Welcome to Part 4 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.
It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!
Missed Part 1? Read it here.
You also missed Part 2? Wtf is your problem? Read it here.
You didn’t seriously miss Part 3, too? Ugh, here.
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And now: Part 4
IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!
Last week, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, aka Scary Mullah With Beard, had successfully overthrown the autocratic Shah of Iran and un-ironically named himself Supreme Leader. Pretty quickly, Khomeini’s supporters wanted to give the Americans a nice thank you present for their help in their history. After all, they had just gotten rid of the Shah, and who had put the Shah in power in the first place?
I’m Only Holding You Captive Because I Love You
On February 14, 1979, a group of about 150 Islamist radicals stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. The standoff ended a few hours later when Khomeini supporters intervened and called on the radicals to back off. The incident, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Open House, triggered a drawdown of embassy staff and led to the worst series of Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards ever (“I want you more than I want Death to America!” “You’ve captured my heart, and the rest of me. Seriously, are you ever going to let me go?” “You had met at ‘Salam, get on the floor, I’m taking you hostage.’”)
Unfortunately, Hallmark would have even less fun with the sequel.
On October 22, 1979, US President Jimmy Carter accepted the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. The Iranian people were not pleased and thought maybe the US was once again planning to force him into power (seriously, guys, paranoia?). A large group began demonstrating outside the US Embassy in Tehran. Then a few decided to put their wall-scaling skills into practice.
On Novemer 4, 1979, students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Given the relatively quick resolution of the February 14 incident, most people at the embassy thought the standoff would pass in a few days. With hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see that that outlook was, well, charitable. Even though the students themselves had planned to take over the compound for only a few days, their actions proved so popular (with people outside the embassy, that is) that they were emboldened. The students held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days (we, the Great Satan, were already using the number 666).
In a big fuck you to Jimmy Carter, the hostages were released January 20, 1981, immediately after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Six other American diplomats, who had managed to escape the embassy compound during the initial mayhem and hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, had made it home a year earlier, thanks to Ben Affleck, who parlayed his success into superhero status.
So, to recap: we overthrew Mossadegh to install the Shah. Then Khomeini overthrew said Shah and his supporters took American diplomats hostage, fearing we were going to re-install the Shah, because we had done exactly that 26 years earlier.
For the next 30 years, the US and Iran acted kind of like two teenagers who wanted to hate-fuck each other. They passed notes through intermediaries, occasionally cooperated—quietly—on projects of mutual interest but then would spectacularly hurt the other just to get his attention or re-establish dominance. They’d have an occasional détente followed by playing really hard to get. Like any Good versus Evil dichotomy, each side needed the other to survive. What would the Jedis be without the Empire? The Allies without the Axis? Sam without Diane?
I know your next question: In the US-Iran dichotomy, which side is Good and which side is Evil? Depends where you begin.
Look at the Iran-Contra affair: In the 1980s, Hizballah, financed by Iran, kidnaps a bunch of Americans in Lebanon to protest American presence in that country’s civil war, thinking hey, this is Iran’s turf. The Reagan administration sells American weapons to Iran, which was under an arms embargo because Iran had taken American diplomats hostage in 1979 (because the US supported the Shah and had overthrown a legit government 26 years earlier to put the Shah in power), to get Iran to lean on Hizballah to release the American hostages who were taken hostage to discourage retaliation from the US for the bombing of the Marine barracks and US Embassy in Lebanon, which were bombed to keep the US from interfering in a civil war Iran believed was under its tutelage, not the US’s.
Confused? Don’t be. Both the chicken and the egg came first. And they’ve both been broken and scrambled and cooked into the worst omelet you can imagine, complete with beard hairs and, now, highly enriched uranium, which complicates things and makes for a glowing omelet.
I feel like maybe I got sidetracked for a moment.
Anyway, President George W. Bush lumped Iran in with North Korea and Iraq in his Axis of Evil speech. When the United States then invaded Iraq, Iran couldn’t be too sure they wouldn’t be next (again, paranoid?). President Barack Obama, on the other hand, aimed for engagement and worked with the UN Security Council plus Germany to negotiate a deal allowing some Iranian nuke shenanigans but not much in return for access to Western money. Yay! Capitalism! This Iran Deal is either the best negotiated deal ever or the beginning of the end that will leave us all dead in a glowing puddle of radioactivity, depending on who you ask.
But all of that is at the government level. In terms of the people of each country, the story is a little different. Most Americans conflate the Iranian government and the Iranian people, and they conflate all of them with terrorists (Islam and burkas and beards, oh my!). They look at Iran and see scary religious people who hate democracy and freedom and dancing, as if Footloose took over a whole country of non-white non-American people (totally not scary when white American people act that way). And don’t even bother trying to get most Americans to compare and contrast Khomeini and his successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. There’s, like, a one letter difference and that’s it. They fail to recognize the Iranian population is very educated and balanced, and many Iranians really love the United States (oh, and many of them are already here, living among us! Shhhh!). Many also really like the idea of democracy and have been fighting for it in Iran.
The Iranian people made one of their biggest pushes to gain more say over their government in 2009, with the Green Movement, in which many people believed that the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulent. Iran saw some of the largest protests since the revolution. Many American politicians criticized President Barack Obama and wondered why the United States didn’t support the Green Movement to help it succeed in overthrowing the government. The general response from American foreign policy types was: Remember 1953? Because Iran certainly does.
Supporters of this latest push for regime change make clear their beef (and definitely not their pork) is not with the Iranian people. Indeed, they want to support the Iranian people and help them to overthrow their own government. Of course, this is what Kermit Roosevelt made it look like at the time he overthrew Mossadegh in 1953, so fair enough if some Iranians are wary (or again, paranoid?). Not sure they will like the outside influence in any case. They’ve had enough of it. But that might not stop the US. (Also, it is again rather ironic that we are discussing regime change and supporting influential groups in Iran, when our president refuses to acknowledge Russia just tried the same thing here.)
So to recap: when discussing Iran, avoid the words “overthrow,” “regime change,” and “shave.”
It’s all just a game of brinksmanship, played out over and over again for the last four decades. Are we right or are they? Are they wrong or are we? The answer is simple: yes.