I made this point in a casual bloggy way, so I’m very glad to see it made more rigorously by a highly regarded author and commentator. In Time, Fareed Zakaria punctures the notion that the Saudis are the Mideastern ally which must be catered to (this has become a new neocon meme, especially useful for those who want to downplay the Israel lobby’s role in influencing American Mideast policy.) Key Zakaria graf:
If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom’s immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.
Quite so. There may be no sound reason to oppose the Saudis, or even to assume their kingdom will go the way of all monarchies sooner rather than later. But treating them as a highly trusted ally with veto power over American diplomacy is a bit much. Personally I was taken aback when a liberal friend, the brilliant Jim Chapin, shortly after 9/11 described the Saudis to me as a viper clasped to our bosom, but can understand where he was coming from. In any case, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be granted any kind of veto power over our negotiations with Iran, any more than Taiwan had over our dealings with China. Be friendly. . . absolutely. Keep them informed. . . of course. Stand ready to defend them against external aggression. But remember, Saudi Arabia is the international affairs equivalent of the rich heir who never worked a day but gives nice parties. A thin reed upon which to base American diplomacy in the Mideast.
But you have to admit, it is amusing to see all this neoconservative solicitude for Saudi concerns.
It may be hard to pity John Kerry, but in the last couple of days, I’ve felt for the guy. America has competitors and rivals, and enemies too. But the problems posed by so-called friends are more vexing. On Wednesday Kerry was in Rome, for a scheduled seven-hour meeting with Netanyahu. Seven hours, that’s right. Three weeks ago, Netanyahu got a lengthy meeting with Obama, while the US government was on verge of shutting down. Max Blumenthal quipped that that one of Obama’s main jobs is to be the “Bibi-sitter”—for his efforts to make sure that Netanyahu doesn’t try to start a war in the Mideast or call up his minions in Congress to thwart US diplomacy.
Then there are the Saudis, the other “pillar” of the U.S. mideast alliance system. Unlike the case of Israel, no one even pretends there are “shared values” in play. It’s a pretty pure protection racket: we provide protection to the Saudi monarchy, and they use their oil wealth to aid the U.S. in other objectives, most importantly keeping the price of oil stable. This arrangement made a fair amount of sense post-1945, when keeping Arabia in the Western camp and the Soviets away from Mideast oilfields seemed of paramount importance, as it was throughout the Cold War. But the inherent problems of a close relationship dealing with a medieval theocracy with piles of money are now becoming more obvious.
One problem is that they basically don’t like us, at all; another is they seemingly prefer their women to be covered in shapeless black sacks; a third, that U.S. troops cannot be stationed there, lest Saudis feel compelled to blow up U.S. buildings in retaliation. (Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.) The Saudis use their vast wealth to spread their brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, a brand which happens to be more antimodern and anti-Western than any other kind. They are upset when Obama balked at intervening in Syria on behalf of the the Saudi-backed jihadi rebels, and of course ignore the fact that the Palestinians still have no state sixty-five years after the Zionists got one. My guess is that the Saudis care far more about the jihadi forces they support in Syria than the Palestinians, who are, by regional standards, a basically secular and forward-looking group. They have shown their anger by refusing to take the seat in the UN Security Council that they spent years lobbying for.
And of course Iran. Here is where the Saudis, the other little rich gulf states, and Bibi Netanyahu are on the same page. You can see why Iran frightens them. It is governed by Shi’ite Muslims, and there are restive Shia minorities in most of the Gulf states, pressuring and sometimes demonstrating for civil and political rights. And of course Iran has a genuine middle class and a scientific infrastructure, which is why both Israel (which behaves as if it has a right in perpetuity to a regional nuclear weapons monopoly) and the Saudis, who are perhaps embarrassed by their own relative backwardness, feel threatened. Read More…
I’ve generally been paying more attention to the P5 plus 1 Iran negotiations than the government shutdown melodrama. Haven’t you? The opening round in Geneva was predictably opaque: Iran’s foreign minister presented a complex proposal, and the Western negotiators, plus Russia and China, acknowledged its seriousness and said, we’ll get back to you. Anyone who thinks that nuclear negotiations are not incredibly complex, whose details are beyond the ability of all but experts, isn’t serious. But in general, Iran seems to want to offer inspections and limitations on how much and to what degree it will enrich uranium, in return for acknowledgement of its “right to enrich” and sanctions relief. Of course, the devil is in the details, but my sense is that a rigorous but fair-to-both-sides agreement would essentially make it impossible for Iran to “break out” and build a weapon without the rest of the world having a lot of warning. Which is good, because Iran’s leaders have said they reject nuclear weapons for religious reasons. Perhaps an Islam expert can suggest what these might be: it’s pretty obvious that Christian, Jewish, and atheist regimes exercise no such rejection. I would take the Iranian assertion with somewhat of a grain of salt, but it is clearly much better than Iran’s leaders saying that religion requires them the have the same weapons that various other countries wave menacingly about.
Of course, we know that a powerful entrenched interest opposes any such agreement with Iran. One high-ranking representative of it, Senator Mark Kirk, took to the pages of the London Telegraph to warn against any deal. Said Kirk, it’s 1938 all over again, and does the West want to be Churchill or Chamberlain. I wonder whether a single person in Great Britain is moved by such comparisons. In any case, a top Telegraph columnist responded forthwith, pointing out the very obvious differences between the behavior of Iran and Nazi Germany, including that, unlike some countries we might name, Iran hasn’t invaded another country in 170 years.
Mark Kirk, sad to say, represents a big fraction of the US Senate that takes its foreign-policy marching orders from AIPAC and Benjamin Netanyahu. One question observers of the negotiations are waiting to have answered is whether Congress will decide, in an effort to thwart successful negotiations, to add on to the sanctions—essentially denying the Obama administration the capacity to actually negotiate with Iran. My feeling is that this is somewhat a danger—but that if it is apparent to all the world that the ignoramuses of Congress are blocking a deal (I’m borrowing the term deployed by the Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne) the other nations whose cooperation is needed to enforce the sanctions regime will begin to peel away. Which might be good for Iran—to have the sanctions removed without a deal—but probably is not the best of possible outcomes.
Things are moving so rapidly on the Iran diplomacy front that it’s difficult to keep track. But the last week, the UN speeches, Iranian President Rouhani’s generally well-received “charm offensive,” the anticipation of a lunchtime handshake, the hawks’ relief when it didn’t happen, and then the phone call heard around the world makes one think the glaciers of Mideast diplomacy could break up with surprising rapidity.
Structures seemingly solid and impervious to change can collapse quickly when the time is right: the Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall. Who believed in 1987 that Eastern Europe would be more or less free of Soviet dominance within three years, or that the Soviet Union itself would collapse? Not, to my memory, a single high-ranking diplomat, businessman, or university professor.
So imagine: the nuclear diplomacy track gets going, and Iran makes it clear that it will trade transparency and inspections to ensure non-weaponization. Obama does what he can strip away the sanctions, encouraged by Europe, which is eager to trade and invest in Iran. And suddenly Americans realize there is this large, sophisticated Muslim country, with a large middle class and a huge appetite for American culture and business. It is not a U.S.-style democracy, far from it—but no country in the Middle East is. At worst it is in third place. Compared to the state of political freedom in China in 1971, contemporary Iran is a New England town meeting.
Recall: in 1971, American elites fell in love with China. The “China Lobby”—that large complex of anti-communist Chinese and Americans with personal and professional ties to China who felt jilted by the Revolution and which had prevented any rapprochement until then—proved to be a proverbial “paper tiger” once President Nixon decided to reach beyond it. American elites were suddenly enthralled by ping pong and pandas. New York Times columnist James Reston had an appendectomy with no anesthetic beyond acupuncture, and it worked out wonderfully—and became the source of hundreds of respectful news stories about Chinese medicine. For years, China was the new flavor on the block. Growing ties with China were the backdrop to everything: America could be humiliated in Vietnam and the world hardly noticed.
Obama now faces the most critical moment in his presidency. He speaks to the United Nations this morning, and the speech and whatever follows perhaps will initiate a renewed negotiation with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The stakes in the negotiation may be as dramatic as war or peace, and their outcome will likely set the trajectory for America’s Mideast policy for at least the next decade.
Since his 2008 inauguration, Obama has tried to split the difference between his liberal internationalist and realist supporters and hawkish pro-Israel elements. That meant he backed off on pushing Israel to stop growing its West Bank settlements, while also pouring cold water on Israeli plans for a preemptive strike on Iran. But now all the issues which could be kicked down the road are approaching a boiling point. Iran’s newly elected leaders are signaling in every possible way that they want relief from sanctions and responsible relations with the West. In return they are willing to accept restrictions and oversight on their nuclear program, ensuring it will not produce nuclear weapons. Israel, which has called the tune on American relations with the Mideast for decades, is in a sort of panic at this prospect, fearing that Obama and the West will start a detente process with Iran, leading to normal and mutually beneficial relations. Israel is like Taiwan in 1971, but with vastly more cultural and economic power within the U.S. than Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist regime. Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard are claiming, without reaching a large audience thus far, that Iran’s newly elected president Rouhani represents a Hitlerian threat to the West, and more, that Israel is the leader of the West. Curiously, this bizarre claim was made at the very moment Israeli military forces were abusing European diplomats attempting to deliver aid to Arabs being dispossessed by Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing operations in the West Bank. So yes, Israel is certainly the very model of Western leadership, if that leadership consists of ethnic cleansing and abuse of those Western diplomats who try, however ineffectually, to oppose it.
But Kristol has allies, even in the Obama administration. Gary Samore, who was a leading nuclear negotiator in the administration, recently signed on as president to an anti-Iran lobbying group which distinguished itself by trying to deny New York City hotel accommodations to President Rouhani and his delegation. As telling as Samore’s role in setting American policy is the letter released today by Senators John McCain and Charles Schumer, calling for the United States to adopt a negotiation strategy that is all take and no give, and which has no chance of success. It’s not surprising about McCain–he’s a perpetual warmonger in his dotage. But Schumer is key Democrat, albeit one who styles himself as Israel’s “guardian”. And Israel wants the United States to go to war against Iran, or at least wants Washington to ensure in perpetuity not only that Israel retains a nuclear weapons monopoly in the Mideast, but a monopoly as well on uranium enrichment and knowledge of nuclear fuel cycle. Margaret Thatcher once said Israel was mistaken to insist on rights for itself which it denied to other people. She was speaking of Palestinian aspirations for statehood at the time, but her words, essentially the Golden Rule applied to diplomacy, could well apply to Israeli nuclear policy.
Whether Obama has the will and political strength to resist this pressure, whether he can explore soberly whether the United States might benefit from regular relations with a large, technologically advanced, and democratically inclined Muslim country, will be the greatest test of his presidency.
The Guardian (relying on Edward Snowden’s revelations) reports that the NSA agreed in March 2009 to routinely share its eavesdropping information on American citizens with Israeli intelligence.
I know people who are unsurprised by this—knowledgeable as they are about the degree of subservience of the United States towards Israel. I am surprised. Actually I’m shocked. When Snowden’s revelations came out, I wasn’t as blown away as many of my libertarian-leaning colleagues were. I’ve long sort of assumed the US government spied on its citizens, heard some pretty clear hints on that score in the 1990s from a former aide to a highly trusted European ally. And I must admit, I wasn’t that alarmed. I wasn’t one of those who said, “So what, I’ve got nothing to hide.” But in a pretty long life, I’ve known enough American officials, in the CIA or FBI or State Department or whatever, to not especially fear them. I’d say the same thing about New York cops, troubling as I find many aspects the NYPD’s program of spying on New York City’s Muslims. When push comes to shove, almost all such officials at the higher levels understand the Constitution, understand that political dissent is tolerated in America, even welcomed, etc. Granted, perhaps if I wasn’t a fairly conservative, law-abiding, white male I wouldn’t feel this way. But when America goes wrong it still seems to me an aberration, not the norm.
Giving up personal eavesdropped information of American citizens to Israel is an entirely different matter. Israeli for no good reason has created for itself a “legitimacy crisis.” Not content to live by international law and on the territory most everyone agrees is rightfully theirs, Israelis have managed to persuade themselves that everyone who opposes their subjugation of the Palestinians is an “enemy” seeking to “destroy” Israel. And understandably it sees such enemies in the most dire and exaggerated terms, terms colored by the tragic history of European Jewry. And so no, I have no confidence that Israel would treat my personal or financial information with the same prudence that an American spy agency would. And I ask why the hell is the American government giving it to them.
I suppose this explains at least in part why Obama so lost his cool about Edward Snowden, a whistleblower many of Obama’s supporters thought he might have welcomed and embraced. The ugly truth we now know is that two months after assuming office, Obama or an underling acting in Obama’s name signed an agreement to transfer Americans’ personal and private information to Israel. I am shocked and appalled, disgusted beyond measure.
I’ve known for a long time about elite Beltway deference to Israel. For decades, top American officials have acted almost as if they can’t think for themselves, they see everything in the Mideast through the optic of whether it is “good for Israel.” But this is different than that, and worse. The Americans in Israel’s camp at least think that “what’s good for Israel is good for America”—or at least so they proclaim, publicly. But no one can imagine that feeding Israel eavesdropped information on Americans is good for those Americans—that’s why this ugly program has been kept secret. We have Edward Snowden to thank, otherwise we might never have known how far the rot has gone.
Allowing the Syrian civil war simply to rage on is a bad option; so too is a short series of airstrikes to “degrade” Assad’s forces, so is a long series of airstrikes to “tip the balance” in Syria in favor of the Al Qaeda aligned rebels. What seems the best option, an energized effort at multilateral diplomacy—aiming towards a ceasefire and elections—which included Russia and Iran, Assad’s chief allies, isn’t on Washington’s menu at all.
Washington now seems poised on the verge of option three, using missiles and air power to tip the balance against Assad. Let us assume that the Syrians, or their Iranian allies, or Hezbollah do not strike back, instigating a larger war. Assume the air strikes “succeed”—and that Assad’s government begins to come apart. What then happens to the chemical stockpiles? What prevents Syria from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda, or stops the slaughter of the Christian communities that have long ago thrown in their lot with Syria’s secular Baathist regime? No problem say the hawks. William Pfaff points to one of their scenarios:
Vali Nasr, head of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says in a New York Times op-ed that America’s strategic interest is to “mortally wound” the Assad regime, and then immediately “take decisive action” to assure that Syria does not “become a haven for Al Qaeda.” Unless he knows forms of decisive action the rest of us do not, that means occupation with ground troops and those military measures that have in the past decade proven so successful in pacifying and eliminating terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let’s be optimistic (not sure why we should) and assume Obama’s attack on Syria will not lead to the introduction of American ground troops. The next and larger question is Iran, unlike Syria a country of tremendous strategic importance. A war with Iran could destroy the Middle East and the pull the world economy back into depression. Read More…
Judging from the tone of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Martin Dempsey’s reception before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there isn’t much chance that Congress is going to brake Obama’s desire to strike Syria. American popular opinion (running overwhelmingly against a move which has considerable possibility of igniting a war of unknown size and consequence) seems to be viewed by everyone inside the Beltway simply as an obstacle to be overcome, not a judgement to be considered. The people, and their views, are an inconvenience.
Most Americans are not, in fact, very well informed about foreign affairs, but unlike Congress they are neither influenced by AIPAC nor by puffed up self-regard about what it means to be the world’s only superpower. In an amusing and revealing episode, The Times describes as critical AIPAC’s recent decision to back a strike on Syria, and then bowdlerized its own coverage, editing out in subsequent editions the paragraph where a White House official describes AIPAC as an “800 pound gorilla.” Yes, a gorilla powerful enough to make newspapers fearful of mentioning its existence.
I think it is no slam dunk conclusion that Assad ordered the firing of chemical weapons. Gareth Porter notes some discrepancies in the intelligence findings here, and we have learned that the critical interpretation of “chatter” came from Israeli sources, which are not necessarily without bias. Other possibilities are a rogue Syrian army unit, or some sort of rebel operation. I believe it probable that Assad did it, largely because most people do, though his motive remains cloudy. What interest would he have in provoking the firestorm of international repugnance?
The Congress was in high moral dudgeon about the killing of 400 children, roughly the same number killed by the Israelis (using white phosphorous, which leaves untreatable burns, not nerve gas) in Operation Cast Lead. If memory serves, Congress cheered on that operation by a nearly unanimous vote. It would not be surprising if much of the world takes Congress’s assertion of higher morality in matters of war and peace with a grain of salt.
I don’t want to be entirely cynical, and I don’t believe America can ignore what is going on in Syria. But it is disheartening to hear no glimmer of diplomatic strategy from the White House or anywhere else. If airstrikes undermine Assad, does that mean his chemical stockpile falls into the hands of the Al Qaeda infiltrated rebels. To be used against Syrian Christian villages? If not, why not?
Lost in the chaos of Egypt and horror of Syria is the ever present Israel-Palestine question, now being dealt with by John Kerry’s initiative for Israeli-Palestinian Authority talks. Of course a fair compromise peace orchestrated by American diplomatic pressure could transform the American image in much of the Arab world, where we are now pretty much despised by moderate “allies” and “radicals” alike. William Pfaff makes the point here, arguing that the current turmoil makes a reset and a change of direction all the more necessary:
As for America’s assumed continuing relevance to the Islamic world, the advice from a leading American foreign policy figure in a New York Times op-ed Monday was that “the United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.” What sound advice! Just what Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Tunisians, Lebanese, and the others were waiting to hear from the United States.
President Obama could then remain on the golf course, or play with the new puppy, and the nineteen American diplomatic missions across the Islamic world that closed during the past two weeks in order to protect the United States and its allies from new Islamic assaults (or protect the president from the Republicans – take your choice), might be left closed.
But critics are expected to propose solutions. I have a radical one, which I offer in full confidence that it will universally be regarded as frivolous and certainly not be adopted. It changes the scene of action to Israel-Palestine.
I propose that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry inform Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must agree within a defined and brief period to that two-state settlement with the Palestinians whose inevitable terms have long ago been negotiated, and are currently understood by both sides, as by every observer and bystander, except the most fanatical.
These terms are territorial partition and such population transfers as are necessary to restore slightly modified 1967 frontiers, with Jerusalem a dual capital; acknowledgement by the new Palestinian state of Israel’s Jewish character; and only symbolic Palestinian right of return.
Unless Prime Minister Netanyahu and his electorate agree to this within the set period, the White House would endorse a Palestinian claim to the prosecution in international courts of Israel’s continuing occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory as crimes of war under the Geneva conventions. While this proceeds, the United States would suspend the usual exercise of its UN Security Council veto on Israel’s behalf.
This, of course, would utterly transform the political situation in the Middle East, and bewilder the Arabs, leaving them with their own problems of Syrian revolutionary civil war, sectarian violence in Iraq as well as war in Syria between Shias and Sunnis, threatening to sweep into Lebanon, and impending crises in Libya and Tunisia. But who can solve these problems if not the Arabs themselves? Certainly not the United States, as has been amply demonstrated.
My proposal would embitter U.S.-Israel relations by its substance and by treating Mr. Netanyahu in the curt and disdainful way in which he is accustomed to treat American leaders, but in this case would be to the long-term benefit and security of the Israeli nation and of the United States itself.
Unfortunately, that is almost certainly not where the Kerry sponsored talks are headed. Instead leaders of a politically weak Palestinian Authority, lacking in political charisma or legitimacy, have had their arms twisted to sit down with Israel and make concessions. Surely there will be trade-offs, ample opportunities for selected Palestinian luminaries to cash in on the capitalist windfalls that “peace” would bring. And if the talks somehow fail because of Palestinian insistence on a real state with control of its own borders and natural resources, the full weight of American and Israeli propaganda will be brought to bear on the Palestinians for “once again” missing an opportunity.
Recently an Arab newspaper published purportedly leaked documents indicating what the Palestinian Authority has agreed to already. It’s hard to discern whether the leak is accurate, but it asserts that in order to sit down for talks, the PA has already agreed to accept Israel’s territorial grabs around Jerusalem, and the seizure of the water reserves under the Israeli side of the “separation wall” and beneath the large settlements planned and sited so as to deny a Palestinian state’s contiguity. Many Palestinians would call the enclaves they would receive around the large Israeli settlements and connecting infrastructure “bantustans” and they would be right.
Perhaps this kind of negotiating result is inevitable between a party as weak as the Palestinian Authority and as strong as Israel. But it doesn’t guarantee peace so much as oppression of the Palestinians under a modified guise. Moreover, it excludes the interests of many Palestinians with the capacity to undermine it. Former ambassador Chas Freeman shared this analysis with TAC:
It seems to me that the structure of these talks (even if it is not built on the preposterously one-sided formulas cited in Sam’s report) overlooks and violates a basic maxim of diplomacy. An agreement that excludes and fails to address the interests of those with the capacity to wreck it is no agreement at all. All Palestine has now been divided into four parts. The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are ignored by both the Israeli authorities and forgotten by the international community. The other three parts of Palestine are the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora Palestinians driven from their homes into residence in refugee camps and foreign countries. Of these three parts, the Palestinian Authority, which the United States has appointed to represent Palestinian interests in negotiations with Israel, and which is now talking to the government of Israel under U.S. auspices is the weakest. It lacks a popular mandate, is dependent on foreign subsidies and tax revenue collected by Israel, relies on Israel’s staunchest foreign backer to extract Israeli concessions that will permit self-determination by Palestinians, polices the Jewish state’s occupation of the West Bank and isolation of Gaza, and whines ineffectually as Israel’s colonial enterprise consumes its territory and displaces its people. The PA cannot speak for Palestinians in Gaza or in the Diaspora, neither of whom would be bound by any agreement it might reach with Israel.
In January 2006, Hamas gained a popular mandate to govern all of Palestine beyond the 1967 borders of Israel. It is now besieged in Gaza by both Israel and Arab opponents of Islamist democracy. Neither Hamas nor Gazan Palestinians are represented in the so-called “peace process.” Neither will have a stake in making anything that might emerge from it work. The 7 million Palestinians who live outside their homeland have not been represented in discussions of its future since the Oslo accords created the PA. Revanchism on their part would not be cured by a deal between Israel and the PA. I don’t see how the “peace process’ Kerry has contrived is a path to peace even for the fifth or so of the Palestinians (those on the West Bank) whose future it purports to address. A peace that proposes to exclude about four-fifths of Palestinians is a fatally flawed diplomatic fraud — not, of course, the first one in this arena.
If Kerry’s goal is simply to ratify Israel’s seizure of critical Palestinian territory, while taking the steam out of the expanding civil society movements, like BDS, which oppose the Israeli occupation, then his initiative is right on track. But if his purpose is reach an accommodation that, as closely as possible, approximates a “just peace”, the signs are he is headed to failure.
On a personal note, blogging will be lighter over the next few months as I redirect my energies to a much delayed longer project.
Several of Rod Dreher’s commenters have responded cogently to his interesting thought experiment:
Thought experiment: given events of the past three decades in Iran, how much violence do you think the Shah’s repressive government ought to have been willing to inflict on pro-Khomeini Iranians to prevent the Islamic Republic from coming into existence? I’m not asking rhetorically, and I don’t know how I would answer that question. Just throwing it out there. I have no idea what the White House should do right now, because it is not clear to me that there is any possible outcome in Egypt that is less than horrifying. People who are certain that the US should cut off the military government in Cairo, though, should ask themselves what, in retrospect, the Shah’s government should have been prepared to do to prevent the Islamist horror show that has kept Iran bound since 1979. (Or, for that matter, how many Bolsheviks the Tsar’s despotic government should have shot to save Russia from the infinitely worse curse of Soviet communism.)
The analogy is instructive, probably because many Americans have acquired a somewhat rosy memory of the Shah’s Iran, or at least fondness for the time when the country didn’t cause America much in the way of problems. But no one should mistake the Shah’s reign as some sort of golden age for Iranians. To give a sense, here is Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle (Pollack, who once reigned as the neocons favorite Capitol Hill liberal, is certainly no dove) on the American record with the Shah:
The one area in which the United States neglect of Iran was most damaging—and most difficult to forgive—was in the sphere of human rights. The shah’s police state terrorized the Iranian populace. Tens of thousands may have been tortured by SAVAK, and at least thousands were murdered. Despite the efforts of Iranians and others to prove it, no evidence has ever been produced that the United States directly aided SAVAK in this grisly record…But we did turn a deaf ear too those pleading for our help to stop these practices.
The US government certainly did want the Shah’s dictatorship to survive, and sent numerous emissaries to bolster it when it began to falter. But it was hard to know how or where to stop the revolution once it started. The anti-Shah demonstrations which snowballed in 1978 made the Iranian revolution the most popularly engaged revolution in human history, according to one serious assessment. Ten percent of the Iranian population participated in anti-regime demonstrations or general strikes, versus two percent of the French and one percent of the Russians, during their respective revolutions. (And this before Twitter!)
This comparison shouldn’t be used to whitewash crimes committed by the Iranian Islamic Republic, which has been just as brutal towards domestic dissenters as the Shah, and perhaps more so. It’s hard to conclude other than that the Iranian people have been besieged by bad government for more than sixty years, at least—a period broken by a few interludes during which things promised to get better (the election of Khatami in 1997 was one; this year’s election of Rouhani may be another.)