The Middle East and the West: The Clash with Islam Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 foreshadowed America's current battle against terrorism. NPR's Mike Shuster concludes his series on the long, turbulent history of Western involvement in the Middle East with a look at the U.S. clash with Islam.
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The Middle East and the West: The Clash with Islam

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The Middle East and the West: The Clash with Islam

The Middle East and the West: The Clash with Islam

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And on the last five programs, we've been looking at the troubled history of the Middle East and the West. Today, we come to 1979, the watershed in the history of the United States and the region. In 1979, the threat of Islamic radicalism begins to grow and eventually becomes the center of US concern. NPR's Mike Shuster has the final part of our series.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

In 1979, William Quandt was a Middle East expert in Jimmy Carter's White House when, under intense public pressure, the shah of Iran was forced to flee his nation and someone named Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah of Shia Islam, arrived to lead a religious revolution.

Mr. WILLIAM QUANDT (Middle East Expert): Very few people in my business--that is, the academic community or the policy community--knew the name Khomeini. It may be hard to believe that we barely knew who he was. Until 1978, virtually nobody in the US government would have known who he was.

SHUSTER: Everyone in Iran knew who he was. An enormous political movement based on Islam had sprung up in Iran, one of the United States' most important allies in the world during the Cold War, without Washington's knowledge. This is how NPR reported the scene, when on February 1st, 1979, Khomeini returned to his native land.

(Soundbite of 1979 broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

SUSAN STAMBERG (NPR News): After nearly 15 years in exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran today. The airport in Tehran was closed to all traffic except the Air France 747 that brought him from Paris. An estimated two million people were there to meet him.

SHUSTER: Khomeini's revolution would also illustrate a pattern that has emerged in the Middle East over the past 25 years: Actions taken many years before can have unforeseen and devastating consequences. In this case, it was US support for the shah and the CIA overthrow of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq 26 years earlier. Zachary Lockman is professor of Middle East history at New York University.

Professor ZACHARY LOCKMAN (New York University): There was a tremendous amount of resentment going back to 1953 against the United States. And the shah was seen as a puppet of the United States, and this had catastrophic consequences.

SHUSTER: Later in 1979, Islamic militants would seize the US Embassy in Tehran and keep dozens of diplomats hostage for more than a year; US-Iranian relations have never recovered.

Then, on December 24th, another shock to the US: Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. For President Jimmy Carter, it was a Cold War challenge that he could not allow to go unanswered.

(Soundbite of 1979 address)

President JIMMY CARTER: If the Soviets are encouraged in this invasion by eventually success and if they maintain their dominance over Afghanistan and then extend their control to adjacent countries, the stable, strategic and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed.

SHUSTER: Carter and then Ronald Reagan, who soon followed him into the Oval Office, unleashed the CIA to fund, arm and organize an anti-Soviet guerrilla war in Afghanistan, another action that would have horrifying, unforeseen consequences many years later when Osama bin Laden, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would turn his anger and terrorist agents against the United States. Then in 1980, war spread to Iran and Iraq. When the strongman in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, ordered the invasion of Iran's oil fields, the Iranians hit back with missile attacks on the Iraqi capital.

(Soundbite of 1980 broadcast)

Mr. STEVE HINDY (Reporter): What you hear in the background is the air raid sirens of Baghdad, which have become a very common sound to those of us who've been living here for the two weeks of the war. And I can see the cars hustling across the Tigris River bridges to get off the side of the road and take refuge.

SHUSTER: The Iran-Iraq War broke out even as Iranian militants were still holding Americans hostage. The United States viewed Iran as the primary enemy in the Middle East. According to William Quandt, the Reagan administration and eventually its special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, came to look kindly on Saddam Hussein.

Mr. QUANDT: We saw Iraq as a kind of strategic ally vis-a-vis Iran, and were prepared to look the other way while Saddam was doing some of his worst atrocities. And then when Donald Rumsfeld went to see him in 1983, it was just at the time when the first use of chemical weapons was taking place against Kurds, and we simply looked the other way.

SHUSTER: The unforeseen consequences of these US actions would come quickly. No sooner had Saddam Hussein made peace with Iran in 1988 than he turned his attention to Kuwait. Iraqi forces seized Kuwait in August 1990. Another erstwhile friend of the US in the Middle East had become a deadly enemy. President Bush the elder and his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, announced the beginning of the Gulf War in January 1991.

(Soundbite of 1991 broadcast)

Mr. MARLIN FITZWATER (White House Spokesman): The liberation of Kuwait has begun. In conjunction with the forces of our coalition partners, the United States has moved under the code name Operation Desert Storm to enforce the mandates of the United Nations Security Council. As of 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, Operation Desert Storm forces were engaging targets in Kuwait and Iraq.

President GEORGE BUSH: Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait; tonight, the battle has been joined.

SHUSTER: The victory over Iraq would be swift, but the problems for the US in the Middle East would only multiply. Terrorism against the US and its allies erupted with murderous determination in 1993, with the first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York; then bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzia in 1998. The enemy that emerged was Islamic radicalism in the form of Osama bin Laden and the network he organized, al-Qaeda, based eventually in Afghanistan but with its tentacles extending, it seemed, into every Islamic nation from Morocco to Indonesia. By the end of the century, sympathy for the enemies of the United States in the Arab world was growing. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University blames what he sees as the many mistakes of the US in the region and the authoritarian regimes it has supported for years.

Mr. RICHARD BULLIET (Columbia University): By suppressing moderate Muslim demands for political liberalization, they gave increasing power--the power of desperation--to the more radical elements that surfaced in the 1990s. And some of those elements have ultimately decided that the United States is such a powerful puppet master that it should be attacked and not simply the puppet governments that it supports.

SHUSTER: For historian David Lesch of Trinity University in San Antonio, the policies the United States has pursued in the Middle East have, over time, undermined more moderate political ideologies and built sympathy for more radical ones.

Mr. DAVID LESCH (Trinity University): Now you're seeing more of, you know, the Islamists have their turn, because all of these other alternatives failed, or as Osama bin Laden called these earthly flags of socialism and capitalism and anything else--any other ideology--these have failed. And so you have elements in the Middle East saying, `Well, now we need to turn to Islam.'

SHUSTER: The new century brought even worse news: the failure of the peace process in 2000 and the outbreak of warfare between the Israelis and Palestinians; the September 11th attacks; the US war in Afghanistan a month later; and the US invasion of Iraq last year. Many historians, such as NYU's Zachary Lockman, see the current conflict as the consequences of a series of American mistakes, short-sighted decisions and unreconcilable policy goals going back 60 years; actions taken for short-term gain that result in long-term trouble for the region and the United States.

Prof. LOCKMAN: If we look back at that history, I think we can see that we are now encountering at home the consequences of a failed policy, which has held through both Democratic and Republican administrations, a policy which has tried to establish and preserve American hegemony in the region and which, as a result, has put the United States on the side of some very unpleasant regimes and some unpleasant policies and led to various forms of American intervention which have bred opposition and bred resentment.

SHUSTER: The history of the Middle East and the West has indeed been a troubled one. Now the United States is living with the consequences of that history, more deeply involved in the Middle East than ever before. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can hear Mike Shuster's entire series at our Web site,

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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