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Iran– US-UK Tangle: Historical Mistrust Continues to breed acrimony, competition

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Dec 09, 2011

Iran is back in news; all Iranian diplomats in Britain have left the country after receiving marching orders by the foreign secretary. All British diplomats based in Tehran are also back home following the Nov 29th siege and ransacking of the British embassy in Tehran. The incident triggered outrage in Western capitals plunging diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic to their lowest in recent times. The US Senate approved a military spending bill that included tough new sanctions aimed at cutting off Iran's central bank from the global financial system in a bid to force Tehran to halt its alleged nuclear program. 

The sanctions, proposed by democratic senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, call for freezing the US-based assets of financial institutions that do business with the central bank, and would apply to non-US central banks that do so for the purpose ofbuying or selling petroleum.

The attack on the British embassy, which Dominick Chilcott, Britain's ambassador to Iran, said would have been approved by the Iranian government, reminisced the long siege of the US embassy in Tehran over three decades ago – both events stark reminders of the historic bitterness among Iran, the US and Great Britain. Robert Fisk, one of the few British writers with an extremely critical view of the western dealings with Muslim countries including Iran and Pakistan, recounted that history in one of his latest articles in the Independent under the title “Why Iranians hate Britain?” 

“Britain staged a joint invasion of Iran with Soviet forces when the Shah’s predecessor got a bit too close to the Nazis in World War-II and then helped the Americans overthrow the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, after he nationalized Britain’s oil possessions in the country,” Fisk writes. He recalls that the CIA had called it Operation Ajax; the Brits wisely kept their ambitions in check by calling it Operation Boot. MI6’s agent in Tehran was Colonel Monty Woodhouse, previously our Special Operations Executive man inside German-occupied Greece. 

“I knew “Monty” well – we cooperated together when I investigated the grim wartime career of ex-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim – and he was a ruthless man. Woodhouse brought weapons into Iran for a still non-existent “resistance” movement and he eagerly supported the CIA’s project to fund the “bazaaris” of Tehran to stage demonstrations (in which, of course, hundreds, perhaps thousands, died) to overthrow Mossadegh.”

Fisk mention of how Woodhouse brought CIA’s weapons to Iran for “a still non-existent resistance movement,” sounds similar to the story of Libya, where no real opposition existed until the CIA and MI6 reportedly joined hands and allegedly smuggled weapons into Ben Ghazi to eventually mount a private rag-tag militia early this year. 

Mossadegh, recalls Fisk, was arrested and the young Shah returned in triumph to impose his rule, reinforced by his faithful SAVAK secret police whose torture of women regime opponents was duly filmed and – according to the great Egyptian journalist Mohamed HassaneinHeikal – circulated by CIA officers to America’s allies around the world as a “teaching” manual. How dare the Iranians remember all this? 

Fisk also attempts to draw a parallel between the attacks on the US and the British embassies; “the mass of US secret documents found after the American embassy was sacked following the Iranian revolution proved to the Iranians not only Washington’s attempts to subvert the new order of Ayatollah Khomeini but the continued partnership of the American and British intelligence services.” 

“The Iranians trashed us yesterday and made off, we are told, with a clutch of UK embassy documents. I cannot wait to read their contents. For be sure, they will soon be revealed,” quips Fisk. 

Even a cursory look suggests that Iran’s bumpy relations with Washington and London stem from a history of mistrust in the first place. Secondly, Iran’s support for anti-western groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas in the Middle East, or HezbeIslami (Afghanistan), or similar groups elsewhere also fuels the acrimony. Thirdly, the US-Natodesire to secure crucial waterways and the western access to cheaper oil and mineral wealth as well as markets in Asia meanwhile also stands out as the primary reason for keeping up the pressure on Iran. 

In a recent Centre for Security and International Studies (SCIS) report titled “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance: US and Iranian Strategic Competition”, authors Anthony H. Cordesman andAlexander Wilner concludethat “the US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game ofthree-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at leastsome ofthe rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades.It is clear that it is also a game that isunlikely to endby better dialogue andmutual understanding, andthat Iran's version of"democracy" is unlikely to change the way it isplayed in the foreseeablefuture.” 

The report also points out thatexplosions and other ostensible acts of sabotage on Iranian missileanduranium enrichment facilities during the month of November seem toconfirm thatthe military competition between Iran and its competitors isaccelerating. While nostate or organization has claimed responsibilityfor these events, theyrepresent a significant escalation in thecompetition with Iran. 

This suggests that “the most threatening form of US and Iranian competition takes placein themilitary and security arena. The US and Iran are militarycompetitors in theGulf, Indian Ocean, and Levant - and in steadilywider areas as Iran expandsits ballistic missile capabilities,” the report points out, drawing on thehistory of US-Iran the political tensions. 

Iran seescompetition as “driven by US efforts to dominate the Gulf andthe region, by aperiod of USintervention in Iranian internal affairsthat began in 1953, by USsecurity assistance to the Pahlavi regimebefore the Shah's fall, US support ofIraq during the Iran-Iraq War,the "tanker war" from 1987-1988, and US effortsto deny Iran imports of arms and military technology. Iran feels the US seeksto become thedominant power in the region while seeking to contain Iran'spower andinfluence.” 

The US sees Iran as a state that has been vehemently anti-Americansince thefall of the Shah and the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, a state that threatens the region andexports terrorism, hasexported aid and armsto insurgents in Iraq andAfghanistan, threatens Israel'sexistence, is seeking nuclear-armedmissiles, and is steadily building upasymmetric forces that threatenthe stable flow of Gulf petroleum exports.

The end result is a competition that has now gone on for 32 years and which has occasionally led to direct action. Iran’s open pursuit of nuclear weapons, uranium enrichment efforts, and links with perceived terrorist organizations suggest that the military competition between the US and Iran will remain tough, if not intensify. 

Both Iran and the US will continue to compete militarily as long as the Strait of Hormuz remains strategically critical. This strategic competition also flows from the commercial interests on the American Military Industrial Complex, which thrives off conflict in Asia, followed by the commercial interests of Corporate USA and Europe, which would like to operate unhindered in the region.


Email: imtiaz@crss.pk