Countries of the Middle East are divided along sectarian lines and the ‘Saudi-led’ bloc is embroiled in a bloody feud with the ‘Iran-led’ group, both directly and through proxy militias. The internecine animosity is both religio-historical (Shia-Sunni divide) and commercial, with geostrategic energy considerations driving the external stakeholders into the muddle.
However, from a societal angle, the region is united in its distrust of the Western meddling that has contributed incalculably to the mess in the region. From the memories of repressive colonialism, post-independence crisis relating to the Suez Canal, Palestine and the omnipresent hand of the Western oil companies ~ the region is rife with stories of vested interests, intrigues and machinations.
These have metamorphosed into the combustible region that it is today. Western interference and its contribution to the prevailing religious tension are rooted in the generous US doles towards the tyrannical, illiberal and jihadist rulers who were seen as an antidote to Communism and Arab nationalism.
According to a memo of General Andrew Goodpaster, who was the Staff Secretary to the US President, Mr Eisenhower had advised the CIA that “We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect”! The seeds of religious conflict that were deliberately sown to ward off Cold War threats and to meet energy requirements have returned to haunt the Western interests.
Unfortunately, as the West wraps itself in a shroud of victimisation and as the ostensible ‘peacemakers’, the complete history of the region remains restricted to the suffering of the people who are not in a position to reconstruct actual history.
Iran typifies the narrative-of-convenience as developed and propounded by the US, much to the chagrin and sensibilities of a 5000-year-old civilisation. For the Western society, the inflexion point of the US-Iranian breakdown was the 1979 Iranian Revolution that was followed by the 444 days of the US Embassy hostage drama.
This simplistic assumption and timeline, discounts the unforgiven wounds of US interference in Iranian politics that date back to 1953, when the US-stage managed a regime overthrow of a popular Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Not known to most in the West, a secular democrat, reformist and nationalist who questioned the exploitative terms of the Western oil companies pumping out oil from Iran, was made a victim of a CIA-led ‘Operation Ajax’ (remembered in Iran as ‘28 Mordad 1332 coup d’état’, in line with Persian calendar), that unfairly and remorselessly removed a popular leader.
A profound civilisation that had hosted a multiplicity of faiths for centuries was led towards the road of religious extremism as the only alternative to undo a perceived wrong. Today the festering memory of Mosaddegh’s ouster in the Iranian psyche is not even contexualised and the shortened history is made to start from 1979.
Now the US is in the midst of creating an even more incomplete and untrue narrative on Iran, as it routinely slams the government in Tehran as the ‘world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism’, and accuses the same of developing nuclear capabilities, even as all unbiased evidence on both counts, suggests otherwise. Iran’s propped-up forces along with the Assad’s Syrian troops have been in the forefront of demolishing the world’s most dangerous and powerful terror infrastructure of ISIS in the Syrian-Iraqi swathes.
It is true that Iran supports its co-sectarian forces like the Hezbollah (Lebanon) and Houthis (Yemen) who are otherwise in a minority in those areas and up in arms against the might of rival militias propped up by the Arab Sheikhdoms, and therefore indirectly supported by US; but that is a sectarian reality, and only a selective microscope is put on the Iranians.
This limited concern of tilting the balance in favour of the ‘Saudi bloc’ was confirmed by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said in an interview, “This revolutionary effort to control capitals in Damascus and in Beirut and in Sanaa, that’s not appropriate, it’s destabilizing. And we’re asking them to conform to the normal things that normal nations do ~ nothing more.”
It was a clear case of looking askance on the actions of other players in the region. While the Saudi-Emirati backed coalition has bombed Yemen’s cities relentlessly and blockaded Yemen’s ports, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the starving and wounded population of 8 million affected people, only the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were conveniently designated as a ‘terrorist organisation’.
Similarly, even as the UN nuclear watchdog, called the International Atomic Energy Agency, has repeatedly confirmed that Iran had complied with all restrictions, access and backtracking as agreed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), yet the US remained unmoved. On the contrary, an all-out effort to accuse Iran of ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘belligerence’ is underway ~ even as the Iranians face the ignominy of crippling economic sanctions and humiliating rhetoric, notably Trump’s tweet, ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran’.
Even the recent tension that followed an out-of-proportion assessment of threats emanating from Iran was labelled as, ‘a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings’ ~ all to justify the US military buildup in the region and provoke retaliatory rhetoric from the Iranians. A British General in the region confirmed no such threat perception from Iran, and yet the strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ persists unabated.
The Iranians may have their own issues with their own regime as is the case everywhere. However, to think that they will prefer a US-backed action given the country’s fractured history or even the recent acts of the US is simply unacceptable.
The US action will again strengthen the hands of the clerics, and an excellent opportunity of having a moderate, reasonable and pacifist President of Iran in Hasan Rouhani, would be lost. The echo chambers of the Donald Trump administration are reverberating with a stereotyped, dated and insincere posture of outrage.
The civilisational difference in the administrations of Washington DC and Tehran were captured succinctly and evocatively by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said amidst the inelegant bluster, ‘Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors have all gone…try respect – it works’!
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.)