The Roots of Violence – episode 1 – Iran 1952 to 2001

02.05.2021 - Paris, France - Tony Robinson

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The Roots of Violence – episode 1 – Iran 1952 to 2001
Jaleh Square, Tehran, September 8, 1978. (Image by Kayhan news agency, Iran)

Welcome to the first in what we hope will be a series of interviews in which we look at the Middle East region and try to understand better what is going on there. The view from the West is that it is a very violent and dangerous place. There is an ongoing war in Yemen and there are several other countries that appear to be on the brink of war. There are some dreadful abuses of human rights and there are failed states. But on the other hand this region is the cradle of Western civilization: Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Arabia are places of myth and legend. Great mystics, mathematicians, translators and storytellers have come from there. Major religions have their most sacred places here. Western art, music, science and food have all felt the impact of this region.

In this series of interviews which we’re calling The Roots of Violence, we’re going to try to understand how the violence originated and who is responsible. We aren’t attempting to justify the physical violence, but physical violence doesn’t erupt from nowhere. Physical violence is the explosion that erupts after a long period of economic and psychological violence.

In our first interview, we’re going to speak with a great friend Emad Kiyaei. Emad is Iranian. He’s a director of the Middle East Treaty Organization, which is a civil society campaign seeking to eradicate all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East through innovative policy, advocacy and educational programs. He is the co-author of the book Weapons of Mass Destruction: a New Approach to Non-proliferation, and he studied at Princeton and Columbia universities in the United States.

Transcript under the video:

Pressenza:

Welcome Emad.

Emad Kiyaei:

Thank you so much for having me, Tony.

Pressenza:

Happy to have you here. So Emad, look, the reason why this interview series came about is because I was in a webinar organized by the Middle East Treaty Organization a couple of weeks ago and several of the speakers made interventions in which quite matter-of-factly they said that Iran is a source of great evil in the Middle East. This is a view which many of our viewers and readers will share, because this is the dominant narrative in the mainstream media. So I’d like to start off by asking the very provocative question, why is Iran a source of great evil?

Emad Kiyaei:

Where do I start, Tony? The problem with the Middle East is that we can go as far back as time itself if we want to discuss these issues but I think for our conversation today, let’s begin by saying that at the moment Iran is viewed through the prism through which it is called a (part of the) axis of evil, or the troublemaker in the Middle East, primarily because it is a foe of the sole superpower in the world, and that being the United States. And we should not underestimate the power of the United States’ propaganda, its ability to frame people’s mind-sets in terms of how they see other countries and other peoples. And so in this case I’m not excusing again Iran’s government’s long history of human rights abuses and other factors, but here it is important to note that in the troubled region of the Middle East, Iran is by far not unique in its conduct or it’s in terms of its policies. And we have to dig deeper to figure out why is it that Iran has been singled out in these circumstances.

Pressenza:

So then, let’s go back 40 years or so 40, 42, 43 years ago, I remember as a little boy watching on television pictures of the overthrow of the Shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini getting on a in Paris and flying into Tehran and there being a great feeling of euphoria on the streets of Tehran. And at the same time you know great problems with the United States. There are hostages in the in the embassy. What was that all about? How does that fit into the story that we’re that we’re telling?

Emad Kiyaei:

So here, and we’re going to the root as quickly as we can, yes, there was a key important moment in the history of Iran, but also broadly in the Middle East. When the revolution happened in 79 it was grand in a sense that it ousted one of the key allies of the United States then, the Shah of Iran and he was taken out by a bunch of Ayatollahs, an umbrella of organizations that included Leftists, Marxists, Democrats, Liberals and everyone who opposed the Shah. And they opposed the Shah for good reason. The Shah had come into power by basically the ousting, through a coup d’état in 1952/1953 by the CIA and MI6, of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. And the reason why that happened was because this prime minister made Iran oil nationalized and decided to keep the wealth of Iran for Iranians and not by outsourcing it and to give it on a silver platter to the British and to the Americans. And here that triggered a series of events that coup d’état took away the prime minister of Iran, placed the Shah as the only authority in the Iranian political spectrum, and then kicked in a series of really oppressive policies by the Shah to root out any opposition to its government.

And here, mind you, we are living in a world where the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States is at its highest level. So the red scare and the fight against communism was also being played out in these proxies and in these other countries and Iran wasn’t immune to it. So if we want to look at then what happened since the Shah came into power and then started to oppress every other political voice, it leads up to the 1979 revolution where it was not just the Islamist groups that were against the Shah, but again a whole cohort of a huge amount of organizations and political thought who saw the Shah and his ruthless regime as one that was oppressing any political thought. And here the reason why the United States is singled out is because the Iranian secret service or the SAVAK was trained and was actually tooled by the CIA. So it wouldn’t take too much thought to associate the repressive regime of the Shah with the enablers of this regime which was the United States. And of course at that time the Shah was the major purchaser of American weapons and military service. So we are seeing the same echoes of the same practice being played out in other parts of the Middle East today, where if you are the ally of the United States it doesn’t matter if you’re a despot or you’re an authoritarian regime, human rights and all those things go out the window when you are making arms deals with the United States. So here is a division between our principles, our values as a nation or as a group of nations, and ones that are then hijacked by our economic interests or the interests of our key industries. And in this case for the United States, the military-industrial complex plays an important role on how it then influences US foreign policy towards the Middle East.

Pressenza:

Going back to 1979, your family was there. What was life like before and after the overthrow of the Shah?

Emad Kiyaei:

So it’s always easier in hindsight to say what worked and what didn’t, but in 1978/1979 the mobilization, the popular mobilization against the Shah was in its millions. And there were three major areas or spheres where this resistance against the Shah was most prolific. One was within the religious establishment because every little town, every village had a mosque and within that mosque they had a sermon and Ayatollah Khomeini, who was the founder and the leader of the revolution ultimately, who was giving out his sermons from a little town outside of Paris and his sermons were being played out in tapes in every village, mobilized this popular mobilization from the religious community which was still, and is today, quite the majority of Iranians. And then you have the academics, the thinkers, the intelligentsia, which were part of the student bodies within the universities, the professors who were bringing new ideas of political thought about other revolutionary movements that were happening, other civil society activisms that were happening around the world. This is at a time that we have civil rights movements at its height, we have a woman’s (rights) at his height, we have even things are happening in South America, in Europe, in the United States that are mobilizing independence movements. And so Iran also was part of that bandwagon. And then finally it was that generational divide that reached a point where it didn’t matter if you were young or old, because the Shah had left so many people at the margins, and where the concentration of wealth and opportunity was given to a few, and few amongst his own little class of allies, there was quite widespread support for the revolution, because people saw that at the end of the day, there was poverty, there was illiteracy, there was lack of opportunity. And they saw actually the Shah—there’s a famous scene where the Shah is celebrating 2500 years of Persian civilization and you know lavish ceremonies are happening in Persepolis while the rest of the country is in dire need of just basic food and basic services. So this economic divide, this social divide and then political divide was the groups that then combined their forces to bring an end to this despotic regime. And my family surprisingly was part of that group too, because they were really looking forward to this revolution. It was popular. Millions were in the streets. They had their wish list. They had their ambitions. The slogan of the revolution was “Estiqlal, Azadi, Jomhuri-ye Eslami!” Estiqlal means Independence, Azadi means Freedom, and Jomhuri-ye Eslami means Islamic Republic. Remember this was supposed to be a duality between the Islamic nature of our society but also the republic part that would have been the separation of state from religion. But of course things ended up a little bit differently.

Pressenza:

Yeah, because today we see or we talk about the Islamic Republic as a theocracy and we see quite savage pictures in the media, sometimes, of the treatment of LGBT people, some aspects of Sharia Law are quite barbaric, and that’s not to say that the barbarism is the monopoly of the Islamic religion, certainly not, but what is it like on the ground now for people living in Iran? Because we have images of quite a backward society but I suspect the reality is something different.

Emad Kiyaei:

I mean Iran is a land of paradoxes because even its government is a labyrinth for many to understand because while it is an Islamic Republic, if you look at the Iranian constitution it is quite liberal in terms of its protection of minorities. It’s providing quite a huge amount of reform in labour reforms and for education, for health care and so forth. And surprisingly actually the Iranian constitution is derived from the French and Belgian constitutions. So it is this infusion of different forms of governance into one.

It has elected bodies, it has selected bodies. So there’s a lot of spheres of influence or organs of power that were supposed to be so complicated (in order) to create checks and balances. And so while Iran has a parliament, it has a supreme leader, it has a council that is like a merger between making sure that the laws that are passed by the parliament are in line with the interpretation of Islamic law. And so there’s a lot of confusion when we look at Iran, because, like okay, what is it exactly? Because it has all of these elements. And whereas if you look at some other countries in the Middle East there is no elections right, in Iran they’ve held presidential elections since 1979. There have been changes within its constitution. There’s been an evolution of its laws. Yet of course it has a long way to go, but what I’m trying to say is that is not so black and white and actually how it then played out in our society, in the Iranian society, it again depends on how you want to look at it. For one example that I can just give so I can crystallize this is that before the 1979 revolution, conservative families will find it absolutely impossible to send their daughters to university, because they saw university settings as an island of liberalism and westernization, whereas post-revolution the university has changed in form, but the enrolment of women in higher education skyrocketed to a level that today actually, if you look at the most complicated engineering, STEM graduates at university level, Iran has one of the highest levels of women graduates in the world, coming third or fourth after China, India and then is Iran.  So it has these paradoxes where yes there’s limitations and restrictions on women’s rights and on society as a whole, and at the same time how society manoeuvres around these limitations and restrictions is phenomenal.

And not to forget that the demographics of Iran is extremely young. We’re talking about more than 60 to 70 % of Iran is below the age of 35. This creates a generation that has not experienced the revolution, or it was very young when Iran went through an eight-year bloody war with Iraq, that I hope that we can even touch on as well, that then obviously changed the course of history for how Iran then developed because, remember, revolutions have idealistic aspirations, but once the revolution happens and once we go through this destabilizing period and when the dust settles, in Iran the dust technically hasn’t settled because Iran has been constantly in a revolutionary state. Because from day one of the revolution in 79, and the reason why—I’m sorry I’m jumping on so many things because so many things happened in that revolution—and the fact that the students were the ones who took the US diplomats hostage at the embassy and actually originally at the beginning of this hostage crisis when the student representatives went to the Imam Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, and said that we have these hostages and we are demanding x, y and z, initially when the news got to him he said, “What are they doing? This is going to be a diplomatic scandal for us!” But then the students showed the founder of the revolution these documents that the Americans were shredding away that showcased that the CIA was planning another coup d’état in Iran in early 1980. So when we are putting these things together we realize how these events actually then kicked in a series of other events that led Iran to where it is today.

Pressenza:

So we’ve gone through the revolution. There’s been this terrible, this huge upheaval. The United States are really pissed off and then it’s not very long before a war with Iraq kicks off, in which, I don’t know what is the final death toll, but I think it’s in the millions somewhere. Tell us about that.

Emad Kiyaei:

So the war on Iran, Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity. Iran had gone through a revolution and it’s human resources, I’m talking about whoever had money, had status, had a way to get out, left. And that’s why we have Tehrangeles in Los Angeles, that’s why we have Iranian expats all around the world who left in that wave of instability that started with the ousting of the Shah, the downfall of the Shah.

So you have an Iran that is weak, that is already infighting between these different groups that were apart. They were united for the revolution, but once the revolution happened they were pitching for their own influence: the Marxists, the Leftists, the Islamists. So there was infighting. The heads of the military were either decapitated, imprisoned or they got out as well, and got themselves as quickly as possible outside of the country. You have 50 000 US Marine Corps, Engineering Corps that maintained this enormous armaments that the US was providing Iran, and they disappeared overnight. So you have Iran that has no capability to even use the weapons that they had. And so you have this situation. And the Iraqis saw this as an opportunity to take over parts of Iran which actually has got a minority Arab-speaking population, Khūzestān, which is also oil-rich. And Saddam Hussein didn’t make a decision to invade Iran alone, he had the backing of wealthy Persian Gulf Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others who were going to bankroll this invasion. Saddam Hussein also had the support of other powers may that be the Soviet Union, may that be United States or European powers who also had an issue when this revolution happened in Iran, because, remember, the Iranian revolution destabilized a lot of things in the region, but also was a case in point for those who said, if you are the number one ally of the United States in the Middle East, you’re not untouchable, you can crumble, you can fall down on a popular revolt like what we saw in Iran. So the survival of the revolution of Iran was a direct threat to the power centres within the region and globally, in terms of being a successful revolutionary movement. You have to silence it, you have to dismantle it. And what better way to ask somebody next door to have the green light to invade Iran. This kicked in an eight-year war and at the beginning of the war Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces were able to literally just overpower the Iranians, because the Iranians were not ready. But that war centralized the support for the Islamic leadership in Tehran and everybody banded around the flag, and Iran was able to then defend itself to the point that by 1980… So, the war started in 1980, it ended in 1988. In the last years of war Iran managed to turn the tide of the war so much that Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, became under threat, and this is when Saddam Hussein used his weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons on Iranian forces. So those weapons were used with the knowledge of the West. Those weapons were used with the technology from the West. This is the Iran that we are talking about. This is the Iran that was under so much pressure, 1) from a revolution that dismantled and caused chaos within the country, then within a year an invasion by Saddam Hussein which was bankrolled and supported by powerful countries within the region and outside. And so, imagine, Iran coming in 1988 with a ceasefire that was brokered in the UN and only at that point can we say that Iran could say, “Let us breathe and think about what are we going to do about reconstruction, what are we going to be going to do about our country? But it didn’t take that much longer, again, for Iran to come under another wave of isolation and sanctions that were spearheaded by the American government.

Pressenza:

What I’m hearing, Emad, is that although we see this struggle as some kind of religious argument between Sunni and Shia, it appears from what you’re saying that it’s a much more traditional struggle of the time, capitalism against communism. Does that does this still remain in play today? I mean would you consider Iran to be a left-wing kind of system, if we if we talk about it in terms of left and right?

Emad Kiyaei:

I don’t think I can categorize it in that easy sense, because Iran has quite a capitalistic system, but a lot of its governance structures are based on more centre-left. Now does that make it a leftist or right? I don’t think we can categorize Iran in those easy boxes. However how we can frame Iran is that Iran is a victim of its size, of its location, of its history and of its influence in a troubled region that is being played out for millennia between other powers. So, Iran is not small enough like Bahrain or Kuwait, to be able to be dominated by a regional country or global power, is not big enough to be a global power, or a huge regional player like Russia or China or India or Brazil. And so it’s somewhere in between. It can basically play a little bit of both. But how I want to frame Iran is in a neighbourhood that is already troubled. And so how we view Iran, we have to see it from what is happening on a global scheme, where in the 1970s and 80s and how that first developed was between capitalism of the West vs. socialism of the Soviet Union, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990/1991 we have a new episode where actually Iran becomes even more of a bogeyman in the region because the Soviet Union had collapsed. The United States had gone into its first Gulf War in 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And when that destabilization happened, we still have Iran as the again one of the most, even though it’s been so weakened, it still emerges as a powerful regional player, simply again because of its size and because of its location. So here the United States turns an attention in making Iran the bogeyman of the Middle East, whereas before it was pre-preoccupied with its Soviet Union adversary. And so for the next decade until 9/11 we see that Iran is, while increasing its relationship with the European powers, its relationship with the United States is still very marked. And here I think I want to boil it down to: there are key relationships where Iran hasn’t been able to manage or make amends with, one is Iran’s relationship with the United States that we have discussed that is rooted in the coup d’état of 1952-3, the Shah’s 25 years of rule, and then the hostage crisis and the revolution that made Iran and US become basically the number one enemies of each other in the region. And that then obviously plays out in Iran’s relationship with other countries in the Middle East that have close relationships with Washington.

Pressenza:

So this is all very interesting because what happens is in the 1990s, at the beginning of the 1990s, the bogeyman goes from being Iran to being Iraq. What role did Iran play during that Iraq War?

Emad Kiyaei:

Well, Iran actually… When the First Gulf War occurred in 1991 between United States and Iraq to liberate Kuwait, because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. And do you know what the irony here is? When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait one of the key reasons why it did so was because it owed Kuwait to the tune of 20 billion dollars for Kuwait bankrolling Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran. That’s one. Number two, Saddam Hussein saw Kuwait as an easy victory. It’s oil rich, it has historically been part of its province, and it got permission, or silent permission and tacit approval, from Washington for that invasion. They didn’t think the Americans would intervene. This is the irony of how one day you’re an ally of the United States and the next day you’re the enemy of the United States, even if you’re the same person in power. And when it comes to Iran, Iran decided to stay neutral actually in that war, because it saw Saddam Hussein as an adversary. So, it’s like listen, look at Saddam. They invaded us and now they’re invading Kuwait. So it actually was supportive of the liberation of Kuwait, but stayed out of it. Iran provided assistance when Saddam Hussein’s forces burned all the oil wells in Kuwait. So Iran assisted in putting out those fires because it had experience from the same practice that the Iraqis did to Iranian oil fields. So Iran in that initial Gulf War was actually quite cooperative in bringing about some stabilization to Kuwait and saw the weakening of Saddam Hussein in its own advantage, because they had fought an eight year war with Saddam Hussein. So Iran saw the 90s as a time to economically regenerate itself, reconstruction. There was a time of liberalization and the government in Iran, the central government of Rafsanjani was pioneering all the economic developments in that decade. But that decade ultimately leads to the next chapter in how we view Iran in the region and in the world, and that’s the events of 9/11, the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. That changed again a new entry a new chapter in US involvement in the Middle East

Pressenza:

I think that, Emad, is a fantastic point to stop this interview and we’ll pick it up we’ll pick it up from there next time.

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