Setting Iran Straight

The precedents are somewhat discouraging.

So, after more than half a century of active meddling—protecting our interests, promoting our values, encouraging democracy, fighting terrorism, seeking stability, defending human rights, pushing peace—it’s come to this. In Iraq we find ourselves unwilling regents of a society splitting into a gangland of warring militias and death squads, with our side (labeled “the government”) outperforming the other side (labeled “the terrorists”) in both the quantity and gruesome quality of its daily atrocities. In Iran, an irrational government that hates us with special passion is closer to getting the bomb than Iraq—the country we went to war with to keep from getting the bomb—ever was.

And in Afghanistan—site of the Iraq war prequel that actually followed the script (invade, topple brutal regime, wipe out terrorists, establish democracy, accept grateful thanks, get out)—the good guys we put in power came close, a couple weeks ago, to executing a man for the crime of converting to Christianity. Meanwhile, the bad guys (the Taliban and al-Qaida) keep a low news profile by concentrating on killing children and other Afghan civilians rather than too many American soldiers.

When the United States should use its military strength to achieve worthy goals abroad is an important question. But based on this record, it seems a bit theoretical. It’s like asking whether Donald Trump should use his superpowers to cure AIDS. Or what George W. Bush should say when he wins the Nobel Prize in physics. A more pressing question is: Can’t anyone here play this game?

Half a century ago, Iran was very close to a real democracy. It had an elected legislature, called the Majlis, and it had a repressive monarch, called the shah, and power veered uncertainly between them. In 1951, over the shah’s objections, the Majlis voted in a man named Mosaddeq as prime minister. His big issue was nationalizing the oil companies.

But in 1952, the United States had an election for president, and the winner (Eisenhower) got more votes than anyone in Iran. That must explain why in 1953, in the spirit of democracy, the CIA instigated a riot and then staged a coup. Mosaddeq was arrested, the Majlis was ultimately dissolved, and the shah ran things his way, which involved torture and death for political opponents, caviar and champagne for an international cast of hangers-on, and no more crazy-talk about nationalizing the oil companies.

But, speaking of crazy-talk, resentment of the shah and of the United States were central to the growing appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1979, the Ayatollah’s followers overthrew the shah and made Iran a strict Islamic state. Later that year, Iranian “students” besieged the U.S. Embassy and seized 66 hostages, most of whom were held prisoner for more than a year. Hatred of Iran in America became almost as fierce as hatred of America in Iran.

Meanwhile, next door in Iraq, an ambitious young dictator, new to the job, named Saddam Hussein sensed both danger and opportunity in Iran’s chaos. So he decided to invade. Thus began the Iran-Iraq war, lasting eight years. It turned hundreds of thousands of people into corpses and millions into refugees. When it was over, nothing had changed. But it wasn’t a complete waste. It provided another opportunity for the United States to promote its interests and values.

On the “enemy of my enemy” principle, the United States all but officially backed Iraq. We overlooked Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers (many of them children), and against his own people. Many of the human rights abuses President Bush and others have invoked two decades later to justify the decision to topple and try Saddam were well publicized in the ‘80s. But in the ‘80s, we didn’t care. President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld, then a drug-company executive, as his “special envoy” to tell Saddam that we didn’t care.

Meanwhile, of course, Reagan was also secretly selling weapons to Iran.

The big event in Afghanistan this past half-century was the Soviet occupation of 1979, often described as the last gasp of the Cold War and as Russia’s Vietnam. Recent governments had been pro-Soviet, but apparently not pro-Soviet enough. After the occupation, some of the deposed thugs and others formed militias that roamed the countryside killing people and whatnot. These were called “guerillas,” because we were for them. During the 1980s, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on weapons and other support.

The war we sustained in Afghanistan destroyed the country, turned half the population into refugees, and killed perhaps a million people. In 1989, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan (along with everywhere else, including Russia). But disappointingly, our guerrillas, also called the “mujahideen,” kept on fighting—using our weapons—against the government and among themselves. In 1996, one particularly extreme group, the Taliban, took power. It was even more disappointing when the Taliban established an Islamic state more extreme than the one in Iran and invited Osama Bin Laden to make himself at home, which he did.

So, we marched in and got rid of the Taliban. Then we marched into Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein. Now we’re—well, we haven’t figured out what, but we’re hopping mad and gonna do something, dammit, about Iran.

And they lived happily ever after.