August 30, 2009


The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics (ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN , Tehran Bureau)

The conspiratorial interpretation of politics is not, of course, unique to Iran. In fact, the title of this essay is borrowed from Richard Hofstadter’s classic “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Published nearly thirty years ago, that article described how throughout American history nativistic groups have claimed that Washington was being subverted by foreign conspirators — at times by Freemasons, at other times by Roman Catholics, at yet other times by Jews, and, in more recent times, by International Communists, such as General Eisenhower and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Similarly, fearful politicians in Britain have been known to conjure up a variety of fantastic conspiracies — all the way from the Luddite-Jacobin plot during the Napoleonic Wars, to the Zionist “manipulation” of the 1908 revolution in the Ottoman Empire, and, more recently, to the KGB’s “control” of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Such paranoia not only sees plots everywhere but views them as the main force of history. “According to this style history is a conspiracy,” writes Hofstadter, “set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power.”

Although the paranoid style can be found in many parts of the world, it is much more prevalent in modern Iran than in most Western societies. In the West, fears of plots, both real and imaginary, emerge in times of acute insecurity — during wars, revolutions, or economic crises. In Iran, they have been pervasive throughout the last half century. In the West, they tend to be confined to fringe groups, causing more ridicule than concern in the mainstream. In Iran, however, the paranoid style permeates society, the mainstream as much as the fringe, and cuts through all sectors of the political spectrum — royalists, nationalists, Communists, and, of course, Khomeinists. What stirs ridicule in Iran is not the style itself but the rival reading of the grand “conspiracy.” One man’s particular interpretation becomes for others not ridiculous but a deliberately misleading misinterpretation.

This chapter has three interrelated aims: first, to trace the root causes of the paranoid style in Iran; second, to compare the forms the style takes among the main political streams — among royalists, nationalists, and, most important of all, Khomeinists; and third, to weigh its consequences for contemporary Iran, especially its costs in retarding the development of political pluralism. [...]

[T]his style can be explained by history, especially Iran’s experience of imperial domination: foreign powers — first Russia and Britain, later the United States — have, in fact, determined the principal formations in the country’s political landscape over the last two hundred years.

These key formations include three disastrous wars in the first half of the nineteenth century; the subsequent capitulations in the treaties of Golestan, Turkmanchai, and Paris; the creation of the Tsarist-led Cossack Brigade in 1879; the sale of the tobacco monopoly to a British entrepreneur in 1890; the 1901 D’Arcy concession, which soon led to the establishment of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company; the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement, dividing Iran into zones of influence; the 1911 Russian Ultimatum and the consequent Anglo-Russian occupation; and the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, designed to make the whole country into a British protectorate.

In the eyes of not only Iranians but also other Europeans, Russia and Britain had in effect incorporated Iran into their empires. It was their diplomats who ruled the country; the shah served as a “mere viceroy.” By the second half of the century, the Qajar shahs could not even designate their successors without the explicit approval of the two imperial representatives.

Imperial influence was also present in Iran’s three military coups: in 1908, 1921, and 1953. In the first, the Cossack Brigade led by its Tsarist officers bombarded the newly established Parliament in an attempt to shore up the faltering Qajar monarchy.

In the second, British officers helped Colonel Reza Khan of the same Cossack Brigade to overthrow the government, paving the way for the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the birth of the Pahlavi state.

In the third, the CIA, together with Britain’s MI6, financed army officers to overthrow a popular prime minister and salvage the Pahlavi throne. These traumatic events naturally led Iranians to conclude that whatever took place in their country was decided by the imperial powers.

This feeling of alienation was further intensified by the wide gap existing between state and civil society — in Persian terms, between the dawlat (government) and mellat (nation); the mamlekat (realm) and ummat (community); the darbar (court) and vatan (country); the hokumat (regime) and mardom (people).

The imperial powers sought local clients, and the elite in turn sought foreign patrons, even foreign citizenship. Ordinary citizens, thus, understandably came to the conclusion that public figures harbored alien “ties” and “connections.” In the words of a typical Iranian historian: “The imperial powers interfered in everything, even the personal affairs of leading statesmen. Absolutely nothing could be done without their permission.”

The link between the imperial powers and local elites was most glaring from 1941 to 1953 — from Reza Shah’s abdication brought about by the Anglo-Soviet invasion to Mohammad Reza Shah’s triumphant return engineered by the CIA. For one thing, this period saw the birth of Iran’s main political movements, especially the Tudeh and the National Front, and a host of gadfly newspapers which were able to openly air such themes as class conflict, national sovereignty, and foreign intervention. For another, the Great Powers immersed themselves in Iranian politics while Iranian politicians actively sought their help.

The shah, convinced that the army and the monarchy would stand or fall together, sought U.S. military aid. Southern politicians — led by Sayyid Ziya, a leading figure in the 1921 coup — obtained British assistance to counter both the shah and their other competitors. The United States considered Sayyid Ziya to be so pro-British as to be “unsuitable” for the premiership. Americans, no less than Iranians, were highly skeptical when British officials, such as Lambton, categorically denied having ties with Sayyid Ziya. Northern aristocrats tried to contain the shah and their southern rivals first by seeking Soviet help, but when they found the Soviets encouraging social revolution in Iran, they turned to the United States, seeking economic, rather than military, assistance.

The Tudeh party, on the other hand, as a radical movement, looked to the Soviet Union as the “champion of the international working class.” Meanwhile, Mosaddeq, leading the middle-class National Front, sought U.S. support against the pro-British aristocrats associated with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, against the shah and the armed forces, against the pro-Soviet Tudeh, and against the northern aristocrats as well as conservative pro-American politicians.

Riding a wave of popularity based on his promise to nationalize oil, Mosaddeq was elected premier in 1951 and promptly took over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The British, refusing to accept nationalization, did their best to discredit Mosaddeq, categorizing him as a “wily Oriental” who was not only “crazy,” “eccentric,” “abnormal,” “unbalanced,” and “unreasonable” but also “demagogic,” “slippery,” “cunning,” “unscrupulous,” “single-mindedly obstinate,” and “opium-addicted.”

“Mosaddeq’s megalomania,” declared the British Embassy in 1952, “is now verging on mental instability. He has to be humoured like a fractious child.” As evidence of Mosaddeq’s “mental instability,” the British ambassador cited his refusal to use the ministerial motorcar and the title “His Excellency.” He concluded that Iran, unlike the rest of Asia, was not yet ready for independence but rather, like Haiti, needed some twenty more years of foreign occupation: “Persia is indeed rather like a man who knows very well that he ought to go to the dentist but is afraid of doing so and is annoyed with anybody who says there is anything wrong with his teeth.”

The British government planted articles with similar themes in the newspapers. For example, the London Times carried a biography of Mosaddeq describing him as “nervously unstable,” “martyr-like,” and “timid” unless “emotionally” aroused. The Observer depicted him as an “incorruptible fanatic,” a xenophobic Robespierre, a “tragic” Frankenstein “impervious to common sense,” and with only “one political idea in his gigantic head.”

To encourage similar views across the Atlantic, the British fed the American press with a steady diet of — to use their own words — “poison too venomous for the BBC.” Typical of such character assassinations was an article in the Washington Post written by the venerable Drew Pearson falsely accusing Hosayn Fatemi, Mosaddeq’s right-hand man, of a host of criminal offenses, including embezzlement and gangsterism. “This man,” Pearson warned, “will eventually decide whether the US has gas rationing, or possibly, whether the American people go into World War III.”

The British, determined to undermine Mosaddeq from the day he was elected premier, refused to negotiate seriously with him. For instance, Professor Lambton, serving as a Foreign Office consultant, advised as early as November 1951 that the British government should persevere in “undermining” Mosaddeq, refuse to reach agreement with him, and reject American attempts to find a compromise solution. “The Americans,” she insisted, “do not have the experience or the psychological insight to understand Persia.”

The central figure in the British strategy to overthrow Mosaddeq was another academic, Robin Zaehner, who soon became professor of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford. As press attaché in Tehran during 1943-47, Zaehner had befriended numerous politicians, especially through opium-smoking parties. Dispatched back to Iran by MI6, Zaehner actively searched for a suitable general to carry out the planned coup. He also used diverse channels to undermine Mosaddeq: Sayyid Ziya and the pro-British politicians; newspaper editors up for sale; conservative aristocrats who in the past had sided with Russia and America; tribal chiefs, notably the Bakhtiyaris; army officers, shady businessmen, courtiers, and members of the royal family, many of whom outstripped the shah in their fear of Mosaddeq. Helped in due course by the CIA, Zaehner also wooed away a number of Mosaddeq’s associates, including Ayatollah Kashani, General Zahedi, Hosayn Makki, and Mozaffar Baqai.

Baqai, a professor of ethics at Tehran University, soon became notorious as the man who abducted Mosaddeq’s chief of police and tortured him to death. MI6, together with the CIA, also resorted to dirty tricks to undermine the government, one of the more harmless ones being the rumor that “the communists are plotting against Mosaddeq’s life and placing the responsibility on the British.”

It is therefore not surprising that the 1953 coup gave rise to conspiracy theories, including cloak and dagger stories of Orientalist professors moonlighting as spies, forgers, and even assassins. Reality — in this case — was stranger than fiction. These conspiracy theories were compounded by the fact that some Western academics did their best to expurgate from their publications any mention of the CIA and MI6 in the 1953 coup. In fact, recent autobiographies reveal that the shah often subsidized British and American academics whose publications tended to reinforce the court view of modern Iranian history, especially of the 1953 events.

...imagine how crazy a coup would make them?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2009 9:27 AM
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