The uproar and controversy over purported U.S. plans to attack Iran show no sign of dying down. While President George W. Bush assures us that talk of impending war is little more than “wild speculation,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently threatened to assemble a “coalition of the willing” against Iran outside the U.N. if the security council fails to take action. All this has convinced many Iranians that "the nuclear issue is just the latest stage in a struggle between Washington and Tehran dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution,” according to The Financial Times.
It does appear that Bush is carefully considering his legacy and the possibility that he may yet salvage it through a swift, “surgical” military solution. Most observers are focusing on the confrontation to come. But we first need to understand how we got here. In moments like this, history appears overdetermined. The present becomes a hostage to the past—and the future, of course, must follow suit. Mistakes were made over decades. Miscalculations accumulated.
We can go back as far as 1953 when the U.S. and Britain enabled the coup which effectively ended Iranian democracy and, in turn, brought us the unbridled autocracy of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Jimmy Carter memorably called the Shah’s Iran “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” This is where the word “blowback” first gained its invaluable currency. Moreover, if one needs evidence that lack of democracy makes the rise of extremism more likely, then one can certainly find it in Iran and in the Islamic revolution of 1979.
All events, to a certain degree, flow out of 1953. Ayatollah Khomeini—as we know and remember him today—would not have existed if it wasn’t for the sudden unfolding of events that year. But nuclear confrontation need not have ever been in the cards.
To understand how it came to this, we should recall that a reformist president—Mohammad Khatami—was in power until very recently. His ascendancy—first in the heady elections of 1998—was greeted with faint hopes of praise and possibility not only in Iran but here in the United States. This was a man who spoke not of wiping out Israel, but rather of a “dialogue of civilizations.” No, he was not a liberal—but neither was he a maniacal messianist whose pretensions to rationality often appeared in doubt. No, he did not hold the degree of power normally invested in those with his title. He may not have been powerful, but he was empowered, sure enough, by the broad desire for a new Iran and by the agitation and activism of Iranian youth who sought so courageously to bring it about.
This was the time, if there ever was one, for the West to reach out and strengthen the hands of the moderates and to conclude—finally—the era of hatred followed by cold detachment which had defined the relationship with Iran for nearly two decades. But, alas, the first great misstep would come under Bill Clinton’s watch. The Clinton administration could not appear weak and appeasing in the face of the mullahs, so it maintained a harsh and uncompromising stance.
If Clinton wouldn’t talk to Iran, President George Bush—in a charged post-9/11 atmosphere—not only wasn’t in the mood for dialogue, he chose to include Iran on his illustrious axis of evil. The spiral toward nuclear confrontation began then. The rug had been pulled out from under an unsuspecting Khatami. It was—as things would turn out—a fatal turn of events for the reformists. The conservatives were emboldened. The language of confrontation which had been introduced only polarized the already divided Iranian arena. The middle was squeezed and the extreme flank of right-wing manicheanism strengthened.
It was under this ominous backdrop that the unlikely rise of a haggard-looking man by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could occur. Khatami’s muted exit seemed a far cry from the lofty expectations of a time long past. It quickly became apparent that Ahmadinejad did not have Khatami’s gentle—if somewhat ambivalent—smile.
There is little reason to smile today as military escalation becomes, for the first time, a distinct possibility. It might all seem “completely nuts” in the words of suddenly ex-British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. But we are not, it must be said, living in sensible times. It is unclear whether we ever were.
Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy. He is also a contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative’s foreign affairs blog.
© 2006 TomPaine.com