The following is part of William Dowell’s regular Tom’s Paine column.
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What was Donald Trump thinking of when he gave a greenlight for the murder via a remotely controlled drone of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani? The most likely answer is not much. Apart from expressing his disdain for Barack Obama by dropping out of the Iranian nuclear accords, Trump has hardly thought about Iran, much less developed a policy. What Trump definitely is concerned about is impeachment. Despite the fact that acquittal by a Republican-controlled Senate is virtually guaranteed, Trump is obsessed. (Editorial update: With recent developments regarding the alleged shooting down of the Ukranian airliner by the Iranians killing all 176 people on board, there is a disturbing parallel with Iran Air 655, the commercial airline that the US guided Missile cruiser, the Vincennes, shot down during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 killing all 290 people on board.)
Over the last three years, a definite pattern has emerged. Every time Trump is caught in the act, he makes a bold gesture that is calculated to be even more outrageous. The media immediately drops the issue at hand and focuses on the new crisis. Journalists can’t help themselves. There is a Pavlovian reaction to follow the new outrage.
Soleimani’s murder: A potentially costly ‘diversion’
From this perspective, Soleimani’s murder comes across as the latest diversion. This time with a capital “D.” All that Washington is talking about now is possible war with Iran. Since Soleimani was blown to pieces, hardly anyone has mentioned impeachment. If Trump does manage to start a low intensity war with Iran, it will serve his purposes even better. Voters rally around the flag during wartime. The only question is whether Trump has finally gone too far.
Regardless of the motives, the assassination caught nearly all of Trump’s advisers by surprise. The National Security Council and the US intelligence agencies present the president with a wide range of choices for any given scenario in order to have the president make an informed decision. The possibility of taking out Soleimani was routinely mentioned among a dozen other possibilities. No one expected Trump to actually do it.
Unfortunately for Soleimani, Trump apparently seized on the suggestion as just the kind of bold gesture that his supporters admire. Start a brush fire war with Iran and no one will think twice about impeachment. The idea of an assassination was especially appealing, because Barack Obama had managed to locate and execute Osama bin Laden. Trump could now show he had gone one better.
Most Americans have no idea what is behind Iran’s supposedly historic passion to “kill Americans”
The assassination will very likely go down in history as just another sad event in Iran’s long struggle to define itself. It has been more than 40 years since the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi Shah. Many active Americans today were not even born when the Revolution took place and they are only vaguely aware of what it was about. All they know is that Iranians periodically take to the streets shouting that God is great and that they want to kill Americans.
Everyone knows that there is something behind all that passion, but hardly anyone cares enough to learn about what it might be. A few Americans, who are slightly more sophisticated, know that in 1953, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, tried to regain control of Iran’s oil fields and then decided to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now part of BP.
The British went to the Americans and complained that Mossadegh was friendly to the Russians who had just devoured Eastern Europe. The CIA obliged and backed a coup that deposed Mossadegh and installed the Shah, who over the next few decades revealed himself to be a blood thirsty monster—albeit one who continued to receive substantial support from the CIA and from Israel’s Mossad. The Mossad, especially, saw the Shah as a pawn in a Machiavellian maneuver to reduce Arab resistance by playing one Islamic country off against another.
I was in Teheran during the Revolution, working for ABC News. The Shah had already fled. A handful of supporters of the Shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, held a rally inside a high school gymnasium while thousands of Iranians outside called for Khomeiny to come and take over.
“Did you see that rally?” a political officer at the US embassy asked me. “The Shah still has support.” I asked if he were serious, and then offered to show him some tape that ABC had just shot. It showed unarmed Iranians walking up to the barricades, daring frightened police to shoot them. As soon as the Jihadis fell to the ground, another group approached and asked to be shot. Finally, police resistance collapsed and they joined the crowd. “See,” objected the harried American political officer watching the mayhem on the video tape, “There, the crowd is throwing rocks at the police.” Really? I asked.
I attended a later press conference given by Shapour Bakhtiar. After a number of pointless questions skirting the inevitable, I asked him, “How do you think that you can possibly hold on here when you have absolutely no power base?” He responded bravely, “You will see!”
Two hours later, he was at the ABC bureau in the Intercontinental hotel (now the Laleh). “Can you fly me out of here?” he asked our producer, Arden Ostrander. “Sure,” Arden replied. ABC had chartered a flight with an adventurous company of daredevil pilots called Arab Wings. It was by then the only way out of Iran. The other less likely option was to grab a submachine gun and try to drive across the border into Turkey.
A consistent failure by the US to understand Iran
My first introduction to Iran had come nearly a year earlier, when I worked on a cover story for TIME Magazine. The theme was “Torture as a Political Tool, Does it work?” The answer, of course, was No, it doesn’t work. I interviewed dozens of political refugees living in Paris. Along the way, I met Sadegh Ghobtzadeh, who at the time was the head of the Iranian students’ union in Paris.
“This is what the CIA taught us,” Sadegh said, and went on to describe the full spectrum of atrocities performed by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. I remembered they included the simple approaches like jamming a broken Coke bottle into a woman’s vagina or more sophisticated techniques such as placing a hard case over a person’s head and then subjecting him to constant, ear crushing sound.
“What makes you think it is the CIA?” I asked Sadegh. “When you see a specific torture that appears simultaneously in a dozen different countries,” he answered. “You ask yourself what they all have in common.”
Over the year, I received regular messages from Sadegh at the TIME bureau in Paris. Why are you bothering with these people? my colleagues at TIME asked. I said that I thought they were interesting. When Khomeiny left his exile in Iraq and flew to Paris, after which he installed himself in an ordinary house in the village of Neauphle le Chateau, I began attending Friday prayers with Khomeiny, Sadegh and another student activist, Ibrahim Yazdi. In a conversation with an American political officer at the US Embassy in Paris, I suggested that someone might want to pay attention to what was happening or at least meet Sadegh and Ibrahim Yazdi. “We can’t,” he said. “It would be interpreted as sending a signal.”
When Khomeiny finally flew to Tehran to take over, I was at the airport. An estimated six million people were in the street waiting to greet him. The passion of the crowd was one of the most emotional moments that I had ever experienced. Sadegh was on the plane with Khomeiny. He was now the revolutionary government’s new foreign minister. Yazdi was there as a personal advisor. America had somehow blown its chance.
A lot has happened since then. When Khomeiny died, I went back to Tehran. Taking a taxi in from the airport, I asked the driver to take me to the Nest of Spies bookstore in the ruins of the former American embassy. “Is it open yet?” he asked. “Not yet,” I said.
Missed opportunities: An unreciprocated admiration among many Iranians for the United States
I later interviewed the head of the Economics Committee of the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. “Is the interview over now?” I nodded, Yes. “I can tell you,” he said, “I love the United States.” I learned later that he had been denied a visa to come to the US in order to attend a meeting of the World Bank in Washington DC. The reason: the US government was afraid that he might defect. Another opportunity discarded.
In the context of my personal experience at least, America’s history with Iran has been one of nearly perpetual lies, half-truths, misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
Obviously, Iranians have not helped themselves either. For too many years, the supposedly theocratic government in Tehran carelessly engaged in terrorism and assassination. After the Revolution, the French government tried to reassure the new government in Tehran. The go-gently approach permitted a wave of terrorist assassinations of Iranian dissidents living in Paris. A friend who worked at the Quai d’Orsay’s Centre d’Analyse, the equivalent of the US National Security Council, told me that Paris had finally concluded that you needed to get tough if you wanted to be taken seriously in Tehran.
Salman Rushdie summed up the Iranians perfectly in The Satanic Verses. In a dream, Rushdie wrote, Mohammed receives verses for the Koran from a figure he takes to be the Angel Gabriel, but who, in fact, is Satan. Realizing his mistake, Mohammed returns to the mountain and wrestles with the angel. It is the physical confrontation, wrestling in the mud, that lets Mohammed know that he has finally found the true angel.
Contributing cartoonist Jeff Danziger is a member of the Geneva-based Cartooning for Peace Foundation, a Global Geneva media partner. (See article on Jeff Danziger: A cartoonist on the political frontline).
Vengeance: an unending cycle of violence
The point of the story is that Iranians need confrontation in order to know who you really are. How you react in the confrontation, whether you treat an adversary with honour and respect, will decide whether an Iranian feels that he can really work with you, or he must be against you.
The curse of Middle East is the unending cycle of violence that results from the search for vengeance. As Gandhi put it, an-eye-for-an-eye results in a world that is half blind. The antidote is not to respond to evil with an even greater evil. Better to leave vengeance to God or to fate.
When I had just moved to Cairo in order to cover the region, I had a conversation with Sheikh Fadlallah, one of the guiding lights behind Hizbollah. “Islam is not a religion of weakness like Judaism or Christianity,” Fadlallah said. “If you do something terrible to us, we will do something terrible to you.” And where will that leave you? I asked. He did not have an answer.
In the case of Trump and the murder of General Soleimani, revenge may soon follow. It could stop with firing off a dozen or so ballistic missiles. Or it could go further. Trump’s decision to deny a visa to Iran’s foreign minister who hoped to explain the situation to the United Nations Security Council in New York, is the kind of petty gesture that does not help. Moreover, it calls into question the role New York has played until now as a forum for international negotiations. That role is likely to fall increasingly to the UN in Geneva.
More ominous than a flight of missiles, a third of which failed to explode, is the current Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei’s declaration that Iran’s ultimate response will be direct and it will be proportional. My advice to colleagues who still cover the White House is to stay away from Air Force-1 and not to accept any dinner invitations to Mar-a-Lago. From now on, the ball rests in Tehran’s court.
William Dowell, a journalist, author and former foreign correspondent for TIME and ABC News, is America’s editor of Global Geneva. He is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.