDR’s left slouches Winston Churchill, gazing glumly down, perhaps reflecting on an alliance that would salvage his nation, but see it spent, deposed, and being fitted for epitaphs by history’s versifiers; to Roosevelt’s right sits Joseph Stalin, one of the century’s most odious criminals, back erect, military cap crowning his head, his face a bemused mixture of self-regard and intrigue. Never the trusting type, Uncle Joe.
How curious then, that these three figures, whose countries would soon divide the developing world into areas of influence, would meet in Iran, a nation upon whose resources the global economy would soon turn. After agreeing to support Iran’s reformulated Pahlavi dynasty, America with Britain’s anxious assistance would in a decade’s time overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s democratic government and shuffle Reza Shah Pahlavi from his rather benign role as constitutional monarch into a malignant new capacity as authoritarian defender of Western interests. Mossadegh’s crime had been to nationalize the oil industry, naively supposing that a country’s natural resources were its own. Before his doomed bid to reclaim the petro industry, Iranian oil was safely in the hands of British Petroleum, then under the moniker, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Of course, before resorting to a coup d’état, the Americans had tried the always-popular tactic of economic strangulation.
Sixty years later we’ve learned little save for a single prosaic maxim—that might makes right. The bully’s creed prevails, and we must again rally our international lackeys in efforts to choke the Iranian economy, assassinate its scientists, and launch cyber-warfare—all with the express intent of preventing Iran from achieving the capacity to build a bomb. Bombs like England and America and Israel happily shelter in clandestine caves throughout their depopulated countryside. Instead, the sanctions simply make it harder for Iranian cancer patients to receive chemotherapy, HIV patients to receive anti-retroviral therapy, and hemophiliacs to find anti-clotting medication. But no matter, as that great humanitarian Bill Clinton outlined in his defense strategy in 1997, it is quite legitimate to do what we must to ensure unfettered access to “key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”
Polaroids from the Scrapbook
It was that same Reza Shah—the one we restored to autocracy when we upended parliamentary democracy in ’53—that we encouraged and abetted in his attempts to establish 23 nuclear power stations across the country, a program initiated with the United States under President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace project. An amusing American ad was run in the seventies by a consortium of northeastern power companies. Emblazoned with the headline, “Guess Who’s Building Nuclear Power Plants?” the full-page advertisement showed the grey-templed Shah in full regalia, an anodyne partner in our Persian plunder. But for the raven brows, he might have been a white man. This curious historical artifact is memorable because it actively promotes Iranian nuclear energy, the very idea of which now sends the White House into spasms of derelict fearmongering.
Modern media references to Iran are indeed slightly more menacing: a giant billboard looms over Times Square with the galled visage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a hectoring sub line that proclaims, “Should Not Be In N.Y. Should Not Be In The U.N.” The billboard is sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). This organization promotes the removal of Iran from the U.N. based on the premise, “The U.N. Charter provides for the expulsion of any member which has persistently violated its principles.” By this logic, there would be a worldwide exodus from the body, with Uncle Sam, shrouded in perfidy, in the vanguard. The U.N. would then float away on the wind, like the emptied husk of a molting cicada, its former inhabitants too busy with humanitarian interventions to save it.
Evidence of Naught
Peter Jenkins, former British diplomat and one-time member of the IAEA Board of Governors in charge of policing Iran’s nuclear activities, noted that the organization’s late 2011 report contained zero evidence that Iran had diverted any nuclear material toward the production of a nuclear weapon. Evidently, then, our attitude toward civilian nuclear power in the region is conditioned by our attitude toward those in power: are they secular puppets happy to do our bidding in the oil-slick salt marshes of Khuzestan? Or are they surnamed Khamenei, committed to theocratic Islam, and indisposed to foreign obtrusions? This makes all the difference.
Media bias against Iran, nicely chronicled by Kevin Young, is now an alarming replica of our histrionic build-up to the Iraq war, where journalistic best practices were discarded, and heedlessly counterfactual ideologies leveraged to help catapult public opinion—and a healthy tranche of bunker busting bombs—into Mesopotamia. The International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA), has even become something of a pulpit for America’s frenetic attempts to dodge dialogue and steer armaments to vantage in the Gulf—the better to hurry liberty to benighted peoples.
One of the hastily interred facts of the Iranian situation is that it is in full compliance with its comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA. That means it has fulfilled requirements to demonstrate that it hasn’t “diverted” nuclear material for weapons making. The IAEA, perhaps under the Mephistophelean urgings of an unnamed Western hegemon, has added two peculiar postscripts to its demands, called, “additional protocols.” These protocols have not, to my knowledge, been agreed to by Iran, which would be necessary for them to be appended to the CSA, which in point of fact is a treaty between nations; both must agree to revisions. Iran is likely unwilling to admit the additional protocols because they call for verification of “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
Sound familiar? Remember the bespectacled Donald Rumsfeld, veering into his dotage, but still clothed in the lineaments of power, gripping a particleboard lectern before a blazing White House crest, and admonishing a bewitched press corps that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Therein, the generalissimo of Abu Ghraib noted, lay the necessity of invading and scouring Iraq, inch by inch, in order to confirm the irrefutable—the absence of WMDs. The movie Green Zone nicely captures the crackpot peregrinations of Matt Damon’s American soldier around Iraq looking for the phantom arsenals. When finally frustrated at uncovering nothing but “absence,” he confronts his superiors, suggesting that perhaps the intelligence is flawed. Comes the boorish reply, “The intel is solid, it’s good to go!” In the end, as Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman notes, “The greatest weapon of mass destruction turned out to be the invasion itself.”
Now, in an Orwellian evolution worthy of the finest thought crime, we would now criminalize Iran’s unintended intent, as opposed to Iraq’s unfound stocks, insisting that the Iranians prove the absence of something they never avowed in the first place. We’re back to ruling out figments. Easily done, assays the IAEA. Simply allow the United States and its noble allies, unfettered, immediate, and interminable access to all and every inch of Iranian soil—every suspicious shed unbolted, every hard drive examined. After all, our satellites are seeing things. Don’t make us dispatch Colin Powell to bamboozle the U.N. again. It’s amazing what Photoshop can do with a school bus.
Déjà Vu, One More Time
It seems Vidal was right on the money, as he so often was. We forget our past even as it returns to us recrudescent on television screens and tablets and tiny mobile devices. It’s easy to forget history when it happens somewhere else. Our government, though, remembers its past all too well—hence its ability to reproduce historical blunders with such perfect facility. But then, oppressors always remember. Victims, too. Only bystanders forget.
History will likely remember our time as the Age of Oil, and perhaps one day our thesaurus will conflate petrol with freedom, as our government does now. Having sated our westward appetites, the jackals of Manifest Destiny have seen fit to extend the currencies of freedom to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—as often as not denominated in tribal partitions, mass displacement, regional diasporas, and, crucially, hospitable business climates favorable to the extraction of precious resources—all under the imprimatur of harsh autocracies. Of the 18 governments the United States overthrew in the 20th Century, five resulted in democracies. Why should we expect an Iranian intervention to produce a higher probability of representative and pro-Western government? Should we not rather anticipate the more familiar outcome, the seething internecine quarrels of a failed state? Of course, that would require remembering what we’ve already sent down the memory hole.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the corporate communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.