Our love for our country and recognition that we have many big-hearted citizens sometimes lulls us into assuming that we act appropriately on the world stage. But ignorance too often breaks the connection between good intentions and smart behavior. Iran emerged from World War II with a parliamentary government and a democratically selected Prime Minister. But the British and Americans didn’t like his stand on oil – he wanted a larger share of the profits for his own country. At Britain’s urging, we helped stage a coup that took him down and reinstalled the Shah of Iran. Initially, the Prime Minister got wind of the coup and defeated it. But, in the American Embassy, a second coup was planned and executed. In 1953 the Shah of Iran was reinstalled and this country took credit for it.
That was too bad. There was and is a lot of admiration in Iran for European and American ways. The very fact that they had a democratic government reflected that. The legal system and the school system reflected French approaches. But the Persians did not admire our unseating Prime Minister Mosadegh. And they knew and did not forget the role of the American Embassy in bringing that plot to fruition.
Americans in Iran felt the crosswinds. There was a great deal of respect for this country and our ideals. Americans were largely welcome. Women in the Peace Corps covered up and men they knew often protected them from any inappropriate behavior by others. Some of the men in the cities were more conflicted but villagers I met were particularly welcoming.
The Revolution in 1979 had little or nothing to do with America despite some of the language coming from the clerics. Americans had felt the rising anger toward the Shah in the years before the Revolution and Peace Corps postings ended three years before the Revolution.
With the Revolution secured, it should have been easy to arrange freedom for the American hostages. But unlike former presidents who dealt with hostages, Carter magnified the event instead of cooling it off, which gave Reagan the opportunity to arrange the delay of their release until his inauguration. The result has been a much more fraught, angry and distrustful relationship than it should have been. In effect, the American role in the 1953 coup is still having repercussions in Iran and in the Middle East.
Obama took a step toward cooling down the enmity with the nuclear deal. And most recently, the Iranian people have rejected the desire of the clerics for the second national election in a row in favor of a president who is more open to working with the West.
But the background of hostility makes that hard. They remember Mosadegh and we remember the hostages. The rhetoric coming from hardliners in each country remains very harsh. The House has just voted to impose new sanctions just when Iranians have rejected their hard-liners and the Senate may be preparing to follow suit. But Trump has an opportunity if he is aware enough to see and grab it. He can strengthen the pro-western public in Iran by toning down the rhetoric, engaging in tactful diplomacy and taking advantages of opportunities to make mutually beneficial deals with Iran, or he can be Trump, call names, and burn the enmities in for another century.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. Steve maintains a blog: constitutionalismanddemocracy.wordpress.com
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