November 03, 2002
Friedman on Iran and Democracy

In the NYTimes, Tom Friedman argues that oil is what keeps theocratic regimes in power, and that the US should reduce its reliance on foreign oil by not using so much of it.

Which was the first and only real Arab democracy? Lebanon. Which Arab country had no oil? Lebanon. Which is the first Arab oil state to turn itself into a constitutional monarchy? Bahrain. Which is the first Arab oil state to run out of oil? Bahrain.

My understanding of Mid-East history is not as good as it should be, but wasn't Iran (the subject of Friedman's article) a democracy back in the 50's? According to Richard Cummings,

the Shah was on the Peacock throne thanks to Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA station chief in Teheran, who engineered the coup that deposed Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh, who had headed a secular, fledgling democracy that had the temerity to nationalize the oil fields that, up to that point, had been exploited by BP. Having sued in the World Court and lost, the UK turned to its ally, Uncle Sam, to get the oil fields back. Rent-a-Mobs appeared, the CIA paid off the military, and Mossadegh fled in his pajamas. Once in power, the Shah stifled all dissent, using the notorious SAVAK, his intelligence service, to torture his political opponents, all under the watchful and approving eye of the United States government.

That, of course, ultimately led to Ayatollah Khomeini taking power, and the Brits lost their control of the oil fields anyway. Iran was then a threat to the Middle East, so the US supported Saddam Hussein, giving him money and chemical weapons to keep Iran at bay. (We kept selling him chemical weapons, even after he used them "against his own people", as has been repeated ad nauseum.)

While I don't see any problem with Friedman's conclusion that we should learn to use less oil, it seems that anyone who wants to speak intelligently about the source of fundamentalism should at least acknowledge all the times that the US has explicitly funded and supported it.

If the US had supported Iranian democracy instead of undermining it (or not given Saddam chemical weapons, or not funded the muhajideen, or not supported the Taliban, or the repressive Saudi regime, or given billions of dollars worth of arms to Israel...) things might be quite a bit different.

In fact, there might be a lot more democracy in the Middle East than there is now. The US is officially not interested in supporting democratic movements in other countries, but an Iranian democracy might have provided the inspiration and support needed for things to be a fair bit better. But since the US is still not interested in supporting democratic movements within these countries, and is committed to undermining them when democracy conflicts with its interests, things are, quite simply, worse than they could be.

For anyone who doubts Simmons' account above, here's (then Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright in a speech on Iran-US relations:

In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.

Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah's regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah's government also brutally repressed political dissent.

As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations. Even in more recent years, aspects of U.S. policy toward Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted, especially in light of our subsequent experiences with Saddam Hussein.

posted by dru in us