It was about a month after 9/11 that Jacques Derrida declared the Cold War finally over. For the reason, he said, that: “…there can no longer be a balance of terror, for there is no longer a duel or standoff between two powerful states (U.S.A., USSR)… From now on, the nuclear threat, the ‘total’ threat, no longer comes from a state but from anonymous forces that are absolutely unforeseeable and incalculable.”
The specter of global terrorism 9/11 projected into the future was, Derrida believed, a heritage of the Cold War, since the 9/11 al-Qaeda hijackers “who turned against the United States had been trained by the United States during the era of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”
Derrida understood that the tracks leading from the Cold War to the war on terror ran through Afghanistan. Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) reveals, in much depressing detail, how Ronald Reagan’s determination to beat up on the USSR in Afghanistan, perhaps extract payback for Vietnam by aiding the mujahideen in their fight against the Russians in the 1980s, laid the groundwork for the rise of al-Qaeda and 9/11.
Heading home from Tokyo in June 2001, I saw a report in the International Herald Tribune happily suggesting that the end of al-Qaeda was at hand. The Base was in disarray, torn apart by “inner strife, betrayal, and greed.” A Sudanese man, Jamal Ahmed Fadl, complained that he was being unfairly compensated, that his $500 monthly salary was “lower than others.” Disgruntlement seemed widespread. These details emerged from the trials of individuals involved in the attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998, in which 224 people, including 12 Americans were killed. One might have quite reasonably concluded, quite incorrectly as it turned out, that the organization was on its last legs.
It was the considered opinion of Sasha, a banker from Grozny I ran into, that the Americans by “their stupidity and obsession with Vietnam” had brought 9/11 on themselves. If Reagan had joined the Russians in their war against the mujahideen, he explained, they could have defeated al-Qaeda and the Taliban and spared themselves the loss of an ocean of blood and treasure.
I put the proposition to the American military strategist Edward Luttwak: “It is a sort of geopolitical fantasy. The United States was fighting the Soviet Union and everything that happened in Afghanistan was nothing compared to the defeat of the Soviet Union. That was worth a million and everything bad that happened was worth a hundred.”
The mujahideen with American help pushed the USSR over the edge, the Afghan debacle accelerating the decline underway in the status and influence of the Soviet agenda. On December 25, 1991, the USSR was no more — for some, an anti-climax after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Perhaps not the end, but certainly the beginning of the end of the Cold War might have occurred on January 16, 1979, the day Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, boarded a plane bound for Egypt. A couple of weeks later Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini was back in Tehran. Iranians voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic. Khomeini became the country’s Supreme Leader.
The Ayatollah owed his remarkable political success to the US State Department. The State’s unremitting hostility to the Shah apparently dated from the tenure of Henry Kissinger in the mid-1970s. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, said: “…the power echelons at State, notably the head of the Iran Desk were motivated by doctrine dislike of the Shah and simply wanted him out of power altogether.” This, despite the fact that the Shah was a strong opponent of Soviet ambitions in the region. Was the Shah’s friendly attitude to Israel the problem at State? James Earl “Jimmy“ Carter seemed convinced that if one played nice with the Grand Ayatollah and granted him the opportunity, he would spread good will and tolerance and, as someone put it, become Jimmy’s best pal.
How to explain? There are hypotheses having to do with oil and opium.
The Shah, suffering from cancer, acceded to American pressure to leave the country and go into exile. Incensed by the Shah’s admission to the USA for medical treatment, in October 1979, Iranian student radicals seized the US embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. The Shah died in Cairo on July 27, 1980, at age 70. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan assumed the American presidency. There has been the claim that the Reagan people negotiated a delay in the release of the hostages to assure an election win over Carter. For a time, a brain-dead America looked upon Islam as a Cold War ally.
V.S. Naipaul, who’d spent time in Iran in 1979 and again in 1995 and had no knowledge of the role of the US State Department, saw the Iranian Revolution simply as “many different ideas and impulses” that had appeared to run together. He observed the initial alliance between the mullahs and the deluded communists. Iran’s Tudeh Communist Party “had hoped to ride to power on the back of the religious movement and, in the early days of the revolution, it was the policy of the party to adopt an Islamic camouflage.” Tudeh’s lasting contribution was a “Soviet-style apparatus.” Someone Naipaul spoke to during his second visit, a totally disillusioned believer, explained with a shrug that perhaps human beings were too complicated for revolutions. Naipaul did very clearly see the consequence of American meddling: “The world had been remade…the country had been turned inside out, eviscerated by war and revolution. No one could say for sure that a larger cause had been served.”
Years later I obtained an insight into the Carter administration’s handling of the 1979 hostage crisis from Robert Bergland, who was Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture:
Robert Bergland: The President was concerned with the lives of the hostages. The strategy was always to negotiate their release, which he thought was possible. He did not want to get the militants in the Iranian establishment exorcised and go on a killing rampage.
DL: There was a rescue attempt that resulted in an American helicopter crash.
RB: That was a piece of bad luck.
DL: Was there within the administration no thought at all given to delivering a decisive response?
RB: The security people had put together a possible rescue plan but the president vetoed it on the grounds it was too risky and the hostages would never live through it.
DL: Why didn’t he tell the Iranians to release the hostages or else?
RB: Carter was absolutely persuaded that he could negotiate the release – that it was really the only alternative; that if there was an assault on the compound, they knew where these hostages were being held; there was never any question about that. It was a place that was secure. It would not have been like going into a hotel. It would be an armed attack, shooting and bombing and grenades. It would have cost the lives of the hostages. Carter was convinced they’d be the first people killed.
DL: Was that his primary consideration?
RB: It was his only consideration.
DL: Did he see any link between the events in Iran and the conflict with the Soviets involving Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan?
RB: I don’t think so. Not that I know of. What Carter knew – and I heard him being briefed – was that the Soviets were getting ready to invade. We had satellite photographs. You could read the license tags on the Russian trucks. They were moving massive forces south. Carter knew that the Russians were absolutely terrified of these radical Islamic militants in Afghanistan — afraid they would move into Soviet territory and foment rebellion. There were 90 million Muslims on the Russian side. That was the Soviet concern. They didn’t care about Afghanistan itself. The militants heading into Soviet territory and getting the Islamic world all riled up.
DL: A Chechen banker told me an American-Soviet alliance would have solved the problem and prevented 9/11 from happening.
RB: It was debated in the Carter White House. They were aware that the Soviets were trying to get the Americans on their side. But the geo-politics wouldn’t have allowed it.
Edward Luttwak thought the failure of the Carter administration to adhere to normal international rules and strike the Iranians hard when they wouldn’t release the American diplomats they’d taken hostage amounted to a colossal error: “Many people at the time said that letting the Iranians get away with the hostage taking would be paid for in blood. So it has been.”
DL: Apparently Carter’s only concern was to get the hostages out alive.
EL: It was irrelevant to statecraft. It was very clear at the time that there would be some awful consequences.
A U.S. court has ruled that there were Iranian links to 9/11. There is little doubt about Iran’s role in the July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and hundreds injured.
On March 9, 2016, Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles bearing the Hebrew-language inscription “Israel needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.”
Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. W.E.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
“US Court ruling suggests Iranian ties to 9/11 attacks,” Arutz Sheva, 20 March, 2016
Åri Ben-Menashe, Profits of War: Inside the Secret U.S.-Israeli Arms Network. Sheridan Square Press, 1992.
Michael Bliss, “What the West’s Long Struggle with Communism Tells Us About the Battle with Islamic Terrorism.” The National Post, 14 April, 2015
Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, The University of Chicago Press, 2003.“
A.J.Caschetta, “Ben Rhodes and the Fiction behind the Iran Nuclear Deal,” The Gatestone Institute, 10 May, 2016.
Robert Chapman, “The Many Vexing Problems of Negotiation,” The International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Vol. 25, No.2, Summer 2012.
Toby Dershowitz, “Argentina is still helping Iran cover up its role in the bombing of a Jewish community center 21 years ago,” Business Insider, 18 July 2015.
Ali Khedery, “Iraq in Pieces: Breaking Up to Stay Together,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2015.
V.S.Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among Converted Peoples. Abacus, 1999.
V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Andre Deutsch, 1981.
Robert Parry, “Bush-41’s October Surprise Denials,” Consortiumnews.com, 6 April, 2016.
James Perloff, “Iran and the Shah: What Really Happened,” The New American, 12 May, 2009.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, “Iran Will Get the Bomb and It Won’t Be the End of the World.” Algemeiner, 24 April , 2015.
Benjamin Weiser, “Petty Politics, Greed and Betrayal Within bin Laden Group,” International Herald Tribune, 1 June, 2001.