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U.S. aims to mend fences with Iran, critics notwithstanding

by William Pfaff

It’s not only most Israelis, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the policy-community hawks in Washington and acolytes of AIPAC in the Congress who hate the interim nuclear agreement signed by Iran in November with the United Nations Security Council “P5-plus-one.”

So do the leaders of the paramilitary Basij force in Iran and other Iranians who support a hard and hostile line toward the Great Satan and the U.N. diplomats who collaborated in setting up what many in the West, and no doubt in Iran, hope will prove a first step in reconciliation between the Iranians and the Western community.

Why do Americans hate the Iranians? Most Americans probably do not. It’s the American government that has a grudge against Iran. That’s because the American government was made a fool of in its dealings with Iran. And the U.S. government nurses grudges. (Think of Fidel Castro.)

In the Iran case, Washington nurses a grievance against the Iranians for having seized the American Embassy staff at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, keeping most of the embassy’s staff prisoners until 1981 while American protests were scorned and an American military rescue attempt proved a fiasco.

Iranians have the best reasons for hating Americans and the British. Persia is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in human history. It became Islamized in the 7th century of the modern era, when it reached its peak of power, ruling the classical and Mediterranean worlds from North Africa to the Balkans.

It remained a monarchy until the 19th century, when British and Russian imperialism intervened. (Czarist Russia was Persia’s neighbor, expanding its empire in the Caucasus at the time, and Britain was extending the influence of its own Indian Empire, today’s Pakistan being Persia’s eastern neighbor.)

In 1908, oil was discovered in Persia — just in time for the Royal Navy’s (and other nations’ fleets’) conversion from coal to oil. Modern Persia/Iran’s time of troubles began. The country largely escaped World War I but was occupied by Britain and Russia during World War II to keep the German Army out and the oil under Allied control.

The monarchy in 1921, at the end of the previous dynasty, was captured in a coup by a Persian Cossack officer who established the Pahlavi dynasty, in which he was succeeded by his son, who had to flee the country with the help of the CIA in 1953.

That followed the tentatively democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who nationalized the largely British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (its descendant is BP). The CIA and Britain’s MI6 organized a coup to put the young shah back in power and put the oil back in safe Anglo-American hands. It all worked beautifully, except for the Iranians, who never saw democratic government again.

The shah imposed absolute rule, and U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave him the role of America’s well-armed gendarme in the Mideast. In that role Iran was encouraged by the U.S. to develop nuclear power, the basis of Iran’s present nuclear establishment.

The shah had a second exile, of course, this time in 1979 to expel America’s influence and install an Islamic Revolution, which placed the Ayatollah Khomeini and the present Islamic government in power. The shah’s new exile was to Egypt and the United States. The latter arranged medical treatment — he was dying of cancer — and expeditiously sent him back to Egypt, which gave him refuge, and where he soon died.

Since then there has been open hostility between the U.S. and Iran, with the U.S. supporting Iraq in its invasion and decade-long war with Iran (1980-1990).

Thus Iran has quite a few grudges against the U.S. and Western imperialism.

Israel does not have a grudge against Iran. It simply fears it. Israeli policy is to prevent, to the extent that it is able, the presence in its region of any major, well-armed Muslim state that could become a threat. Thus Iraq had to be destroyed. The U.S., thanks to Islamist intervention on 9/11, obliged. Now Iran is the menace. Thus the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was the most effective propagandist Netanyahu ever had in the Middle East, encouraging thoroughgoing detestation of what he said.

On the other hand, the presidency of Hassan Rouhani poses the most serious threat Netanyahu has ever faced. He has now made many Americans and other Westerners think that Iran might become a peaceful force in the Middle East.

Netanyahu does not seem the grasp the threat. The more he inflates his quasi-hysterical scare-mongering rhetoric about a bloodthirsty Iran determined to crush Israel — rhetoric that is unbelievable in view of the actual strategic and military positions of the two states — the more he undermines his own position. He is not believed.

Moreover, while his past threats to carry out unprovoked attacks upon Iran’s nuclear installations carried the weight of American military cooperation with Israel, as did aggressive U.S. assertions that “nothing is off the table,” these were military threats of less than total conviction, or total strategic plausibility, but not something for Iran to take lightly.

Today, it is the U.S. that wants a negotiated settlement with Iran, and that is leading the effort to get one. It is also a country whose public opinion has just vetoed an attack on Syria, wants out of the war in Afghanistan, and has taken note of the arrogance and insolence with which the Israeli prime minister now treats Americans. Netanyahu may be popular in Israel, but he is no favorite across the American nation.

One assumes that Netanyahu is sufficiently lucid to prefer a less than totally satisfactory settlement with Iran, guaranteed by the U.S., to a war with Iran and its allies, with the Americans bystanders. That could prove the choice.

William Pfaff is a Paris-based American commentator and writer focusing on U.S. foreign policy (www.williampfaff.com). © 2013 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.