Axis of Evil versus the Great Satan
Foaad Khosmood
November/December 2004

Is Iran next? The answer is certainly yes. But we're not necessarily talking about a war. With a population 50% larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, more rigorous terrain than the low-lands of Mesopotamia, a much stronger sense of national identity and actual defense capabilities, Iran remains an obstacle to Neoconservative ambitions of empire and hegemony.

To most Americans Iran is the Iran of the hostage crisis. They recall terrifying images of their countrymen blindfolded and humiliated on TV, Islamic figures chanting angry rants about the "Great Satan" and the American flag burning. This is not a pretty picture, but there are explanations that most Americans are not as familiar with, an oft-untold history that may shed some light on U.S./Iran relations past and present.

Veteran New York Times journalist and author of "All the Shah's Men," Stephen Kinzer described the hostage crisis in an interview earlier this year:

"...this action seemed totally incomprehensible to most Americans. We had come to believe that most Iranians felt positively toward the United States. Most Americans had no idea that the CIA had brought Mohammad Reza Shah back to his throne in 1953, so when militants who invaded the American embassy in Tehran said they were acting to prevent another such coup, we had no idea what they were talking about."

In 1953, CIA overthrew a democratically elected prime minister, Mossadegh, in a coup mainly to satisfy British oil interests and American cold-war hawks. Mossadegh had worked hard and succeeded in legally nationalizing Iran's British-run oil sector. This decision was upheld in international courts and the British were running out of options. They approached President Truman several times about such an action, but they could not find a sympathetic ear until the arrival of the Dulles brothers who came in with the new Eisenhower administration. The results were the overthrow of Mossadegh by the CIA and the re-installment of Shah as an absolute ruler friendly to the U.S. What followed was an iron-fisted rule, complete with torture chambers and secret police for over 25 years. In the 70's Amnesty International named Iran's Pahlavi regime the worst human rights offender in the world. The United States was not only providing diplomatic support for the Shah, but also trained Shah's secret service, SAVAK, which became synonymous with horror in Iranian society. In addition, the Shah's military was sold the state of the art of American weaponry and communications systems.

So when there was a popular revolution in 1979, and the repressed masses ousted the Shah, the Monarch left Iran and was eventually admitted to the United States for medical treatment. In the ensuing chaos the U.S. embassy was stormed and the hostages were taken partly because the embassy was used to bring the Shah to power 25 years ago and they did not want a repeat. The hostages were released 444 days later without any losses.

In the 1980s, the U.S. fought a proxy war with Iran through its diplomatic, financial and military support of the then-ally Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq war was the longest lasting major conflict of the 20th century. Casualties were enormous on both sides and the devastation led to one of the largest migration of Iranians in history.

The war had the additional affect of solidifying the power of the Iranian government in the hands of the militant fundamentalists. In the face of a war with a superiorly-equipped enemy supported by both superpowers and most of the countries in the region, Iranian hardliners were able to tighten their control, successfully discontinue any democratic progress and make survival of the country the number of one concern of the people. The war was somewhat of a blessing for them as well.

Thus it was only in the 1990s, after Saddam's military was neutralized and the Cold War was over, that the Iranian democracy movement was reinvigorated. There was significant success in the elections of President Khatami and a reformist congress. There was increasingly open dialogue, international cooperation and a flourishing of independent press critical of the government. Despite unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran which continued during the Clinton Administration, U.S. posture was not militarily hostile to the Islamic Republic and that was a significant factor in flourishing of democracy within the country.

The Bush administration changed all that. After 9/11 the U.S. and Iran cooperated against a mutual enemy in Afghanistan, and Iran cooperated in the War on Terror. Beginning in 2002 with the "Axis of Evil" speech, however, the prospect of normalized relations vanished and both governments retreated to a more familiar and hostile position. Consequently, with another major military threat looming to this very day, the democracy movements in Iran took a serious beating. The hardliners took back the congress and successfully blocked moderate candidates in the elections. Such an action would've provoked tremendous outcry and resistance from the people in the 1990s. But in the new "Axis of Evil" reality, it became justifiable for the hardliners. In other words: "We can't take chances on liberalization now, not when we may be attacked soon."

To be sure, both U.S. presidential candidates spoke softly about Iran. Bush has not hinted at a military solution lately and most pundits dismiss the idea as far-fetched. But then again, Bush was pretending peace was possible with Saddam too, right up until the war itself.

The next two years offers perhaps the best chance for an Iranian "regime change" -a stated goal for the Bush Administration. As such, it would be unlikely for them not to act on it in some way. Then there is the matter of the PR operation to sell it to the American people.

And so we are here, with a possible nuclear crisis on the horizon and the right-wing hardliners in both regimes poised to take a militaristic stance. Will there be a war, a CIA-style intervention, a "surgical strike" or peace and dialogue? The next few months are telling. Stay tuned.

Foaad Khosmood is the online Editor of ZNet's "Iran Watch." ( He lives in Gainesville.

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