Stifling the Persian Spring

WE IRANIANS ARE a cynical, paranoid lot. Conspiracies are something of a sport for us. Whether it is the price of wheat or the threat of war, Iranians know nothing is exactly as it seems.

You can’t blame us; we’ve had our share of foreign meddling. Iran’s first attempt at democracy, which started in 1905, ended after troops commanded by Russian officers shelled the building in which the parliament was sitting; a second attempt, in 1953, was crushed by a CIA coup that reinstalled the country’s dictator, Muhammad Reza Shah. Iran’s third attempt at democracy, in 1979, was hijacked by the country’s own religious establishment, but only after Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack a few months after the Shah was ousted.

But ask most Iranians who was responsible for thwarting the revolution of 1979 and they will point the finger not at Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini, but at the United States. They have a point. After all, the U.S. encouraged Saddam to attack Iran, giving him satellite imagery and military intelligence. (Remember the famous photo of a smiling Saddam greeting Reagan administration special envoy Donald Rumsfeld?)

The U.S. government’s intention then was to curb the spread of Iran’s revolution, but it had the more disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. As happens in wartime, all the vibrant discussions in post-revolutionary Iran about how to build a new country came to an abrupt end the moment Saddam invaded. In the name of national security, power became centralized in the hands of the religious establishment. By the time that war came to an end eight years later, the dream that had spurred the revolution had given way to the reality of an authoritarian state plagued by gross ineptitude.

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