Looking at Iran today, it’s easy to wonder how we got to where we are. Iran was a major ally of the US until 1979 when the Shah of Iran was deposed by a group of revolutionaries including everything from Muslim extremists to communists and pro-western democrats. The religious extremists gained power first, and held it by using both the taking of the US embassy in Tehran and the attack by Saddam to ignite the Iraq-Iran war to hold on to power. Many say we should have defended the Shah, but others note that the Shah’s rule had disintegrated from within, and at best we could have propped up a tyrant only a little while. Perhaps to really think about what went wrong, we need to look back further.
Back in 1949 the British made a deal with Iran’s conservative Prime Minister General Ali Razmara to renegotiate the deal between the government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Opposition to the agreement with the AIOC grew, as Iranians were angered by how little they had been getting in oil royalties — the British profits had been almost three times the royalties paid, and in fact the AIOC paid more in taxes at home than to Iran. The new Majles (Iran’s parliament) had strong sentiment against the oil deal. Prime Minister Razmara was assassinated by an Islamic fundamentalist/nationalist from Fedaiyan e Islam (a group which assassinated “enemies of Islam“).
A group of parties led by Mohammad Mosaddeq started to gain support in the Majles, and though the Shah (whose powers were quite limited) chose Hosain Ala to be the new Prime Minister, the Majles pushed for and got Mosaddeq. He led a rather rag tag group of religious and nationalist parties called the National Front, and announced plans to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. This was part of a comprehensive plan to restructure Iran’s economy and end dependence on outside powers. The US had supported Iran’s refusal to go along with the AIOC at first, hoping to get more influence for American companies. But Mossadeq’s decision to nationalize went too far for the Americans.
The British were incensed and tried to take Iran to the International Court of Justice. But states can nationalize as long as they compensate, and Iran promised just compensation. The US and Great Britain launched a campaign against Mosaddeq, hyping him as a fanatic, a communist, someone who would be a tool of the Tudeh (Iran’s communist party). The US saw nationalization as socialist and contrary to our goal of maintaining control of the oil needed for the western economy.
The US and Great Britain organized a boycott of Iranian oil by major oil companies, cutting off oil revenues to the government. The boycott was effective. There were other economic actions taken against Iran as well, and soon Iran’s economy was in tatters. This led to unrest, and ultimately instability in the Mosaddeq government. The Tudeh increasingly argued that all this showed that ties to the West were unhelpful, and Iran should turn to the Soviet Union.
The Shah, the British, and the Americans decided that Mossadeq had to go. First they tried to influence the government with a mix of promises and inside deals to replace him. The Shah dismissed him in 1952 and installed Qavam as-Saltaneh. But public demonstrations and refusal of the Majles to accept the choice got Masaddeq restored. The Tudeh party gained in strength, and ultimately Mossadeq brought them in to government. Note: a few American historians cite Mossadeq‘s ties with the Tudeh as the reason for installing the Shah; Mossadeq was letting himself become aligned too closely with our Soviet enemies. BUT without the oil boycott and attempts to undermine Mossadeq‘s reforms, the Tudeh would have never reached that position.
Mossadeq was much more popular than the Shah, and tried to get the US to move away from the death grip on Iran‘s economy, but the US continued to support the oil boycott. British intelligence worked with the CIA to plan a coup to oust Mosaddeq in 1953. Despite a few difficulties it ultimately worked, and the Shah, who would turn out to be a brutally repressive dictator, came to power with American and British support. Preference was for the Shah over democracy because he would support the US and Great Britain; democratic governments might give considerable power to Islamic and nationalist parties, as well as the Tudeh, after all.
Mossadeq remains a hero to many Iranians across the religious and political spectrum due to how he stood up to the West. But what if we had worked with him rather than against him? What if Iran’s democracy had been allowed to grow on its own, using its own oil revenues, rather than having our influence protected by a thuggish dictator whose rule ultimately collapsed? What if anti-western anger after 1953, especially amongst nationalist and Islamist groups, had not been kindled? If we had resisted the urge to intervene we would likely not be facing an Iran led by an Islamic fundamentalist government, with a nascent democracy more limited in the one in the early fifties.
In fact, throughout the Mideast the British and the French engaged in similar sort of actions, including a failed attempt to overthrow Nasser in Egypt and regain the Suez canal (ironically failing because the US decided to oppose such blatant neo-colonialism). For every Arab, Persian or other ethnic group from Afghanistan to Morocco, history is a clear line of domination. West of Persia (Iran), Ottoman Turk domination became replaced by western control and chaos. For Iran, early efforts to develop a national self-identity were thwarted by European interventions and influence. For everyone in that part of the world, any effort by the West to “help” is by definition suspect; autonomy and sovereignty is guarded.
There is a lesson to be learned here, but like so many lessons of history, it tends to get ignored. This lesson about the dangers of trying to control the politics of another state is especially important now, especially as we try to figure out what to do in Iraq. We can still get out of Iraq rather soon if we don’t try to control it too much, or push the government around. With Iran, we can recognize that their desire to appear totally free and sovereign, not having to answer to force from the West, is driven by a strong historic sense that their state has been subverted and abused by the West, especially with US support for the Shah. And, though there is considerable personal warmth for Americans in Iran, even those who oppose the current government do not want it to simply bow to western demands. We need to understand how deep that sense of past exploitation and control is; we’d feel similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.
If we were to bomb Iran, the population that currently likes the US and dislikes their regime would likely move to an almost universal anti-Americanism. This would make future partnerships and reform efforts in Iran harder than ever; Iranian dissident groups working inside Iran are also those most opposed an American strike. However we move forward, we need a strong sense of history.