We know that Donald Trump does not read books. He is more of a television enthusiast and a Twitter aficionado. His knowledge of international relations and history – Middle East history, in particular – is limited at best. But as we stand on the brink of a war with Iran, with catastrophic repercussions that would dwarf the fallout from the Iraq war, basic knowledge of the history of the country that President Trump almost bombed last month, would serve him, and his supporters, well.
Iran is located in West Asia in the heart of the Islamic world. The key themes that shaped its modern history and informed its political culture broadly overlap with the experiences of other developing societies in the global south.
In his magisterial study, From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra reminds us that Western history is not universal history. At the start of his book, he observes that for most of the developing world, the key events of the 20th century were not the two world wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall. The central political developments that shaped the modern history and identity of millions of Asians and Africans revolved around the struggle for self-determination and independence from Europe.
Iran’s story fits within this framework. While it was never formally colonised, historians have described 19th-century Iran as a “semi-colony” due to the conspicuous influence Western powers had over the nation’s domestic affairs. In 1872, for example, Baron Julius de Reuter – of news agency fame – received a concession from the corrupt Qajar king for control over all railway construction, mineral extraction, irrigation networks, creation of a national bank, and all other agricultural and industrial projects – in return for a modest sum of money.
Lord Curzon, British foreign minister, later described this concession as “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that had probably ever been dreamt of.”
Around the same time, Britain obtained control over the production, sale and export of Iranian tobacco. This impoverished local producers and led to a major societal revolt that set the stage for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The objective was to end royal absolutism by transforming Iran into a constitutional monarchy, establishing a parliament and institutionalising the rule of law. Despite its early successes, the revolution was eventually defeated in large part due to the intervention of Britain and Russia – who backed the monarchy – the latter of whom sent tanks to Tehran to attack the Parliament.
American lawyer William Morgan Shuster was an observer and participant of these events. He was appointed by the newly established Iranian Parliament as treasurer-general to modernise Iran’s finances which were in a state of disrepair as a result of the monarchy’s corrupt spending. Eager to retain influence, Russia and Britain protested Shuster’s appointment and eventually succeeded in having him expelled.
After returning to the United States, Shuster wrote, The Strangling of Persia, which is a first-hand account of a weak developing nation falling prey to the machinations of the great powers.
In the mid-20th century, the West flagrantly violated Iran’s sovereignty on two occasions. In 1941, in an act of regime change, the Allied powers invaded and occupied Iran. The ruling monarch was exiled to South Africa for his pro-German sympathies and his 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza, was appointed shah of Iran.
In 1953, a CIA intervention altered Iran’s political trajectory. Democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled and Mohammad Reza, who had fled the country, was re-installed to power. The Cold War had started and there was fear in Washington of a communist takeover, which motivated to a certain extent its intervention. While this story is now more widely known in the West, the events that precipitated it are not.
The early 1950s coincided with the struggle for decolonisation and independence across the Third World. The central point of conflict in Iran was over who should control and acquire the benefits of Iran’s vast oil reserves. Iranian nationalists were in conflict with British Petroleum, the company that controlled Iran’s oil industry, reaping the profits in an arrangement that humiliated the Iranian people, and effectively amounted to thievery.
The UN and the International Court of Justice were key battlegrounds in this dispute. When negotiations between Britain and Iran broke down, Britain responded by imposing sanctions, blocking Iranian access to foreign currency accounts and curbing its oil exports. Just as it is now, the Iran crisis of the early 1950s was at the top of the global agenda.
After the 1953 coup, Mohammad Reza took firm control of the country. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he was hailed in the West as a modernising leader. The corruption and repression that were synonymous with his reign, and the absence of internal legitimacy, did not affect his status as an American ally. He was wined and dined in Western capitals in the same way that the Arab autocrats who stifle their people’s aspirations for self-determination are courted today.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution should be understood against this backdrop. One of the key demands of the protesters was “esteghlal”, or independence. The indignity of having Iran’s sovereignty repeatedly violated by Western powers could no longer be tolerated. The shah was the target of the protesters’ anger, in large part because he was viewed as an American-backed puppet, imposed on the people of Iran to advance Western economic and geo-strategic interests. Toppling him was seen as national liberation.
This abysmal record of foreign intervention, however, does not justify the contemporary policies of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian regime is notorious for its internal repression, expanding authoritarianism and appalling human rights record.
Its regional interventions, particularly in Syria – where it is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity – have significantly contributed to the instability of the Middle East. Like other post-colonial regimes, Iranian history today is cynically manipulated and purposely distorted by Iranian leaders to justify its present course of action.
Nonetheless, Iranians are viewing current American foreign policy through the prism of their historical experience. It is misguided to think that they will take kindly to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, his imposition of crippling sanctions and his boorish rhetoric.
It is even more naive to believe, as National Security Adviser John Bolton does, that Iranians have no historical memory and they will rise in revolt to topple their regime when it is cornered by outside forces. Anti-imperialism has deep roots within Iranian political culture and 40 years of clerical despotism has not altered this fact.
Washington’s choice of close allies in the Middle East also guarantees the failure of its foreign policy towards Iran. It is no secret that Trump’s new hardline posturing has been carefully coordinated with a cast of unscrupulous actors: the Saudi crown prince, the Emirati crown prince and the prime minister of Israel.
Are Iranians supposed to view these notorious figures as their natural allies? While it is true there is a deep desire for political change in Iran, Iranian nationalism remains a powerful force regardless of one’s views of the Islamic Republic.
“What we learn from history,” the great historian of modern Iran, Ervand Arbrahamian recently observed, paraphrasing Hegel, “is that we don’t learn anything from history.” Current US policy towards Iran under the Trump administration seems destined to confirm this truth.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.