Iran, Syria, and Intervention

Last week, citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran went to the polls to select their next President. Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani won the election to replace the much-reviled Mahmoud Achmadinejad, who has held the office for 8 years. And while many believe that Rowhani may be ushering in an era of reform and stepping away from Achmadinejad’s hardline policies, Achmadinejad’s legacy may be a bit more complex than most Americans realize. As Reza Aslan writes in Foreign Policy,

I was not suggesting that Ahmadinejad is some sort of democracy icon or that he is even a good guy, let alone a competent president — though he is far more politically sophisticated than his critics generally assume. It is a Western fallacy that “more secular” necessarily means “more free.” But the fact remains that no president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy, and so brazenly tried to channel the government’s decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran.

To many Americans, this probably sounds like blasphemy. Our caricatured picture of Achmadinejad doesn’t often allow for the idea that he may not be 100% evil or have a less-than-negative impact on Iran. Of course, none of this is to say that Achmadinejad has been good for Iran. I would encourage all readers to read Aslan’s piece fully for a better understanding of the issue that I can’t fully articulate in this short article. However, the main point we can take from this is that foreign regimes often have a lot more nuance than we realize.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the second of the Pahlavi monarchs.

What a lot of us also don’t realize is that Iran’s political history has been marred by intervention. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, modern Iran fought to maintain its independence from foreign control. Iran’s support for the Axis powers in WWII led to the occupation of Iran and the installation of the brutal, but Western-supported, Pahlavi Shahs. The Pahlavis were a polarizing presence because of their authoritarian policies that included forced “westernization” (including banning traditional Islamic clothing). In 1953, the Shah, facing mounting opposition, fled the country. However, British and American intelligence agencies engineered a coup to overthrow democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. After his overthrow, the Shah returned and his regime became more brutal than ever. The backlash against the Shahs ultimately culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that established the Islamic Republic and the Ayatollahs.

This (very abridged) summary of Iran’s history as well as its present situation has a lot of important implications for America’s foreign policy. First of all, we often underestimate the nuance of a foreign nation’s political situation when pressuring our representatives to make decisions about our foreign policy. We also allow our representatives, unquestioned, to present us with black and white assessments of situations that are really much more complex. A current example of this is the situation in Syria. As James Antle points out in the American Conservative, we are currently arming Syrian rebels in the name of “democracy,” when the banner most of them fight for is Islamism (the rebels even possibly have ties to al-Qaeda!) This situation is eerily reminiscent of what happened when America supported Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We need to think about unintended consequences of getting involved in complex situations overseas. We also need to remember that the enemy of our enemy may not always end up being our friend in the long run.

John McCain meets with Syrian rebels.Ronald Reagan meets with Afghan rebels.

Furthermore, when Americans talk about intervening in foreign nations, we often forget to take into account the impact of our prior intervention in that nation or region. In Iran, for instance, American intervention against a popularly elected leader eventually contributed to a populist Islamist revolution that installed a theocracy that holds power today. This isn’t ancient history, either. Many Iranians are old enough, or have parents old enough, to remember Mossadeq. Even more of them can remember the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Americans would never accept a foreign nation trying to implement what was best for us, especially not if that regime had interfered in our affairs as early as sixty years ago, and not done a great job of it, at that. Why should we expect other nations to be any different? If we are ever going to have a reasonable foreign policy, we have to accept that interventionism very rarely leaves America any better off than we were before (not to mention the countries into which we intervene)! Interventionism hardly ever works.  As International Relations theorist (and one of my favorite authors and thinkers) Stephen Walt stated on the subject, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In our attempt to make things better for citizens of other countries, we very well may do (and historically have done) just the opposite.