Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday April 12, 2015

Iran is a malevolent, Islamic theocracy. It has created and continues to sponsor terrorist organizations to expand its regional influence. And the worst thing about the recent nuclear framework agreement that it reached with six world powers including the United States, is that this will enhance Iran’s ability to reach its ultimate goal - domination over the entire Middle East. So say the vociferous critics of any deal with the Iranians.

Many details of the final nuclear agreement remain to be negotiated between now and the end of June. So today I would like to examine the argument that if it doesn’t change the nature of the Iranian regime and its goal of Middle East hegemony, any agreement is dangerous on its face and better not worth having.

Let’s start with the fact that for every American president who negotiated nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union - and when President Richard Nixon made his famous opening with China – the purpose was not to change the nature of the mass murderers in charge, whether Stalin, his heirs or Chairman Mao. It was to stabilize these relationships and to make America and its allies safer, which it largely did.

In answer to those who see Iran only as the worst of the “Axis of Evil”, I concede it has done many reprehensible things. Yet critics’ recollections are notably one sided. This is not to excuse the Iranians, but to put their actions in the context of the very tough Middle Eastern neighborhood in which none of the residents, or frequent visitors like America and Russia, can claim to have clean hands.

As I’ve noted before, the Iranians have some compelling reasons for being anti –American. It starts with the Cold War and oil inspired CIA overthrow of the elected Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. An estimated three hundred Iranians were killed. And so was Iranian democracy when the autocratic Shah was installed for what turned out to be a quarter of a century.

Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 which ousted the Shah was a bloody affair.  When “students” then took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, Iran became this country’s number one enemy.

So there was no sympathy here in 1980, when Iraq’s despot Saddam Hussein began what would become the eight year Iran- Iraq war, in which an estimated million people died. And there were no protests when Washington provided Iraq arms, satellite intelligence and key ingredients for the poison gas it used to kill and maim thousands of Iranian troops. This is a huge factor in why especially Iranian veterans, do not trust America. (Saddam later gassed Iraqi Kurds for alleged pro-Iranian sympathies.) 

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the sectarian/political civil war escalated following the June 1982 Israeli invasion in response to Palestinian cross- border attacks. Israel went all the way to Beirut and made common cause with Lebanese Christian militias. That September, with Israeli troops close by, Christian militiamen massacred – estimates range from 750 to 3500 - Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra neighborhood and nearby Shatila refugee camp. An official Israeli investigation later found Israel’s military indirectly responsible and concluded then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility ”for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge,” - forcing him to resign.

Also in mid-1982, the Reagan administration joined a Multinational Force with France and Italy in Lebanon to restore order by getting the PLO and Yassir Arafat out of Beirut and shipped off to Tunis. But over time, U.S. connections with the Christian government of Lebanon and America’s close ties with Israel, raised questions among Muslims about whose side Washington was really on.  In October of 1983, the U.S. Marine Barracks at Beirut airport was struck by a truck bomb, killing 241 American servicemen. An obscure group called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility but later evidence convincingly implicated Iran and Syria.

Not long after that, the U.S. Navy’s battleship New Jersey began firing off- shore shells the size of Volkswagens into Shiite mountain villages outside Beirut. As assistant to then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, General Colin Powell noted in his memoirs, “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed that the American ‘referee’ had taken sides.”

Against that backdrop Hezbollah, the Party of God, came into being in Lebanon. It was conceived by Shiite clerics, and funded by Iran to resist the Israeli occupation. Its forces were originally armed and trained by 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Most of the world considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. But as the representative of the once dispossessed Shiite majority in Lebanon, it regularly holds at least a third of the government’s cabinet seats. It runs social welfare programs and is considered a state within a state.

As for Hamas, this is usually forgotten. Then last summer, amid the bloody battles in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the Washington Post reminded us with a story headlined “How Israel Helped Create Hamas.”

It reads in part, that while Hamas was formally launched during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1988,  “ For more than a decade prior, Israel had enabled its rise….At the time, Israel’s main enemy was the late Yassir Arafat..….PLO operatives in the occupied territories faced brutal repression at the hands of the Israeli security state…. (but) the activities of Islamists affiliated with Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood were allowed in the open in Gaza.” The story concludes that the Israelis saw Hamas, “as a useful counterweight to Arafat’s PLO.”

Most recently in Yemen, Iran is supporting the Houthis, a Shiite offshoot insurgency which ousted President Abdu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis actually got most of their tangible military help from the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Still, a direct military showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia may be taking shape in Yemen.

Unquestionably, Iran supports and exploits Hezbollah and Hamas and the Iranians are deeply involved in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Yet considering how all this came to be, it seems to fall short of a carefully planned long term Iranian strategy for Middle East domination.

Don’t forget, the single event which most dramatically expanded Iran’s influence was the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. This eliminated Saddam, Iran’s greatest enemy, while empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority to effectively run the country – under Iranian supervision.

Finally, remember that both Al-Qaida and the Islamic State practice an extremist form of Islam directly linked to the Wahhabis - a Sunni offshoot which originated and still flourishes in Saudi Arabia. In the Mideast, correctly identifying your friends, your allies and your enemies, is very complicated.

I welcome your comments. To post your thoughts, click the word "comments" below.

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