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Monday, 11 January 2010

Review: Understanding Iran, William R Polk (2009)

Polk is an avowed Democrat and he pulls no punches when dissecting the history of Iran. Remarkable, however, is the lack of responses on Google. The Neocons he lambasts so thoroughly are remaining silent, it would seem.

While a good deal of the book glosses over Iran's ancient and early-modern history, the author comes into his element when talking about events in the twentieth century. The book's Afterword constitutes an appraisal of the future prospects of US-Iran relations.

Here, Polk says that Iran's target of developing nuclear capabilities - a warhead and the means to deploy it - is, without doubt, firmly in place. While talking rapprochement (which, he says, happens obliquely at times) the administration is undoubtedly aiming to have nuclear capabilities as soon as possible.

He says they have little option, especially since George W Bush's hawkish words - and equally hawkish actions - which have as yet to be diluted by Obama's attempts to difuse the situation. A nuclear capability would make everyone else play nicer than they do - or have done in the past.

It's in that past, of course, that the problems started. Especially the overthrow of elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 as an element of British foreign policy. Mossadegh had threatened to nationalise British Petroleum (BP; it went by a different name in those days) and the Brits conscripted the CIA, who urged the US president to summon up the Communist spectre. The manoeuvre worked - for about 25 years.

Having supported the Iranian king (shah) for all that time, there was no viable opposition in place when the revolution happened. The people, naturally, turned to the ulama (religious establishment). The rest, as they say, is history.

The shah got rid of the National Front party because he was unable to tolerate any opposition. Fawned on by American politicians, businesspeople, and NGOs, the king felt too confident, says Polk, and overstretched his bow. In the end, the army defected as the populace turned on a despised leader believed to be a puppet of the equally despised Americans.

Who knew?

But there's more, according to Polk.

Unlike the other powers, the United States also engaged in the [Iran-Iraq] war [1980 - 1988]. In 1987, America "reflagged" Kuwaiti and other oil tankers seeking to break the Iranian blockade in the Gulf, stationed there what a congressional study termed "the largest armada deployed since the height of the Vietnam war," and maneuvered "as if our objective was to goad Iran into a war with us." The U.S. government nearly succeeded in causing that war. The U.S. naval forces destroyed about half of the Iranian fleet in the Gulf in 1988 in what was described as "the biggest sea battle since World War II." In a particularly tragic incident, the USN guided missile cruiser Vincennes, operating within Iranian waters, shot down an Iran Air civilian passenger plane, killing all 290 passengers, in July 1988.

Oops!

Well, it's in Wikipedia so it must be true.

Polk also looks at the recent Iranian election won (allegedly) by Ahmadinejad by a wide margin. Polk is restrained in assessing the evidence of corruption, and his summary is not conclusive either way.

The reaction of ordinary Iranians, however, seems to support doubt as to whether the election was rigged.

Polk underscores the country's Shiite traditions and the intense patriotism of the populace in explaining the depth of feeling and the sometimes unrestrained passions evident during uprisings, most notably during the revolution in 1979 and the subsequent taking of the US embassy.

Like Mark Bowden, in Guests of the Ayatollah (reviewed recently), Polk highlights the severe consequences of ignorance of the forces at play in Iran, for foreigners and foreign governments. Certainly, news reports that show speeches given by president Ahmadinejad - who seems to extract perverse pleasure from the West's displeasure - never talk about the past sins of Iran's colonial masters.

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