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Iran Negotiates Between Opposition to the Taliban and Opposition to U.S. Policy; and, the History of U.S. Intervention in Iran

StoryOctober 22, 2001
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Iranian officials are refusing to meet a special envoy from former Afghan monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah. According to the centrist paper Entekhab, Zahir Shah’s envoy had requested a meeting with “high-ranking” Iranian officials. Iran is refusing because it would “weaken” the opposition Northern Alliance.

Since September 11, Iran has been in a difficult position. Iran has long opposed the Taliban and recognizes the ousted Afghan government linked to the Northern Alliance. Tehran quickly condemned the September 11 attacks. But Tehran is also opposed to U.S. control in the Middle East and has harshly criticized the U.S. for killing innocent civilians in its attacks on Afghanistan. Iranian leaders speak from bitter experience: The U.S. overthrew its democratic government in 1953.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco, here on Free Speech Radio. This is The War and Peace Report, as we break the sound barrier — I’m Amy Goodman — and continue in looking at Iraq and this issue, the specter that has been raised over the last weeks of not only taking out the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, but, as Joseph Lieberman, the former vice-presidential candidate, Democratic senator from Connecticut, said yesterday, Saddam Hussein must be taken out, as well, citing his use of chemical weapons against his own people. But, in fact, they were also used — Iraq used them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.

We’re joined right now in our studio by professor Ervand Abrahamian, professor of history at Baruch College in New York, part of the City University of New York.

What about the use of mustard gas before, yet the U.S. continued to sell him the elements he needed for germ warfare?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. The Iraq invasion of Iran occurred right after the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis with the United States. And it was in that context that the United States actually supported, and probably gave the green light, for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran.

And throughout the war, in fact, there was, as your previous speaker said, a tilt towards Iraq, even when Iraq used mustard gas, and also when Iraq used other sort of chemical warfare against the Kurds. In fact, at that time, the U.S. was very reluctant to even admit that Iraq was using chemical warfare on the Kurds. It claimed that Iran had used it. It was then when it became an international scandal that the U.S. then admitted that Iraq had done so.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by Edward Peck. Edward Peck is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Welcome to The War and Peace Report.

EDWARD PECK: Pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: You were ambassador during Carter’s time. We just heard Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser under Carter, talking about how the U.S. funded the mujahideen even before the Soviets invaded, to embroil the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, to weaken them in the Cold War. And ultimately, actually, the U.S. got in the way of peace talks that were taking place, sponsored by the United Nations, to keep them embroiled. But on this issue of Iraq and the Democrats, too, beating the drums for war against Iraq — you’re the former U.S. ambassador there — your comment?

EDWARD PECK: Well, the United States, your country, my country, our country, has been trying to find a way to get Saddam Hussein now for the last 11 years. And it’s an unrelenting struggle. And so, if we have now a new reason to do it, I don’t — I mean, a new excuse for doing it or a new justification for doing it, I, for one, am not at all surprised. And I still think it would probably be a terribly dumb thing, regardless. Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the germ warfare issue?

EDWARD PECK: Well, the thing that concerns me, in the business which we are discussing, it is perfectly reasonable for Mr. Brzezinski to step up and say, “Right, we did that, and it led to this and caused that and the downfall of the” — you know, and so, you have, you know, a thousand fathers claiming parenthood of a successful program, or what appeared to be successful at the time. But it is so difficult in the real world to link this event to that event, especially if they take place far away and over a long period of time, because you really never know, in this business, or any other kind of business, I guess, precisely what’s going to happen. If it works out the way you want, you take full credit; if not, you blame society or whatever.

The germ warfare question with Saddam Hussein, where the people are now running around saying, “Aha, here is proof that these anthrax spores were manufactured there,” well, you know, it’s possible to do that. But since we’ve been trying relentlessly to get Saddam Hussein for 11 years, unsuccessfully, and you’ve also succeeded in making him a hero in many parts of the world, because he’s still there after all of these efforts, I think it’s somewhat specious now, and a lot of people are going to look at it with deep suspicion, that this is really a factual thing with which you are working, rather than just another effort by the United States to find some excuse.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Abrahamian?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, if I may add to this. States have a strong instinct of self-preservation, even brutal states like Saddam Hussein. It would not make sense for a state like that to get involved in this type of anthrax business. The costs would be so catastrophic for it. Sooner or later, the U.S. is going to discover who the people are behind this, and if it’s linked to Saddam Hussein, that would be instant death warrant. And we know from the history of Saddam Hussein, he has a very strong sense of self-preservation, even if he’s brutal. And states don’t behave in a suicidical manner. So, the idea that in fact a state would be behind this is hard to accept. It’s far more likely that some sort of informal group, such as bin Laden or even private entrepreneurs, rather than actually state institution, being behind such an insane act.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back in time for a minute to when the U.S. helped to overthrow the government in Iran, way back. And then take us through the Iran-Iraq War to understand what’s happening today. And by the way, the latest news that Iran will allow — will cooperate somewhat in the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, not allowing its land to be used for air attacks but allowing Afghan refugees to come into Iran, how significant is that?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: It’s very significant. Iran actually went almost to war with the Taliban last year. And there’s a strong element of rivalry between Iran and Pakistan over Afghanistan. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s a national rivalry. And from the Iranian perspective, in fact, the Taliban was a creation of the Pakistanis plus the CIA. And from their perspective, this Frankenstein’s monster has sort of got out of control, and they’re quite happy to see the U.S. clobber the Taliban. In fact, they’re more eager than Washington, it seems at the moment, that the attacks should be not just restricted to bin Laden, but the removal of the Taliban. So, from that point of view, Iran is quite happy at what’s going on. But their concern is, again, a national concern. Once U.S. has bases in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, they know from history that major powers, once they establish bases, they’re very reluctant to relinquish them. So their fear is, of course, that the U.S. is going to be in Central Asia for a long time, even after the Taliban disappears.

AMY GOODMAN: But going back in time to 1953 and the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Mosaddegh?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, well, I mean, from the Iranian perspective, this is the crucial date for Iranian history. A popular national figure, a sort of hero of Iran, Mosaddegh, was overthrown by the CIA and the British, and the shah was installed. There’s still much debate what the American motive was for what is now, in hindsight, obviously, a major disaster, a blowback, as the CIA term is used. The conventional wisdom is that U.S. did it because of the Cold War, the fear of communism. And this is what, of course, people like Dulles and Eisenhower would have stated at the time. The reality, I think, is otherwise. The documents of the time show that there was no real danger of communism. Mosaddegh himself was very anti-communist. The CIA reports in ’53 that the Communist Party was in no position to take over.

The real reason, I think — and you have to read within the documents what was going on — the real fear was that the nationalization of the oil industry, which Mosaddegh had carried out, it should not succeed. If it succeeded, it was obviously a major blow to the British, direct blow to the British. But it was also an indirect blow to the United States, because U.S. had obviously many oil companies throughout the Middle East, in Venezuela, and so on. And if the Iranian nationalization had succeeded, this would have meant other countries would have taken the same step. And basically, the oil industry would have gone out of Western hands, into local host country hands — something that happened 20 years later, but in 1953, neither Britain nor America was willing to accept that.

AMY GOODMAN: So they install a brutal shah. The shah remains. And then you’ve got the overthrow and the Iranian Revolution, and you’ve got the Iran-Iraq War. Ambassador Peck, why did the U.S. support both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, giving weapons to both Iran and Iraq?

EDWARD PECK: Well, we didn’t really, as I recall. But coming back to the very pereceptive comments just made by your other guest, the professor, you know, nations do what they do in instincts of their own self-preservation. And sometimes, in hindsight, they look like pretty stupid things. But the phrase that was made famous in our Watergate scandal was it looked like a good idea at the time. Because you never know how these things are going to work out. You do what you perceive to be the best way to advance your interests, and you hope it works, because it’s absolutely indeterminate as to what the results are going to be, especially the long-term results.

In the Iran-Iraq War, we backed Iraq, essentially, because our perception was that Iran posed a far greater danger to our overall interests in the region. The advance of, you know, fundamentalist Shiite Islam threatening the other countries in the region which provide stability of a sort and also provide oil to the West was considered more important. And it’s interesting to note in this regard that, in its own way, Israel had dealings with Iran, because their perception was that Iraq posed a bigger danger to their interests. This is how the famous Irangate thing was facilitated.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you agree, Ambassador Peck, that what’s at issue here is oil?

EDWARD PECK: Well, it’s oil and other things. We have a democracy operating in this country, and democracies tend to do what the people, however they express their views, want. And oil is certainly a major factor. You may recall — and I don’t wish to offend anyone who doesn’t — that there was a wonderful political cartoon called Pogo many years ago. And I recall being struck by the fact that the politician in that strip, who was Deacon Mushrat, had a sign on his wall that caught my attention, and it said, “Hark! There go the people. And I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And this, of course, is what democracy is all about. And that’s why we’re out there bombing Afghanistan now, regardless of whether or not we really have solid information as to who was behind what, because the American people demand it. And so we will do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Abrahamian, can you respond to that in 20 seconds?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, I think it’s a very good point about democracy. But to have a democracy, one needs an informative public. And it’s staggering, since September 11th, how uninformed the public here has been told about the crisis. You can’t have a policy based on rational, basically, decision-making unless the public knows what are the major causes of the crisis. And in the American media, we hear almost every possible reason for people having objections to U.S. policy, except for the real issue, which is the Palestinian issue, which is completely off the radar screen in the American press. And without that, really, democracy does not function.

AMY GOODMAN: And on that note, we have to wrap up, but we’ll continue the discussion, Professor Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at Baruch College in New York, and Ambassador Edward Peck. You are listening to Democracy Now! As we wrap up, if you want to get a copy of the Howard Zinn tape, you can call 845-679-7535. That’s 845-679-7535. Democracy Now! in Exile produced by Kris Abrams, Brad Simpson and Miranda Kennedy. Anthony Sloan, our technical director. And that does it for the show. In exile from the embattled studios of WBAI, from the studios of the banned and the fired, from the studios of our listeners, I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening.

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