"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This is how English writer L.P. Hartley, in his novel The Go-Between, comments on the ambiguity of our relations with a past that fascinates and confuses us. I was reminded of Hartley's enigmatic phrase last week as I skimmed through a series of news stories indicating the discovery by the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran of Iran's past.
There was Iran's President Hassan Rouhani advising US President Donald Trump not to ignore Iran's "7,000-year old civilization" in stark contradiction to Ayatollah Khomeini's claim that the whole of Iranian history before his seizure of power should be classified as "jahiliyah" (darkness).
Then there were the so-called "reformist Khomeinists" who took US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to task for expressing support for what is reported as a national uprising in Iran. They invited Pompeo to remember Mohammad Mosaddeq, the man who served as Prime Minister of Iran in the early 1950s and, so his supporters believe, was overthrown in a putsch backed by the United States. "Mussadeq was the hero of Iranian national uprising," one Khomeinist apologist commented. He forgot that according to the propaganda of the regime he has served for almost four decades, Mussadeq was "a traitor and enemy of Islam" and that he had become a non-person in the Islamic Republic.
You may also remember the recent brouhaha made about the discovery of mortal remains reportedly belonging to a mummy of Reza Shah the Great. According to the governor of Rey, the place where the remains were discovered, the mummy was quickly reburied "with full respect" on orders from Iran's Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei. What a contrast with the campaign by Ayatollah Sadeq Giwi (alias Khalkhali), one of Khomeini's key associates, to have the Pahlavi king's mummy burned in public.
And what about this surprising comment by the head of Iran's Department of Environment, Isa Kalantari, that "for over 7,000 years Iranians knew how to manage their natural resources", an art that has disappeared during the four decades of Khomeinist rule, threatening Iran with "total destruction"?
Nostalgia for the past doesn't stop there.
Tehran's government-controlled media are full of stories about ancient relics, old buildings and historic sites that recall Iran's glories over millennia. Even hoses that once belonged to the grandees of the ancien régime, and the Qajar dynasty before that, are featured admiringly amid calls for them to be classified as national treasures and preserved. Again, what a contrast with the heady days of four decades ago when Khomeini and his cohorts fanned the fires of rage and called for destruction of whatever reminded Iranians of the past.
Nostalgia for the good old days that had initially been branded "the bad old days" is not limited to historic events and figures or relics and buildings. Scavenging in the past the Khomeinist clique is also beginning to discover other "goodies".
In May, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African Affairs, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, astounded European Union officials when, in a visit to Brussels, he suggested that an association accord signed between the Shah's regime and the then European Economic Community in 1975 be revived restoring to Iran a series of privileges that the Islamic Republic today couldn't even dream of. Under the agreement signed by the then Iranian Economy Minister Hushang Ansary and the Common Market's Commissar for Foreign Trade Lord Tugendhat, Iran was given tariff-free access for its agricultural and manufactured goods and granted special facilities for raising capital on European markets.
That is not all. Facing almost total diplomatic isolation, the Khomeinist clique have also revived the idea of a regional cooperation framework that could include Iran, Turkey and Pakistan on the lines of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) outfit that Iran created under the Shah.
The Iranian military's Chief of Staff, Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, is also chasing another elusive gazelle from the past: a system of military cooperation with Turkey and Pakistan. Such a gazelle existed under the Shah and was called the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). It also included Great Britain as full member and the United States as associate member. (The US didn't become a full member because Iran did not accept the NATO-like arrangement under which, in case of war, troops of all member states would be under US command. Iranian law prohibited putting Iranian troops under foreign command; a reason cited by the Shah for refusing to send troops to the wars in Korea and then Vietnam, while Turkey did take part under US command.)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also rediscovered an enticing piece of the past, in the form of two cooperation accords signed between Iran and the United States in the 1950s to give a legal framework to American humanitarian aid to Iran, mostly in the form of mass vaccinations and the building of schools and clinics under President Truman's CARE and Point IV scheme, which continued until 1964, when Iran announced it no longer accepted foreign aid.
Zarif's argument is that those accords contradict President Trump's threatened decision to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claims that cooperation accords signed between Iran and the US in the 1950s contradict President Trump's threatened decision to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic. (Photo by Lennart Preiss/Getty Images)
The Khomeinist clique has also discovered that before the mullahs seized power, Iran had visa-free travel agreements with 34 countries, including virtually all present-day members of the European Union. Today, however, the reaction of all those countries to Zarif's demand to restore the agreement is stark: That was then, and this is now!
Another discovery by the Khomeinist clique concerns the 1972 accord with Afghanistan regarding the sharing of waters from four border rivers: Hirmand, Parian, Harirud and Farah. Having denounced the accord as a betrayal of Islam, the Khomeinist clique is now demanding that Kabul implement it, to save large chunks of Iran from economic death due to shortage of water.
At the opposite side of the country, the clique has rediscovered the 1975 Algiers Agreement with Iraq, under which the two neighbors share sovereignty over the border estuary Shatt al-Arab. Last Tuesday President Hassan Rouhani threatened to shut the Shatt al-Arab, presumably to prevent Iraq from exporting oil, if and when President Trump tries to impose an oil export ban on Iran. What Rouhani didn't know is that Iraq isn't exporting oil through the Shatt al-Arab and that Iran's refusal to implement the Algiers Agreement has prevented the dredging operations needed to reopen the estuary and reactivate the Iraqi port of Basra and its Iranian sister-port of Khorramshahr.
Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors branded all accords that Iran signed under the Shah as "a Zionist conspiracy against Islam." Now they are trying to eat humble pie in the hope of regaining some of the privileges Iran lost when they seized power.
However, in Iran today, as in Hartley's novel, the past remains a foreign country where people do things differently.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.