Commentary / World

Demystifying decades of animosity with Iran

by Cesar Chelala

For several decades, relations between the United States and Iran and between Iran and the West have been shrouded in misconceptions and prejudices. Neither the U.S. nor the West has done anything to achieve a peaceful relationship with that country, and the current permanent state of distrust could lead to war at any moment.

Some basic facts need to be restated. The long-standing conflict can be traced largely to Aug. 19, 1953, when both the United Kingdom and the U.S. orchestrated a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. The reason: Mossadegh was trying to audit the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a British corporation, to change the terms of that company’s access to Iranian oil.

Following the refusal of AIOC to cooperate with the Iranian government, the Iranian parliament voted almost unanimously to nationalize AIOC and expel its representatives from Iran. The anti-government coup that ensued led to the formation of a military government under Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi.

That government allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to rule the country as an absolute and ruthless monarch. Sixty years after the coup, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) finally admitted that it had been involved in both its planning and the execution of the coup that caused 300 to 800, mostly civilian, casualties.

That fateful coup was behind the anti-American sentiment not only in Iran but throughout the Middle East. I wonder how we in the U.S. would have reacted if China and Russia, for example, had plotted to overthrow a democratic American government, leaving a chaotic situation in its wake.

However, U.S. interference in Iranian affairs didn’t end there. In September 1980, Saddam Hussein started a war against Iran that would have devastating consequences for both countries. The war — the longest conventional war in the 20th century — was characterized by Iraq’s indiscriminate ballistic-missile attacks and extensive use of chemical weapons.

The war resulted in at least half a million and probably twice as many troops killed on both sides, and in at least half a million men who became permanently disabled.

The U.S. actively supported Saddam in his war efforts with billions of dollars in credits, advanced technology, weaponry, military intelligence and special ops training. Pentagon officials in Baghdad planned day-by-day bombing strikes for the Iraqi Air Force.

According to former U.S. Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith, Iraq used this data to target Iranian positions with chemical weapons. Despite the brutality of these attacks, Iran didn’t respond in kind.

In 1984, Iran presented a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, based on the Geneva Protocol of 1925.

The U.S. instructed its delegate at the U.N. to lobby friendly representatives to support a motion to abstain on the vote on the use of chemical weapons by Iraq.Can we be surprised that Iranians harbor a deep resentment against the U.S.?

However, rather than following a policy of appeasement, U.S. Republican senators and some Democrats are intent on derailing an accord with Iran, contrary to the U.S.’ own political and economic interests in the region. And they have a faithful ally in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Where will these actions lead us?

Although U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will veto any new sanctions on Iran, there is the risk that by not reaching an agreement with Iran in the next few months, hardliners in both the U.S. and Israel will press for an attack on Iran. Such an outcome would spell disaster for the region and eventually for the whole world.

The U.S. should take advantage of the momentum created by the progress, slow as it is, in the negotiations and try to get Iran’s full cooperation on important problems such as Islamic State, Syria, Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiation team recently noted that secret cooperation among Tehran,Washington and Moscow led to the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. recently said that, probably besides the people of Israel, the Iranian people are the most pro-American people in the region.

Iranians, frustrated by the continuous state of belligerence between Iran on one side and the U.S. and Israel on the other, are desperate for the normalization of relations, which would open up new economic and professional opportunities. The advantages of reaching an agreement are clear; so, regrettably, are the disadvantages of not reaching one.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award and a national journalism award from Argentina. He has written extensively on Iranian issues.