THE UNITED STATES is facing a major crisis in Iran, where the clerical regime, despite its denials, is evidently embarked on an effort to develop nuclear weapons. Because American leaders say they will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, this has led to intense speculation that the Bush administration is preparing a military attack.
History suggests, however, that such an attack would have disastrous long-term consequences. Iranians know as well as anyone how terribly wrong such foreign interventions can go.
Iran was an incipient democracy in 1953, but Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh -- chosen by an elected parliament and hugely popular among Iranians -- angered the West by nationalizing his country’s oil industry. President Eisenhower sent the CIA to depose him. The coup was successful, but it set the stage for future disaster.
The CIA placed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi back on the Peacock Throne. His repressive rule led, 25 years later, to the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to power a clique of bitterly anti-Western mullahs who have spent the decades since working intensely, and sometimes violently, to undermine U.S. interests around the world.
If the Eisenhower administration had refrained from direct intervention against Iran in 1953, this religious regime probably would never have come to power. There would be no nuclear crisis. Iran might instead have become a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East.
Overthrowing a government is like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill -- you have no idea exactly what will happen next. Iranians are not the only ones who know this. In slightly more than a century, the United States has overthrown the governments of at least 14 countries, beginning with the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and forcibly intervened in dozens more. Long before Afghanistan and Iraq, there were the Philippines, Panama, South Vietnam and Chile, among others.
Most of these interventions not only have brought great pain to the target countries but also, in the long run, weakened American security.
Cuba, half a world away from Iran, is a fine example. In 1898, the United States sent troops there to help rebels overthrow Spanish colonial rule. Once victory was secured, the U.S. reneged on its promise to allow Cuba to become independent and turned it into a protectorate.
More than 60 years later, in his first speech as leader of the victorious Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro recalled that episode and made a promise. “This time,” he vowed, “it will not be like 1898, when the Americans came in and made themselves masters of the country.”
Those words suggest that perhaps if the U.S. had allowed Cuba to go its own way in 1898, the entire phenomenon of Castro communism might never have emerged.
The U.S. deposed a visionary leader of Nicaragua, Jose Santos Zelaya, in 1909 and sent his unlucky country into a long spiral of repression and rebellion.
Forty-five years later, still believing that “regime change” can end well, the U.S. overthrew the left-leaning president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, and imposed a military regime. That regime’s brutality set off a 30-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands died.
Today, Latin America and the Middle East are the regions of the world in the most open political rebellion against U.S. policies. It is no coincidence that these are the regions where the U.S. has intervened most often. Resentment over intervention festers. It passes from generation to generation. Ultimately it produces a backlash.
Countries that have been victimized by past interventions are especially determined to resist future ones. Iran is one of these. Over the last 200 years, the British, Russians and Americans have sought to dominate and exploit Iran. If the U.S. intervenes there now, it will face the pent-up anger many Iranians harbor against all outside powers.
Some in Washington evidently believe that it is worth trying to set off upheaval in Iran because any new regime there would be an improvement.
This is a dangerous gamble, as intervention would strengthen the most radical factions in Iran. Militants, including the bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would use it as an excuse to crack down on dissent. That could lead to a wave of repression, produce a regime more dangerously anti-American than the current one and set back the cause of Iranian democracy by another generation.
This looming crisis might be resolved by direct and unconditional negotiations between Washington and Tehran, but American leaders refuse to bargain with the mullahs. The trauma of the Islamic Revolution, and the hostage crisis that followed it, left a deep scar on the American political psyche -- so deep that it prevents the U.S. from engaging Iran in ways that could have great benefits for American security.
Yet far from being doomed to conflict, these two proud nations are potential allies. Both want to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, assure the free flow of Middle East oil and crush radical Sunni movements like the Taliban and Al Qaeda. What prevents talks from materializing is the deep resentment both sides feel over past interventions.
Iran has intervened across the Middle East, sometimes using the extreme weapon of terror, to attack U.S. interests. For its part, the U.S. intervened to crush Iranian democracy in 1953, imposed the shah and supported his repressive rule for 25 years.
The cure for the effects of past intervention is not more intervention. Given the seriousness of the nuclear crisis with Iran, American leaders should put aside their self-defeating and increasingly dangerous refusal to negotiate. The alternative may be violent intervention in Iran. Americans have tried that before. The results would be no happier this time.