By Teja Dusanapudi
“What if Iran had murdered Jamal Khashoggi?” posed journalist Reese Erlich, an arresting statement that prefaced the remainder of his discussion on the political relationship between history between the United States and Iran.
Erlich, who regularly reports for National Public Radio and ABC Australia, presented his latest book, The Iran Agenda Today, at a UC Davis held event earlier in February. Erlich presents his work, an updated version of a previous edition from the 2000s, as a comprehensive primer for a decade of contentious history.
Beginning by comparing the relationship of the United States and Saudi Arabia to that of the United States and Iran, Erlich noted Washington’s tendency to “demonize” certain countries, sorting regimes into a geopolitical “good list” and “bad list.” Saudi Arabia’s status in America’s good graces enables them to act with political impunity; the murder of Khashoggi, Erlich seems to say, lies at our feet as much as that of our so-called ally.
Among these murky Washington entities are Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, two major officials of the Trump administration, whom Erlich identifies as conducting “campaigns of misinformation” regarding countries on the aforementioned “bad list.” These campaigns, he noted, begin verbally and end physically–aggressive calls for regime change which often morph into American boots on foreign soil. Erlich often argued over the course of his lecture, this level of foreign intervention actively harms the people of Iran, no matter the intent. Erlich went on to describe the history of foreign interventionism in Iran.
Starting with a recount of Iran in the early 1950s as a democratic regime supporting women’s rights and the freedom of speech, Erlich revealed an Iran unbeknownst to many. When asked by an audience member about the biases of American media coverage of Iran, he described working with a colleague who, when abroad, immediately visited the American consulates for news in foreign countries. He suggests that this practice of relying on information from Western sources distorts the real stories of people who live in countries such as Iran. Laughing, Erlich noted that there were likely many Iranians in the room who had a more intimate knowledge of their country than he did.
Per Erlich, it was the election of nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh that began a vicious tension between Iran and other world powers. Mossadegh’s campaign focused on the redistribution of oil revenue and wealth to Iranian citizens by nationalizing oil production the British had previously secured rights to. Mossadegh attempted to claim 50% of the oil revenue for the Iranian people was rebuffed by an infuriated Britain. In response, Mossadegh requested a full 100% of the oil wealth for his nation.
Erlich went on to describe Britain’s multitude of violent reactions, from bombings to false flag operations, wherein British operatives would incite tension between different factions by bombing parts of cities and attributing the attacks to one side or the other. Eventually, Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 by a military coup which was quickly followed by a popular revolution in 1979. These moments of bloodshed and revolution were formative to today’s Iran.
The violent, brutal footprints left by the West were followed by the steel-toed boots of later regimes. Erlich denounces acts of destabilization conducted by a host of foreign powers. In understanding the emergence of the Islamic State, Erlich urges us to consider them “directly created by U.S. invasions,” a complimentary reaction to the brutality exported overseas. His commentary on the actions taken by the U.S. regarding Iran did not end there; Erlich said that he “couldn’t let Obama off the hook,” and that he had “imposed the worst sanctions in the history of the world on Iran,” but at the same time had also signed the Iran nuclear accords.
Moving laterally towards the policies of other foreign leaders on Iran, Erlich broached the perspective of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Erlich claims Netanyahu views Iran as an anti-Semitic and terroristic regime. He points out Netanyahu’s primary argument against Iran– that Iran would and will attack Israel in the future, thus necessitating a pre-emptive strike–ignores the US’s and Israel’s past actions against Iran. It is the goal of these two global powers to “flatten Tehran,” Erlich notes, in a voice that wavers between indignant and astonished. It is a cost, he suggests, that Israel is willing to pay in order to further prevent the rise of Hamas, Gaza’s ruling political party.
Before ending his talk, Erlich described the current views of the Iranian people on their government, conceding that several students at the event had a more informed view on the subject than himself. He described Iran as a theocracy with a “brutal security system” that seeks to “arrest, detain, and torture” dissidents. Erlich also noted a switch between the composition of such dissidents: originally upper middle-class intellectuals, many of those currently protesting and working counter to the current regime are working class. He divides the people of Iran into two broad ideological groups: Principalists, who advocate for larger state control and a greater share of wealth at the cost of rights for women and other marginalized groups, and Reformists, who argue for a greater share of rights while privatizing the state. The conflict between these two groups is a domestic issue which should be left to their hands.
Ultimately, Erlich concludes, it is up to the people of Iran to seize back control of their government. When left to the clumsy hands (and troops) of America, the United States “promises democracy,” but ultimately “delivers dictatorship.” Returning to the demagoguery of Pompeo, Bolton, and Giuliani, among other modern warhawks, Erlich describes the relentless machine of attrition that drives this country: “every war,” he says, imitating Washington’s remorseless entities, “should be endless.” Reese Erlich delved deep into the Iranian agenda today, but colored an even more engaging geopolitical portrait: the impulsive, violent agenda of the United States of America.