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Home > World

America vs. Iran: What's their beef?

Immigrants and faggots,
They make no sense to me,
They come to our country,
And think they'll do as they please,
Like start some mini Iran,
Or spread some fuckin' disease.

- Guns'n'Roses, One in a Million

11 July 2003

Although Axl Rose isn't renowned for his grasp of international politics, his lyrics do neatly sum up the Western perception of Iran as the country of the mad mullahs. But what Axl probably didn't know was that the US and the UK have been doing 'as they please' in Iran for many, many years.

The West has had a long - if rather troubled - relationship with Iran. From the 18th century, Britain had a strong military, political and business presence in Persia (it became Iran in 1936). Oil was discovered in the 1900s, and British Petroleum was set up to get at it. Soon the oil had become vital to the British

At the time the shah (king) of Persia was sympathetic to Britain and the West - a policy that would continue for many years, and which was not always in the interest of ordinary Persians.

An interesting example of this tension occurred when Reza Khanís repressive regime of the 1920s imposed Western 'reforms' that included forcing Persians out of traditional Arab dress into Western styles. One Persian writer described his countrymen as wearing "European trousers, often tied with a string, and mismatched suit jackets worn day in and day out into a state of unrecognisable shabbiness."

The most recent dynasty of shahs in Persia/Iran was established by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925. He abdicated in 1941, and his son Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi took over until he fled the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Throughout the reign of the last few Shahs, Iran's oil meant it remained a key strategic region. In World War II, Iran was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union, and after the war, the Americans and Russians began looking for a piece of the oil action.

Iran's relationship with the West became a divided one, punctuated by squabbles over oil prices. The Shahs tended to happily take vast sums of Western oil money while ignoring the needs of their own people.

In the 1960s the Shah began social and economic reform, and women got the right to vote in 1963. The problem was that democracy was largely a sham and the shahís government was corrupt and incredibly brutal, with regular purges by the secret police, trained, as is now well known, by the CIA.

In 1971, Britain withdrew its military forces from the Persian Gulf, but fear of the Russians led the US and UK to give massive military support to Iran, making it the region's strongest military power. However, industrialisation and modernisation, accompanied by massive extremes of wealth and poverty, were causing enormous resentment among Iranís many poor.

In 1979 the exiled religious leader Ayotollah Khomeini overthrew the shah and Iran became a religious state. A year later Iraq invaded Iran, mainly because of a dispute over the disputed Shatt al Arab waterway.

The war crippled both nations, devastating Iran's military and industrial power and killing or wounding between 500,000 and one million people. Chemical weapons were used by both countries and the war dragged inconclusively on for many years.

Khomeini died in 1989 and gradually relations with the West improved. In the '90s many European countries were re-establishing economic ties with Iran, but the US was not happy: it said Iran was involved in international terrorism (true) and was developing nuclear weapons (also true). (We Brits might also like to recall the death threat against Salman 'reaching page 18 is quite a feat' Rushdie).

But after September 11, America and Iran were hardly at each othersí throats. Iran immediately denounced the attacks, and its relations with nearby states were also peaceful. In short, things seemed to be looking up. Or at least pretty calm. But recently George Bush has made fresh claims, specifically that:

  • Iran helped Al Quaeda

  • Iran has developed a 'clandestine' nuclear weapons programme

  • Iran has tried to undermine attempts to rebuild Iraq

    Itís an odd time to make the allegations. The consensus seems to be that there is little evidence that Iran is currently linked with Al Quaeda. Iran has detained a number of Al Quaeda types, including one of Bin Ladenís sons, and is currently questioning them. Hardly unconditional support for our favourite religious fanatics.

    The charge that Iran is building nukes is also odd. Itís no secret that Iran has had a nuclear programme - it began under the Shah in 1974, but was suspended after the Islamic revolution. It was not until 1984 that Ayatollah Khomeini restarted nuclear research and, interestingly, there are indications that he did so reluctantly, regarding nuclear weapons as immoral.

    Some say Iranís nuclear programme is still in its early stages, while others believe an Iranian nuke could soon be a reality. Israel has said Iran will have a nuclear capability by 2005 (well they would, wouldnít they?) while a U.S. intelligence report says Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade.

    And what about this claim that Iran is undermining the rebuilding of Iraq? As weíve come to expect from the US government, there is no evidence that there is any official Iranian attempt to undermine the cack-handed American efforts to restore order in the occupied country.

    So there we go. It seems that the Bush administration really is a law unto itself, hurling mindless accusations around at exactly the same time as the Westís relations with Iran were improving. They knocked over the Taleban and Saddam, so why increase tension in the Middle East for no readily apparent reason?

    Itís genuinely puzzling.

    This, from PNAC's account of the meeting between US President Bush and Chinese President Hu:

    The president [Bush] did bring up his concerns about Iran, stating very clearly that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons presents a grave threat that China and the U.S. have to work together to address." At which point a journalist asked "Was there any response from President Hu on that?" Answer: "Not much, really."

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