A Part of Their Rage Belongs to Us

06/23/2009 09:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The genteel interview of the former empress of Iran conducted by MSNBC Tuesday is a vital example of how American political sensibilities are dangerously lacking context. We watch on the web and television as Iranians die in the street demanding proof of a democratic election and we are mostly amazed at their courage. MSNBC, seeking insight on Iran's raging electorate, turns, foolishly, to a woman whose husband was a brutal dictator and, almost certainly, as oppressive as Iran's current president.

Farah Pahlavi, who was married to the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, told MSNBC's Kari Huus that she was hoping the uprising would happen "in spite of the dictatorship of the theocracy." Regardless of the nature of the current Iranian government, dictatorship is a precise description of the regime maintained by her late husband. Shah Pahlavi, as even casual students of history are aware, was an American puppet placed in power by a coup, which had been orchestrated by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr, the grandson of the former president.

When the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was nationalized in 1951 by Iran's democratically elected President Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, U.S. and British intelligence services set in motion a plan to install the Shah and overthrow the man who had been voted into office. The historical rationalization was that Communism was afoot in that part of the world and the West was worried that the Iranian communist party might take control of Iran's vast natural resources and assist the U.S.S.R. The truth was the U.S. and Britain wanted Iran's cheap energy and the Shah turned into a cozy lap dog that bought American weapons with his country's billions while providing the oil needed by the West.

The Shah ran a frightful government. He established SAVAK, a secret police service that was actually trained at an American university. SAVAK tortured and killed thousands of Iranians over the course of Shah Pahlavi's rule. Dissent was brutally crushed. Empress Pahlavi, almost pathetically, tried to describe her husband as a man "who didn't want to keep his throne over the bloodshed of his people." This, obviously, is utter nonsense. He killed an untold number of "his" people to keep his throne and it is one of our country's great shames that we helped to facilitate his oppression.

The empress makes mention of how much the Iranian people "have suffered over the past 30 years." There's little doubt that the mullahs have created a theocracy that does not allow for true expression of the will of the people and it is abundantly clear that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as brutal as any other dictatorial leader. What the empress again fails to mention and is not asked about by the MSNBC reporter is the nature of the government run by her husband from 1953 until he was tossed out of his country by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. There was no form of demonstration under the Shah, and mass protest was virtually unheard of until Iran's religious leaders began to assert themselves a few decades into the Shah's rule.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini led the revolt of 1979 and the U.S. Embassy was stormed, the anger grew out of decades of misguided American financial and political support of the oppressive Shah. Iran's politically oppressed were seeking an answer to his power and angry mullahs were the only ones willing to confront the strong man. Iran's youth has largely followed the religious leaders ever since those 66 Americans were captured.

Until the Internet. And Obama. The more Iranians see of the west and America and our new president the more they want what is offered by a better form of democracy. Their protests now are as much about a lack of real choice as they are the bastardized and corrupted electoral process in their country.

They don't know, however, whether they can trust America. We have a poor record of performance with their country. Iran's educated population knows that Ahmadinejad is a lunatic and his rumblings against Israel and denial of the Holocaust are embarrassing absurdities. They wonder, however, how the west can deny them the sovereign right to develop nuclear power, whether for peaceful or military purposes. Even if they know their president is a fool with his claims about Israel, Iranians still see an acute hypocrisy in the fact that Israel is a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel also refuses to formally acknowledge it has one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world but still receives unflinching support from U.S. leadership.

The Empress Pahlavi wrapped up her interview with MSNBC by saying she stands ready to help the movement for democracy in her home country. Whether this is humor or irony hardly seems to matter; she is as oblivious to her history as we Americans are to our own past in Iran. Her son, Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, has long said he hopes to return and lead his country some day. His time in America has not been wasted, either. He has learned to use the mighty lever of fear. In Washington, D.C., speaking at the National Press Club Monday, he sounded like he was a graduate of the Dick Cheney School of Nuclear Fear and Sound Bite Fun when he said, "Fanatical tyrants who know that the future is against them may end their present course on their terms, a nuclear holocaust."

The people of Iran deserve far better than another Pahlavi, Ahmadinejad, or Mousavi. They also have countless reasons to be angry.

And a part of their rage belongs to us.