Anti-American sentiments have been a pivotal part of the ideology that gave rise to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, toppled the U.S.-allied monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and introduced the world’s first Islamic Republic. Of course at that time, there was some good reason for feeling unhappy about the role the United States had played in Iran’s political developments; a role which the former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw once famously said had a “malign” influence over the country. In 1953, in what came to be known as the Operation Ajax, the Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6 staged a coup d’état against Iran’s nationalist, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and removed him from power. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s power was cemented after he installed an army general as the Prime Minister. He subsequently forged a strong alliance with the Western powers, especially the United States, to which he owed his reign.
The new alliance was fruitful for Iran since the United States and the European states helped Iran with the improvement of its economy, modernization of the national army, renovation of its aviation industry, expansion of its electricity and power network and the construction of several kilometers of modern roads across the nation. However, the Shah’s luxurious lifestyle and his excessive political reliance on the United States gradually became detestable to the Iranians who believed their sovereignty had gone away with the arrival of hundreds of American military, economic and political advisors who were instated into official government positions and were given unlimited authority in making major decisions about Iran’s domestic affairs. Many reputable sources, including this must-read book by Andrew Friedman, have reported that by 1976, there were around 24,000 to 40,000 American troops stationed in Iran, and the American institutions and lobbies in Tehran were being expanded growingly: the Tehran-American School, the American Women’s Club, the Imperial Country Club, the America Hotel and Iran’s National Committee for the American Revolution Bicentennial.
This sounds like something normal for two countries aiming to develop their mutual relations, but in the 1970s, Iranians believed otherwise. Coupled with extreme political suppression and an intensive crackdown on the Islamist intellectuals, journalists and activists, the Pahlavi dynasty laid the groundwork for its own dissolution. The Iranians who were enchanted with the charisma and plainness of the exiled revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and captivated by his pledge for bringing them independence and freedom, followed his guidelines, and in one of the rarest popular uprisings at the turn of the 20th century, Iran became an Islamic Republic, and the Persian Empire was literally abolished.
Now, some four decades after the anti-American, anti-Capitalist revolution brought a group of clerics to power who believed they could endow Iranians with worldly, economic welfare along with divine delivery and prosperity, the anti-American sentiments have relatively sedated and given their place to a heated, challenging debate about the rationale of enmity with the United States. The young Iranians, mostly educated, familiar with the modern technologies, wishing to travel across the world, including to Europe and the United States, are asking the government, what has been the fruit of continued hostility and animosity with the United States? Why should Iran bear the flag of antagonism with the United States, while it was the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein – not the United States – that invaded Iran in 1980 and massacred over 500,000 Iranians? They ask themselves, often in the cyberspace, and through such social media as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram the reasons why some government and military officials in Iran beat the drums of opposition to the West and harbor anti-Western resentments.
In the absence of outspoken proponents of rapprochement with the United States – who have been mostly barred from speaking publicly following the June 2009 presidential elections unrest, Sadegh Zibakalam, a progressive intellectual and political scientist who teaches at the University of Tehran, has been alone in bearing the brunt of resisting the ideological, demagogic propaganda campaign that the hardliners in Tehran have set in motion through their massive media conglomerates and the illicit gatherings and rallies they’ve orchestrated in the recent weeks to intimidate the Rouhani administration and warn him against signing a comprehensive nuclear deal with the six world powers, including the United States. The nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) are inching close to the final phase, and a possible agreement over the nuclear controversy – which the hardliners in Tehran are immensely afraid of – can possibly serve as a starting point for Iran and the United States to realize a viable reconciliation and turn a new chapter in the course of their marred, contentious relations following the Iranian revolution in 1979.
So, what does Prof. Zibakalam have to say about the unconventional hostility between Iran and the United States – which I need to point out has been fomented and stoked by hardliners on both sides.
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In a March 25 piece on Politico, he noted, “If there is a deal over the next week, as the two sides approach their end-of-March deadline, it will severely undermine the ideology that has been in place since the beginning of the Iranian Islamic Republic in 1979, and which regime hardliners have used to great effect to consolidate their power: anti-Americanism as a legitimizing force.” The March 31 deadline was not met, and the seven countries – Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – continue negotiating. But it goes without saying that any nuclear deal – which the Iranians and Americans would be signing and formally endorsing, will eliminate the raison d’être for continued, state-sanctioned anti-Americanism in Iran.
On February 25, 2015, Prof. Zibakalam took part in a debate about Iran’s foreign policy approach, hosted by the Islamic Azad University’s Mashhad branch. He lashed out at his interlocutor, a conservative journalist, telling him, “Your insistence on fighting the United States as the main principle of the Islamic Republic foreign policy has made us derelict. Could you please show me the fruit and outcome of your four-decade-long enmity with the United States?”
“When the conservatives won Iran’s 2005 presidential elections, they gained power over everything. Mr. Ahmadinejad pursued, in his own words, a revolutionary and radical nuclear policy. He told the world that we will accelerate our nuclear program and you cannot do a damn thing!” Zibakalam added. “The result was that Iran’s nuclear file was referred to the Security Council, and our misery began then. Ahmadinejad would say that we will invest in the U.S.’s backyard in Latin America. Where have those investments gone? Is it a realization of national interests to install outdoor post lights in the streets of Bolivia? They told us that with these extensive investments, we will shock and astound Washington, but Washington laughed at us instead of being awed.”
Iranians are waking up to the futility of being anti-American. They are yearning for constructive relations with the international community. Iran is a plural and multicultural society. Of course there are people who are always ready to chant “Death to America” in rallies and demonstrations. But they represent only a small minority of Iran’s 77-million-strong population. Remember that in the 2013 presidential elections in Iran, only four million people voted for Mr. Saeed Jalili, the ideological ally of Mr. Ahmadinejad – both of whom believed the nuclear controversy should be solved on the battleground, not at the negotiation table.
Even though the European embassies in Tehran continue to treat the Iranian applicants unjustly and sometimes pejoratively, Iranians still love traveling across Europe and the United States and interact with the outside world. Wise leaders in Tehran, including President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have astutely realized that the time for cheering on anti-Western and anti-American sentiments has come to an end – it’s no longer possible to gain legitimacy through taking people to the streets and ask them to burn the U.S. flag. The reality of Iran, this unknown society, is that not everybody here would like to chant “Death to America” or wipe Israel off the world map.
EDITOR'S PICK The unknown minority: Photos from Afro-Iran