By Chet Yarbrough
America and Iran (A History, 1720 to the Present)
By: John Ghazvinian (Executive Director of the Middle East Center
at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Narrated by: Fred Sanders
John Ghazvinian (Author, historian and former journalist with a Doctorate from Oxford University.)
John Ghazvinian has written an important book to help one understand Iran and its relationship to America. It reminds one of how important respect for different cultures is for effective foreign policy. In the real politic of international relations, ignorance of nation-state’ cultures are a recipe for world conflagration.
Listening to Ghazvinian reminds one of how important well-informed diplomats and foreign service officers are for world peace.
As a diplomat, Kennan understood Russia because he spoke Russian and studied its history before offering a diplomatic opinion about how America should deal with the U.S.S.R. Kennan’s containment policy served America well despite Stalin’s horrendous treatment of the U.S.S.R.’s people.
Few, if any, American diplomats of importance before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran appear to have much understanding of Iranian language or its remarkable history. Ghazvinian notes the well-intentioned but inept handling by President Carter of the student takeover of the American embassy in Iran. He recounts the preening and then waffling treatment of Iran by every President of the United States before and after the 1979 revolution.
Zbigniew Brezezinski (U.S. National Security Advisor to President Carter 1977-1981.)
Ghazvinian recounts the hostility of the diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Carter’s National Security Advisor) toward Iran.
Recognizing 9/11 and its momentous impact on the American psyche, President George W. Bush’s administration exercises an obstinate, and Ghazvinian suggests, ignorant assessment of Iran, its history, nuclear ambition, and role in the Middle East. This second Bush administration is characterized as an abject diplomatic failure when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
George W. Bush (43rd President of the United States).
Ghazvinian’s book illustrates how America during the Shah years (prior to 1979) views Iran as a buffer against communism and an ATM cash machine for the American economy. Iran purchases billions of dollars of American weapons. American defense industry corporations reap huge rewards from business with Iran. Equally lucrative were American ancillary military training companies that were paid big money by an effete and highly privileged Iranian Shah.
The Shah of Iran is fascinated by American military hardware. In that infatuation, the Shah fails to serve the domestic needs of Iran’s citizens.
At direction of the Shah, vast oil resources are used to enrich the American economy rather than aid the social and economic growth of Iran’s citizens. America did not concern themselves with Iran’s people because it hugely benefited from Iran’s government purchases of military equipment.
Ghazavinian explains how American Presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, (and after the Iranian revolution)—Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton fail America in its diplomatic relationship with Iran.
None of the American Presidents effectively manage either Iran’s threat or potential real-politic’ benefit to world peace and prosperity.
In the 20th century, Ghazavinian notes the closest any American President came to understanding Iran is H.W. Bush. However, American political opposition thwarts H.W.’s opportunity to mend broken trust.
In an overture to H.W., after the successful ejection of Hussein from Kuwait, the Islamic Republic’s President offers a peace proposal to America. Bush acknowledges the overture and wishes to capitalize on Iran’s written commitment to ameliorate Hezbollah opposition to the State of Israel and to reestablish diplomatic relations with America. However, Bush’s party leaders object, based on a belief that Iran is a terrorist state that cannot be trusted. Iran’s diplomatic opening is lost.
Ghazavinian notes Iran’s interest in improving diplomatic relations during H.W. Bush’s administration is partly related to America’s quick military defeat of Iraq.
Iran had fought the Iraqi army for over 20 years without defeating or removing Hussein. American forces removes Hussein and defeats his army in six weeks. The author infers fear of American invasion of Iran should not be overstated. However, Ghazavinian does imply America’s quick defeat of Iraq’s army sent a message to Iran. For the first time in history, Ghazavinian notes the Islamic Republic of Iran put its commitment to improve diplomatic ties with America in writing.
Even though America exacerbates Iran’s crisis, Ghazavinian suggests Iran is responsible for the situation in their own country. The author notes the last Shah of Iran fails to listen to his people. Iran’s wealth is spent on the latest American military equipment while most Iranians are poor, malnourished, and caught in a cycle of despair. Iran’s people are looking for a leader who will listen to their plight. They turn to an exiled religious leader.
Ruhollah Khomeini (1st Supreme Leader of Iran, 1979-1989)
The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, exiles Imam Ruhollah Khomeini to France where he becomes the voice of the people who have been ignored by their government.
Ghazavinian suggests Khomeini begins as a religious teacher but is seduced by the politics of government. The seduction comes from the student takeover of the American consulate in Iran. Khomeini initially views the takeover as inappropriate but begins to see the political value of American hostages in negotiating with America.
In Ghazavinian’s opinion, Khomeini abandons his religious teaching with the political decision to use American Embassy hostages as a lever for change. Prior to Khomeini’s political use of the Iranian student’s takeover, there was a separation between church and state. Now church and state became intertwined.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President of Iran 2005-2013)
Ghazavinian notes the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This former mayor of Tehran exemplifies the melding of church and state in Iran’s governance. Interestingly, Ghazavinian creates a revisionist (less negative) history of Ahmadinejad. He may be showing a more accurate picture of this populist, poorly educated, President, or he may be gilding a fundamentalist ignoramus.
Ahmadinejad is best known by Americans as the fool who said the holocaust is a myth. Ghazavinian argues Ahmadinejad’s words were mis-translated. In any case, Ahmadinejad, in contrast to former Iranian Presidents, listens to the Iranian under-class. He increases wages and initially improves the lives of many Iranians. Ghazavinian notes the cost of those improvements caused inflation, diminishing the economic good but not the intent of this new President.
Ghazavinian suggests Ahmadinejad compares to George W. Bush in some sense. Like W. Bush, Ahmadinejad is viewed like the guy next door. His jokey way of dealing with people is like W. Bush’s. On the other hand, unlike Ahmadinejad, W. Bush is well educated and wealthy.
Ahmadinejad seems more like Trump (though not a billionaire) than George W. Bush. Ahmadinejad, like Trump, taps into the real needs of an underclass ignored by government.
Many Iranians approve of Ahmadinejad’s effort to raise the social and economic conditions of Iran’s underclass. The same might be said of many Americans who supported Trump’s stated intent but unrealized goal.
A reset of American relations with Iran is attempted in the Obama administration but Ghazavinian argues Obama reverts to the diplomatic mistakes of past American administrations.
Politics interferes with Obama’s initial attempt to renew relations with Iran. Obama shows a disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu’s jingoistic opposition to any American effort to repair diplomatic ties with Iran. However, in an election year Obama is painted into a corner that delays any improvement in Iranian diplomacy. It will be interesting to see how President Biden deals with Iran.
Ghazavinian fails to paint a complete picture of modern Iran. There is little explanation of the covert activity of Iran in middle east destabilization. The element of religious fanaticism and proselytization among some of the Ayatollah’s followers is not fully examined. Ghazavinian uses his final chapter in a vituperative and somewhat justified assessment of Israel without fully explaining what Iran’s agenda is in the Middle East.
The valuable substance of Ghazavinian’s history is in the immense importance of understanding any country’s culture. Before making decisions about what, where, why, and how to diplomatically engage another country, one must have some cultural understanding of both allies and opponents. It does not mean real-politic will not be used to get one’s way but that there needs to be a respectful understanding of why there is opposition. In that understanding, there is the chance of finding common ground to arrive at a mutual, if not amicable, agreement. Without cultural respect and understanding, chaotic unpredictability is unleashed.