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
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.
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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