Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 22, 2009

President Obama’s Cautious Approach to Iran

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

U.S. President Barack Obama has his shortcomings. In particular, he’s too eager to compromise and too inclined to jettison important principles to get bipartisan support. He wants to be liked. One lesson he seems to have drawn from growing up as an African-American is that to get along, he needs to go along. And he does. Not always, but more often than his supporters would prefer.

One shortcoming Obama does not have, however, is that of acting without thinking, which was the standard approach of his addled predecessor. Though Republican opponents have denounced him for failing to interfere in Iran following its obviously-rigged elections last week, Obama is right to take a careful approach. In the past, the U.S. has interfered in Iran’s internal affairs once too often. If Obama supported the Iranian reform movement too stridently, he would risk letting the Iranian government brand it plausibly as an American front group. The Republicans know that it’s safe to rant and rave because Obama isn’t going to do the foolish things that they demand.

Clueless About Iran

When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, I was pretty clueless about Iran.

I had less excuse than most people. My college roommate that year was from Iran. I didn’t like him, to tell the truth, but it was more because of culture clash than anything else. He was definitely better than my roommate the next year, a Saudi Arabian who got up at five every morning for a lot of loud praying and who stank up the room with mothballs in his closet. There probably wasn’t anything wrong with him, either, but college students don’t like to be awakened at five in the morning — even for activities that are otherwise commendable.

At any rate, my Iranian roommate was always jabbering about the ruler of Iran, “the Shah.” The Shah was an evil dictator, he said. The Shah did this, the Shah did that, and if the Iranians could just get rid of the Shah, everything would be fine. And guess what? In January 1979, they finally did get rid of the Shah. Threatened with popular revolt, the Shah — already stricken with cancer — fled the country. Iran’s government was taken over by the Islamic religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini.

In November 1979, after President Jimmy Carter let the Shah come to the United States for medical treatment, Iranian students attacked and occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. They held the ambassador and embassy staff as hostages. The Iranian government refused to help. The Iranian people supported the students.

Like most Americans, I was outraged. What was wrong with those people? Why did they hate us so much? We had never done anything to them. I thought that they must simply be crazy. The rock group Vince Vance and the Valiants recorded a song titled “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ pop hit “Barbara Ann.” It got round-the-clock play on the radio.

What All Iranians Know But Americans Don’t

Also like most Americans, I was completely ignorant of what the American government had been doing.

In fact, “we” had done plenty to the Iranians; yes, they did hate us; and yes, they had ample reason to hate us. The American government had been interfering in Iran since the 1940s. Until that time, the U.S. had largely left Middle Eastern countries alone, except for business ventures and philanthropic projects. Great Britain* and France had interfered constantly, and Russia had interfered sporadically, but the United States had stayed out for the most part.

Britain, in particular, exercised great control over Iran, using its power to help Western oil companies that were extracting the country’s petroleum wealth. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, now known as BP) was the main beneficiary, and from 1944 to 1950 grew its profits by more than tenfold, while the Iranian share increased only fourfold.**

In 1948, Iran’s government began negotiating with AIOC to increase the Iranian share of the profits from Iranian oil. However, an Iranian politician named Mohammed Mossadegh argued for complete nationalization of the Iranian oil industry — a move that would have cut out AIOC altogether. The idea was wildly popular with the Iranian people, who forced the then-Shah of Iran in 1951 to appoint Mossadegh prime minister and agree to his nationalization plan. Historian Peter Mansfield observes:

The measure was not only wildly popular in Iran; it inspired the Arab man-in-the-street. Mossdegh’s name became legendary in the Middle East as Nasser‘s would become a few years later.

But the Western governments were not about to have their noses tweaked by a democratic movement in the Middle East. Neither were the oil companies. In August 1953, after the Shah had fled from Iran, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s M.I.5 overthrew Mossadegh’s popular government and put the Shah back into power as their client ruler.

The Shah’s job was to keep the lid on, which he did, and to represent Western interests, including those of Western oil companies, which he did. To stay in power, he used terror and torture to an extent that made the Bush-Cheney regime’s Guantánamo prison seem like a day at the beach. His security agency SAVAK was particularly hated and feared. The Iranian people blamed his crimes indirectly on the United States, whose government had put the Shah into power and kept him there until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

For that reason, as The New York Times noted in its article about the recent election protests:

Iranians with reformist sympathies even began advising Americans to stop openly supporting them, lest that open them to attacks as pawns of America.

Acting Responsibly

Because they have no power except as “spoilers” — of economic recovery, of tax and regulatory reform, of healthcare reform, and now of foreign policy — the Republicans can complain and criticize all they want. They don’t have the responsibility to act in the best interests of the United States and, at a distance, to act in the interest of justice for the people of Iran.

President Obama does have that responsibility. And unlike his Republican adversaries, he has shown himself responsible enough to handle it.

*Until the Suez crisis of 1956, Great Britain was the Western power most involved in the Middle East.  When the Suez crisis proved that Britain was no longer economically or militarily capable of controlling the Middle East, the United States took over its role as the Western hegemon in the area. Because of their long colonial experience, the British had a fairly realistic understanding of the situation. The Americans, however, tended to view everything through the prism of their ideological conflict with Communism and the Soviet Union.

**See, for example, A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield, pp.249-250 (Penguin Books, New York, 1991).

Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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