“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” a senior British official was quoted as saying to Newsweek in 2002, witnessing the competitive bellicosity in the Bush administration’s run-up to the war in Iraq.
US President Donald Trump asserted his claim to be a real man as he tore up the nuclear deal with Iran. But he has inadvertently accelerated rather than delayed an inevitable process: the emergence of Iran as a major geopolitical and scientific power in a world that is no longer shaped exclusively by European and American interests.
Trump’s understanding of what he has done, a few weeks after triggering a trade war with China, is necessarily limited. He belongs to a generation of American men who, already scarred by defeat in Vietnam and oil shocks of the 1970s, felt utterly humiliated by the Iranian revolutionaries who kept Americans hostages for more than a year.
But then most who fantasize about regime change in countries they know little about never quite got decolonization: the central event of the 20th century, in which Western empires were overthrown and a majority of the world’s population assumed its right to dignity and equality in sovereign nation-states.
These Western interventionists don’t grasp why Iran came very late to decolonization, and then with a volcanic anti-Western eruption. For decades Iranians were victims of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the US inflicted puppet regimes on many nation-states in Asia and Africa. Iran did have its own nationalist upsurge, which built up throughout Western and Soviet occupation of the country during World War II. But it was brutally suppressed by a CIA-backed coup in 1953 that deposed the country’s democratically elected leader and empowered the despotic Shah of Iran.
The tens of thousands of Americans who once lived in Tehran may have occasionally felt the visceral hostility in the country to the Shah and his American enablers.
But they were not helped by “obtusely establishment editors,” as Kennett Love, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, called his bosses, who like most American newspaper editors couldn’t look past the Shah’s pharaonic modernization projects to his brutality and foolishness.
Such naivete and ignorance explains why, when they finally erupted in 1979, anti-American passions shocked policymakers and opinion formers in the US.
Frustrated “real men” then took to assisting Saddam Hussein in his vicious assault on Iran, which entrenched the Islamic revolutionaries in power in Tehran. They trampled upon the few shoots of liberal reform in Iran in the early 2000s, insisting on the country’s inclusion in President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”
Needless to add, during all these years of unrelentingly belligerent and incompetent American policy, Iranian nationalism osmotically grew, along with Iran’s sphere of influence in the region.
Today, that influence continues despite the economic pain caused by Western sanctions, and the commitment to self-strengthening crosses deep political divisions: It’s worth remembering that the imprisoned reform Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, accused the fanatically anti-West Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of “betraying” Iranian nuclear interests.
Former US President Barack Obama tried to repair some of the damage inflicted by his inept predecessors. His nuclear deal was meant to prevent Iran from blithely scoring in open goals across the Middle East. It aimed to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region, and to mollify Saudi Arabia’s nervous rulers.
But there was always something absurd about the American expectation that Iran should recuse itself from the proxy wars of the Middle East.
Trump is now trying his hand at an old and obsessive American venture in the Middle East: bringing Iran to heel. The Iranian economy will undoubtedly suffer from his sanctions. But Europeans may step in; Iran’s close economic and political relationship with China and India can only be further strengthened.
US sanctions deterred neither India nor Pakistan from building their nuclear capacity. In any case, the gambit of increasing the threshold of economic pain to bring about desired political change is always counterproductive. Take, for instance, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, whose only match in virulent anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric was Ahmadinejad. Mahathir defied American pressures, which included Vice President Al Gore openly urging Malaysians to oust him, all through the devastating East Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
This week he is back in power at the age of 92 -- yet another proof of a geopolitical reality that is rapidly becoming less and less amenable to American control. The chief impulse behind decolonization has led to the emergence of one new assertive power after another: China, India, Turkey, Iran.
Understandably, some powerful Americans can’t adjust to this world, where they don’t feel important enough anymore. And so they petulantly tear up treaties. But it is clear that, whether going to Baghdad, Tehran or Beijing, they are more likely than ever to go nowhere.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.