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Jonathan Power: Absolutely Nothing in the News

The serious newspapers I read used to take me an hour to get through. These days it is fifteen minutes. Nothing much is happening, at least in foreign affairs. Iraq has all but disappeared from the front page. Afghanistan and Pakistan still remain; but even so, investors continue to up their investments in Pakistan, presumably judging that the conflict is over-hyped. The argument with Iran over whether it is building nuclear weapons drags on, despite the forgotten report of the CIA two years ago that found that it probably was not. (Not to mention that the West and Russia look a bit silly when they turn a blind eye to Brazil for doing exactly the same as Iran.) More recently there's Iran’s suggestion that it might ship some of its used uranium to Russia to be converted into fuel to provide medical isotopes, or else to import from Europe enriched uranium instead of manufacturing its own. So this conflict should now be relatively easy to wrap up. What else is there? Georgia is out of the picture; Chechnya was long ago. The Russians and the Americans sweet talk each other. Now that Washington has decided to abandon its ill-judged anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, the Russians have switched off their angst and are happily agreeing to the first major nuclear arms cuts in nearly a decade. China is now part of the “system.” The priorities are economic growth, dealing with financial imbalances, and, unfortunately, keeping the lid on dissent at home. It has made peaceful settlements of its border disputes with Laos, Russia, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and is working on its age old dispute of border demarcation with India. Its bitter clash with Taiwan, which commentators once called the most explosive issue on the map, is now quiescent. Japan and China are finally getting on fine. Add to this that India’s reflexive anti-Americanism is dead and buried—thanks to President George W. Bush’s decision to lift the embargo on nuclear materials. North Korea is isolated, even from its old mentor China. Who on earth is it going to use its two or three nuclear weapons against?

THE INDEX — October 21, 2009

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Azubuike Ishiekwene: Echoes of 1979 in Iranian Protests

Thirty years after the Shah was overthrown in a revolution, Iran is embroiled in an upheaval that appears to be threatening the grip of the Ayatollah over the country. There are striking ironies between what happened in 1979 under the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and what is happening today under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the incumbent supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The way the Shah fell out with his Western allies, especially the United States, over arms build-up in the mid-1970s, has eerie parallels to the way the mullahs in Tehran have fallen out with Washington over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, among other issues. What has been dramatized today as the Iranian Revolution, Part II, is a delicate, almost inscrutable power game, fueled by suspicions and deep-seated mutual distrust on both sides. It wasn’t always like that. At the height of the love affair between Iran and the West in the 1950s up through the 1970s, the Shah could do no wrong. To fend off any possible communist incursions, the United States poured millions of dollars into Iran to shore up the Shah. The oil windfall of the late 1970s, brought on by the Arab-Israeli war, was also a blessing to Iran. The Shah took advantage of the profits to rebuild his country and a new middle class was born. The downside of the boom, of course, was that it created in the Shah a new taste for luxury and power beyond the pale. He went to extraordinary lengths to sustain his appetite. He created the SAVAK, a special (and much loathed) security and intelligence force, trained and backed by the United States, which helped him to rule with an iron fist and isolated him from the people. Washington did not seem to mind, at least not in the early stages of the Shah’s neurosis. A blog by Jeb Sharp on Iran-U.S. relations quoted Henry Precht, the young American intelligence officer who managed arms sales between the United States and Iran under the Shah, as saying, “They promised the Shah that he could buy whatever he wanted and no one would quibble with him. Everything up to but not including nuclear weapons. So, that was my marching orders, facilitate, don’t get in the way of this process.... Then came the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Oil prices rose dramatically. Suddenly, the Shah was flush with money. He bought massive quantities of the most high-tech weaponry money could buy. US officials were unsettled by the consequences of their bargain.” Eventually, the Shah’s opulent lifestyle and tight hold on power through the security forces isolated the middle class, sidelined the communists and the mullahs, and narrowed the political space. Moreover, Pahlavi's new hunger for high-tech military weapons—some argue that he laid the foundation for Iran’s nuclear program—isolated him from his Western allies, especially from Washington. By the time he was overthrown in 1979, he was a sad, broken man; betrayed and completely on his own.



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