Iran Hijab Protests: Why Regime Change Is Easier Said Than Done

The existential threat Iran has faced over the last four decades has ended up making it more resilient and self-reliant to fend off regime change attempts

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At the peak of protests over Mahsa Amini’s alleged death in police custody following her detention for violating Iran’s dress code, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian offered the West a reality check. In an interview with National Public Radio on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Session, he ruled out the possibility of a regime change on the back of the protests he suggested the West was trying to play on. Amirabdollahian said Amini’s death was being probed seriously as per the promise of President Ebrahim Raisi, who called her family and offered condolences. Amirabdollahian blamed foreign media for fuelling the protests over the tragic death and asked the West not to destabilize Iran.

Regime change has been a recurring theme in Iranian discourse. It has had resonance since 1953 when the West removed democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (1880-1967) from power for keeping his poll promise of nationalizing oil to invest its profits for the welfare of the poor. Mossadegh, who was educated at Institut d’études politiques de Paris and received his doctorate in law from the University of Neuchâtel Switzerland, was diametrically opposite to the current Iranian rulers that the West loathes.

Also, Listen To: Iran Protests: A Reality Check

A liberal, rationalist, who believed in pluralism and secularism and opposed obscurantism, Mossadegh built a political base largely by calling for nationalizing the oil. Mossadegh’s ideals counted for little when he ended London-based Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company’s monopoly over Iran’s oil and aroused the British ire. Britain imposed economic sanctions and a naval embargo in retaliation over the end of almost five decades years of its monopoly over Iran’s petroleum extraction, marketing, and sales. It forced British technicians to leave Iran and blocked Iran’s exports to cripple its lifeline petroleum industry. Britain laid claim to Iranian oil and planned to overthrow Mosaddegh. But the British embassy in Iran was soon shut while the undercover agents, who were plotting a coup posing as diplomats, were deported to prevent Mosaddegh’s removal.

Mossadegh’s defiance, however, prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to abandon the American non-interventionist policy in 1952 and sealed the Iranian leader’s fate. Eisenhower, who saw Mossadegh’s nationalization as a threat to multinational enterprises, rushed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Kermit Roosevelt to Tehran, where he oversaw Mossadegh’s overthrow in just three weeks as part of covert Operation Ajax.

In August 2013, the CIA admitted for the first time to its involvement in the coup against Mossadegh. British and American intelligence agents operating from the American embassy in Tehran successfully plotted it by buying off the Iranian press to circulate propaganda against Mossadegh, roping in members of the Islamic clergy, and rogue Iranian military elements. In August 1953, Mossadegh was banished to spend the rest of his life under house arrest in his native village. A year later, Iran split 50–50 oil revenues with an international consortium that controlled its marketing and production.

The West chose its economic interests over its democratic ideals to help the transfer of power from Mossadegh to the Shah. It would do everything to shore up Pahlavi including by gifting him a nuclear programme in 1957. The CIA and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, trained the Shah’s secret police force, whose coercive powers played a crucial role in sustaining his regime over the next two decades.

The West, by overthrowing Mossadegh and backing the Shah’s brutal rule, would eventually prepare the ground for the 1979 revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mossadegh’s removal was among the reasons cited for the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini’s system of governance, which has since endured thanks to constant fears of regime change and repeated but failed attempts to achieve it, is a far cry from Mossadegh’s ideals. Mossadegh symbolised Iran’s secular nationalism. He believed in constitutionalism and civic nationalism while Khomeini’s system allowed clerics absolute political and legal authority.

The 444-day embassy seizure and captivity of American diplomats in Tehran following Khomeini’s revolution, too, was more of an attempt to prevent the 1953-style regime change. The US sanctioned Iran in retaliation and backed Iraqi dictator Saddam’s invasion of Iran to counter Khomeini’s revolution. The revolution prompted the Soviets to invade Afghanistan the same year fearing its exports to its backyard. The US countered this by resorting to the perversion of jihad to defeat the Soviets, which led to the creation of groups such as al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks and sparked global Islamophobia that has reached pandemic proportions.

The existential threat Iran has faced over the decades has also ended up making it more resilient and self-reliant to fend off regime change attempts. Saddam’s eight-year invasion, too, was part of the efforts to change the Iranian regime. Iran was forced to agree to an UN-brokered ceasefire with Saddam in September 1988 after he resorted to chemical weapons and Americans brought down an Iranian civilian aircraft, signalling an open siding with Iraq. It ended the 20th century’s longest war, which left an estimated a million dead.

The US would later invade Iraq to remove Saddam from power in 2003 on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and to export democracy that it throttled in Iran in the 1950s. The 2003 Iraq war and the occupation that followed, directly and indirectly, claimed about half a million lives until 2011 and also ended up benefitting Iran. Tehran filled the vacuum the US left by withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, creating a corridor of influence up to the Mediterranean. It used this influence to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power in Syria despite all-out western efforts and to back Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranian influence in Iraq has continued to grow. Iraq depends on Iran for virtually everything–from chicken to eggs, milk, yogurt, and cosmetics.

Iran has also since the 1980s survived American sanctions, which have, among other things, led to over 200 accidents because of Tehran’s inability to buy aircraft parts. Despite odds, it created the region’s most extensive industrial base and emerged as one of the world’s top automobile cement, and steel manufacturers. Iran has been among the countries topping nanotechnology and stem-cell research. In 2012, Iran, which has successfully improved its military strength, ranked as the world’s 17th largest producer of scientific papers ahead of even Israel and Turkey. Two years later, Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win Fields Medal in 2014.

Mirzakhani has been among the top scientists Iran has produced as women have outnumbered men in universities over the last decade or so. This is another marker of how Iran has shown extraordinary resilience despite all odds since 1979. And with a little more breathing space, which it has not had for over four decades, more changes and easing of dress code norms for women are inevitable as long as they are organic and not intended to be just an excuse for engineering another regime change. Such interventions earlier have been disastrous for both the region and the West.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Regime Changes In Iran, Iraq Hurt American Interests In Longer Run

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s allegations that the US backed an attempt to oust him have put a spotlight on Washington’s involvements in regime changes

Mohammed Mossadegh has been described as the region’s ‘first liberal leader’ and a rationalist. Picture courtesy independent.co.uk

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

President Dwight Eisenhower’s move to end the American non-interventionist policy in 1952 in view of the Iranian leader’s defiance sealed Mossadegh’s fate. Eisenhower saw Mossadegh’s nationalisation project as a threat to multinational enterprises. Kermit Roosevelt, an agent of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was accordingly rushed to Tehran. He would accomplish the job of overthrowing Mossadegh in three weeks in August 1953. Mossadegh, a democratically-elected leader, was banished and would spend the rest of his life under house arrest in his native village.

Seven decades on, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan effectively used an alleged US-backed attempt to oust him to stall a non-confidence motion against him this month. The move helped him recommend the dissolution of the national assembly and call fresh elections to prevent his opponents from taking power to roll back provisions such as the use of electronic voting machines and online balloting rights to overseas Pakistanis, who are mostly seen as Khan’s supporters.

ALSO READ | Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

Khan has called the alleged move to oust him a blatant American interference in domestic politics even as Washington has denied any role in seeking to remove Khan from power. Allegations of American interference have been repeatedly made in Pakistan, where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed on trumped-up charges after secretary of state Henry Kissinger is said to have warned the US would make a ‘horrible example’ of the Pakistani leader over his refusal to give up Pakistan’s nuclear programme in 1976. The execution followed a military coup and a campaign to remove Bhutto from power as Khan has faced in recent months. Khan has cited a series of meetings of opposition leaders with American diplomats to back his allegations.

Khan’s accusations of American attempt to oust him have resonated in the backdrop of the US-backed regime changes including in neighbouring Iran, where AIPC was Britain’s most profitable company in the 1950s. AIPC managed the monopoly over Iranian oil through a deal with Iran’s monarchy. The oil propelled high living standards in Britain while Iranians lived in poverty despite the abundance of black gold in their country. American author-journalist Stephen Kinzer told Democracy Now in 2008 that Britain had no oil or colonies with petroleum and every factory in England, car, truck, taxi was running on oil from Iran. He added oil from Iran 100% fuelled the Royal Navy as it projected British power globally and that AIPC ‘would not give in one inch.’

Mossadegh, who has been described as the region’s ‘first liberal leader’ and a rationalist who hated obscurantism, believed in secularism and pluralism. But his ideals counted for nothing as his idea of national sovereignty clashed with the West’s economic interests. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who took power after the coup, would become the face of American manipulations. The US rewarded him handsomely and gifted him a nuclear programme through a civil nuke cooperation pact in 1957. The CIA and Israeli spy agency Mossad trained the Shah’s secret police force, which sustained his repression and would eventually prepare the ground for Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. The revolution led to the creation of an adversarial republic to the US in 1979 and a system of governance that allows clerics absolute political and legal authority. The system is a far cry from Mossadegh’s idea of constitutionalism and civic nationalism. A lawyer who studied in France and Switzerland, Mossadegh symbolised secular nationalism in Iran.

ALSO READ | Why India Will Like To See The Back of Imran Khan

A 444-day seizure of the American embassy and captivity of diplomats in Tehran followed the revolution. Kinzer has argued the crisis was not a result of ‘nihilistic rage’ but to prevent a repeat of the 1953 coup, which CIA agents operating from the embassy carried out. The US retaliated by sanctioning Iran. It backed Iraqi dictator Saddam’s invasion of Iran while the revolution also prompted the Soviets to invade Afghanistan to prevent its export to its backyard. The US resorted to the perversion of jihad to defeat Soviets, which would imperil world peace by leading to the creation of groups such as al-Qaeda.

Iran, meanwhile, fended off Saddam’s invasion for eight years until Tehran was forced to agree to a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in September 1988. The truce came after Americans brought down an Iranian civilian aircraft. The downing signalled to Iran the US was now openly siding with Iraq in the 20th century’s longest war, which is estimated to have left around a million dead. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons also forced Iran to accept the truce. Iran also survived American sanctions, which have left around 2,000 people dead in over 200 accidents blamed on the curbs that prevented Tehran from buying aircraft parts.

ALSO READ | Kim Ji Young, Born 1982: Familiar Story Of Life Women Live Universally

Iran has overcome odds and emerged as one of the world’s top cement, steel, and automobile manufacturers on the back of the Middle East’s most extensive industrial base. In a The Diplomat piece in 2015, Richard Javad Heydarian said Iran is among the top countries in nanotechnology and stem-cell research as well as ranked as the world’s 17th biggest producer of scientific papers in 2012, ahead of Turkey and Israel. Maryam Mirzakhani, the winner of the first woman Fields Medal recognising outstanding mathematical achievement, is among the top scientists Iran has produced. Iran has also managed to maintain a military strength that poses the most potent threat to Israel, whose survival and security has been of central importance to the US in the Middle East.

The US invasion of Iraq for another regime change in 2003 by ousting Saddam on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, too, benefitted Iran. The war and the American occupation of Iraq that followed, directly and indirectly, claimed about half a million Iraqi lives from 2003 to 2011. The US left Iraq in 2011 after the loss of 4,500 American lives and $1 trillion to economy. It ended up benefitting Iran by helping Tehran create a corridor of influence up to the Mediterranean. Iran used the corridor to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hoshyar Zebari ouster in 2016 as Iraq’s finance minister because Iran distrusted him for his links to the US highlighted the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq. From cosmetics to eggs, milk, yogurt, and chicken, Iraq is dependent on Iran for virtually everything, which helps Tehran exercise an influence it would not have managed without the American intervention to change Saddam’s regime in 2003.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan