Appropriately, Iran, then known as Persia, had helped introduce coffee to the west. When a party of Elizabethan travelers visited Persia in 1598 they saw people saw sitting, cross-legged and drinking ‘a certain liquor, which they do call Coffee, which is made of seede much like mustard seede, which will soone intoxicate the braine like our Metheglin’. As in 2015 coffee was used to calm the debate. Calm was certainly needed for as far back as the reign of Shah Abbas in the seventeenth century, a complex political relationship existed between Persia and the West.
The Persians had feared the Turks
they discussed an alliance with Western Europe against the Ottoman Empire. An offer was taken to Persia by two English adventurers, the Sherley brothers but problems and misunderstandings grew and a valid alliance never materialised. The Persians were bitterly disappointed at the outcome. Suspicion of Western motives grew and sowed the seeds of blame in Persian minds. The concept of the ‘duplicitous west’ was born and still exists, as Senator Kerry and the US negotiators recently found.
Throughout the twentieth century Persian distrust festered as the USA and Britain attempted to manipulate Iranian politics. In the 1920s, the British were seen as blatantly interfering in local politics culminating in British forces being used to bring Reza Shah Pahlavii to the emperor’s Peacock throne. Again in the 1950s it was British intelligence that helped the American CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq who had sought a more equitable distribution of Iran’s new oil wealth, overseen by the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Decades of resentment against Britain and latterly the USA
finally exploded with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. There were months of demonstrations against the Shah’s rule and the influence of the West eventually led to the Shah fall from power. The popular religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile and on the 1st April 1979 the new Islamic Republic of Iran was proclaimed.
Khomeini showed hostility from the start, launched an anti-West tirade by denouncing Britain as the ‘most treacherous’ of the regime’s enemies. Later, an adviser would describe Britain as being worse than America for its alleged interference in Iran’s post-election affairs and in pro-government demonstrations in Tehran more British than American flags were burnt in the streets of Tehran.
So it continued, and when Iran fought a brutal eight-year war against Iraq from 1980 to 1988, Tehran felt that it was also indirectly fighting the Americans. Saddam Hussein was, for much of the war, supplied with arms, money and intelligence assistance by the USA. The Iranians were even more infuriated by the U.S.backing of large-scale chemical attacks with sarin and mustard gas on their forces.
Another incident similar to the recent downing of a civil airliner over the Ukraine by Russian backed forces, came in 1988. The US warship, the Vincennes was pursuing Iranians gunboats when it spotted Iran Air flight 655 taking off from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran. As the giant Airbus civil jet headed over the Vincennes, the Americans misidentified it as a hostile fighter and the Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles that destroyed the plane killing two hundred and seventy four passengers and sixteen crew.
Axis of Evil
in his January 2002 State of the Union address, George W. Bush described Iran as a member, along with Iraq and North Korea, of an infamous ‘axis of evil’ that threatened the civilised world. His words both surprised and outraged the Iranians. According to Ryan Crocker, then a U.S. diplomat in Kabul who was engaged in talks with Iranian officials, they abruptly killed the prospect of any rapprochement. ‘We were just that close,’ Crocker said.’One word in one speech changed history’.
Although an overstatement, Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ was taken as proof by Tehran that Washington’s goal was not just to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but to totally replace the country’s political regime. It proved so diplomatically contentious that President Obama was eventually compelled to reassure the U.N. that the USA was categorically not seeking regime change in Iran.
Yet the suspicion lingered and it took the world by surprise when a long-term comprehensive nuclear agreement between the two nations was finally announced in July 2015. It followed eighteen months of intensive bargaining, culminating in an eight-day period of near-continuous talks that went on long into the night. As news of the deal reached Tehran, people took to the streets to celebrate, looking forward to the prospect of life without sanctions.
most importantly it offered Iran the opportunity of obtaining relief from crippling economic sanctions. It also allows Iran to play a responsible role in regional politics and decision-making and to improve its economy through international trade. As President Obama only has a year and a half remaining in his term, implementation of the nuclear deal, and its domino effects, will largely be left to the next administration. But his Assistant Secretary of State has stated that the U.S. is prepared for a post-deal outcome that, for better or for worse, will change the nature of the U.S. relationship with Iran and hopefully for the better. After centuries of suspicion and decades of hostility this would surely be a result worth toasting in both coffee – and champagne.