A few years back, in a food court in one of Dubai’s glitzy malls, a group of US soldiers dressed in hip ‘civvies’ swaggered onto a table next to ours. Predominantly Hispanic and African American, v-shaped bodies, sharp crew-cuts and with the exaggerated-confidence of ‘buddies’ with practised clenched fists, were fairly definite signs of American soldiers on a R&R break.
The surreal oasis of Dubai was a welcome break from the battle-rattle-tattle that had consumed the region, as just across the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, depending on whom you ask), the Frankenstein monster of the Islamic State was engaged in a very bloody war. The tide had just turned for the first time, and news of a mysterious General Soleimani of the Iranian Quds force, along with a host of loyal Shiite militias, had broken the Islamic State defence, and the world’s most pernicious terror organisation was on the run. While the stalemate with the US-led forces and the Sheikhdom-supported militias ensued, the Kurds held on to their territories, and it was solely the Iranian-led juggernaut, that was rolling.
Unlike the indoctrinated policy mandarins on Capitol Hill, these fighters must have witnessed a different reality, that defied historical perceptions? But what the leader of the group said next, stunned me. As he held onto the smoked Hamour fish on the saffron pilaf, bought from the Iranian Hataam restaurant, he smelt the food and said loudly, “Their food is so good, I could almost forgive them and actually like them!” Coming from ground combatants, who would have noticed chinks in the simplistic narrative of ‘evil’ Iran, as the American hypocrisy historically posited, this was indoctrination, at its deepest.
Uncle Sam’s friends and their friendly militias in the region were not winning, whereas the Iranians were gaining ground against the common face of global terror, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Iranian-led focus was destroying the Islamic State and evicting the one-time remnant of Sadda’’s Army ~ the same Army that had once been supported by the Americans in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and then abandoned to their fate, after the fall of Saddam. Memory has been proverbially short in the West, whereas memories are the only “commodity” that the Middle East holds onto, when everything else has been reduced to rubble.
Betrayal defines the perception about America, strangely it is perhaps the only thing that unites the common people on both sides of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Americans are paranoid about the future, the Middle Easterners about their past. The American narrative in relations to Iran starts in 1979 with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and the subsequent events of the 444 days of the US Embassy hostage drama. The Iranian sense of history is not determined by a time period, it is an uninterrupted run of betrayals that started at least 30 years earlier in the 1950s.
Iran is a timeless civilisation, more than a map of a nation. Iranians understand the profundity of causeand-effect. While not exactly convinced with the fruits of the Islamic Revolution, the Shah regime remains a complex phenomenon with most dismissing the verdict on the same be a gentle phrase, ‘Reza Shah (Pahlavi), God Bless Your Soul’ in Persian. But what virtually every Iranian is clear about is the devious role of the CIA in the coup against the popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. This betrayal is unforgiven, and because no one outside Iran talks about the same, it rankles even more.
The man that US had then ousted was indisputably secular, a democrat and a reformer, whereas the US allies at that time (and even now?) were illiberal and puritanical monarchists who were beholden to Western oil companies. The huge hypocrisy in the official American stand and between its real preferences on the ground was glaring, and the 7000-yearold Iranian civilisation showcased the betrayal. Sectarian rifts in the region dated back to the times just after the Iranians saw the American hedge on Saddam, during the Iran-Iraq war.
The Iranians lived through Saddam’s chemical attacks, and more importantly, they lived through the American complicity by way of silence. Undoubtedly the Iranians hit back, and the Beirut bombing became the second most definitive event in American memory. The passing of Ayatollah Khomeini and the emergence of a moderate leadership in Tehran raised hopes of rapprochement. That hope was scuttled by the cavalier attitude of Americans. The 1990s saw the recalibration of US threat perceptions in the wake of the Gulf war, and it culminated with 9/11, with all fingers pointing to the exported puritanism of the Sheikhdoms.
Yet Iran was incredously placed in the ‘Axis of Evil. The Obama regime saw reason and the Iranian nuclear deal was concluded. Yet again, the Iranians saw the unilateral reneging by Trump, even as all other signatories disagreed. The civilisation silently soaked in all the insults, even as young and ‘friendly’ Arab Sheikhs assassinated journalists, carried out internal purges, killed scores in Yemen and Syria. All the while Iran remained the ‘number one terrorist nation’ and soon, even the Islamic State hunter, General Soleimani, was killed. Today a strange new virus (‘Chinese’ in the reckoning of Donald Trump), kills thousands of hapless Iranians, as Iran becomes the world’s worst affected nation with Coronavirus. Globally, countries are joining hands and accepting that this new threat spares none, and that we must forget our petty politics to face the existential threat.
Iran remains an essentially forgotten ‘statistic’ nation, with continued US sanctions imposed on it. Death mercilessly rules the Iranian street with the nation fighting with its hands tied behind its back, but no one except the Iranians, scream about the sanctions. The US remains stoically unmoved, and the spiraling fatality touches no conscience in the White House. Yet another memory of the betrayal is added. CoronaVirus will cease to be news one day, but this memory of abandonment is for posterity. The young and impressionable soldiers of Hispanic and African American ethnicities (certainly not Trump’s favourite segments) will keep filling the ranks and fighting the wars, but the twain between the world most powerful nation and the oldest civilisation, will never meet.
The unforgiveable betrayal of not calling off the sanctions against Iran, despite the devastation and havoc that it has caused, will like the memory of Mohammad Mosaddeq, be known only to Iranians. The civilisation that boasted of antiquity dating back to the Elamite kingdoms, the Achaemenid empire, Cyrus the Great has for the last many centuries nurtured a religion-inspired martyr-syndrome that systematically believes in betrayal of its people. It has done so in terms of suffering, silently and by never forgetting or forgiving.
(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)