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“Why do they hate us?” This is a question frequently put to me by Americans when discussing the rabid anti-Americanism professed by the Khomeinist ruling clique in the Islamic Republic.
The puzzlement implied in the question is understandable. For the United States is the only major power to have a decades-long history of close friendly ties with Iran. From the first decades of the 19th century, Iran found itself caught in an “Imperialist” pincer with Tsarist Russia and Great Britain providing its two arms. The Russians invaded Iran three times and snatched large chunks of Iranian territory in Caucasus and Central Asia. The British carved off large chunks of Iranian territory to add to their Indian Empire or to expand the newly created Afghan state they protected.
For a while, Iran looked to France under Napoleon to counter-balance two enemies. Napoleon sent a military mission, led by General Gardanne, to help Iran create a modern army capable of fighting the Russians and the British. The French furnished Iran with modern artillery and created its first military academy. However, a defeated Napoleon betrayed Iran in the Treaty of Titlist, signed in 1815 with Russia, endorsing Russian annexation of Iranian territories.
In Both the First and Second World Wars the Russians and the British again invaded Iran, violating its loudly declared neutrality. In World War II, the Russians and the Brits pillaged Iranian food stocks to feed Stalin’s armies fighting Nazi Germany. The Russians paid nothing and the Brits gave Iranians IOUs that proved worthless. The Russians did even better by shipping all of Iran’s gold reserves to Moscow for “safe keeping”.
The Americans joined the war a year later and sent a mission to coordinate transit of materiel to the USSR. Instantly, they were seen as “different” from the Brits and Russians for two reasons. First, they paid cash for what they bought, including the use of the Trans-Iranian Railway.
Secondly, the Americans insisted that Iran become an ally on equal footing, and included among the founders of the United Nations.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat, the Americans were the first to withdraw forces followed by the Brits. The Soviets, however, decided to hang on to Iran’s northwestern provinces, hoping to annex them. Iran took the matter to the UN with support from the US. The American threat of military action helped persuade Stalin to withdraw from Iran. At the time, Stalin did not have the nuclear weapons and did not seek a clash with the US.
Although, at the time, the US had no strategic and/or commercial interests in Iran, President Harry S Truman decided to help Iranians rebuild. The American food-aid program CARE helped prevent nationwide famine in Iran. Truman’s Point IV scheme organized the first mass vaccinations in Iran, ending millennia of mass deaths caused by epidemics. American aid also helped Iran build over 400 schools with modern designs and equipment. US experts trained scores of Iranian managers.
Iran remained a top recipient of US aid until 1965 when the Shah announced that the nation had become strong enough not to need foreign aid. Yet, America’s profile in the Iranian public imagination continued to grow.
The US became a popular destiny for children of middle class Iranians seeking higher education. Between 1957 and 1979, an estimated 200,000 Iranians attended colleges and universities in the US. There were also over 80,000 mixed marriages, the largest number in Iran’s recent history.
The Khomeinist ruling clique has continued the tradition of sending children to the US for education. According to an estimate by the Islamic Majlis (parliament), over 2,000 children of Khomeinist civilian and military officials are studying in the US. Dozens of former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Islamic media, and Islamic security agencies are working in US universities and think tanks. A large number of Khomeinist officials hold degrees from American universities.
Again, according to an estimate for the Majlis, hundreds of senior Khomeinist officials hold US passports and/or “Green Card” permanent residencies.
The attack on the US Embassy in Tehran, and holding its diplomats hostage in 1979, represented a setback in relations.
However, American policymakers continued to dream of, and trying to work for, a return to days of friendship with Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the US smuggled sensitive arms and military intelligence to Iran to push back Saddam Hussein’s forces. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rafiqdoust claims that US weapons, especially anti-tank rockets, played a crucial role in turning the tide of war in favor of Iran. With the help of French diplomat Eric Rouleau, Rafiqdoust opened a channel to Washington through Robert Oakley, a senior State Department official in the Reagan administration. At the same time, Mir-Hussein Mussavi, Khomeini’s prime minister at the time, had his secret dialogue with Washington through his deputy Abbas Kangarlou. Khomeini kept another channel open through his right-hand man Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The “honeymoon” between the Obama administration and the Khomeinist regime is too well documented to need detailed attention here.
Against that background, the question: “Why they hate us?” may sound even more puzzling.
The answer, however, may be rather simple. Iran as a nation has no reason to hate America and every reason to harbor good feelings towards it as a friend in need. However, Iran as Islamic Republic, that is to say a vehicle for the Khomeinist ideology, must regard the US and the American way of life, as direct threats to its hegemony in Iran.
An Iran that is friendly with the US and is inspired by “American values” such as freedom of expression and the rule of law would not long tolerate the despotic and lawless system created by the ayatollah. Normal relations with the US would spell the death of Khomeinism, at least in Iran, while tense relations, provided tension does not cross the regime’s threshold of pain, would allow it to prolong its doomed life. Here we have a delicious irony: Khomeinists and their Iranian apologists in the West love the American way of life but only for themselves and their children. The trick is to deny the mass of Iranians, who have no enmity towards the US, a taste of that forbidden fruit.
In sum: Khomeinists must be anti-American to remain in power while they and their children benefit from the best that America offers, including the possibility of eventually settling in California. Their message to America is: I must appear to hate you in order to love you secretly!
The interesting thing here is that many US scholars and policymakers still pursue the dream of helping “moderates” secure unchallenged dominance in Tehran. This is why successive US administrations never pushed beyond the Khomeinist regime’s “threshold of pain”.
Will the Trump administration abandon that illusion and help Iran in its struggle to break the shackles of a sick ideology and re-become the nation-state it had been for millennia?