The struggle over what is obviously a stolen election in Iran reminds me of a conversation I had with an Iranian student in Shiraz in the mid-1960s. Shiraz is in the province of Pars, and only about 25 miles from the ancient capital of Persepolis, the center of the ancient Persian empire. This student was telling me that the Shah’s father had his own grandfather killed. And he immediately assured me that he would have done the same thing because his grandfather was an enemy of the Shah.
The Iranians can be a thoroughly charming, warm and caring people. I remember many of the people I knew over there with great fondness and respect. But the Iranians have endured centuries of brutality at the hands of a succession of rulers, some foreign, some home grown, some protected by western powers, that have left deep scars.
When an Iranian means to promise that he or she will do something, they say, in farsi, “on my eyes”, a reference to the mogul rulers who gouged out people’s eyes for disobedience. On my eyes.
Americans argue about whether we should teach our children the history of other peoples as if knowledge will destroy their patriotism. Ignorance can destroy our country. History matters regardless of whether we are aware of it.
The Iranians had one good chance for democracy, in the early 1950s. They had free elections, and a democratically chosen Prime Minister. Political scientists tell us that one of the most important indicators of the likelihood of a democratic future is the length of a democratic past. They might have built one.
Iran had been occupied by England and the U.S. in World War II. The two countries coordinated to control Iran’s oil. Iran had a border with the Soviet Union, clearly the superpower in the region. And it had a Prime Minister who tried to be conciliatory to the Russians.
But the Eisenhower Administration decided that was unacceptable, and that the Prime Minister was too far to the left, so a coup was engineered in the American Embassy in Tehran. Americans didn’t know or didn’t remember but no Iranian forgot. We are still paying for that one mistake more than half a century ago and will likely continue paying for some time. Foreign policy is about understanding the nationalism of other people, not just celebrating American virtues. We turn aside in ignorance but we pay the penalty regardless.
I think the only things that can save the Iranian people and us, is for the Iranian military or the Iranian clergy to fight among themselves. Many democracies have emerged out of the conflict among dictatorial rulers. But short of internal dissolution among the leadership, I fear for the people who may count on the forbearance of the rulers as they come out into the streets.
Thirty one years ago a lovely Iranian professor was a house guest of ours when we lived in West Virginia. We last heard from her when she was desperately trying to get her brother out of the country. I have not been able to get word of her since, and I’ve been too scared for her to write her, if she and her husband are still alive. There were demonstrations then too, and I’m sure the two of them were in those demonstrations. And the authorities, though they called themselves religious, were no kinder than the mogul rulers.
– Broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 16, 2009