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.
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.