Tiramisu in Tashkent

“Beef or pasta?”

“Yes please.”

“Sir, which one – beef or pasta?”


“Sir, you have to make a choice.”

The steward was sitting on his haunches, reaching for the trays in the back of the lower levels of the cart. They have a strict timetable and he was getting impatient. The guy sitting next to me was smiling and nodding, oblivious to the question or the context. It was now all up to me – charade the hell out of this one baby! OK, in a split second: how do you charade pasta? No, that way lies perdition. Beef. Easy enough, and if he does not like it, he can signal the other one, whatever the other choice might be – pasta, chicken, snake, but at least he’ll know it’s not beef.

“[making a horn sign on my head] Mooooo.”

“[laughing] Please yes.”

“[Relieved] Thanks. Beef or pasta?”


First time in Tashkent. First time in Uzbekistan. First time in Central Asia.

For most Iranians “Tashkent” and “Uzbekistan” are exotic but somewhat abstract.  Mention “Samarkand” or “Bukhara”, and suddenly there is a sense of wonder and kinship: eyes open wide; the mind reaches deep into childhood memories of romantic poems and heroic tales.  Most Iranians – at least, those with a passing sense of their history and literature – have some sense of these legendary cities, their landscape, and its majestic rivers, even if it is inchoate, distant, wrapped in myth and mystery. The ties that bind the Persianate to these jewels of the Steppes go back 2500 years, through tragedy and sublime poetry and art. And here I was, in the tomb of Tamerlane (part of the tragedy) marvelling at the craft of the Persian (Isfahani) architect who designed and built it 600 years ago (part of the art).

But I am running ahead of myself.

2021 was a year of sadness and of transition.

Early in the year, I lost my grandmother, in part to complications from COVID. She had had a long (102) and fruitful life; for all the challenges of the pandemic, her children saw her before she passed away. I wish I had been there, to say goodbye to her, and to support my mother in her loss. COVID also claimed a cousin. The year ended with the passing of a beloved aunt in Iran; I wish I could have been in Canada, to support my father in his loss.

As with many others in this, the Age of the Pandemic, I also embarked on a new professional adventure. Having finished a really interesting WTO case (the subject matter, the client, and the fact that I argued the case in French), the second half of the year saw me launch an independent consultancy. Although of course risky, this has given me the flexibility to seek and accept projects outside the normal framework of a US law firm. This is how I found myself travelling to Tashkent as the year came to a close and right before Omicron re-upended the world.

Tashkent is a city of broad boulevards, elegant roundabouts, and Swiss drivers. (More than once, with some trepidation we stepped onto the zebra-crossing of the six-lane streets, and each time the cars stopped, hazard lights flashing. When my taxi dared cross a zebra-crossing while a pedestrian was still on it, the police stopped him immediately ….) While there, we were working very closely with Uzbek officials from different government ministries; all of our interlocutors, without exception, were professional, highly trained, and hospitable – the local food was exceptionally good and elements of it reminded me of my days in Iran.

After a week of meetings and presentations and shaking hands and exchanging business cards, we took the fast train (“Afrosiyob”) to Samarkand. It took about two hours to go from the well-ordered boulevards of the new capital to the relative chaos of a Central Asian city, and from the gleaming government buildings to the turquoise domes and minarets of an ancient capital.

The singular claim to fame of Samarkand these days is that it was the seat of Tamerlane, or Amir Teimour, the XIV c. conqueror adopted by Uzbekistan as its national hero.

Iran has a deeply conflicted relationship with Teimour, and with the Steppes, and the visit to Teimour’s tomb was an interesting exercise in cultural and historical translation. To understand the reason why, we need to go back a few centuries.

In the XIII century and under the Khwarazm dynasty, Iran and the Persianate were thriving – independent, unified, connected to and connecting the East and the West through a network of trade routes and magnificent cities, with universities and scientific centres creating and propagating knowledge, and, by then, a 350‑year tradition of Persian poetry culturally linking the Persianate together from the Oxus to the Tigris, from Samarkand to the gates of Baghdad. Well, it couldn’t last, of course. Sultan Mohammad Khwarazmi attacked a Mongol caravan and killed Genghis’s ambassadors, and what followed does not need further elaboration. Only that Genghis spared the province of Fars, the home of Iran’s greatest romantic and social poets, Hafiz and Sa’di.

Fast forward a century and change, Teimour launches his career of conquest, ravages and plunders Iran, and this time, Fars is not spared. What’s more, although Genghis’s grandson eventually established himself in Iran and started something of a building project, and although Teimour’s successors eventually landed in India and established a strong empire there, he and they had nothing to do with Iran’s later recovery (in the 1500s under the Safavids). This is why, in Iran, Teimour has the distinction of having a worse reputation than Genghis.

And so I stood in his mausoleum, listening to the guide telling us about Teimour’s glorious conquests, his piety, his respect for his teachers (his burial place is literally at the foot of that of his teacher), and his love for his main wife (there is a whole complex built in her memory), my mind wandered to loftier subjects – the uses, misuses, and abuses of history.

Or, I should say, the relevance – indeed, the centrality – of perspective. For, Teimour to Uzbekistan is as Nader Shah to Iran; there are statues of Nader littered all over the country. And Teimour to Iran (as I stood in front of the map of his conquests) is as Nader Shah is to India: his biggest claim to fame is of course the plunder of the Moghul treasury of Delhi (along with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands) that led to the collapse of the Empire and the rise of the East India Company. And so it was that when I joked about Teimour’s utter devastation of the Iranian civilisation, the guide reminded me that at least Teimour rebuilt and beautified Samarkand – Genghis did not leave any cities behind, only rubble and ashes and rotting corpses.

There is that.

Samarkand’s monuments were built by Iranian architects Teimour brought back with him from Isfahan and Shiraz; in the bazars, I spoke Persian to the merchants. It felt like home. I mean, I even have a cousin named Teimour.

Somewhere in our excursions someone asked how old the city was. The guide mentioned that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, had visited the city. I recalled Herodotus: yes, Cyrus had been here, but as a corpse, after his army was ambushed by Tomyris, the Queen of the Massagetae. All in all, we have a complex relationship with our neighbours and cultural kin.

Back to Tashkent, and a late evening walk to a local café where I ordered star-anise tea (I hate anise) and had an indifferent Napoleon (there are better ones in Geneva – and in Toronto), but the atmosphere was delightful and the fact of being there, in a café late in the evening in Uzbekistan, was a cultural experience all on its own.

It reminded me of my first night there: we had decided to stay in the hotel for dinner, and ordered basic hotel fare. That’s how ended up with Tiramisu. In Tashkent. Next time, I know better.

How Green Was My Valley

This post started as a commentary on my last major travel, in January, to Dubai to visit my relatives.  The composition of that post was delayed by a combination of laziness, lack of inspiration, and a number of minor excursions here and there (Paris to teach, Verbier and Les Contamines to ski).  Nearly three months later, a New Day is upon us – Spring arrives in a few hours – when a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that of a newly minted 40-year old to finishing long-begun blogs.

‘Tis true.

This past January I turned 40.  Hard to believe – especially as I do not feel a day over 39 – but there you have it.  I could go on either lamenting the onset of middle-age (assuming I last to my eightieth), or celebrating it (40 is the new 25, I am told, with more money and fewer pimples); I could, like so many prophets before me at this same age, wander off into the desert, or climb a mountain, or be lost in a thick forest, in the hopes of seeing a burning Bush or a shimmering Gabriel, or gaining 400 pounds and being deified; I could wax philosophical about the Meaning of Life, or lose myself in a haze of hedonistic romps … I’ll spare you all of that and simply note the occasion.  And, also, note that I spent this milestone with a dear aunt whom I had not seen for over twenty years, and cousins who, last time we spent time together, were six year-olds climbing all over me at my grandmother’s place in an old quarter in Tehran.

Just seeing them again after such a long time was probably the best gift Providence (and Visa and Aeroplan) could have given me.  My youngest aunt was, and remains, the very personification of kindness, warmth, and generosity.  The older of my two cousins still had the same infectious laughter that I adored; the younger one and I talked and bonded as if there had not been a gulf of twenty-four years between our last two visits.  My uncle was sensible and calm as I remembered him; and I met my cousin’s husband and, I hope, made a new friend in him – a kindred spirit despite our vastly different backgrounds.

As for Dubai – well, I had to eventually see what all the fuss was about.  The only thing I could say is that one marvels how the Bedouins of this otherwise desolate land have managed to persuade the world over to come and invest in their corner of the Arabian desert.  One wonders about countries with so much more natural wealth (one across the Persian Gulf comes to mind) that … ah, but the thing is so obvious as not to bear further observation.  Dubai: not my cup of tea, but impressive nevertheless.

Upon my return from Dubai I had to get ready for a series of lectures at the Science-Po in Paris; I also spent some time in Verbier, one of Europe’s most well-known ski resorts.  Unfortunately, snow conditions were, and remain, less than ideal; at the same time, it was good to have a place to go to weekends.  And walking up and down the mountain to get to the apartment certainly was helpful in bringing the 40 year-old waist-line under control.  Along with my season’s pass at Verbier, I also got passes for some of the other ski resorts in the region.  This is why last weekend I went to Les Contamines, one of the most beautiful ski resorts in the Alps.  And it was my drive to Les Contamines that inspired me for the title of this email.

“How Green Was My Valley” was the title of a wonderful, and wonderfully sad, 1941 movie starring a young Roddy McDowell.  The title was a lamentation, somewhat ironic, about the passing of a way of life in a coal-mining town in Wales.  The title, and the movie, came to me as I was driving down the Arve Valley, oddly green up to 1800 meters, listening to a Donna Summer song from the 70s on Nostalgia radio.  The song reminded me of the first time I had heard it; how utterly carefree I had been, in that summer of 1976, newly returned from the US.  It was a time, at least for me, when hope had dominion; the world was a kinder place, or at least it so seems at such a distance.  I was smiling nostalgically in the car, remembering the passing of a way of life; recalling, not without a measure of irony (for all was not well in my idyllic world, as we were soon to discover), how green had been my valley.  Here I was, thirty years later, driving through an unusually (for this time of year) green valley that, oddly, sadly, I knew better now than the valleys and the mountains and the streets and the streams whence I had sprung.

I wonder how much longer the Alps will retain their winter luster; whether the Mont Blanc will remain blanc for much longer.  It has begun to snow again in the region – now I have to worry about my cherry blossoms – but the glaciers have already receded dangerously; “how green was my valley” would be the lamentation of a new generation used to whiter mountains and gorges, who would perhaps mourn the passing of their own way of winter life in due course.  Be that as it may, they, like me, will no doubt find new valleys and new vistas to explore, new worlds in which to prosper.

It is in that somewhat bittersweet mood that I welcome the arrival of a new day, and a new Persian year; it is, however, with considerable hope and optimism that I wish all of you the best for the coming year.

What do you do with a problem like Iran?

So some students burned pictures of President Ahmadinejad, and some people got excited.  The question was, how to help Iranian reformists.  Here was my answer, in three parts:

Yes, Marty, there is a way the US can help the Iranian reform movement. There are several ways, in fact.

1. Stop the talk of invading Iran. War has a way of helping dictatorships, solidifying the lumpen behind fascist leaders, and killing any idea of reform pending the removal of the threat. This is not a new idea; Orwell said it best in 1984 and the principle still applies.

2. Not making physical, military threats against Iran is not the same thing as not applying pressure. Pressure, there must be; but at the same time, pressure of the right kind. Excluding Iranian students from US schools (as is being proposed), clubbing or tasering them (as was done in UCLA), or harassing the Iranian middle class travelling to the US to connect with family is not the way to go. As you would have noticed, Iran was the only Muslim country in which there were spontaneous candle-light vigils after 9/11; the Iranian people is probably the most sympathetic to US and Western interests of any Muslim country. Cultivate the people; harass the leaders.

3. Don't propose to provide financial support to Iranian “opposition groups” in the diaspora. Dollars issued by Congress to topple an elected (however imperfectly) Iranian government reminds everyone of the CIA's role in the topplying of Mosaddegh, the last democratic prime minister of Imperial Iran (who was in some respects highly pro-American, in fact). The opposition in diaspora has about as much credibility in Iran as Chalabi had in Iraq. Instead, ensure more regular cultural exchanges; beam cultural programmes and sound, unbiased political analysis and reporting into Iran via satellite; “support” reforms by spreading reformist ideas and not supporting allegedly reformist has-been politicians.

4. Stop coddling the MKO. This the Mujahedin-e Khalgh Organization. They were the armed wing of the revolution and complicit in the early wave of executions after the revolution. Before the revolution they were trained by Arafat; after the revolution, they were terrorists (both in power and out); in the Iran-Iraq war, they sided with Saddam; in Iraq they helped Saddam kill Kurds. True: many MKO operatives are fools, knaves and idealists; true: many MKO operatives have been tortured and executed. But the organisation itself is a terrorist cult and has no – I mean NO – credibility with any Iranian.

5. Stop coddling the MKO.

6. Stop coddling the MKO.

7. More Shiites have been killed at the hands of Sunnis than the other way around; more Americans have been killed at the hands of Sunnis than Shiites; Al Qaeda is a Sunni – extreme Sunni – organisation for whom Shiites are deadlier enemies than are “infidel” Americans. Stop worrying about a “shiite” revival or crescent in the region and start cultivating shiite clerics.

8. Abandon the idea of “axis of evil”. Better yet, accept that the whole idea of an “axis” between Khatami's Iran, Saddam's Iraq and Kim's Korea was daft, stupid, and the sickly brainchild of an ideologue with an overpowering imagination and an administration blinded by hubris.

Eat crow.

There was no axis; Khatami's Iran, for all its faults, was not “evil”; and neither then nor now did Iran have anything in common with Iraq or North Korea. (I mean, can you imagine a “student movement” under Saddam or Kim?) Once you have done that, then identify the REAL threats posed by the present Iranian administration and by the orientation of Iranian foreign policy, and try to address those on their own merits, rather than as part of an incongruous “axis”.

9. Last but not least, have a modicum of consistency in your foreign policy. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, I know, but no consistency at all is the bane of cynics, and cynics have no friends or allies. Pakistan is a nuclear power; it created and supported the Taliban; to this day it is not clear whether the ISI works with the US or with the enemies of the US; Musharraf came to power in a coup. And then there is Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi leaders and the public beheadings. Egypt and its rigged elections. India and the nuclear agreement. And the MKO. The list goes on. Iran is dangerous and scary, but not as scary as Pakistan or the Saudis; it is far more democratic under any definition of the term than Egypt; and it is not yet, and will not be for the next five years, a nuclear power. Stop demonizing and start diplomacy.

That is – behave not like a drunken bully, but a responsible superpower. Then, and only then, you will be able to give life to the Iranian reform movement.

Then someone suggested:

“Cruise missiles could help.  Really big ones.”
posted by [—] on 2006-12-21 16:39:06
To which I replied:
Cruise missiles could “help” like the Napalm “helped” in Vietnam, like Clinton's cruises in Sudan and Afghanistan “helped” avoid 9/11, like the cruises in Iraq helped against the civil war there.

What's really sad about these troglodyte attitudes is that it gives a terrible image to hawks and also to the military option; I mean, to say “lots of cruise missiles” when there has not even been a proper negotiation between Iran and the US, when no lines have been drawn, when no facts have been established, turns von Clausewitz on his head: war, in this scenario, is not “politics by other means”; it becomes the sole means and object of politics. Now, to be conceptually more militaristic than the Prussian war theorist is troubling, to say the least.

And, by the way, it's offhanded, idiotic comments like this that gives Americans such a bad image. If your answer to every problem is “more cruise missiles”, then don't kvetch when others consider other flying objects as missiles as well.

And to follow up on points raised in other comments:

Two critical points that we need to take into account in dealing with Iran.

First, despite its oil-wealth, thanks to Ahmadinejad's populist economic programme, the country is an economic basket-case (one half of Iran's oil revenue is spent subsidising basic staples such as bread; it spends up to $6 billion a year on IMPORTING gasoline; it is in dire need of basic foodstuffs; each year, 250,000 educated Iranians leave the country, etc.). The oil wealth is badly distributed. More important, the money is easily traceable to the handful of state-run foundations that are supervised by the President's paramilitary cronies. Trace the money; make public the transfers, the bribes, and the monopoly rents; and then go after the money through racketeering laws.

You don't really need to win, only to prosecute and harass the leadership, which is far more amenable to public pressure than anywhere else in the region other than Turkey (debatable) and Israel.

This is a basic Judo move of course: use the weight and momentum of your enemy to your advantage. In this instance, the Iranian people is the US' best ally against the Iranian government; use them, don't kill them or turn them against the US through ill-advised military action.

Second, of course all military action against Iran would be ill-advised right now.

We have been reminded of Iranian cruise missiles in the Persian Gulf; you might also bear in mind Iranian long-range missiles in Southern Lebanon. Shahab-3 missiles have a range of 2,000-2,500 km – from southern Lebanon, most of continental Europe would be brought under Iranian missile umbrella. There was considerable speculation that the long-range missiles were not used by Hezbollah in August because the Iranians held the switches … Iran could make trouble in Iraq; well, don't forget Afghanistan – Iran could easily make trouble for NATO there.

Would Iran start Armageddon? No. Even the Millenarian Ahmadinejad is not suicidal. Would the Iranian regime, however, sit back and take American cruise missiles (or tactical nukes, or bunker busters, or whatever else the silly ideologues and the small-willied missile-launchers would hurle at Iran) without responding, massively, and potentially indiscrimantely? Don't bet on it.

To advise caution is not to fear, and to remove the military option from the table is not to deny oneself the right to defend oneself if attacked. In any event, the United States and its allies are more than a match for Iran's military might, and the Iranians know it well. But we have to ask ourselves about the price of the means we choose to deploy, what objectives we seek, and whether the means are proportionate to the objectives. Unless and until Iran becomes a direct military threat – and it is far from that right now – there are far more effective ways of dealing with it than cruise missiles.


Shirin Ebadi, the Revolution and I

Comment on an Article by Vali Nasr in the New Republic

In his review of Shirin Ebadi's autobiography, Professor Nast finds her “perplexed”; this is an interesting adjective for the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Without necessarily questioning her accomplishments, I should have chosen others.

How about opportunistic or pandering?

Soon after getting the Nobel prize for her work in Iran, Ms. Ebadi followed through with a lecture tour of the United States denouncing the latter's warmongering, Israel's use of force in combatting suicide-bombers, and extolling a beatific, “peaceful” and utterly fantastical interpretation of Islam. Not a word about Iran, though. And here we thought she had got the Nobel prize because of her work there, rather than her geopolitical insight into regional politics.

Meanwhile, in her home country Ms. Ebadi fiddled while her friends were imprisoned and tortured for criticising the regime. Indeed, she played her solicitous game so well that but for a short stint in jail (and alleged death threats), she has been left alone. Her brother was, of course, a close adviser to President Khatami – that might explain why she has been unmolested; it might also explain why she is so shy of really challenging the revolution. But that is a slur, I know, and so I would avoid making it expressly.

Other adjectives: pompous and inarticulate.

A year ago I had the misfortune of listening to one of her incoherent speeches in a very intimate setting. Disclaimer: I am perhaps miffed because of the thirty or so in attendance, I was the only Iranian, the only lawyer, the only published activist, the only … and yet she managed to ignore me completely, despite being introduced twice. Be that as it may …

The speech was supposed to be about human rights in Iran; instead, delivered in a halting staccato style, the message was all about Shirin Ebadi.

In what must be a unique feat, one after another of her sentences began with “I”. Let me explain: in Persian, much like in Italian and Spanish, the personal pronoun is never used except for emphasis. And so, the Persian version of the speech was all about the “I” of Ms. Ebadi rather than the situation of human rights in Iran. As she rambled on, I recalled her former colleague and prison mate – and now, exile and presumably persona non grata – Mehrangiz Kar and how, in an article chronlicling her torture in Evin Prison, Ms. Kar managed entirely to avoid using the first person singular … Ms. Kar does not have a brother, however, who worked for the President of Iran. Ach, that slur again. Forgive me.

“Perplexed”? No, and not even perplexing.

She belongs to that class of middle class intellectuals who, sadly for Iran and for the world, managed to find in Khomeini the “dignity” that they did not even think they had lost. (Ah, so many academics and army officers and writers and artists in my family; and all blathered the same platitude. Now I, a uniquely disengaged child of twelve, was “perplexed”: “But you work in the Royal Court; how dare you oppose the Shah?”, I blurted out once, impolitely, to a revolutionary uncle.) Much like, I might add, the millions in the streets who saw the image of the Ayatollah in the moon: both groups deluded, searching for a chimera; the one finding it in the moon, the other in an intellectual moonlight. Given what transpired, lunatics all ….

This was an excellent piece by Mr. Nasr. I suggest that the answer to the two central questions posed in this article is to be found in Paris. (Well, when in doubt, blame the French, n'est-ce pas?)

The first question is the why of Ms. Ebadi and her ilk: what happened that someone apparently as intelligent as she is – and assuming away her other, less-than-glowing characteristics – would be so besotted by the idea of a revolution? And the second is, what happened? How come the Iranian youth is no longer interested? Why have Iranians dropped out, tuned out?

As to the first, we should recall that most of Iran's intellectocracy that helped undermine the legitimacy of the Shah was educated in Paris, and mostly in the 60s. Many of these had even experienced, first hand, the riots of '68. This was a world in which the French intellectual class could barely raise itself out of slumber to denounce the slaughter of the millions in the USSR and China, where Ho Chi Minh was a hero, where Sartre could say that a few thousand killed in the cause of revolution is no big shakes. French intellectuals were the crème de la crème of Western civilisation and of revolutionary thought.

Pol Pot returns from Paris and puts three million to the sword: it's a wonder that Khomeini, who also came back from Paris (along with a host of early revolutionaries), managed to kill only in the tens of thousand.

With the West so deeply mired in a pathetic self-hatred of its own liberal ideas and ideals, why should Eastern/Iranian intellectuals profess much love for these? Infected by la Revolution and Napoleon in equal measure; seduced by the murderous and amoral existentialism of French intellectuals; blinded by burning passions and idealism, Iranian intellectuals came back, invented new words and concepts with which to assert their own helplessness (“Westoxification”), and while protesting their own victimhoom, brought about the ruin of that which had sent them to Paris to be educated, given them academic posts, appointed them as judges.

Ms. Ebadi found a dignity she did not even know she had lost, by overthrowing, upheaving, destroying the social order she did have; she bartered a monarchical heritage of millennia for an idea; thousands perished in the first wave, millions in the war that ensued, and millions more are destitute. It is the poor observer who is perplexed by the bargain.

Well, if it is all so bad, then what about now? Whither the erstwhile  revolutionary fervour?

If I have no love nor a speck of respect for the pre-revolution intellos who lost my country, let me assert a profound admiration for the youth – the passive, unpolitical, fun-loving, mystical youth – whose language I do not know, whose passions I do not share, and whose religion I do not understand. I can have no love for a people I no longer know, but what I have come to know, from afar, of Iranians in the last ten years, gives me no end of pride.

It is the poor reader who is now perplexed. No longer. Yes, they made and unmade Khatami and his reforms; they elected a holocaust-denying jackass as their president; they demonstrate traces of religious lunacy in their devotionals to Hussein and the Mahdi. But, by the gods, they are become a wise people.

Iranians have learned the single most important lesson of the last two hundred years, something no other people of consequence has done: revolutions don't work. The French are still at it; the Russians return to it in fits of amnesia. But not Iran. They do not want revolution and I think I know why: having been forced to look at themselves in the polished mirror of a revolutionary society, Iranians realised they did much like what they beheld. Their souls are tired, not of change – else, why do so many look to leave Iran – but of revolt, of violence, of death, of executions, of tortures, of destruction, of having to rebuild what they have undone.

Yes, they want stability – but so do we, in the West. And what is wrong with that? I have often said that the tragedy of Palestine and the Palestinians is that Nike and Levis and Sony and XBox have not penetrated the youth market deeply enough. Give the Palestinian youth the dignity of a job and enough money for a pair of designer sunglasses, and he will stop throwing rocks. (I am being simplistic, perhaps, but I think the essence of the point is true.) The Iranian youth – a lot of them at any rate – has got a taste of Western clothing and Western culture and coffeehouses and dating … do we blame them if they would rather hold hands furtively in the parks than wave fists in the face of armed paramilitary guards? This is a people who has taken to heart as an article of faith St. Augustine's prayer. If only the pre-Revolution generation had had the serenity to consider the Shah's regime as unchangeable!

Ms. Ebadi does not speak to me. She will be a footnote long after the resilience of the Iranian soul has broken the back of these latest invaders, as we did the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, the British, the Soviets …

The US, the CIA, Iran and Mosaddeg

<?xml:namespace prefix = o />Reuel Marc Gerecht attempted in an article entitled “No, the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />CIA did not mess up Iran to underplay the importance of CIA activities in Iran (and elsewhere).  This was my reply.


Gerecht makes a number of valid points, both about the domestic political dynamics of Iran at the time of the 1953 coup d’état and also about Iranians’ incessant search for the “hidden hands” that would explain Iran’s woeful state – and that would, in the process, deflect the responsibility or blame for the mess away from Iranians themselves.  It is therefore probably true that the CIA did not mess up Iran. 

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But it is not the whole truth. 


For although the “well-mannered, striped-tie-wearing Yankees” who did not speak Persian could not have toppled a popular Prime Minister without the active participation of a significant part of either the population or the religious hierarchy, the coup would also have been unthinkable without US support, both moral and financial.  And although Mr. Gerecht is partly correct in his assessment of the reasons for the rise, the fall and again the rise of the star of Mossadeq in Iran’s post-revolution political discourse, he is on less sure footing when discussing the deep scars of the 1953 coup left on Iran’s national psyche.  The CIA, and the United States, cannot so readily absolve themselves of the mess they are, at least partly, responsible for in Iran.


Few characters in Iran’s inglorious history of the last two centuries have captured the imagination of this ancient and proud people as much as Mossadeq.  Indeed, his only rival is the Ayatollah Khomeini.  But whereas the Ayatollah Khomeini towers over the landscape of contemporary Iranian politics for having led, and won, the Islamic revolution, Mossadeq represents – at least for the re-emerging middle classes and also the diaspora – one of the most tragic “might-have-been”s of Iranian history. 


He was an aristocrat of the first rank, who also became a paragon of democracy.  He was a reformist par excellence, holding back the fires of revolutionary republicanism in 40s and 50s Iran, while pushing for a constitutional monarchy – the type of monarchy that he had seen in practice in Iran’s ancien régime when he served as MP and Foreign Minister in the 1910s.  His nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry – whatever its economic merits – still ranks as one of the great expressions of Iranismus, an Iranian national identity, this century.  And his brilliant defence of this act before the International Court of Justice became and remains a defining moment for a country that for much of the past fifty years has had at best a rocky relationship with international law.


Mossadeq is significant not because the Iranian revolution has run out of gas and needs new heroes.  Far from it: the revolution continues, though in a different guise; and new heroes are born every day.  Witness Khatami, Nouri, Hajjarian, Kadivar, Ganji, Shams – the list goes on. Rather, though deeply flawed as a politician and limitlessly naïve as an international statesman, Mossadeq was and continues to be the brightest beacon of democratic leadership in the otherwise sorry history of the Iranian constitutionalist history.  The coup that toppled him and brought back the Shah did more than put an end to the premiership of an erratic aristocrat that governed Iran from his bed.  The coup killed the dream of the possibility of a constitutionalist democracy in Iran.  The uprisings of 1963, the desperate terrorist acts of the 70s, and then the Islamic revolution itself, were born the day the nationalists lost – the day it was proven to all that a constitutional monarchy cannot function in Iran.


To be sure, it is a sickness of old societies to look at past glories and see, responsible for their current dire circumstances, the hands of foreign agents and internal traitors.  Iran is no exception.  The ready willingness of Iranians to ascribe all their ills to the secret machinations of the British or the Russians or the Americans – or the Zionists – while claiming the credit for the most minute achievements of Iran in its 6000-odd year history is not unique to that country.  It is not surprising that along with a dozen other internal problems over the last two centuries, the 1953 coup is considered by most Iranians to have been of purely foreign origin.  The rôle of many key clerics in undermining Mossadeq and in supporting the Shah and the military government that succeeded him is a subject that is discussed, if at all, with a great deal of caution. 


However, what Mr. Gerecht conveniently ignores is that the coup would not have gone forward without the active backing of US dollars and without the sure knowledge that the US government would support the post-coup government.  More important, the coup of 1953 should not be seen as an isolated act. Popular governments are not overthrown overnight.  In the course of many months before the coup, the democratic government of Mossadeq was increasingly isolated internationally – an isolation in which the United States government was both actively and passively complicit. Between the instability caused by Iran’s economic isolation; money, logistical and planning support from the CIA; and diplomatic approval from Washington, the government of Dr. Mossadeq had nowhere to go but into prison (or before the firing squad, as did his foreign minister, one of the most popular political figures of modern Iranian history).


What is more tragic is that Mossadeq genuinely considered the United States as an anti-Imperialist friend.  But, carried away by anti-Communist paranoia, the United States bizarrely considered this nationalist aristocrat, himself a major landowner just south of Tehran, as a potential Soviet puppet.  Mossadeq was blind-sided by the US support of the coup.  So were the intelligentsia and the nationalists.  The dream died.  And with that death, two things began: first, a simmering hatred of the US, the fires under which were stoked by the “capitulation” regime imposed in the late-60s and 70s for American military personnel.  The cauldron finally boiled over, for the United States, on 4 November 1979.  And second, a (misguided) belief that western-style constitutional monarchy is unviable in Iran.  That cauldron simmered until 1 February 1979; it is still boiling.


The United States is not solely responsible for the mess in Iran.  But it is a truism that no historical event has a single cause.  The UnitesStates and the CIA are at least partly responsible for the overthrow of a democratic government, ending constitutional monarchy in Iran, thirty years of dictatorial rule by the Shah, and the Islamic revolution.  To be able to move forward and forge a healthy and democratic society, Iranians must be able to accept their share of the blame for the mess.  To be able to understand Iran and begin to establish a healthy dialogue, leading to an equal relationship with Iran, the United States must also accept its share of the blame.