Opening With an Apology

I‘ll probably be sorry for suggesting it.

But maybe it really wasn’t such a good idea for the CIA to help the British overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected, secular prime minister of Iran, back in 1953. Maybe we should have been more careful about installing the shah and propping him up with American arms. We only hurt ourselves in 1972, when we helped the shah buy more of our weapons by nudging him toward an artificial inflation of oil prices. It seems that was the beginning of OPEC. If we’d left Mossadegh alone, we might have avoided those lines in 1973 and 1979, and gas might be cheaper today.

Probably we should have thought twice about training SAVAK. The secret police tormented the Iranian people for nearly 25 years with such brutal efficiency that nearly every Iranian who was born before 1980 had a friend or family member who was imprisoned, tortured, or murdered by SAVAK.

So before we talk about brutalizing those people any further, maybe we should apologize for what we’ve already done.

Sure, we don’t want them to build a bomb, but we don’t really want to go to war with them either. According to Time magazine, an aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities would require at least 1,500 sorties, some against sites in civilian areas. And that’s just counting the 30 facilities we’ve identified. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are things "we don’t know we don’t know." And we won’t know those things until our boots are on their ground, which is where an aerial bombardment is likely to leave us.

Iranian retaliation might lead to more attacks on American troops next door in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran might mine the Strait of Hormuz, driving oil as high as $100 per barrel. That would be before their supporters blew up pipelines in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. At that point we’d have little alternative to full-scale occupation and regime change in Iran, while we’re still trying to manage Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it’s not just the sorry state of any future war, but also the tragedies of wars past. When the Iranians finally got rid of the shah and SAVAK in 1978, they were no longer pro-Western. So they established an Islamic Republic, commandeered our embassy, and shouted "Death to America."

We were looking for a way to contain our newly minted enemies, so in 1983, Ronald Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to cozy up with Saddam Hussein. We shipped Saddam weapons that he used to slaughter a million Iranians. In order to wage that eight-year war, Saddam borrowed $20 billion from Kuwait. When Kuwait asked for repayment in 1990, the cash-strapped Saddam decided that it would be no more difficult to send his troops to Kuwait than to Iran, and that the U.S. would not object to one any more than the other.

So there was that four-day storm in the desert. Apart from hundreds of burning oil wells and thousands of slaughtered Shi’ites, it didn’t end too badly for us because the elder Bush was wise enough to stay out of Baghdad. But he was able to do so only by setting up American military bases in Saudi Arabia. That upset a black sheep from the bin Laden family. Down went the WTC, and then came the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In retrospect, it’s hard to say what was so bad about Mossadegh. Not only was he democratically elected, but he was not anti-American. We weren’t at war in the Middle East. Oil was cheap. We were spending more of our treasure on our own roads and schools.

Of course, we’re not responsible for every twist in this vicious cycle, and we’ve suffered along with everyone else. But we gave it a spin back in 1953, and we’ve torqued it a few times since then. It’s not going to stop until we take a look at what we did in Iran and start doing things differently. An apology might not be a bad start.

What we did to the Iranian people was wrong.

Author: Robert Bruce Ware

Robert Bruce Ware teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is author of Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus. He is editing The Fire Below: How Russia Shaped the Caucasus from Continuum Press.