Last year, of these times, a United States drone killed the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the world tension was extremely high. Then came coronavirus and the global agenda had to deal with other kinds of problems. The USA and Iran (or Persia before 1979) always had fluctuating relationships, swinging between deep crisis and negotiations.
A first key moment is in 1953, when the American and British intelligence (Operation Ajax) cooperated to overthrow the Persian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who wanted to nationalize the oil, rescinding the 1933 concession contract with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadeq, in turn, sent the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to a (short) exile. Until the Western powers lobbied to make him come back.
Pahlavi based the local economy on oil export, as the Western countries wanted, but also started a period of reforms. He introduced the divorce, new agricultural policies, guaranteed women the right to vote (still earlier than Switzerland!) and the working class participation into the profits of the industry. By doing this, he attracted the antipathy of the Shiite clergy, though.
Pahlavi tried to give the world the image of an illuminated monarch, but he also was a repressive ruler. As long as he sells his precious oil it’s all good, anyway. In these years the United States are a privileged commercial partner (yet unreliable).
In 1978 the American president Jimmy Carter decides to celebrate the new year’s eve in Teheran and the toast between the two heads of state is the last straw. A Muslim drinking champagne, for the religious conservative high places, is unacceptable.
Of course that’s not the only Persian problem. People are protesting all over the country for the economic crisis, as the 1973 energy crisis made the oil export drop. Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic opposition, has now the opportunity to come back and take the power. He already tried a coup in 1963, but he failed and was exiled, he lived in Turkey first and then in France.
Reza Pahlavi is sure to receive help from the American friends, but they just turn the head the other way: the Shah, in the meantime, had closed the oil faucets. Maybe the new government will be more favorable.
It will be the complete opposite. Khomein triumphantly comes back from Paris on February the 11th 1979, also animated by a strong anti-Americanism. In November of the same year won’t do anything to prevent the action of the Pasdaran – the Guardians of the Revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran, replacing the ancient name Persia – who break into the American embassy and take 52 member of the staff as hostages for more than a year.
Newly settled, the president Ronald Reagan can immediately celebrate the release of the hostages, costed the unlock of Iranian funds in the American banks and the acceptance of the (never implanted) principle of non-interference.
Meanwhile, Iran and Iraq are at war for a matter of boundaries along the river Shatt al-‘Arab, disputed between Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Formally, Reagan administration never armed Iraq, they only sold chemical material, helicopters and heavy duty trucks. That was for agricultural purposes, who would have imagined that a fighting country would have destined the supply for military purposes?
Iran had supporters too and they are unexpected: Israel and… the United States! The very same Reagan administration secretly sells weapons in exchange of prisoners of the Hezbollah – Shiite and pro-Iran – in Lebanon. The revenue is “invested” in the Nicaraguan counter-revolution, those Contras who fought socialism perpetrating massacres and terrorist attacks. There’s another connection between Contras and the USA government: Contras finance themselves with drugs trafficking. The “funniest” thing is that the CIA allowed the entrance of crack and cocaine in the country while starting a tough war on drugs.
A symbolic moment when tension was eased arrived in 1998, at the football World Cup in France. After all, after the “ping pong diplomacy” between USA and China in the Seventies, it was known how much sports could do for international relationships.
Iran is qualified after 20 years and even if the Ayatollahs don’t appreciate football, Iranian people do and everything can become politics. For example, an important battle for women equality is about the admittance at the stadium – Jafar Panahi shot the movie Offside in 2006, on a group of women who disguised as men tried to watch a national team match.
Gods of football make sure that Iran and the USA will be in the same group (with Germany and Yugoslavia). The two federations send a message of “normality”, the Iranian players even donate flowers to their rivals, this time only for 90 minutes. Iran will obtain a useless (they are eliminated) but historic winning for 2-1, enough for public (and alcoholic) celebrations in the streets of the country.
Sport creates, Bush destroys. Obviously a football match itself can’t delete decades of tension, but it was a missed occasion to move forward. Just in 2002, George W. Bush includes Iran in the “axis of evil”. Not that Iran is a nice democratic place, but using this kind of communication just one year after 9/11 isn’t the best choice.
The rest is recent history, from the long negotiations on nuclear issues to Soleimani killing.
In less than 70 years the overturning of relationships, the texture of twisted plots, the fickleness of the players kept the world in apprehension. But that also confirmed both the validity of cause and effect links and the absurdity of keeping rigid position in support of one side or another, whether it’s for ideology or nationalism. Strictly dividing in good and bad works better for Mickey Mouse.
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