Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal would make no one’s list of prime suspects as agents of US imperialism. The three Americans – detained by Iranian security services in July 2009 on espionage charges, now all released and reunited with their families – have a clear and very real commitment to opposing US foreign policy in the Middle East, asshown by their journalism.
Indeed, as Bauer noted in a statement upon his release:“No evidence was ever presented against us [by the Iranian authorities]. That is because there is no evidence.” What then was the reason for the three being effectively taken hostage by the Iranian state? As far as Bauer is concerned, “the only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran”.
It is worth taking this opportunity to examine the origins and nature of the antagonistic US-Iranian relationship to which Bauer refers, so as to better understand how he, Shourd and Fattal seemingly became pawns in a long, ugly and dangerous contest between Washington and Tehran.
With the other major powers severely weakened after second world war, the United States found itself well-positioned to assume the role of global hegemon and, to that end, quickly identified the energy reserves of the Middle East as a major strategic and material prize. To keep that prize under de facto US control, it became crucial to prevent regional states from moving off in an independent direction, outside of the Washington-led order.
In 1953, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état against the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had sought to nationalise the country’s oil reserves and use the revenues for poverty alleviation and national development. Under the imposed rule of the shah, Iran took its place alongside Turkey and Israel in a set of US-allied local gendarmes situated on the periphery of a core of conservative Arab states.
This regional system was dramatically disrupted by the Iranian revolution of 1979, whose tragedy was that it came to produce a government every bit as brutal and contemptuous of the Iranian people’s rights as its predecessor. However, from Washington’s point of view, the real problem was that revolutionary Iran was no longer the right kind of tyranny, seeking as it did to draw its strength not from superpower patronage but from local legitimacy derived from its perceived resistance to imperialism and religious piety.
The subsequent US-Iranian rivalry was clearly not an even match. While playing both sides off each other for much of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the US came down firmly on the side of Saddam Hussein during the latter stages of that conflict. In the last 10 years, the US has invaded and occupied two of Iran’s largest neighbours, and made no secret of its wish to see regime change in Tehran. Iran is surrounded by US allies and by countries hosting US bases, while the American navy patrols the Persian Gulf.
Plainly Tehran does not have the capacity to apply equivalent threats and pressure, but it has used various asymmetric means to bolster its position, one example being its support for opponents of US allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and another being the tactic of hostage-taking, employed to humiliating effect against the US at the start of the revolution, again against Britain in 2007, and most recently in the case of the three hikers.
Hostage-taking serves a dual purpose for Iran. First, it demonstrates to Tehran’s foreign enemies that it has a means of striking against them as long as there are western nationals in its near vicinity. Secondly, it carries domestic propaganda value, drawing the population’s attention to the external threats the country faces, presenting the state as defender of the nation against such threats, and smearing internal opposition as the product of foreign subterfuge.
Thus the dynamic of US imperialism versus reactionary local forces maintains its self-perpetuating momentum. And caught in the crossfire are countless ordinary people who do not seek power but simply the freedom to live decent lives: the population of Iran, passed from one tyrannical regime to another; the three young Americans who wanted to lend a hand in solidarity to the peoples of the Middle East, and who found themselves enduring the daily torture of solitary confinement; and Laura Fattal, Joshua’s mother, who wrote him 781 letters, one every day he was in captivity, which were kept from him by his guards in an attempt to break his spirit.