On why remembering history and recognizing reality are intricately intertwined.
In the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s death, I wrote a post about what it would mean for us to better remember the complex and even disturbing histories of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and the United States—and why, whatever it might mean, it’s vitally important for us to try to do so. And that’s not just because it’s always better to remember the past as fully and with as much accuracy and nuance as possible (although that is one of this blog’s slogans); it’s also because our too often over-simplified and even mythologized narratives in the present depend precisely on the absence of such historical knowledge and perspective. I don’t intend to suggest that Bin Laden was ever in the same category as Nelson Mandela; but on the other hand, as I wrote in Tuesday’s post, in one very definite way he was: both were defined as terrorists on the US Watch List. And of course, at a certain point in their histories, both were supported by the US in their fights against oppressive powers.
To paraphrase my favorite film psychotherapist, a little advice about history, kiddo: don’t expect it always to tickle. When it comes to the history of the American relationship with Iran, laughs are in similarly short supply. That history goes back well into the 19th century, but the modern version really began with the CIA-orchestrated 1953 coup d’etat that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and replaced him with the dictatorial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah’s brutal quarter-century rule of Iran was thus, in a very significant way, directly caused by the US; and our government consistently supported his regime through those years. Thus, while the 1979 revolution that replaced the Shah with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was indeed itself violent and repressive, it represented a change in only one truly striking way: from a pro-American to an anti-American Iranian government. All complex histories that need far more depth and analysis, of course—but even a preliminary engagement with them offers a very different lens on the Iranian hostage crisis, the US alliance with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and, most saliently, our current and ongoing negotiations with the Iranian government.
As with any shift in our historical understanding, better remembering these histories wouldn’t necessarily lead to any one position on that current issue and debate. But at the very least, it would help—indeed, force—us to see Iran not as a caricatured evil empire or adversary but as a nation with a history as long, multi-part, and complex as our own; and as, moreover, one with whose histories we have long been intertwined, and vice versa. In addition, recognizing those realities would likewise force us to recognize the nation’s current size and diversity, its breadth of communities and identities, the ways in which it can no more be reduced to the Ayatollah or any single figure or attitude than the US could to our president or our extremists. Would recognizing these historical and contemporary realities make it more difficult for many American leaders and pundits to argue for aggressive sanctions and/or military action against Iran? Given how much war and its arguments depend on simplified and mythologized narratives, past and present, I can’t help but think that it would.
Final 2013 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2013 events you’d remember?
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