Iran, the US, and the UK

Mike LaBossiere

Mike LaBossiere

With the situation in Iran dominating much of the world’s attention, it might be wondered what a philosopher can say about the situation. Being an American writing for a British blog, I decided that the most reasonable thing to do would be to write about what the US and UK should morally do or not do in regards to Iran. Naturally enough, some history will be required to set the stage for the discussion.

While an examination of the history involving the United States, the United Kingdom and Iran could (and does) fill numerous books, For a concise and well written overview of the history between these three nations, I would suggest this Smithsonian article on the subject.  For this essay, I will just be focusing on the basic details of the past half century.

In 1951 the Iranian people elected Mohammed Mossadegh to the post of Prime Minister. Mohammed Mossadegh, backed by an ever growing nationalistic sentiment in Iran, decided to nationalize the oil industry. In response, the British attempted to launch a coup against him. When this failed, Churchill tried to persuade Truman to get the CIA to stage a coup of their own. Truman refused to do this.

Unfortunately for Iran, Eisenhower (perhaps worried that nationalization would lead to socialism) had no qualms about getting the United States involved in toppling a foreign ruler. In 1953 the government was overthrown and Mohammad Reza Shah was installed by the United States as ruler of the country.

The Shah proved to be a staunch American ally and also a dictator. Not surprisingly, his oppressive ways did not endear him to the people of Iran and he was famously overthrown in 1979.  While there were some moderates in Iran at this time, the revolution was quickly taken over by the Fundamentalist Shiite clerics and Iran was transformed from a dictatorship propped up by America to a theocracy that professed to want death for America.

Having lost Iran as an ally, the United States was happy to help Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. During the long Iran-Iraq war, the United States aided Iraq.

This now leads us to the current situation. As in 1951 and 1979, the winds of change are blowing. The current rulers of Iran are obviously familiar with history, so they are no doubt concerned that they might find themselves on the other end of a revolution.

Back in 1953 we dealt with Iran by replacing the government.  In 1979 our puppet government was overthrown. Now in 2009 we are watching the situation in Iran, wondering what we should do. It is to this  moral question that I now turn.

Put in somewhat simple terms, we (the folks in the UK and US) are in a dilemma. The first horn is taking no action. The second horn is taking action in support of the protesters against the government.

Interestingly enough, the rulers of Iran probably want the US and UK to get involved with the protesters. Naturally, they do not want us to be involved enough to actually present a credible threat to the regime. But our limited involvement would provide them with an ideal political tool to justify and rationalize their actions. Of course, they would also be pleased if we stay out of the situation-that would give them the freedom to do as they wish.

On the one horn, if we stay out of the situation, the rulers of Iran can act with impunity against their own people. This would seem to be morally wrong because we would be allowing innocent people, like Neda Agha Soltan, to die. Doing nothing would seem to be a betrayal of the democratic and moral ideals of the US and the UK. Assuming that these ideals are correct, such a betrayal would clearly not be an acceptable choice.

On the other horn, if the US and UK get involved, then the Iranian rulers can use that as effective propaganda and also use it to justify escalating the violence against their own people.  After all, the United States is their Great Satan. American and British involvement would allow the rulers of Iran to claim that it is an attempt on our part to interfere with their country and they could use this to justify (or rationalize) cracking down even more on their people. They could also use this to discredit the reform movement by claiming that it is being controlled by the United States and the UK.  They do, of course, have quite a history to draw upon. Even now, the rulers of Iran are attempting to blame the US and the UK for the dissent in their country. Interestingly, the UK is getting most of the blame-perhaps you’ll get to be the new Great Satan.

From a moral standpoint, taking actions that would result in greater harm to the Iranian people would not be acceptable. We have done considerable harm to Iran in the past and should certainly not continue in that tradition.

The challenge is, of course, to make it through the two horns of the dilemma. Doing and saying nothing is morally unacceptable and would, to be purely pragmatic, waste a political opportunity for the US and UK. Acting in ways that empower the current regime would also be morally unacceptable. What must be found is a way to do something that does not hand the rulers of Iran a propaganda tool and a rationale for crushing the “foreign caused” dissent.

This, naturally enough, requires resisting the desire to play the old game, the game that has often been called “Western Imperialism.” What is needed is a new sort of a approach, one that allows us to express a genuine (or so I hope) commitment to democracy and desire for a peaceful resolution in an effective way all the while avoiding the appearance (and reality) of foreign intervention.

Obviously, some might see such an approach as timid, weak and futile. There is, of course, something to be said about that. If we confine our response to mere words, then the rulers of Iran will feel free to do as they wish. From a moral standpoint, we would be like spectators to domestic violence who say “good luck” and “we feel for you” to the person being hit. Obviously, we would be failing in our moral duty.

Fortunately, we can go beyond mere words without becoming directly involved. One thing that we are already doing is disseminating information about and from Iran via our commercial media. Oppression thrives best in the shadows and modern information technology means that there are fewer and fewer places of darkness.  Diplomacy might also prove effective-although it might seem to be mere words. A key factor is, of course, making sure that the Iranian dissent remains just that-Iranian (as opposed to being British or American directed). Iran is a sovereign nation and her people should decide her fate; but it must be decided by the people and not just the rulers.

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  1. I’m not sure if you want to discuss what the U.S. or U.K. governments ought to do about Iran or what individuals in the U.S. or U.K. (or anywhere else outside Iran) should do. Governments basically look out for their own interests, and I would not expect either the government of the U.S. or U.K. to concern themselves with the well-being of the Iranian people, in spite of the usual idealist rhetoric. Of course, the governments of the U.S. and U.K. would like nothing more than to utilize the current protests to bring down the regime of the Ayatollah’s, which is their enemy and a key player in the struggle to control oil resources. However, we, as ethical individuals, can concern ourselves with the well-being of the Iranian protesters. How to best do that is a difficult question.

  2. The UK(and the US), have made a composite mess in the Middle East. As your introductory article says – from out and out Imperial domination through oil grabbing to the self glorification of the Iraq scandal – we have compromised any moral position. Yet it could be argued that we as individuals have a morally independent position. One may then question what we can next do, for it is only at a national level that we can formulate any plan of action in respect of a nation,(whether morally founded or not). However it is interesting that it was the reports via the mobile phones that gave us direct information about the situation. The first supportive contact with those Iranians who are subject to what they see as a dictatorial imposition, might well be at that level, via e-mail or blog sites such as this. Satan’s subjects listen and care.

  3. Amos,

    Both individual and governmental actions are fit subjects for discussion. Of course, actions by individuals will tend to be seen as actions by the states (the assumption that folks with British passports are somehow linked to the British government is a possible example of this).

    I suspect that people in the government of both the US and the UK do care about the Iranian people…at least to the degree that all normal people have sympathy for other people. But, as you point out, the UK and US government folks (and most citizens) would be happy to see the Islamic Republic go down. I must admit that I would be happy to see that regime go-provided that it was not replaced by something worse.

  4. Jonathan,

    We certainly did have a major hand in messing things up. It is certainly interesting to speculate what things would be like if we had dealt with Iran differently in the past.

    One nice thing about democracies is that the people actually do have an influence (well, so I hope). I suspect that the person to person communication between the US, UK and Iran will have a significant impact on how things unfold. At the very least, this has really humanized Iranians for many Americans and Brits. It has also no doubt generated a great deal of empathy and sympathy.

    I wonder if the leaders of Iran will be influenced by the people who are dissenting or whether it will show that its talk of democracy is but empty words.

  5. Amos,

    The test seems to have worked.

  6. Mike: I wrote “testing” because I had forgot to check
    the box which automatically sends me email up-dates. I have no doubt that people in the U.S. and U.K. government have normal human sentiments, but their job is to protect the long-term geopolitical interests of their nations, as they perceive them. In fact, when a president like Bush confuses oil, weapons of mass destruction and freedom for the Iraqi people (and I think that he genuinely confused them) disaster occurs. One thing that I like about Obama is that he’s smart enough not to confuse oil, the geopolitical needs of the U.S. in the gulf region, and freedom for the Iranian people. Now, oil doesn’t matter to me nor do the geopolitical needs of the U.S., especially since I neither have a car nor live in the U.S. However, the situation of the Iranian people does concern me (as does the situation of people in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two allies of the U.S. in which there are no free elections and surprise, little expressed concern on the part of the U.S. government about that fact, although I agree with you that a person as sensitive as Obama must on some level have a personal concern about oppression everywhere, but, as I said above, his job is to protect the U.S. empire). I agree with Jonathan that we might express our concern through the web, perhaps facilitating websites to Iranian dissidents or giving them access to web tools that their government denies them. I’m computer illiterate, but some of you bright kids might have better ideas along those lines.

  7. Article suggesting that the Iranian elections were not rigged.

  8. michael reidy

    On a scale of 1 – 10 of fates to be avoided:
    4 – Curse of the Mummy
    6 – British Intervention in your affairs
    8 – American intervention.

    Amos, the massive ‘conspiracy’ and the impossibility of covering it up is clear. Yankees don’t go home, stay at home.

  9. So, it looks as if the Iranian election was a fine example of John Stuart Mill’s view of Democracy – namely that it is a tyrannny of the majority, and on this occassion the minority thought that democracy was the end of tyranny.

  10. Ralph Sabella

    Hi Mike,
    I have a philo 101 question.
    If a person has no free will, say he has been programmed to act in a certain way, then, I assume, his morality doesn’t come into question with any of his actions.
    Now, the US and UK have all sorts of restraints on them, besides the few you threw in here. Obviously,they can act with only a very limited capacity of free will, if at all. Is it fair to judge the morality of their actions under such circumstances?

  11. There is nothing that one can do about dubious moral histories between the UK, USA and Iran. It is a closed door! One has to start from now!

    We have no moral right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country, particularly after a democratic election. We in the west have absolutely no evidence to determine whether the election result was fraud or otherwise.

    If we take the moral high ground, we have a moral obligation to consider our own inconsistencies. There are many other countries in the world with unclean records.

    YES, we have empathy with the Iranians who are getting hurt or killed. All Iranians should have a democratic right to express their concerns.

    Let us look at the Cold War example. The Americans and their allies quietly dealt with the threat of communism from spreading throughout Europe and the World. Education and careful diplomacy were duly rewarded and war avoided.

    The Iranian issue can only be dealt with by the younger generation, like those in eastern Europe, through education, communication and mutual understanding with the west.

  12. Amos,

    You raise an excellent point about interests. In a nifty coincidence, I was teaching about Socrates today and we were discussing his view of what a person’s interests truly are. Naturally, he believed that being virtuous is what is in one’s best interest.

    So, there is the question about whether the geopolitical interests of the US are really in the best interest of, for example, Americans. As you pointed out with the example of Bush, people can be rather confused about what they think they are doing and what their interests really are. Clearly, people can be mistaken about their best interests.

    I’m inclined to go with Socrates on this one: doing what is virtuous is what is truly in our best interest. But, what is that?!

  13. It is worth considering that the election was not rigged (or not very rigged). While there are plenty of grounds for suspicion, the fellow who got elected does enjoy considerable popularity. Of course, he also faces considerable dislike.

    I did find it interesting that the recount somehow resulted in even more votes for him.

  14. Michael,

    People love American Intervention, our amazing new reality show. 🙂

  15. Jonathan,

    An excellent point. Democracy does have that obvious little problem-the majority can roll over the minority. Of course, as Locke argued, we seem to be obligated to go along with the majority or we’d end up just destroying society. But, there are limits to how far the minority should yield.

  16. Ralph,

    I’d agree that without free will a person’s morality would be irrelevant (unless his morality was somehow compelling him to act, but let’s lay aside that). After all, he would be acting like a machine or any other effectively mindless object-just being acted upon rather than truly acting.

    The restraints that the US and UK have on them does limit their range of action. However, they do seem to still have a considerable range of choice, thus making it reasonable to judge what the folks do or do not do. Or so I think.

  17. Roland,

    While the past is the past, its effects live on. It would be good to be able to move on, but I think we have a lot to settle between each other before we can do that.

    I think there are moral grounds for interfering in other countries, provided that they are doing enough evil to warrant such an intrusion. For example, if a country starts a campaign of genocide, other countries should step in. National boundaries are not impervious to moral obligations.

    I do hope you are right that the Iranian issue will sort out peacefully.

  18. Mike: Socrates did what was virtuous and ended up drinking hemlock. Perhaps being virtuous is a luxury that presidents cannot
    indulge in. Isn’t that the message of Machiavelli? Or rather that there a one kind of virtue for us commoners and another kind of virtue (I believe that Machiavelli specifically uses the word “virtue”) for those who govern. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a country governed by a saint.

  19. Mike,

    In general I agree with you, there is a lot to settle between the UK, USA and Iran before we can move on. Is it not a fact that some of the issues revolve around ignorance of the culture and depth of politics in each country. Conflicts of unconsciousness within each other develops into acute apprehensions all round. As the late Professor Gilbert Ryle pointed out ‘The reader of a report of a race can, subject to certain restrictions imposed by the text of the report, first picture the race in one way and then deliberately or involuntarily picture it in a differrent and perhaps conflicting way……yet alternative views are rigidly ruled out’ Differences of opinion should never mean hostility.

    If we impose our will on others it will be infinitely worse than before. We should ask ourselves the question, ‘Are our teachings/preachings ahead of our own practices?

    Britain in 1919 attempted to control the oil supplies in Persia (Iran) and also around the Middle East. They presented an unscrupulous agreement to Persia and expected them to sign it.
    The Persians objected and rioted.

    Britain in 1919 had a carte blanche attitude towards power (oil) and even now it has no control over current events in Iran.

    Burma is another example – what are we doing there for “The Perfect Hostage:Aung San Suu Kyi” ?

  20. Amos,

    It is tempting to take the view that the common people can afford the luxury of morality, while the leaders must practice a different sort of virtue. After all, the leaders are playing a much more high stake game and it can be argued that they must be free to do what they must, unshackled by the concerns of everyday morality.

    Of course, leaders often justify their misdeeds by such an appeal. It can also be argued that just because someone is a king, a president or a grand poobah, they are still subject to the same moral constraints as everyone else.

    Socrates did die, but we all do. I think he would say that it is better to be virtuous and die for it then to live an unjust life.

  21. There is a certain irony in Americans and Brits getting up on a moral high horse in regards to Iran. After all, the US and UK helped shape the Iran of today.

  22. Mike: I posted my answer in your blog on Michael Jackson by mistake. In any case, innocent leaders fail: for example, Trotsky, Allende, Gorbachov. If Trotsky had been less virtuous, less well-intentioned, he might have outmanoevured Stalin and have converted the Soviet Union into a socialist state instead of a vast gulag. Perhaps my comment about Socrates was not clear. Of course, we all die, but Socrates’s virtue led only to his own death, while the good-intentions of Allende led not only to his death, but to 17 years of the dictatorship of Pinochet and to the death and torture of countless Chileans. Allende was too innocent, too idealistic, too trusting to deal with the opposition of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Chilean rightwing, none of whom can be accused of applying the categorial imperative as a rule of life. So, a president, having the responsibility for the lives of all those whom he or she represents, cannot play by the golden rule nor can he or she be always honest and just in a world where sharks, like Nixon and Kissinger and so many others, lurk. By the way, Socrates has been criticized, as you know, for letting his virtue trump his responsibility towards his family, especially his young children. Here is a link to an excellent article on Machiavelli by Isaiah Berlin:

  23. Amos,
    You do raise a good point. There is an often accepted view that being good entails being naive or less able. In a sense, this view can be seen as well founded: good folks are limited in what they will do and evil (or practical) folks are not so limited. What good people can do and still remain good is an interesting matter. As the usual argument goes, if a good person uses ruthless tactics even for the cause of good, then they become bad. Of course, if good is that ineffective against evil, then there would seem to be little reason to be good beyond a hope for a divine reward or the desire to remain good rather than evil.

    For an opposing view, we can turn to Confucius and Aristotle. Both argued for the importance of virtue and how a state should be governed by virtue. Confucius argued that moral force was the true foundation for government. Sun Tzu also argued for an ethical way to succeed. While he did write a guide to battle, his ultimate goal was to win without killing or destroying.

    My own thought is that being good is consistent with doing what must be done. Of course, my view is that good need not be stupid, naive or weak and that sometimes a good person will have to do harsh things-like kill wicked people.

  24. Mike,

    ‘being good is consistent with what must be done’
    ‘sometimes a good person will have to do harsh things like kill wicked people’

    Perhaps these statements are right, therefore, rejecting moral absolutism. It can be very difficult to decide what one ought to do. At the moment the world is a cruel and deceitful place, and one can find oneself in situations where moral principles conflict so it is almost impossible to tell what to do.

    If I reject moral absolutism the position is what moral principles are true for me or true for my country. Whatever the position it would not be true for all people in all times, therefore, they are not universally valid.

    First of all, one must have a clear definition of ‘what is to be done’ ‘who are wicked people and why’, also what is ‘evil’ in this case.

    I agree with Aristotle, the truly rational agent engages in moral reasoning, he doesn’t follow rules blindly. (currently, western political views?)

    What do the main Iranian Groups want? I include both inside and outside the country. Presently we have the State level vesus the Individual level.

    Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), an anthropologist, argued that the world contains many different cultures and some of them engage in practices very different from our own. She concluded that there is no single objective morality and that morality varies with culture.

    John Stuart Mill tells us that in any situation, the right thing to do is whatever is likely to produce the most happiness overall, to do anything else would be wrong. But, the aspirations of the poorest Iranian will not likely equate to the aspirations of the Iranian Intellects domiciled in Iran or domiciled abroad.

    We in the West plead for a Universal democracy and human rights. Therefore, should we make this plea loudly, clearly and in good consciousness to the Iraniens and the world at large and consider what Winston Churchill once said, ‘JAW, JAW, JAW not WAR, WAR, WAR’ Sun Tzu was right in his ultimate goal!

    What is the moral argument for our interference if we should interfere at all?

  25. Roland,

    I think an absolutist could argue that a good person can do harsh things-these actions would just be part of the absolutely right action to take. But, of course, the absolutist would not allow exceptions.

    You can reject absolutism (the view that morality is both objective and allows for no exceptions) and still avoid relativism. After all, you could be a moral objectivist and allow for exceptions. For example, utilitarianism is a form of moral objectivism, yet it clearly allows for a great deal of flexibility.

    Benedict did do some clever work, but I think that her findings were ultimately mistaken. All major human groups that have thrived seem to share a core set of moral principles/virtues. No major culture accepts things like murder, rape, theft, and so on. Yes, people in all cultures do those things, but they are not praised or endorsed. Interestingly, the cultures that the anthropologists point to as examples of human cultures that reject these sorts of values have all been small and typically dying cultures. That is, no doubt, no coincidence.

  26. “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. … States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

    –President George W. Bush, Jan. 29, 2002

    In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, President George W. Bush uttered words that may have altered the course of U.S. relations with Iran — and the rest of the Middle East. “Iran is the “axis of evil!”

  27. Diana Montenegro

    Could a terrorist use Moral Objectivism to justify their violent acts?

  28. i want philosophers i can acsses in iran
    help plz

  29. Ruthless_Truth

    even not a moment u have thought if what iranian government think of US.UK is right and that they want more power and more money, not more justice

    do u ever believe someone that had betrayed u before several times and tell lies day to day, why do u expect iranian to believe betrayers and liers?

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