Columns » Ernest Dumas

The U.S. and Iran



So we begin another furious debate over war and peace in the Middle East, this time over the nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran, and it is foreordained to look and sound just like the last big one, in 2002, when we went to war with Iraq and, before that, in 2001, with Afghanistan.

It will be waged upon fear and loathing of cutthroat Muslims, not the logic of whether it is the best hope for peace and safety and the avoidance of another nuclear-armed country in the Middle East.

Nearly every Republican in Congress and many timid Democrats will condemn the agreement — they already have — as a surrender to the devilish Iranians that will put Americans in peril of annihilation. The mushroom cloud that Condoleezza Rice and Benjamin Netanyahu envisioned in 2002 if we did not invade Iraq will appear metaphorically again above the halls of Congress.

We bought Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which had threatened us, at a price in blood and treasure so steep that it cannot be calculated for another quarter-century. At least we may be fairly sure that another attack, this one on Iran, will not happen, under President Obama anyway, because nullifying key features of the nuclear agreement and opening the portals of war will require a supermajority to overcome his promised veto. The veto threat allows everyone in Congress safety to go with the forces of fear without owning the consequences of the agreement's failure.

Arkansas's Sen. Tom Cotton has been the fiercest critic of the nuclear deal, although every member of the delegation has joined him. Here is the narrative behind Cotton's efforts to torpedo the agreement: We cannot trust terrorist Iran, the foe of Israel and our Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia, even though, like us, Iran is at war with the Islamic jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Even this week, the supreme leader calls America the Great Satan and encourages more of the street chants "Death to America."

The antidote to such hysteria is an account of American relations with Iran, for it is a microcosm of 65 years of well-meaning but blundering policy in a giant region governed by ancient religious and ethnic passions that we never grasped.

Indulge this brief history, shorn of its many farcical and tragic details. It sheds some light on Iranian passions about America.

1953: The CIA implements a plan ordered by the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, to overthrow the elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mosaddegh and give dictatorial power to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. President Truman had opposed British policy, which had blockaded Iran after Mossaddegh had wrested control of the Iranian oil industry from British Petroleum (BP), but Winston Churchill persuaded Ike to oust Mosaddegh because he might fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. To win over the timid shah for the plot, the CIA bribed his sister, Ashraf, with a mink coat and money; CIA Director Allen Dulles had allotted $1 million for the plan. (See the CIA document "Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mosaddegh of Iran, November 1952-August 1953.")

1979: Amid massive strikes and demonstrations, the unpopular shah flees and the Ayatollah Khomeini takes power under a referendum establishing the Iranian Islamic republic. Students chanting revenge for Mosaddegh's overthrow seize the U.S. embassy and take 52 U.S. citizens hostage. When President Carter refuses to return the ailing shah for trial, Iran keeps the hostages. The appearance of weakness crashes Carter's popularity, and back-channel negotiations on behalf of his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, keep the hostages imprisoned until the exact moment Reagan is sworn in.

1980: Saddam Hussein, the dictator in neighboring Iraq, invades Iran. Although Reagan apparently had wished for warmer relations with the Iranians who had helped him win the election, he decides by 1982 to support Saddam with military intelligence and materiel support and by pressing the Export-Import Bank to give Saddam financing for the war. The eight-year war costs more than a million lives, many from Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. never condemns Iraq's use of the weapons.

1986: A disgruntled Iranian leaks the story of Reagan's shipment of missiles to Iran (the U.S. eventually admitted sending 2,530) in exchange for Iran's help in freeing seven hostages in Lebanon. Reagan's national security adviser famously flies to Tehran bearing a Bible with a personal inscription from Reagan and a cake baked in the shape of a key to persuade the Iranians to help. Reagan's office diverts some of the proceeds from the arms sales to revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, thus violating both the law and American policy on negotiating with terrorists. Reagan apologizes and President George H.W. Bush pardons administration officials accused of violating the law. Iran executes the leaker for humiliating the government.

1988: The U.S. Navy ship Vincennes fires two missiles into a civilian Iranian airliner bound for Dubai, killing all 290 passengers and crewmen, and explains that it mistook the giant airbus for an Iranian fighter jet. Iran convinces itself that it is a signal that the U.S. intends to take a more active role for Saddam Hussein and bring down the Iranian government and two months later accepts a U.N. ceasefire.

1988: The scientist who developed American ally Pakistan's nuclear arsenal sells atomic secrets and a partially developed centrifuge to Iran and the same secrets to North Korea, which would develop its own nuclear arsenal during the administration of George W. Bush. (North Korea is a thousand miles nearer U.S. shores than Iran.)

2003: The international atomic agency confronts Iran with evidence it has a clandestine nuclear program, but the Bush administration is passive.

2009: President Obama, citing an international atomic agency's findings, reveals that Iran has built a centrifuge facility under a mountain near Qom and in 2011 gets Russia and China to join international sanctions, which brings Iran to the bargaining table.

With a record like that, critics of the deal ask, how can you trust the nutty Iranians?

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