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Talking with Iran After 35 Years of Silence


Thursday, October 10, 2013
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WEIRD-ASS SYMMETRY: Talk may be cheap, but silence is really expensive. I’m referring to the utter void in any communication at any level between the United States ​— ​a k a “the Great Satan” ​— ​and Iran ​— a k a “the Axis of Evil” ​— ​since November 4, 1979. That’s the starting date of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans captive for 444 days. Since then, we’ve gone through six presidents and 34 Super Bowls. That’s a very long time to stew and simmer. Two weeks ago, that silence was broken. President Barack Obama busted his now famous “reach out and touch somebody” move on Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani ​— ​light-years more moderate than his infamous predecessor ​— ​then in New York as part of a whirlwind United Nations charm offensive. Given how many itchy trigger fingers occupy Rouhani’s part of the world, this simple, though admittedly limited, act of sanity should have garnered far more attention than it received.

Angry Poodle

I mention all this because Iranian writer and journalist Hooman Majd will be speaking at Santa Barbara City College this Thursday afternoon (2:30 in Room A211 in the East Campus Administration Building) laying out a cautious, guarded case for real optimism. Rouhani ran for office as a moderate and reformer; his overtures to the United Nations and willingness to deal with the United States over Iran’s nuclear power program, Majd said, “suggests he means it.” Mostly Majd, speaking at the invitation of SBCC Professor Manou Eskandari-Qajar, said he hopes to dispel some powerful “preconceptions” people have about Iran.

First, he said, it’s not anything like the absolute dictatorship of North Korea. Though autocratic and repressive, Iran has elections. And within the Iranian media ​— ​admittedly very constricted ​— ​he noted there’s genuine debate on some issues, like how Iran should respond to what’s happening in Syria. Not all Iranians wake up in the morning raring to attack the United States, Majd stressed, though they live with a keen appreciation that the United States could ​— ​and might ​— ​do just that to them. While Majd did not dismiss Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as an outright “whack job,” he acknowledged that Ahmadinejad ​— ​a screaming anti-Semite and Holocaust denier ​— ​reinforced and confirmed all the worst fears anyone could have about Iran. He noted that the candidate closest to Ahmadinejad in the most recent presidential elections came in a distant third. Majd said it was unrealistic to expect Iran to surrender outright on the issue of nuclear power. “It’s a matter of national pride,” he said. “If France gets 60 percent of its energy from nuclear energy, then why can’t Iran?” Sanctions have crippled the country’s economy, and the more oil Iran can sell on the international market, he said, the better. Majd, who grew up outside of Iran but remains very connected (he’s related by marriage to former president Khatani), suggested Iran would accept far more stringent and frequent inspections of its nuclear facilities and would reduce the number of centrifuges involved. “There is a deal to be made,” he stressed.

I know all this sounds hopelessly Kumbaya. But the opportunities presented by the brief phone call between Rouhani and Obama ​— ​legitimately historic ​— ​should not be squandered. In a striking coincidence, the day before Majd spoke at SBCC, Westmont College sponsored a talk at the Coral Casino by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who helped precipitate the Iranian Hostage Crisis in the first place. I pretend no fairness where Kissinger is concerned; he’s one of the great villains of all time. No doubt Henry’s the screaming genius everyone says he is when it comes to international affairs. But the trajectory of Kissinger’s career demonstrates mostly that you can get away with murder so long as you’re on the winning side. It’s become trite, I recognize, to call Kissinger a war criminal. But let’s just say if all the blood on his hands was water, we’d never have to worry about drought again. Kissinger ​— ​then serving under Richard Nixon ​— ​designated the shah of Iran (who’d been reinstated to the Peacock Throne in 1953 thanks to a military coup, Operation Ajax, orchestrated by the CIA) as the U.S. military proxy in the Middle East. Under Nixon and Kissinger, the U.S. sold the shah as much weaponry as Iran’s vast oil wealth could pay for, and they turned a blind eye to the shah’s increasing reliance on torture and repression as part of his march toward “modernization.” If the shah wanted to spend $100 million on a birthday bash celebrating 2,500 years of monarchy, what was a little excess among friends? In January 1979, the shah was forced into exile by a revolution that included not just the religious extremists but also many secular, educated, and “modernized” Iranians. By the fall, the shah ​— ​sick with cancer ​— ​wanted sanctuary in the United States. President Jimmy Carter wisely resisted. If the Great Satan accepted the shah, then wanted in his own country for prosecution, Carter knew the shit would hit the fan and there’d be no getting the toothpaste back in the tube. The shah could just as easily play tennis with rich people in Mexico, Carter argued, as he could with the one-percenters in Malibu. Kissinger thought otherwise. How would other dictators be willing to do the United States’ bidding if we turned our back on the shah in his hour of need? It was a matter of national honor. Kissinger and his patron David Rockefeller leaned hard on Carter to admit the shah. At the time, Carter had a major nuclear weapons treaty ​— ​SALT II ​— ​he was desperate to pass. It was far from certain whether he had the votes. If Kissinger opposed it, Carter’s treaty would be sunk. Carter did the math and admitted the shah on October 22. Thirteen days later, the world blew up. The rest, as they say, is history. The intervening silence has been anything but golden. Good thing talk is cheap. We’ve got so little to lose.

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I'm all for free speech in all instances and decidedly not a fan of the sort of censorship often found on college campuses these days, but I might have to make an exception for the K-man. Saw a brief clip oh him on Channel 3 this morning, sitting and pontificating like Jabba the Hutt to a seemingly rapt audience. What was even more nauseating was hearing Westmont's president gushing about Kissinger's being one of the "truly great Americans."
Unbelievable.

zappa (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 9:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Wikipedia excerpt:
During the American advance into Germany, Kissinger, only a private, was put in charge of the administration of the city of Krefeld, owing to a lack of German speakers on the division's intelligence staff. Within eight days he had established a civilian administration. Kissinger was then reassigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, with the rank of sergeant. He was given charge of a team in Hanover assigned to tracking down Gestapo officers and other saboteurs, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
He also received the same honors as Obama at Harvard...
In my opinion that gives him the right to sit and pontificate all he wants.

touristunfriendly (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 10:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Great! Kissinger is the bad guy and Iran's Mullah's are the good guys. Nick has really gone off the deep end this time!

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 11:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

the unfriendly tourist opines that one has done good. Proof that one can do good and later fall further. Who knows what Iran would look like today had US and UK not overthrown a democratically elected government. We might have had the jewel of western style democrazy in the M.E. that we are still trying to create, but failing at. Can't blame anybody for Iran but America.

spacey (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 12:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The same could be said for Iran Spacey.

touristunfriendly (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 12:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Kissinger and the CIA helped orchestrate the coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and is responsible for his murder in 1973; he and Nixon invaded neutral Cambodia in 1970; they indiscriminately bombed civilians in that long war; connived in the Indonesians’ brutal repression in East Timor; left the Kurds to their fate at the hands of Saddam which he helped arm and prop up since as early as 1972; the list goes on.. Ya.. great guy..

What has Iran ever done?

loonpt (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 12:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Nick's making great weird-ass sense, Botany: see the comments under Abe Powell's letter here: http://www.independent.com/news/2013/...

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 12:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I mean seriously, in 1952 our CIA goes in and overthrows the Shah of Iran which results in 27 years of brutal oppression. Leading up to the "hostage crisis", we had an embassy filled with CIA agents trying to prevent their country from staging a revolution. What business of ours is that anyway? That isn't what an embassy is for. Iran had every right to route out the CIA from their country, we deserved the hostage crisis for meddling with their affairs, especially after the brutal oppression that they caused on the Iranian people.

So I ask again, what has Iran EVER done?

loonpt (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 12:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

My, memories are short. How about violently repressing their own people in the last election for starters? The Mullahs have killed and tortured thousands or tens of thousands in their prisons. The Iran and Iraq war killed hudreds of thousands. Not to mention their undeniable pursuit of the islamic bomb. Sure, Kissinger and Nixon made mistakes, but they're not the Nazis you make them out to be.

Some people are so short-sighted that they look at everything done in the past through today's events and values. People don't look at them through the historical context that is appropriate to the situation. Just as those that weren't even born when it happened criticize the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs as "genocide", people today criticize the international role we played 40 years ago by the standards that are used in today's world. It's just as likely 40 years from now that H. Clinton and Kerry will go down in history (as seen by the future generation) as repressive and genocidal without giving any thought to the circumstances of the time.

Does one really think that any government in that region of the world would have been much better without the "interference" of our government back then? Different, maybe, better, doubtful, much worse, certainly possible. The people in that part of the world don't need any help from us to commit atrocities against each other. They seem to be doing fine all by themselves. And I'm just as happy to let them continue to do so. Getting involved has caused us nothing but grief.

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 1:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Autocratic and repressive? Hmmm, I think you could leave those in and add theocratic. Anyone who thinks this new president in Iran is running the show is sitting in the corner and talking to themselves. I would love to see this new moderate Iranian president walk over and tell Ayatollah whoever it is now to sit down(and shut up) but that isn't gonna happen. I think the people still leading the country are behind the scenes.
Also does anyone see any similarities between syria's leadership and what the shah of Iran did? For that very reason I am perplexed that Iran supports the current leadership in Syria.
Finally a slight generalization but it is my post after all: After spending some time in the middle east it reminded me of reading of being a certain race in this country during a certain time period. You just get looked at like you are disliked and very unwelcome. Just opening your mouth and speaking english can get you a dogged staredown.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2013 at 4:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Much has been made of the mushrooming youth generation in Iran, allegedly westernized & sophisticated, for maybe 20 years now. It was as if the Ayatollahs were thundering like a storm soon to blow over. After fighting the Shah at great cost, and then being decimated by ayatollahs, the Mujahedin (or their legacy) appeared poised to bring their Aryan state into the Western sphere, at least partly. But no dice. Ahmadinejad had done good by the countryside, and the over-vaunted urban intellectuals actually lost an election (by most reports), whether it was tallied fairly or not.

But, now the populace has elected Rouhani, the Anti-Ahmadinejad. Maybe a change in US hostility is in order. Remember the blood fountain (martyrs' memorial) after the Iran-Iraq War? Unarmed teens had rushed Iraqi lines to seize rifles. This country is no powder puff. Even if rapprochement doesn't prove fruitful, at least the engagement will raise Americans' consciousness of Persian culture. Otherwise, our traditional narcissism could wreck us at last.

Adonis_Tate (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2013 at 1:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

thanks Botz, your 1st paragraph supports exactly what loony and space case are saying. Had we left Iran alone with democrazy, we wouldn't have had mullahs, wouldn't have had the (US CIA approved) shah, hostage crisis, revolution against the shah or any of the blowback associated with that whole mess. That 'short sighted' history lesson you gave only goes back to the late 70's when this mess requires further time travel, unless of course I'm not seeing what the 50's were like and we just had to meddle with Iranian politics for the sake of giant oil corporations like BP and our fear of a Russian/Iranian friendship. Short sighted indeed.

spacey (anonymous profile)
October 12, 2013 at 12:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Does one really think that any government in that region of the world would have been much better without the "interference" of our government back then?"
-- Botany

Yes. Absolutely yes.

Botany, where in the constitution does it endorse - or even allow - US involvement in foreign (Iranian, in this case) governmental affairs?

SezMe (anonymous profile)
October 13, 2013 at 11:30 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Botany, my fellow biophile, spacey found your gerb-floong. A good argument has its momentum, even when the basal assumptions are wrong. (Why are Moses, Marx & Freud famous, otherwise?) You shoulda slept on that one, and I should know.

Adonis_Tate (anonymous profile)
October 20, 2013 at 8:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Had we left Iran alone, would the government be different, maybe. Religion-based governments almost never turn out well. Would the government of Iran be violent and oppressive as it is today? Almost certainly. I'm not saying I approve of our interference in the internal matters of other countries, far from it. But would things be any better? No. The only difference is that they might hate us a little less.

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 20, 2013 at 8:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, we should not have overthrown a democratically elected leader - just for oil. The Iranians for the most part are decent people, but their leaders are evil. They cracked down on a student revolt, and were brought into Syria to do the same thing. Assad would not be in power if it were not for the Iranians and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and they are doing awful things to the Syrian people, as was done to the Iranians who protested.

The only reason that Iran is talking is because sanctions are really hurting. The leaders are not to be trusted (real words from real Iranians.)

tabatha (anonymous profile)
October 20, 2013 at 8:45 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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