The Persian Complex

NY Times, May 25, 2006

By ABBAS AMANAT
New Haven

IT is easy to label Iran’s quest for nuclear energy a dangerous adventure with grave regional and international repercussions. It is also comforting to heap scorn on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his earlier denial of the Holocaust and his odious call for the obliteration of the state of Israel. The rambling intransigence expressed in his recent letter to President Bush offers ample insight into this twisted mindset. Yet there is something deeper in Iran’s story than the extremist utterances of a messianic president and the calculated maneuvering of the hard-line clerical leadership that stands behind him.

We tend to forget that Iran’s insistence on its sovereign right to develop nuclear power is in effect a national pursuit for empowerment, a pursuit informed by at least two centuries of military aggression, domestic meddling, skullduggery and, not least, technological denial by the West. Every schoolchild in Iran knows about the C.I.A.-sponsored 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Even an Iranian with little interest in his or her past is conscious of how Iran throughout the 19th and 20th centuries served as a playground for the Great Game.

Iranians also know that, hard as it may be for latter-day Americans and Europeans to believe, from the 1870’s to the 1920’s Russia and Britain deprived Iran of even basic technology like the railroad, which was then a key to economic development. At various times, both powers jealously opposed a trans-Iranian railroad because they thought it would threaten their ever-expanding imperial frontiers. When it was finally built, the British, Russian (and American) occupying forces during the Second World War made full use of it (free of charge), calling Iran a “bridge of victory” over Nazi Germany. They did so, of course, after Winston Churchill forced the man who built the railroad, Reza Shah Pahlavi, to abdicate and unceremoniously kicked him out of the country.

Not long after, a similar Western denial of Iran’s economic sovereignty resulted in a dramatic showdown that had fatal consequences for the country’s fragile democracy and left lasting scars on its national consciousness. The oil nationalization movement of 1951 to 1953 under Mossadegh was opposed by Britain, and eventually by its partner in profit, the United States, with the same self-righteousness that today colors their views of the Iranian yearning for nuclear energy.

Mossadegh was tried and sent into internal exile and Mohammed Reza Shah was reinstalled largely to safeguard American geopolitical interests and with little regard for the wishes of the Iranian people. A quarter-century later, Americans were “taken by surprise” when an Islamic revolution toppled the shah and transformed a country that seemed so friendly to the United States. But if Americans suffered from historical amnesia, for many Iranians, among them Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the thread of memory led clearly from the Great Game to the Great Satan.

For a country like the United States that is built on paradigms of progress and pragmatism, grasping the mythical and psychological dimensions of defeat and deprivation at the hands of foreigners is difficult. Yet the Iranian collective memory is infused with such themes. Since the early 18th century, Iran has been involved in four devastating civil wars. America’s own highly traumatic Civil War was, notwithstanding Britain’s sympathy for the South, a largely domestic affair. In the civil wars that Iran endured, however, the Turks, Afghans, Russians and British played major parts. And before the arrival of Western powers, Iranians held bitter memories of the Ottomans, the Mongols and the Arabs.

These intrusions punctuated the Iranians’ modern historical narrative with conspiratorial fears and have helped to nurture a cult of the fallen hero, from the 1910’s guerrilla leader Mirza Kuchak Khan to Amir Kabir, a 19th-century reformist prime minister, and later Mossadegh. Such painful collective memories have made Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy a national symbol of defiance that has transcended the motives of the current Islamic regime.

If the United States resorts to sanctions, or worse, to some military response, the outcome would be not only disastrous but, in the long run, transient. Just as the West did with Iran’s railroad and oil industry, it can for a time deny Iran nuclear technology, but it cannot wipe out Iranians’ haunting memories. And no doubt the Islamic regime will amply exploit these collective memories to advance its nuclear program even as it stifles voices of domestic dissent. Even more than before, Iranians will blame outside powers for their misfortunes and choose not to focus on their own troubled road to modernity.

If that course continues, Iran will most likely succeed, for ill or for good, in finding its own nuclear holy grail. Legend has it that the Persian king Hushang, an equivalent of Prometheus, introduced fire to the Iranians. But unlike his Greek mythological counterpart, who stole it from gods, he accidentally discovered it while fighting with a dragon.

Abbas Amanat is a professor of history at Yale and author of the forthcoming “In Search of Modern Iran.”