The US and Conflict in the Middle East

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Our class has seen Our Own Private Bin Laden. If Afghanistan became the Soviet version of Vietnam, then Iran became a missed alarm to signal a new, third path to success through Islamism (as opposed to the path of American and Soviet alignment). This belief system, separate from Islam, sought to turn a religious faith into a fundamentalist political ideology built around its differences from Soviet and American world-views. It was an independent ideological alternative available to parts of the Global South that was not connected to the West. The seductive attraction of such an ideology and its promise of independence for parts of the Global South was not fully grasped by either the Soviets or the Americans in Iran and Afghanistan (or elsewhere). Compare and contrast the rise of Islamism in Iran and Afghanistan. Consider as well how each superpower reacted to its presence and combated the threat of Islamism to their respective political authority.

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Both Iran and Afghanistan established Islamic governments in the late 20th century. These two countries suffered through foreign meddling and intervention and were led by weak and corrupt governments. In both cases, Islamists established themselves in government by creating theocracies. Their triumph was not inevitable, but theirs were the most potent and best organized political forces in those two countries.

Iran's Islamist regime was established after a revolution against the then-Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1978–79. Ruler of Iran from 1941 to 1979, the Shah was pro-Western. He also ruthlessly suppressed dissent: his secret police, the SAVAK was feared by the Iranian people. Mohammad Mosaddeq emerged as a powerful political opponent to the Shah in the early 1950s. Mosaddeq, a nationalist, sought to reduce the power of both the monarchy and the Islamic clergy. The West viewed him as a threat to their oil interests in Iran, so the CIA engineered a coup against Mosaddeq in 1953. This coup enabled the Shah to hold onto power until 1979. By 1978, a dissatisfied Iranian public was agitating for political change. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an Islamic leader, eventually replaced the Shah as head of the Iranian government. For the last forty years, Iran has been a theocracy under Shia Islam.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic state was founded after an Islamic religious war against the Soviets from 1979 until 1992. The United States helped create powerful Islamic groups in the country by giving them weapons to fight the Soviets. The Taliban emerged as the strongest faction and took over almost the entire country by 2001. The Taliban banned women from getting an education or working outside the home. They also destroyed two ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001, but it remains a potent force in Afghanistan. The Taliban may rule the nation again after the Unites States withdraws its troops.

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