BY repudiating all that Americans regard as civilized, Iranian mullahs have managed to convulse the US government through three successive presidencies. Is Iran really all that important to the US? Not if we look at Iran in the light of US rather than Western European interests. A retired British Secret Service operative has fairly boasted in a public television documentary that a gullible American CIA and State Department were manipulated by Britain to secure British oil interests threatened with nationalization by what clearly was a legitimate, moderate Iranian government under Muhammad Mossadeq. We accomplished what British power no longer was capable of doing directly - the overthrow of Mr. Mossadeq and the reinstallation of the Iranian monarchy.
The analytical side of the CIA then became prisoner to the machinations of the agency's covert action branch, in that no US intelligence assessment could be permitted to question the wisdom of nailing the US colors to the Shah's mast. Indeed, the Shah's secret service became the only channel for intelligence on Iran, leading to the inability of Washington to anticipate or react coherently to the overthrow of the Shah. Pentagon warnings that over-emphasis on Iran obscured the need for US support of a democratic India powerful enough to maintain a true ``zone of peace'' in the region never got to first base.
A State Department that still looks at Iran through the prism of NATO, that is, West European rather than American interests, has stayed the hand of US retaliation against a succession of outrages out of fear that Iran would turn to the Soviet Union for succor. The mullahs have played on that fear to escape the consequences long overdue for their employment of a terrorists in Lebanon as surrogates under the most transparent of disguises.
The US is not dependent on Iran in any way - including oil. Except by long-range nuclear bombardment we have no military means to keep the Soviet Union from occupying the Iranian oil fields. Soviet possession of those fields would not impede US military strategy in areas truly important to the US - Western Europe and Northeast Asia. Europe and Japan would pay a higher price for oil from other sources, but that is their problem, not ours.
It is bitterly ironic that after a decade of the murder of diplomats and military service members and international humiliation, the US at last appears to have been driven to threaten the direct military retaliation against Iran that should have been set in motion the moment our diplomatic staff in Tehran was taken prisoner.
We cannot undo the sufferings of those outrages. What we can do is escape the prison the CIA and the State Department got us into by subverting the Mossadeq regime. That means a reassessment of US interests in the region apart from the economic interests of our allies.
In terms of geography, population, economic and military power, and its democratic institutions, India is the only regional power capable of replacing the US as a counterweight to superpower aggression, whether by the Soviet Union or, someday, China. The implications of that central Indian role in terms of US military, economic, and diplomatic aid are profound. The strategic misassessment that focused attention and our resources elsewhere has cost the US dearly. In a day when our economic, military, and political power and influence staggers under a national debt beyond control, we cannot afford to continue the mistakes of the past.