Iranian author Mehri Honarbin-Holliday reminds us of the nefarious history of the crushing of Iranian democracy by the US and UK, and describes the peaceful efforts of a new generation of Iranian youth to build it in the beleaguered circumstances of a sanctions-imprisoned Iran
Ask Iranians why they profoundly despise, distrust and condemn any form of intervention, presence and action by the British and the Americans, and they will document vividly the links in the century-old chain of events through which the governments of these two countries have sought illegitimate political dominance in Iran since the discovery of oil in 1908.The cycle of mistrust, based on direct military and political undermining of Iran’s sovereignty, is firmly etched on the psyche of the Iranian nation, and looms large in the common experiences of millions of present-day Iranians.
Iran’s oil was swiftly recognised as the energy source of a new political and industrial era for Britain at the turn of the 20th century.Winston Churchill is quoted as having said that British battleships floated with Iranian oil to victory in the first world war. In 1944, three years after the British army invaded Iran and exiled the shah to Africa, he insisted that the British government ought to secure a ‘golden share’, or a right of veto, in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), to make sure that the Iranians understood that the AIOC was an extension of the British government operating in Iran.
The nationalisation of the oil in 1951 by Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, was met with more than just hostility by both British and Americans. While the British boycotted Iranian oil temporarily, the CIA engineered an overnight coup d’etat on 19 August 1953, ousting Prime Minister Mosaddeq in favour of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It was not only Iran’s oil that they wanted – they also wanted Iran in order to secure an assured strategic military base and presence in the region for their new imperial ambitions. This strategic importance is made clear in the current distribution of US bases in the region, at a time when the US is not permitted to colonise Iran.
The 1979 Islamic revolution shattered US domination.The occupation of its embassy in Tehran by a group of militant students who took 53 political staff hostage left the Americans profoundly irritated and led to a campaign of demonisation of Iran and all things Iranian.Within a short period Saddam Hussein was appointed the US’s undisputed agent and bully-in-chief in the region. He was armed and encouraged to impose a devastating eight-year war on Iran from 1980 to 1988.
Every Iranian will tell you how the US and British governments silently and shamelessly watched this catastrophic aggression unravel, pointing the finger at Saddam’s 5,000 British and US-made tanks, 4,000 armoured vehicles, 7,000 artillery and 500-plus aircraft, which sent more than one million Iranians to their graves and displaced, economically damaged, and chemically contaminated millions more.The memories of this war are fresh in the hearts, minds and daily lives of Iranians.
Economic and psychological captives
The US imposed broad economic sanctions against trade with Iran in 1979, further freezing over $8 billion of Iranian assets. Since the early 1980s,Washington has sought to isolate Tehran, and has in recent years accused the Iranian government of developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism. Iran, however, asserts that it has voluntarily revealed its uranium enrichment programme at Natanz since February 2003 and has invited the UN’s nuclear monitoring body, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) specifically, to carry out inspections. Further assertions have been made by Iran repeatedly that it has not breached its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that its intentions are peaceful, producing low level enriched uranium for the nuclear fuel industry.
Since then the Bush government has made military threats and imposed bilateral and unilateral sanctions against Iran, all justified with a demonising and damning rhetoric. While US-based oil companies and their sub-contractors have been blocked from doing business with Iran, wider sanctions under UN resolution 1747 were passed on 24 March, targeting the transactions of Iran’s state-owned bank, its arms exports and the activities of its Revolutionary Guards.
Like any modern country, Iran needs new resources to sustain development and reconstruction in the post Iraq-Iran war era.Maintaining economic stability and confidence is crucial. The sanctions add up to economic and psychological warfare against the Iranian nation. Sanctions will create more inflation in the foreign currency market, ultimately damaging the infrastructure of the trade. They undermine business confidence, damaging the economy and harming the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Sanctions addressed at the Iranian government will destroy the lives and livelihoods of the Iranian people, school children, students and families.The Iranian government is being bullied by the west for acquiring the nuclear knowledge that has been made readily available to several of Iran’s neighbours.
The Iranian people are being punished by widening sanctions, and by an unprecedented presence of the US and British war machines in the Persian Gulf pointing their guns at the Iranian nation and, in the process, at any socio-political movement from within Iran towards a more comprehensive form of democracy and civil society.
The future is female
Ask Iranians about the prospects of democracy and civil society in Iran, and they will tell you about the daily struggle they endure to build it.They will also tell you that the seeds of a democratic civil society must be planted by Iranians themselves, free from the prescriptive forms imported by US and British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A new, critical and reflective generation of Iranians has emerged since 1979. It must be nurtured and be given space to grow. Despite the tough socio-economic conditions, the ongoing singular and local interpretations of Islam, and the routine shifts of power and manoeuvring between the Supreme Leader and his appointed Council, the hardliners, the reformists and even oppositionist factions within the regime, this new generation is very much alive and kicking.
It is as visible as it is expressive in its social behaviour. It possesses a particular voice, a particular and profound desire for social justice, and a particular sense of struggle for political reform. It is engaged in a quest for a more progressive civil society, projecting diverse views and behaviours, in which individuals might be full and active participants regardless of their gender, form of religious beliefs and cultural heritage.
According to the 2004-2005 national statistics published by the education ministry, there are over 15 million Iranians in primary and secondary schools. There are three million students in universities, many entering the urban space from remote towns and villages for the first time and creating intra-national cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism.
Significantly, 65 per cent of this student body are female.Apart from seeking to educate themselves, these young women subtly and persistently signify ideological difference through altering dress codes, and examine traditional and familial expectations by pursuing all kinds of interaction with their male counterparts in the cities and towns. Like the older generation of women in urban Iran, they seek to become economic partners and hold and develop careers in the civil service, higher education, medicine and health care, law, journalism, and politics, with all the limitations that the latter offers.
If desire, curiosity and a sense of struggle are among the markers of a youth movement, then young women in Iran specifically embody that movement. This is particularly significant in discussions about the development of a civil society. Can the west really afford to continue sanctions against Iran and take up military action against a people who are alert and have ideas and require stability and peace to take those ideas forward from within? Is it really prepared to squeeze and isolate Iran further, and in doing so destroy its people’s aspirations and development, simply because it needs the oil?