Iran: Dysfunctional Game Of Chess, Or Something More?

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map_of_iran.jpgThe United States' relationship with Iran, formerly known as Persia, has been a complex and often dysfunctional one over the decades. In some ways, it's been a love-hate relationship. Average Iranians have a great deal of admiration for average Americans; at one time, Tehran was home to American-style jazz clubs and American movies were commonly shown in local cinemas. Of course, conservative and corporate elements in the U.S. have conveniently forgotten the show of support from the Iranian people in the days after the attacks of 11 September 2001, when thousands of people held candlelight vigils in the streets of the city.

Leaders of Iran's government, particularly since 1979, on the other hand have been suspicious and hostile toward their counterparts in Washington D.C. - suspicions and hostilities that have been fully reciprocated. The result has been an ongoing miniature "cold war" between Washington D.C. and Tehran.

In August of 2009, three average American tourists became pawns in this continuing game of geo-political chess.

How did it happen?

In July 2009, three Americans - humanitarian workers on holiday in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region - were hiking in the mountains near the Iranian border. What happened next is unclear; according to the three Americans, they were simply on a pleasure outing when they were seized by Iranian border guards on the Iraqi side of the border - or at worst, inadvertently strayed over the boundary.

The Iranian government held the three incommunicado for several months. Formal charges of espionage were filed in December of 2009, but the Americans were not allowed to communicate with anyone outside of Evin Prison where they were held until family members were permitted a brief visit this past spring.

Significantly, the charges of espionage were announced almost at the same time that Tehran was demanding the release of 11 Iranians being detained by the U.S. on similar charges. One of these detainees was arrested in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and brought to the U.S., where he pleaded guilty to plotting the sale of U.S. military secrets to Iran. He is now serving a five-year sentence at a federal prison.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad flatly stated in a television interview that he would be willing to consider releasing the three Americans in exchange for the 11 Iranians.

Diplomacy Fails In One Place, Succeeds in Another

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been unsuccessful in negotiating for the release of the three Americans, though one of them - Sarah Shourd - was recently released on $500,000 bail and allowed to return home for "humanitarian" reasons.

In contrast, her husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his political advisor, Doug Band, were remarkably successful in negotiating the release of two Asian-American journalists arrested by North Korean authorities. The two women strayed over China's border with that country in March 2009. Within three months, they had been tried and sentenced to 12 years hard labor.

Interestingly, Mr. Clinton did not go to Pyongyang in any official capacity, but as a private citizen pleading for the two journalists on humanitarian grounds. The details of the agreement are not clear, but international news sources suggest that it may have to do with convincing Kim Jong-Il to back off - or at least scale down - North Korea's nuclear program, which has been a major bone of contention between Washington D.C. and Pyongyang.

Nuclear Weapons for Iran?

It seems that the same old Cold War dramas that defined relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for nearly half a century are now being replayed with Iran as that country pursues its own nuclear research. It is doubtful that Sarah Shourd and her two companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, had the wherewithal to carry out any serious espionage - and the region in which they were detained is hundreds of miles from the nearest nuclear research facility.

Ironically, it was the U.S. that assisted Iran in starting its nuclear industry in the 1950s under a program called "Atoms for Peace." At that time, the country was governed by the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was a good friend of both the Eisenhower Administration and the British government - as well as private corporate oil interests in both the U.S. and the U.S. The Shah was deeply unpopular with the Iranian people however, and there was a great resentment toward the U.S. for its hand in deposing democratically-elected Prime Minister, MohamAmed Mossadeq in 1953.

Mossadeq had called upon the Iranian parliament of that time to nationalize the country's oil reserves, making them the property of the Iranian people. This did not sit well with the CEO and shareholders of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), corporate predecessor of BP. The corporation had invested heavily in Iranian oil fields; meanwhile, it paid almost nothing to the Iranians themselves in the way of royalties, and working conditions for oil field workers were dismal.

In 1951 the British government was prepared to invade Iran and seize its oil fields on behalf of APOC. Initially, U.S. President Harry Truman opposed Britain's plans; through the U.S. ambassador to Iran, Truman attempted to broker a deal that would have split oil revenues 50-50. The proposal was rejected by both sides.

In the meantime, Truman found himself in need of British support for the war in Korea. In 1952, Eisenhower took office and the "Red Scare" was rampant. Calling it a form of "red socialism," then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that nationalization of Iran's oil was tantamount to a communist takeover. Ultimately, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to stage a coup that removed Mossadeq from power, returning the government to a pro-Western, pro-corporate administration.

Although a consortium was eventually formed that allowed Iran to share 50% of oil profits, the agreement prevented Iranians from participating in governance of the business and overseeing it in any way.

Long Memories and Short

This chapter of Anglo-American history is not taught in U.K. or U.S. schools or colleges today - but it has never been forgotten in Iran. Today, the "Cold War" between the U.S. and Iran, with all the distrust and hostility on both sides, is a legacy of failed foreign policy and interventionism on behalf of private industry.

In the meantime, three innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time have paid the price, serving as pawns in the continuing game of chess being played between Washington D.C. and Tehran.

[About the author] Christina Johnson is a writer hobbyist who enjoys writing about trending topics as they occur in real time. Christina has interest in political science, public policy, and international affairs and contributes written work to the blogosphere on topics that are political in nature. Christina is primarily interested in international relations


Gasiorowski, Mark. U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Healy, Jack. "Iran Says 3 American Hikers Will Be Tried Over Crossing." New York Times, 15 December 2009.

Kinzer, Stephen. All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

N/A. "Business: The Company File From Anglo-Persian Oil to BP Amoco." BBC News, 11 August 1998.

Thatcher, Jonathan. "Clinton, U.S. journalists Leave N.Korea After Pardon." Reuters, 5 August 2009

Zinn Howard. A People's History of the United States. (New York: Harper-Collins 2003)



Very fine article and succinct, but well covered highlights of the history of Iran-U.S. relations over the last 60 years.

The problem with history, is that too many of its students attempt to apply it to changed contemporary circumstances. What worked in the past, won't necessarily work in the present, especially in the realm of foreign relations. In modern times, the economic, cultural, and political circumstances of nations change relatively fast.

One contemporary lesson that stands out for me for the U.S. is that occupation of other nations is no longer an affordable option. It worked for Germany and Japan when our economy was poised for the greatest economic expansion in history. But, times have changed. Occupying Iraq and Afghanistan were enormous political, military, and economic mistakes for the U.S. carrying devastatingly high costs we cannot afford to bear.

From the very beginning I argued that terrorism was a police matter, to be pursued by international policing authorities and para-military forces in surgical strikes. It was the right call, and that position has been vindicated, since the gains achieved by our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan pale against the costs incurred. In fact, these invasions exacerbated our problem and grew the opposition's numbers, support base, and reach.

Iran's economy is crippled, as was the USSR's. In time, Iran's political structure will implode from pressures within, as a result. The only question of significance for the Western world, is whether Iran's political structure will implode before they develop missile delivered nuclear warheads. That is the great complication in determining how to proceed with Iran.

My position at this time, is that Iran's threat is primarily at the Middle East and Europe, not the U.S. Therefore, the question for the U.S. is whether or not it intends to remain the World's supercop at American expense, or whether the U.S. is going to realistically accept its economic limitations and encourage a stronger military in other Western nations in the EU and Middle East. Not an easy debate, but, one well worth having.

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This page contains a single entry by Christina Johnson published on October 22, 2010 11:11 AM.

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