By Shaha Azizi
(PNS) TEHRAN — These are uncertain times in Tehran. The recent accusations and tough talk against the clerical regime coming from Washington, together with the war in Iraq has made many Iranians hopeful that the Americans will come here next to help liberate them from the ruling mullahs. That is, if the British don’t stop them.
The Iranian public, from the grocery man to the university student to the doctor to the reformist member of Parliament, all believe in conspiracy theories so far-fetched they make JFK assassination buffs seem like real empiricists.
The majority of Iranians believe that the mullahs, the hard-line clerics, have the full backing of the British. In order to understand this line of thinking you have to look at the enormous influence of foreign powers here in the past. The British and the Soviets divided the country into southern and northern zones of power under their direct influence during WWII. Reza Shah, the founder of the previous dynasty, was put on a ship and sent to exile by the British because of his sympathies for Hitler. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was briefly ousted in 1953 but quickly put back in power by a coup d’etat that the CIA now admits having engineered. He was toppled by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power with enormous popular backing.
Strange as it may sound to Western readers, a main line of popular thinking has flourished against this historical backdrop. It goes something like this:
The English are the wits and brains behind American actions in the region since WWII. The British know that in order to keep Iranian oil and resources for themselves, they have to keep the clerics, who are their agents, in power. They are now pushing them on the naive Americans. Iranians truly believe that if it were not for the marriage of the clerics and the British, this Islamic regime would not stay in power. Southern Iraq, which according to this theory is under British control, provides proof of this. Ayatollah Hakim, the Iraqi Shiite cleric exiled to Iran who returned to Iraq in May, must have British backing, or he would never have been allowed to return with such bravado.
The conspiratorial nature of this line of thinking is not lost on Iranians themselves, who at times satirize it. A notable example is Iraj Pezeshkzad’s “My Uncle Napoleon,” one of the all-time best-selling Iranian novels and a television series. Written a few decades ago, it is nevertheless still popular. In it, a man who greatly admires the French ruler is obsessed with the idea that the British are behind everything.
“You see,” I was told by more than one person, including my elderly landlady and a member of the Majlis (parliament), “these guys (meaning the hard-line clerics) are smart — they have made a deal with the British. Not only are they here to stay, but they are taking over Iraq as well.” They go on to explain, “the Americans are bullies, but they are too stupid in the face of British wit.”
This belief in the cleverness of the British and their agents, the clerics, is so widespread that no one believes that the overwhelming religiosity of the majority of Iraq’s Shiites might have something to do with Hakim’s popularity.
Many even claim the 1979 Revolution was also the work of the British and the Americans. The majority here believes that the British fooled the hick peanut farmer, Carter, into getting rid of the Shah and allowing Khomeini to return from exile to impose his Islamic Republic. Few believe that Carter had a genuine human rights agenda, or that there had been a genuine desire for an indigenous ideology in the form of the Islam that Khomeini offered.
Even among hard-line Hezbollahi types, conspiracy theories abound. One man who helped bring Khomeini back from exile in France and played an important role in the early days of the Revolution told me that all the reformists in the Majlis are agents of the Americans. “If we give in to them,” he reasoned, “we will have given the Americans our country.”
The upshot of all this is that few Iranians believe that Iranians themselves can do anything about their political future. A political apathy more suffocating than the strong arm of the clerics prevails here. Tired of struggling, inherently fatalistic and used to foreign meddling in their affairs, the masses are waiting to see if the British and their mullahs will fool the Americans once again.
A word of caution to Washington is in order. Iranians blamed the Americans for bringing the Shah to power, and now blame the British for supporting the mullahs. Anyone going in to change regimes should perhaps sign a sort of prenuptial agreement with the Iranians, so if things turn sour in the future Iranians will have only themselves to blame.