FREELY The real problem with Iran is
history By Aaron Hesse
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What is missing from
the narrative surrounding Iran and its nuclear
program is a discussion of history and identity
that might help to clarify why the US-Iranian
relationship is so dangerous today.
does Iran want or need a nuclear program in the
first place? Is it to threaten the US or its
allies, to end Western influence in the Middle
East, to support terrorist activities, or to
project Iranian power and export the revolution?
Or is it much deeper than that?
history is ancient. Names like Cyrus the Great,
Darius leap from the
pages, as immortal figures integral to the
formulation of Iranian national identity that link
today with the glory and resplendence of its past.
Cyrus the Great established what was to
become the largest empire in history up to that
point: the Achaemenid Empire. This eventually
conquered Babylon, and other regional powers like
Macedon, Athens and Thermopylae. Ultimately it
came to embrace parts of Libya, Egypt, the
Mediterranean, and Levant, and stretched as far
East as the Indus River.
The greatness of
the empire established by Cyrus has remained a
part of the intellectual and traditional psyche of
Persians throughout the millennia. However, some
of the greatest conquerors in history have decided
Persia's fate. First, Alexander the Great
plundered and burned Cyrus's capital of Persepolis
in 334 BC.
Then, for the next ten
centuries, the Persians absorbed the influences of
those around them, especially Greece, Egypt and
The Byzantines exhausted Persia,
making it that much easier for the next great
conquerors, the Arabs, to sweep into Persia around
630 AD, forever altering the makeup of the Middle
There is oftentimes a frustrating
effort for Iranians to find a link between Islam
and their rich pre-Islamic history.
said, a legacy of being conquered time and again
has certainly affected Iran today, and the
imperialism of last century is part of that as
At the turn of the 20th century,
Russia and Great Britain were vying for access to
the wealth of Iranian oil. In the end, the British
won out and established the Anglo Persian Oil
Company (APOC). The nationalization of the
Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), formerly the
APOC, in March of 1951 became a giant factor in
Iranian history, shaping its identity. In the
minds of Iranians, oil and its benefits belonged
Iranians perceived the British
government as manipulating Iran through the AIOC,
manipulation that was designed to keep the bulk of
the population impoverished, docile and on the
sidelines of this power politics game.
nationalization of AIOC and the consequent CIA and
British intelligence overthrow of Prime Minister
Mohammad Mossadegh cemented the image of Iranian
martyrdom at the hands of foreign powers.
It also signaled that Iran was still a
weak player in world politics, susceptible to
manipulation and coercion by great power politics.
This episode, as many authors acknowledge
created a lasting effect on Iran, and the role
that rising US power was to play in the Middle
After the devastating Iran-Iraq war,
which lasted most of the 1980s, the new face of
the Islamic Revolution was to be a nuclear power
An indigenous nuclear program,
nuclear energy and even the possibility of the
eventual development of nuclear weapons capability
would signal once and for all that Iran was again
standing tall on the world stage and would be a
beacon for all Muslim countries to follow.
Iran's vast natural resources and unique
geographical position are what brought upon it the
desire of outsiders to control Iran over the
centuries. Nuclear power would be a step toward
producing an energy source that was potentially
Nuclear power, in the minds of
Iranians, signaled an end to the ability of
foreigners to dictate Iran's future.
nuclear program, like the oil industry, was
something Iranians could own; hence they would be
the sole beneficiaries. The regime plays on these
sentiments as national interests.
not to say that Iran is entitled to create nuclear
weapons, or that Iran does not have to answer for
past transgressions and secrecy in its nuclear
efforts. As signatory to the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran has
responsibilities that it is not living up to, and
needs to be held accountable.
order to understand the problems with Iran, a
policy maker has to know both sides of the story.
Too often, history is lost in the rhetoric and we
find ourselves beating a repetitive and dangerous
drum. We must make a concerted effort to deal with
this problem in an appropriate way, one that
recognizes not only our own history and identity,
but the history and the identity of those we seek
to influence. Without this, we are truly blind.
Aaron Hesse holds an MA in
international relations from the American
University in Cairo. He currently lives and work
in Prague, and is an adjunct nuclear policy
analyst for a Washington DC think tank. The views
expressed here are his own.
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