President George W. Bush, traveling in Europe, found "absurd" the abysmal ratings Europeans give the United States, ranking us as more of a threat than Iran to world peace.
But the anger is real enough. Europeans overwhelmingly opposed our invasion of Iraq, fearing (rightly) that it would create a laboratory to train terrorists that could spill over into Europe. They are much more vulnerable than we are, a point most Americans simply do not grasp, despite the London and Madrid bombings.
Europeans, knowing the overwhelming military power of the U.S. allows us to employ that power much as we please, are trying to send a message. When you are totally outgunned, and at the same time overpowered by the sweep of American popular culture that threatens to undermine cultures built over centuries, you take any opportunity you can to tweak the giant's nose.
A whole lot of tweaking going on! In a far more deadly situation, that is at work in Iran as well.
Our own blunders in Iran set us up for today's nuclear standoff, and Iran's leaders are milking it for everything they can get, from political points at home to the chance to humiliate the United States abroad. The helpless giant, tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unable to unleash its rockets and soldiers in a third front.
There is much irony in our relations with Iran, for of all the countries in the Middle East (excepting democratic Israel and Turkey), the desire for democracy burned strongest in Iran over the past century. It has been shut down by autocratic rulers from shahs to ayatollahs, and by foreign powers, including America.
Iran adopted a parliamentary constitution as early as 1906, but the reforms proved temporary in the face of combined Russian and British pressures. The colonial powers divided Iran and took control of its oil, maintaining their agreement until communism took over in Russia in 1917. Subsequent communist involvement in democratic efforts in Iran brought an alliance of Britain and Reza Shah, a strongman with modernist inclinations and founder of the Pahlavi family dynasty, finally overturned by the Islamic revolution of 1978.
The period leading to World War II saw class divisions in Iran that would later be important to our relationships. Westernization, socially and economically, created a small Iranian middle class, its wealth based on exploitation of a huge underclass strongly influenced by the Islamic clergy. American economic and political ties were with the small privileged class, and we were increasingly seen by the masses as anti-Islam and too close to the second Pahlavi ruler, Mohammed Reza Shah.
Americans replaced the British in dominating the economy and military of Iran, using it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but it was a standoff with the British that brought the events that placed the United States in the role of "foreign devil" and vastly changed relations between Iran and the U.S.
The Iranian parliament created in 1906 functioned briefly in the post-war period, and in 1947 attempted to revise oil contracts heavily favoring the British. A secular nationalist premier, Mohammad Mosaddeq, nationalized the oil industry, and the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a coup that drove him from office in 1953, giving the shah total power. The coup was described in the U.S. as an anti-communist move, but leftists had virtually no power in Iran in 1953. Mosaddeq was ousted for oil.
Our role in the coup was never denied — in fact it was a boast — and, as the revived shah became more despotic, Mosaddeq gained iconic status. Reza Shah's much-feared secret police were trained by the CIA, and American oil companies and arms merchants made fortunes as the shah increased his power and wealth. Iran was allowed to buy any non-nuclear arms its oil could afford, recycling American oil dollars to purchase American weapons.
The shah was our go-to guy in the region, from Dwight Eisenhower through Jimmy Carter. By 1978, America and the shah were seen as a single entity. Enter the ayatollahs. To express our displeasure, we backed Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s' deadly war between the two countries. Iran hasn't forgotten that, either.
Iranians maintain a strong impulse for democracy, with ancient traditions of learning and civilization. Right now, they are tweaking the giant's nose. The giant, already up to his neck in Middle East adventures, has to talk himself out of this one. If done successfully, it just might boost those international polls.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 The Seattle Times Company