First of all can you give us a background about the American Iranian relations. One of the crucial moments was that of the Mossadeq. Was he a communist?
Well, in order to see Iran American Relations in their proper context we have to appreciate that their relations go back almost 100 years. And for the better part of the first half of the 20 century the Iranians looked at the Americans as the benevolent 3d power, the western power that can best help them in their struggle against the colonial ambitions of Britain and Russia. And then between 1951 and 1953 this relationship soured very badly because at the time the national front prime minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh sought to nationalize the Anglo Iranian oil company who was then a British asset.
The British were not happy that he had done this; they thought it was illegal and they sought to negotiate a solution out of it, but the Iranians were adamant about it. It was their asset, their oil. Finally, to cut a long story short, the British managed to persuade the Americans to collaborate in order to organize a coup to overthrow the elected, the democratically elected prime minister of the country and to impose a new government under the more direct and ultimately dictatorial leadership of the Shah, the king at the time. And this moment between 1951 and 1953 is really the time when Iran s, the Iranian popular attitude towards the US becomes crystallized. And it becomes crystallized for a number of reasons.
One is obviously the centrality of the American role in the coup. Second is the feeling of betrayal that the Iranians felt because the always saw the US as the benevolent power. But third and I think this is the most important, the US became the villain of the peace in the public consciousness of Iran at a time when modern politics was coming of age. So this was the moment when political life was growing up certainly in the urban centers and ironically for the US it was they who became the main bad guy rather than the British or the Russians. And from that time in the popular imaginary of Iran the US was always identifie4d as a bullying power, a power that intervened, a power that basically acted against the law to get its way. And it is a stigma really, that neither the Shah nor the US were able to shake, certainly among those who were in the opposition of the Shah between the periods 1953 to 1979.
And the period of Shah was period of brutal dictatorship, what kind of dictatorship was it?
There is a lot of debate, I do not think it would be fair to describe the Shah s rule as a brutal dictatorship, but certainly he took increasing powers into his own hand, one could argue, and I think that the monarchists will certainly argue the Shah felt compelled to take more and more powe5r, to centralized power because he wanted to make things done very rapidly, but what would be fair to say is that the Shah lost sight of the fact that economic development could not take place in the absence of any political development. And ironically, as the Shah s economic policies began to bare fruit in more education, more affluence, the growth of the middle class, he started to climb down to political freedoms and liberties. And this was a friction that could not last and ultimately in the 70s discontent grows and the Shah failed to manage the situation effectively. And they were periods of brutality undoubtedly, obviously the secret police were not friendly, but I think that within the region the Shah would rank in the first league of brutal dictators that the middle -east had to offer in the last 50 years.
But then the relationship with the US became very close in that period. It was long given, in 63.
Yes basically, the Shah and the US became increasingly identified with one another in the popular imagination and the white revolution that the Shah launched officially in the 1963 was seen by many people as American inspired. This is not necessarily true but this was the view. But more importantly than that and it shows the Shah s political naivety in some ways. In 1964 the Americans wanted the Iranians to sign the Vienna convention.
The Vienna convention was an agreement that the Americans had signed and many European countries in other places that gave all the American government personnel extra legal rights, they would not be subjected to Iranian law. And fortunately in the Iranian case the rimed was quite broad. It was not just government personnel, but also their families, you know extended and extended. And many people in Iran viewed this extremely badly.
That this was a return to the 19th century colonialism, frankly if ou4 legal system is not good enough for them then they should not be here or if it is not good enough for them why dont we improve it rather than give them an exemption. And at the same time that this law was ratified in the parliament, an interesting thing is that there was a lot of opposition in the parliament, even thaw it was a parliament compliant, it was not elected in a free election. Just as this law was ratified the US had the temerity to offer the Shah a loan of 2 hundred million dollars. Many people in Iran felt well you know the Shah has been bought, that he has sold the national rights of the country to the US.
And I think that this was a much more serious incident fro the Shah than the 1953. Because in 53 he clearly alienated many secular left and nationalists. But in 1964 he alienated many mainstream nationalists who felt that the Shah betrayed the national course and of a course this was the moment that an unknown cleric by the name of Khomeini came to prominence by championing that verv court. And againt the US was identified as the villain of that moment.
And how Khomeini managed to exploit all that popular sentiment?
We are often misled in the European sense, in the western sense. We look at Khomeini, we see this old man with the beard, the turban sitting on the floor and we say what is this cleric, this priest. The thing is that in Iran the clerical classes intended to have it is less a vocation, a job; it is more a type of education. And the turban and the cloaks it is more like a university gown. This is the attitude. But what that means is that a lot of clerics can do many other jobs as well. And while Khomeni was someone who was a jurist, he studied the Islamic law, I think what people forget is what a good politician he was. And it is generally agreed that he was not the greater of the jurists.
They were a lot of people that were theologically better trained than he was. But few people had the political touch that he had. Not only was he able to appeal to the traditional conservatives, those who were theologically devout , but he spent a lot of time cultivating youth and young people in the universities. And he taught for instance, he taught western philosophy. Now he did not teach western philosophy because he agreed with it, but because he wanted to rebook it. But the fact that he taught it, it was interesting because it meant that he acknowledged that western philosophy was something that Muslims had to engage with.
And of course this was attractive. Many young people who felt a little lost, who felt that the west was becoming too dominant. Here you had a moula that was able to engage, who was willing to challenger, he had answers, who proclaimed that he had answers. So in many ways Khomeini was able to transent the traditional barrier into talking with modern youth in some ways, and we should not be misled just by the form of his clothing. That is really part of his appeal.
But for the US the coup of 53 and the support of the Shah was something like a blowback idea, like backfire.
I think what is interesting about Khomeini and US is that there was a document that emerged from the US embassy, I think in 1964 saying that actually one of the clerics that they could work with for 5the modernization program in Iran would be Khomeini. They said that he was the most open minded. This is quite ironic. Clearly that document was ignored. But certainly they put all their eggs in one basket. They concentrated their alliance with the Shah. It was a very network.
It is said by some historians very well that the Republican Party in particular had a very close tie with the Pahlavi elite and they basically concentrated all the relationships in that. They did not looked further than that and at the end of the day, yes in 78-79 the rebellion and revolution against the Shah basically became a rebellion and revolution against the Americans. The Shah was seen in many ways as an American surrogate. I would talk to Iranians and they say well the Shah, he was an unfortunate man, what a tragic figure because he was manipulated by the Americans. The real target was the Americans.
There are those mythic dimensions of Mossadeq and the coup. One can say that if Mossadeq was not overthrown then the whole middle east would be different.
Yes and I think that argument has been made at times. Had some things been done differently then the whole history of the Middle East would be different. And then some people say that a great turning point was the coup against Mossadeq. In many ways this could be exaggerated and overdone but it is certainly true that the west is tended to miss some opportunities in the Middle East and we can see even more recent examples for that. I do not want to overdraw that analogy but certainly what happened with Mossadeq, and when I use the term myth what I am saying is that he transents historical criticism, he no longer becomes a historical figure, he becomes a symbol of something and that becomes very difficult to criticize. Mossadeq in some ways, I have to say now, is, he haunts Iranian politics from the grave. He is a spector in the Iranian political landscape. And most politicians in Iran including Khatami for instance, they look back to the Mossadeq experience just as in the European consciousness we talk about the 2nd world war, Hitler or whatever. In Iran it that period which is quite emphatic. And I think as a historian it is legitimate certainly to say that had the west come to some arrangement with Mossadeq , the history of Iran, if not the whole middle east, would had taken a different route.
And then in the 78, 79 we have Islam coming in. Is that a turning point for Islam and the politics or not?
I think again that it can be exaggerated. Because clearly in Islam and politics in the Middle East had been grown for the better part of sixty or seventy years, I mean you can see it in Egypt or Lebanon, I think it was certainly a turning point for Iran. It was a distinct moment for Iran and Shias in particular. But I think again that the way the revolution has been narrated by the revolutionists and the west has tended in some ways to oversimplify the case. I think Islam, in terms of the Islamic revolution needs to defined quite closely what people understood about the term and as we can see now in Iran people say when we fought for the Islamic revolution we did not mean this, we meant something else. Because Islam is such a broad term it can mean anything. And I also argue and I maintain this, the revolution had also a very strong nationalistic angle too.
It was not purely an Islamic angle and many people who fought for Islam fought very distinctively for Iranian Islam. This was what they were talking about. They were not necessarily talking about a pan Islamic movement. As I point out to people you know the first Islamic republic is not Iran, it is Pakistan, and we tent to ignore that. These are things that we have to remind ourselves. In the US in particular for instance, we always take the turning point as 1979. They say that 1979 was the point that everything went wrong and it was all these Iranians who have done it, it all went wrong because it went wrong for the Americans in 1979, it is a very Americano centric interpretation.
You write that Iran is the beneficiary of the war on terror.
Yeah, I wrote that in many reports, I mean, Iran has been is the one of the chief beneficiaries of the global war on terror. And it not really that difficult to understand why. I know that some Americans have found it very difficult to understand it. It really does not require too much of thinking about, because if you simply look t a map of the middle east and you see Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and knock out 2 of those countries and state systems it figures that the country which is left standing is going to benefit from this regional weakness. I think in that sense Iran has been the chief beneficiary but what I want to emphasize is that the tragedy for Iran is that Iran has actually not done a huge amount to achieve this position.
But it has not done anything 5to consolidate this position. In fact it has been very opportunistic in the way it s benefited from what has happened, but he has not really seen the opportunities that the US have afforded them. Now you find this absurd situation, you have a greater confrontation between Iran and the US when really if you look back to 2003 there was an opportunity for more collaboration. Certainly as far as Iraq is concerned. To take that is a nice headline, to say that Iran is the main beneficiary of the war on terror. But I think it has to be qualified by these 2 statements.
But it is true that Iranians are the only people who are working inside Iraq. Not only military but?
Yeah, I mean the Iranian there was always this common made. And a number of Arab states complained. Why are the Iranians there? The argument is quite simple. I think that Iran is an imperial power. It sees itself as a regional power, power oppose a vacuum. So they have a vacuum in Iraq, Iranians consider Iraq to be their backyard, and they moved in, there was an opportunity and they took it. And this notion that Iranians should not interfere in the domestic politics of Iraq, sounds a little bit absurd after the invasion of Iraq from the UK and the US.
You cannot say to Iranians that they must not interfere, this is one of the absurdities of classification and categorization that you find sometimes in bureaucracies that say well this is the Arab world and there is a concrete wall between the Arab world and Iran and Iranians must not cross it. It is ridiculous. Certainly they have been very active, sometimes by invitation, obviously now not by invitation, but they were there particularly in southern Iraq and they are working quite constructively. It really betrays this drive in Iran that they see themselves as a regional power.
You are writing in your book, about the event when Khatami met with Hezbollah right after 9/11.
What was reported is that after 9/11 clearly there was some anxiety in Iran. Would the Americans turn and blame instinctively Iran? We have to remember that after the Oklahoma bombing in 95 in the US, the immediate reaction of the American officials was to blame Iran. U7ntil they found it was a local incident. At the time it was said the president Khatami and the political establishing summoned Nasralla from Lebanon to Tehran and said very point blank did you have anything to do with this? And of course Nasralla said it has nothing to do with us, do not worry. They did not want anyone to come back and say, it was Shias and Iranians who were involved in this. Because they realized they would be very serious consequences. That is certainly a very interesting incident and it shows how that sometimes the Iranian political system can work and what the relationship with Hezbollah also is like.
Then it was this axis of evil thing that changed again everything.
Well I think the axis of evil speech, that state of the union speech in 2002 must go down as one of the most catastrophic statements been made by US president in recent times. And the reasons are quite simple. After 9/11 the Khatami administration took a very big risk. The risk was to help the US and the coalition to their war against the Taliban. And it is quite clear that they did help. There is no d0oubt that even if we have differences of opinion on the level of help with the northern alliance, there is no doubt that in the aftermath in the bond talks that the Iranians were actually instrumental and making sure that the transitional government was in place and hamid kaza was there.
They were rewarded with a speech that put Iran at the same category with Iraq and North Korea. People must go and look at that speech I mean Al Kaida was mentioned once; I mean it was not mentioned at all. The groups which are mentioned are Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic jihad, basically Palestinian Israeli groups. We can see that the Bush administration had redirected their fire. Their target was now Iraq and perhaps Iran as well. I think N. Korea was just added for a good effect, to be honest. But this whole axis of evil did a lot of damage to Khatami and Iran.
It made him look even more stupid than some people thought he was. It made him look politically inept that he had done this. And really, and this is something that people do not fully appreciate it make people lie Khatami and the reformists around him who were inclined towards the dialogue with the West to be very distressful. And they were unwilling to take these risks. They felt very let down. And I know people here as well, in Europe saying that it was a mistake. We really sabotage his presidency in a very bad way. There are some Americans who take great pride in the axis of evil. I think that it was not becoming of a super power to say such things.
And then that was how Ahmadinejad came into power?
Yes this is true about the neoconservative movement. One of the things in Iranian politics, I think it was Irodotos that said many years ago that "no people are as imitative as the Persians". The Persians always imitate their neighbors. This is exactly what happens today. You look at Iranian poetics, they have a tendency was goes on abroad and they look at the west, they look with great interest at the west. And there was a time in 2002 , 2003 when people would say these neoconservatives they seem interesting they seem to do things, they are action-orientated, and certainly the movement that brought Ahmadinejad into power in 2005 was intended. I do not know what consequences they foresaw but it was intended to be the 3 way. And there was a lot of interest in the 3 way, this whole blur write. And they invited Antony Giddens to Iran to talk about the 3 way, finding a middle way between left and right. But the neocons were seen as a sort of a radical conservative but action orientated and this was seen as some. Unfortunately for the Iranians and unfortunately for us I must say, when you have neocons in charge in Iran and in the US, it makes a very very dangerous mix.
And they are both helping each other
Exactly, and of course both sides feed each other. And this was said very clearly by a number of Iranians, your hardliners are feeding our hardliners. It is a vicious circle and we cannot get out of it. What is interesting is what happens in Iran today is that Ahmadinejad is now coming under increasing pressure, because they feel that he has mishandled the economy.
And this speech, there are contradictory opinions about what he said.
About the holocaust.
Yes wiping Israel.
What he was saying, he was talking on the passive voice. So he wasnt mentioning that I would wipe Israel of the map. He was saying that God willing in time Israel will be wiped off the map and we can have a world without Zionism. And if you look basically what he is saying is a similar, an analogy is to say yes we will see a world without communism or a world without capitalism or without the Soviet Union, basically he is talking about a state system. So we can put that at one level. At the same time obviously, when he says that I want to see a state member of the UN that should not exist any more, then clearly one could fully understand why the Israelis are not very happy about it.
But I do think that his comments, while controversial and provocative and not helpful at all, he was not calling for genocide. This is an absurdity that a number of Israelis has sought to exploit. And i might add here by the way that a lot of the Israeli anxiety about Ahmadinejad if you really look at it in detail, Ahmadinejad is gift that the Israelis frankly in some ways are very happy for. Because it makes their life much easier.
If you have a president of Iran that speaks this nonsense rubbish, it makes the propaganda war very easy. With Khatami it was much more difficult. I think what was much worse about his comment about wiping Israel of the map, was his comments about the holocaust. That was much worse. Those were quite reprehensible, showed to be much more delusional. And this holocaust conference which is interesting that Iranians reacted quite badly to it. They think it was very distasteful. In addition to Israel been wiped of the map, he also believes that the US will disappear and Britain. You would please to know that Greece will remain.
And what about the nuclear ambitions of Iran. They do have?
I think they do have nuclear ambitions but I think their ambitions are a little ambiguous. They are deliberately ambiguous. I think it is part of the strategy. They do not want people to know. What the west wants is to know. I mean basically this is the contradiction. The Iranians for their strategic interests want to keep a little bit of doubt, in a sense learning from the Israelis on this, but on the other side the US and others, the IAEA with some justification, obviously want to know, they say no you have to come clean on all these things. My view is that Iran wants to be able to develop the option, wants to keep the options open. It wants to master the technology and I think really if you look at Iran s nuclear policy it is really been lifted from the Shah s policy.
If you want to know what Iran is up to go and read what the Shah was doing and it is basically the same. I am not convinced that they would take the next step to actually build a bomb, although the situation now is more, be given the tensions probably more keen to do that, I do not think that technologically they have enmastered the, as they keep pronouncing. But the option is there. And of course under the non proliferation nuclear treaty they are allowed to do this. This is the problem of the treaty. It is a voluntary treaty, you have to agree to it, you have to agree voluntary that you will not use it to break out, that is why the US do not like it, it is an old treaty it was signed in 1969, and technology has moved on, so if you really want to have a rigorous non proliferation regime you will probably have to change the treaty because the treaty itself actually does allow signatories to do quite a bit.
And of course says well you know Pakistan, India became nuclear and never signed the NPT and Bush is going to end up in signing agreements with the Indians. So there is a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of contradiction in this. I think that the European approach was the right approach, but I would also disagree that some European states probably dealt with it in the wrong manner. They were too heavy handed and the negotiations themselves were humped by the fact that you have the US always in the back room. So whenever the Europeans came close to an agreement the US would say well you are giving away too much in the same ways the Iranians would have to go back and say to, whenever they came close to an agreement the hardliners in Tehran would say no you are giving too much away. So the problem with the negotiations was that they were not bilateral. It was multilateral. How know how hard it is to agree things within the EU. So it is the same.
The difficulties in Iraq now for the US, these have to do with Iran.
Here again you see some of the contradictions of policy. Lets go back and say that the Baker Hamilton report argues that you must engage with Iran in discourse with all the parties in order to bring stability to the Iraq. Now on the one hand American hawks will say Iran is the cause of all these problems, we cannot solve Iraq until we solve Iran. But on the other hand when someone says if Iran is the source of all the problems in Iraq then go talk to them, then you get the response no, no, no, they do not have so much influence. It depends on the argument. My view is that clearly they do have a role, but it is a more complicated role, I think they back many different factions, Shia rather than Sunni, but they are not in control and ironically Iranian influence is most keenly felt in the government, I mean it is the government of Iraq in the present the Malaqi and the others who are basically people who spent a lot of time in Iran, who are familiar the Taliban for instance, have good relations with Iran. So that is where Iran s influence is most keenly felt but they obviously do involve themselves in other areas, but it is sometimes very constructive and sometimes very unhelpful. And unfortunately since Ahmadinejad came into office it has been increasingly unhelpful.
You have said that the latest Bush speech was a kind of declaration of war?
I think a number of things that Bush said and a number of things that the strategies they are taking were increasingly provocative. And what they are saying and this is my worry, is that if they get too heavy handed in Iraq and basically go after the Shias you are going to have a proxy war developing between the US and Iran in Iraq and if you get Americans been killed by Shia militias backed by Iran it becomes very difficult for both the US and the Iranians to stop an escalation. This is basically the worry. I think at the time the actions of the US in taking this Iranian personnel in their bill for instance, it seems that these individuals were not diplomats and they were acting in a manner incompatible with their status but nonetheless to abduct them. I do not know what happened to them now, maybe they are in Guandanamo. It is a very heavy handed tactic and my hope really is that the US whatever policy it chooses to pursuit, maintains a degree of sophistication and subtlety. And it is not words that we normally associate. But if they become too heavy handed there is an increase possibility that the things would escalate.
So you cannot exclude a military attack, an air strike.
Not at all, I think that there are people in the US government who are very keen on this idea and that the momentum is already building up. The thing with the US government like the Iranian government is that it is divided. There are clear tensions between those who support and those who are against it. And the views are becoming very strong. The question is whether the more aggressive military, those who support military option are going to prevail. At the moment it has to be said that some of those who support a military strike are very much in position in the pentagon state department and other places. But it is much divided. It is not sure. We cannot be sure where things are heading. But some concern must be .because 2 carrier group is moving into the Persian Gulf. I do not think, as we were talking with some friends, air power, patriot missiles and other cross the Iraqi insurgents. This is for something other purpose.
I think Israel may participate in any air strike but I do not think it will do it on its own. There are many Israeli politicians who feel that this needs to be pursuit, we had the former prime minister Netanyahu coming in London seeking to build an alliance against Iran. I find it very difficult to be lectured on issues of morality and integrity by people like Netanyahu, but there you are, he pursues that. Whether it will work or not is another matter. But it shows how deep the antagonism is. It is a great pity. I mean I know many Israelis who do not feel this way and they would not be in the front line of anything like that. I think that before we rush into conflict we have to be very careful and recognize what the consequences might be.
Why you are saying that Israel alone cannot do it.
I think logistically they cannot do it. First of all we have to bear in mind that the Iraqi raid everyone talks about was not a great success. It was a symbolic success, it probably accelerated the Iraqi nuclear program than damage it. The Iranian nuclear program is much more dispersed, much more developed, they protect it much better. The Israelis in a short period of time, they could not do it. It would have to be maybe a number of weeks. And it not really feasible. But the Israelis with the Americans of course they could. I mean the Americans with 2 carrier groups they have enough power. And this is why Ahmadinejad and his group are completely adrift in their analysis. Mr. Ahmadinejad made us an interview a few days ago, he said he was not worried at all, and the Americans have no capacity to attack Iran, well this is obviously complete nonsense. I think many people in Iran try to remind the president that this is complete nonsense.
I talked with Mr. Ledeen and others and they were advocating regime change not by military force necessarily, by supporting opposition groups, is it possible?
First of all lets be honest, I would agree that the Islamic republic of Iran as it sits today is unsustainable in the long run. It is not a politically and economically stable system. Some people will argue and say well this is the revolution and the revolution has to find its own way and in some ways that is true, it has to go in a certain process. I think the means by which it was taken; the direction which has been taken by Khatami and the reformers was probably the right direction. If you want to have economic growth, and I think anyone in the EU will accept this, if you want to have a sustainable economic growth you have to have a political settlement. And the political settlement in the modern age requires some form of democratization, some form of democracy.
My view is that it should be as fully democracy as we could possibly get, participation may differ but that is only my view. And there is no doubt I think that the view that Mr Ahmadinejad puts out that the Islamic republic is the perfect political system and we do not need to change it, that clearly to my mind is nonsense. If it was so perfect then everyone would be comfortable and rich and doing very well but this is not the case. So on a number of different grounds I think there is a very strong case which I would support that changes and reform needs to be made. How this alters the nature and the character of the regime is clearly a matter of debate. I think that ultimately the regime will change. But it would have to be internal. I think the process that will be sustainable in the long run I am not saying that a little bit of encouragement and gentle pushing from the EU is a bad thing, I think that Iranians of all people like to procrastinate and leather and take their time and leave something for tomorrow if they can, so I think that encouragement is useful, but my sense is that Ledeen s interpretation of a regime change is very much a pro active political military option and certainly the support of opposition groups I am not convinced that the opposition groups abroad are a reliable alternative.
Those groups who are in the country, who are looking for more democracy, more human rights could and should be encouraged but probably should not be encouraged by the US. Because the minu5te the US backs them, they loose any credibility at all. So the US has to be much more careful. I think, there is a broad consensus even among Iranians that change has to come. Nobody says that change does not have to come. But how it happens, the pace it happens, where it happens I think it is something it is best to be left in the internal dynamic, although I would be first to admit that we cannot ignore or neglect Iran, Iran is part of the community and in that sense it has to be interaction, but this fundamentally has to come as an internal process. And you can see things happening already, you can see changes. There is certainly a view that even with Mr. Ahmadinejad declining popularity, criticism, change, movement comes from within.