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    Middle East
     Oct 22, '13

All roads lead to Tehran
By Jan Krikke

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The Western media has routinely depicted the conflict in the Middle East as highly complex, fraught with multilayered and age-old religious and sectarian issues that defy resolution. Nothing could be farther could be from the truth. The conflict in the Middle East has a singular cause, traceable to a specific date and to specific political players: the coup in Iran in 1953, which gave birth to radical Islam in 1979.

In the past few months, pressure has been building to resolve the 60-year old conflict, and with success. The conflict originated in

Iran and Tehran holds the key to a new start in the Middle East.

It must rank among the costliest decisions Western political leaders ever made. In 1952, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked US President Harry Truman for help in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the secular head of Iran's democratically elected government. The Iranian parliament had voted to nationalize Iran's oil resources, which had long been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of BP. The British government was determined to reclaim its valuable Iranian possession, its biggest overseas “asset” at the time, and responded with a blockade of Iranian ports. Churchill knew the territory. He had been a consultant to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the 1920s.

Truman wisely refused Churchill’s request, but the British prime minister tried again when President Dwight Eisenhower was elected. Eisenhower agreed, and in 1953, CIA and M16 operatives orchestrated the removal of Mosaddegh government. Mosaddegh, the first democratically elected leader of an Islamic country, made a last ditch effort for international support at the United Nations. He explained that the British oil firm’s profits in the year 1950 alone exceeded the total of what the company had paid to Iran during the previous 50 years. The British responded with legalistic arguments about contracts, ignoring the moral dimension of their position and the Iranian sense of national pride.

The Western Powers replaced Mosaddegh with a puppet regime headed by Mohammad-Rez? Sh?h Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) and "allocated" Iran’s oil resources to the "Consortium for Iran", later known as the Seven Sisters - five US oil companies, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Cheap Iranian oil helped fuel Europe’s Post-War recovery. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Seven Sisters controlled more than 80% of the global oil market. Following consolidation, the remaining three sisters, Exxon, BP and Shell have been – and still are – among the biggest and most profitable companies in the world.

After the overthrow of Mosaddegh, the Western power propped up military and hereditary autocratic rulers elsewhere in the region. While they pushed for democracy, justice and human rights in the rest of the decolonized world, the mantra in the Middle East became “stability”, enforced by a massive militarization of the region. Then came the Iranian Revolution. Bottle-up resentment against the Shah and his Western sponsors sparked an Islamic fire that would ignite the region. The Western world was rattled by a new phenomenon: Islamic fundamentalism, Holy War and suicide bombers, culminating in 9/11. Ignoring the root of the problem, the Western powers doubled down on its self-proclaimed military prerogative to keep the region under control, invading both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The turning point came in 2013, with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected openly Islamist leader in the Middle East. The overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh had marked the beginning of the misguided Western policy in the Middle East, the overthrow of Morsi marked the beginning of the end. The Egyptian coup, probably planned when Morsi visited Iran after a trip to China, [1] met no resistance from Western governments. The damage to the West in the Islamic world is yet to be assessed and understood but it strengthened the hand of Muslims distrustful of the West. It was no longer a question of whether Islam is compatible with Western democracy, but whether Western democracy is compatible with Islam and its aspirations.

Morsi had been the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a social-religious movement founded in 1928 when Egypt was under British domination. From Wikipedia: "The Muslim Brotherhood started as a religious social organization; preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals and even launching commercial enterprises. As it continued to rise in influence, starting in 1936, it began to oppose British rule in Egypt."

The British left in 1954, leaving the notoriously thuggish Egyptian military to rule and loot the county. Egypt's military strongman Gamal Adbel Nassar, predecessor of Sadat and Mubarak, banned the Brotherhood and jailed thousands of its members. The Brotherhood leadership opted for accommodation with the military and focused on providing social and religious services. But firebrand members of the Brotherhood tried to steer the movement in a more radical course favored by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian author who provided much of the Islamist ideology of the movement. Militant factions were born, among them Al Qaeda. They developed what can be described as a nightmarish Islamist version of liberation theology. Slowly but inevitably, all the pieces were in place for the perfect storm, as Ryan Evans succinctly describes:

“The Brotherhood’s failure to achieve political power drove elements of the movement, which had been hardened in the prisons of Egypt and elsewhere, to seek more drastic means. This failure, combined with Sayyid Qutb’s electrifying influence, the demonstrative effect of the Iranian revolution, and the cauldron of the Soviet-Afghan War led to the conviction among some Islamists that there was no longer any point in working inside the system to change it. Violence made more sense. Indeed, the adoption of violence by a political group is a strategic choice that is usually only made once activists believe other means have been exhausted.” [2]

The possibility of the Islamic Middle East developing Western-style democracies was probably remote from the start, but Western support for the overthrow of Morsi has removed any doubt, if only because it revealed once again the duplicitous nature of the Western political establishment. Following the coup against Morsi, US and EU officials parroted coordinated talking points, stating that "Morsi had made mistakes" and that he was "not solving the country's economic problems." By that stunningly self-serving reasoning, the leaders of the free should have approved coups in Greece, India and about a dozen other countries.

And so we had the remarkable spectacle of US President Barack Obama, who spent his first term in office blaming his country's problems on the eight years of his predecessor George Bush, not willing to give Morsi until the next Egyptian elections to deal with the legacy of 60 years of corrupt military dictatorship and a looted and devastated economy. The ever-sinister former British premier Tony Blair stated publicly that the removal of Morsi was justified by "millions of protesters" in the streets of Cairo. Ten years earlier, Blair had ignored millions of people in the streets of London who protested his planned invasion of Iraq. Blair knew his history: In the 1950s, the CIA’s regional operation chief in Iran, Kermit Roosevelt, defended the coup against Mosaddegh with eerily similar language: "The situation in Iran [...] was suitable for this particular intervention because its result proved acceptable to the Iranian people and the army."

We can only imagine what the Middle East would look like today had Churchill allowed Iran’s democracy to develop and if the UK had retreated from the region like it did from British India and elsewhere. There would have been upheaval and sectarian strife, as there was in India, with the tragic split of Pakistan and Bangladesh. The map of the Middle East would perhaps be very different, but it would have been an Islamic map, not a map drawn up by the Oil Crusaders and their political stooges.

Surely no imaginable scenario could have been worse than the one that has unfolded in the Middle East in the past 60 years. And its effect on the West will be long-lasting. Apart from the thousands of dead and wounded, the US has been turned into a surveillance state, the EU is flooded by political and economic Muslim refugees, and Islamophobia has poisoned the Western political discourse and damaged the social fabric of its greatest cities.

Today, most Muslims have lost faith in the West and its political model. Free elections in most Islamic countries would be won hands down by Islamist parties, not only in the Middle East but from Algeria to Pakistan and Indonesia. Most countries in the region will probably skip liberal democracy altogether and develop Islamic-based governments like those of Iran or Malaysia.

The West could take a bold and historic step to take itself out of the conflict: A Kennedy-like 10-year plan by oil-importing nations of the Group of 20 to develop alternative energy resources and a timetable for the withdrawal of Western military forces from all Islamic countries. The needed funding is readily available: by diverting military expenditures to green and other sustainable technology, forcing the military-industrial complex to turn swords into plowshares.

The “green solution” is morally and even economically sensible. But even without such radical measures, there are signs that the tide is turning. To their credit, the British parliament and the US Congress balked at military intervention in Syria, largely under pressure from the electorate. Russian intervention in the Syrian chemical weapons debacle further undercut the war-mongers. And Iran’s new political leadership appears to be winning the battle with the Iranian radicals, the Jacobins of the Islamic revolution.

Iran, as the birthplace of radical Islam, is best placed to promote political Islam that can find its place in the global order. Even the tough-talking premier of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, no doubt scarred by the Yom Kippur war of 1973, has said he would consider meeting with Iran’s new leader Hassan Rouhani.

Moreover, Western influence in the region is slowly undermined by the relative decline of Western economic power vis-a-vis Asia. Countries in the Middle East are flooded by Asian investment and consumer products. Low-cost Asian smart phones played an important role in organizing protesters during the Arab Spring. Iran and Iraq are exporting oil to Asia in exchange for food. Even Israel, smartly hedging its bets, is looking East. China is working with Israel on a rail link between Haifa on the Mediterranean and Elat on the Red Sea, providing a new land-based corridor parallel to the Suez Canal. Asian countries are not only a natural economic partners for the region, as former colonies themselves they relate to people expecting non-interference and self-determination.

1. See here
2. See here

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Jan Krikke is a former Asia correspondent for various media and author of The Corridor of Space (Olive Press).

(Copyright 2013 Jan Krikke)




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