I’m having difficulty embedding it, but here is a strangely fascinating 38-minute interview with Ahmadinejad by Larry King, September 24. King’s body language suggests “speaking to a foreigner”, but he handles it rather well. The subjects are the US election, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s nuclear programme, Israel and Palestine, the Holocaust, and homosexuality.
Nearly everything Ahmadinejad says (with two big exceptions) is reasonable. When you look at the West from Iran’s point of view, it’s surprising that the place is not more ill-disposed. You can warp people when you demonise them.
Until the second half of the twentieth century, it was not America that mistreated Iran, but Britain, and to a lesser degree Russia. From the beginning of the nineteenth century Iran’s sovereignty was systematically eroded. Russia encroached from the north, Britain from the south. The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 formally divided Persia into spheres of influence. (A year and a half ago, I wrote a long post about the period from the Safavids onwards, with some of my own impressions of Iran, but managed to delete it before it was published and haven’t had the heart to do it again.)
Iran did not even have the dignity of a colony. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded in 1908, following the discovery of a large oil field in Masjed Soleiman. It was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935 and became the British Petroleum Company (BP) in 1954. This was the beginning of the exploitation of middle eastern oil. British activities in Iraq were governed by the same interest. Oil did not start flowing in Arabia and the Gulf states until the ’30s. There, American companies were present from the beginning.
During the Second World War, Iran was both a source of oil and a link in the Allied supply line for lend-lease provisions to Russia. The Shah had pro-German sympathies. In August 1941 British and Indian forces invaded from Iraq and Soviet forces invaded from the north. The British forced Reza to abdicate in favour of his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979.
In 1943, the Tehran Conference guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran, though Russian troops refused to withdraw immediately and set up two short-lived puppet régimes in the north.
But in 1951 the British still controlled the Persian oil industry and retained nearly all the profit. Their crudest intervention was yet to come. In that year the Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, moved towards nationalisation. Britain imposed a trade embargo. Mossadegh was removed from power in the following year, but re-appointed by the Shah, since an overwhelming majority in parliament supported him, and he, in turn, forced the Shah into a brief exile in August 1953. A military coup led by the retired army general Fazlollah Zahedi, with the direct support of the intelligence services of the British and US governments (MI6 and CIA; anti-communist pretexts were used), forced Mossadegh from office on August 19.
Mossadegh was arrested and tried for treason by an unofficial military tribunal (he was imprisoned and his foreign minister, Hossein Fatemi, executed), while Zahedi succeeded him as prime minister and suppressed opposition to the Shah. In 1954 the Iranian government, encouraged by America, agreed to allow a “democratic” system of government, as it entered into agreement with an international consortium of foreign companies – British (40%), American (40%), French (6%), Dutch (14%) – to run the Iranian oil facilities for the next twenty-five years. The consortium agreed to a fifty-fifty split of profits with Iran and would allow Iran to audit its accounts and have members on its board of directors. There was a return to stability in the late ’50s and the ’60s. To what extent, if at all, was that 1954 agreement modified before the Revolution?
During that quarter-century the Shah, in the embrace of the West, moved further and further away from the Iranian people.
Iran’s worst twentieth-century experience was the war which America fought with it through its Iraqi ally, Saddam Hussein. This lasted from 1980 to 1988, and over a million Iranians lost their lives.
Now, Iran sees the US in occupation of countries on both its western and eastern borders. Of course, it has exploited the liberation of the Iraqi Shiite majority, an opportunity which the US gave it.
It has an uncertain relationship with nuclear powers that border it on the north and east, and a hostile one with Israel, which is within striking distance. Israel and Pakistan did not even sign the non-proliferation treaty which Iran is accused of violating.
Keep all that in mind as you listen to Ahmadinejad. Iran is now a corrupt, failing country. It can’t even refine its own oil. It badly needs to revitalise itself by engaging positively with the world. Ahmadinejad almost asks for such engagement. It’s also a lively and surprisingly normal place, full of interesting and, I felt, serious people. It’s a democracy of a sort, in which neither the clerical nor the secular arm holds undisputed sway. It has a split personality.
When I went there, for only a week or so, in 1994, I stayed with a friend in a palatial building in the northern suburbs of Tehran that could have housed Churchill in 1943, and belonged to the Australian Embassy. I had the Chinese Room and a servant of my own. One of the things that struck me, towards the end, was that I had not once heard the call to prayer. I mentioned this to an Iranian. He told me that when Khomeini had been dying in that part of the town, he had asked for the noise to be kept down. The story is perhaps apocryphal, but others have made the same observation. I didn’t notice it in the centre of town either. Is the relative quietness of mosques in Iran something to do with Shiite tradition or is it just Persian?
Ahmadinejad compares the Zionist régime with that of apartheid in South Africa and communism in Russia: that is what he means (he implies) when he says that Israel will cease to exist. He is not (he says) against Jews. He reminds us that Iran’s constitution requires it to have a Jewish member of parliament, even though there are only 20,000 (I thought the number was about 25,000) Jews in Iran. I have been in the house of a Jew in Tehran. On Iranians’ fascination with the Jews, see this post.
Just to try to dispel his brutish and willful ignorance of the Holocaust is reason to engage with Iran. He suggests that the Jewish state should have been established in Europe (a view Toynbee also held) or Alaska. I don’t think he was taunting Palin by mentioning Alaska. It’s a point he often makes, and Alaska was one of the places considered for settlement in the earlier history of Zionism.
His views on homosexuality are depressing, but conservative societies change slowly.
The interview ends on a human note. Ahmadinejad knows how little Americans know about Iran and its beauties. Like most Iranians, he would like them to see it, and visits should go both ways. “We might start liking each other.”
A poster at the Iranian embassy in Paris protesting at the public executions of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in Mashhad on July 19 2005