“Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it”: why we sometimes need to hear the “story”

Posted on: August 20, 2013

On Saturday night I watched Argo, the Oscar-winning thriller about the Iranian hostage crisis.  An exciting thriller, it catapulted me back to that era of the late 70s-early 80s when I was working in the US before going to University. I remember my bewilderment at the time as to why the Iranians hated the US and the West so much and my relief when the hostages were safely released.  My impression of Iran was of a country going backwards into fundamentalism and turning its back on progress. It was only many years later that I learnt that in the early 1950s, after gaining independence from Britain, Iran had had a democratically elected leader, Mossadegh.  When he announced he would be nationalising Iranian oil the US and UK engineered a coup to overthrow him and install the Shah, a ruthless dictator who brutalised the Iranian people for 26 years before being overthrown.  I have no memory of this vital piece of information being discussed at the time, which explained a lot about why Iranians felt so angry.

Coincidentally, yesterday was the 60th anniversary of that infamous Iranian coup and the CIA yesterday fully declassified their files for the first time and admitted their involvement in the coup.  The BBC has also admitted to using its Persian World Service to broadcast anti-Mossadegh propaganda at the request of the Foreign Office despite the protests of its Persian staff.

I wonder if Britain has ever apologised to Iran for what it did?  I personally feel ashamed of our actions.  When I think of my nationality I want to identify with fair play and support for the underdog, and see the BBC World Service as a beacon of truth in the world. It is painful to acknowledge the power play and hypocrisy of British foreign policy, and the use of the BBC for propaganda purposes.  These aspects lurk in the shadow of our collective psyche.

In conflict resolution there is often a view that it is not helpful to go back into the story of what happened, and that we should look to the present and the future for the answers.  9 times out of 10 this is good advice, and yet there are times when the story is too important to be glossed over.  Stories need to be told, old hurts need to be acknowledged, responsibility needs to be taken and reparations need to be made.  We all have blind spots and aspects of our behaviour we are not proud of.  These principles apply just as much to nations as they do to individuals and organisations.  We need to be open to learning about  ourselves our blind spots and gaps in understanding of the story before we can heal the past and move forward.

60 years later relations with Iran are still tense. Maybe it is time for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” between Iran, the US and Britain to heal the past so we can move forward?