How did Iran arrive at the crossroads that it finds itself at today? Many Westerners believe Iran to be an angry anti-Western entity that, for some unknown reason, took Americans hostage in 1979 and has maintained a passionate hatred for America and the West ever since.
The truth is, that there is much more to Iran’s story.
Iranian Oil and World War II
Previous to America’s emergence as a world super-power in the mid-20th century, it had been Russia and imperial Great Britain that had the most influence on Iran. Great Britain had large, controlling oil interests in Iran by way of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but many Iranians rightfully saw the agreements as being overly generous towards Great Britain. The agreements were so overbearing that the 1933 Concession Agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company included an extension covering the years from 1961 to 1993, but did not allow for inflation. For 32 years, Iran would get the same fixed price for its oil no matter what the state of the oil economy. Great Britain was able to achieve this type of control over Iran’s oil by having British officials representing Iran’s oil interests during negotiations.
World War II saw Iran declaring neutrality but its strategic importance as a bridge with which to move munitions to the Soviet Union saw it invaded by both the Soviet Union and Great Britain. By guaranteeing Iran’s independence after WW II, Britain and the Soviet Union secured Iran’s dropping of its neutral status and Iran agreed to declare war on Germany. By 1947 both the Soviet Union and Great Britain had indeed withdrawn from Iran. Although the Shah of Iran had asked that America intervene in the British/Russian invasion of Iran, America’s involvement at this point remained somewhat peripheral.
Mohammed Mossadeq was born on May 19, 1882, the son of a Qajar princess and an Iranian finance minister. His upbringing was one of privilege but belied his concern for justice and the common man. Educated in Paris and Switzerland, Mossadeq received a Ph.D. in law in 1913 and shortly after wrote the first of his many books, “How Iran Can Grow.” When Dr. Mossadeq returned to Iran in 1914, he began a campaign against government waste and corruption. Various political involvements over the next few years saw him take the post of finance minister in 1922. He opposed the dictatorial rule of Shah Reza Khan and for that was arrested and released only to be placed under house arrest.
Many years later, in 1941 in what can only be seen as a satisfying twist of fate, Mossadeq was able to return to public life with the abdication and exile of Reza Khan. He was then elected First Deputy from Tehran but failed at his bid for re-election to parliament because of voter fraud. It was this subsequent parliament which gave further oil concessions to Great Britain. Mossadeq was again elected to parliament after fraudulent ballots were disqualified. Throughout WW II, Mossadeq fought against foreign presence in Iran and was outspoken about matters of Iranian oil.
After World War II, Dr. Mossadeq headed up the Majlis (Iranian parliament) Oil Committee, which studied the oil agreements imposed on Iran by Great Britain during the last 45 years. On Nov. 25, 1950, the specific Supplemental Agreement was put to a vote and Mossadeq’s influence resulted in a “no” vote. Mossadeq was now providing the backbone with which Iran would attempt to reclaim its self-destiny. On March 15, 1951, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and on May 6, parliament elected Mossadeq the Prime Minister of Iran.
Mossadeq was now at the height of his popularity. In his book, “Iran and the Capitulation Agreements”, Mossadeq wrote that “Iran could develop modern, European-style legal and political systems if it took one vital step. It must impose the law equally on everyone, including foreigners, and never grant special privileges to anyone.” He was a world-renowned figure and champion of justice, democracy, and his nation’s interests. His influence was so great that in 1951 Time Magazine chose him over Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Winston Churchill as its Man of the Year. Taken in the context of the American viewpoint of the time and with America’s soon-to-follow overthrow of the man, the article was not totally flattering, but remains a high watermark of Mossadeq’s influence on world politics.
A Tragic Figure
“Not only are most Americans not aware of how important this 1953 coup was, but they’re not even aware that it happened.” — Stephen Kinzer, author of “The Roots of Middle East Terror”
Now the legacy of Dr. Mossadeq turns from that of a champion fighting in the best interests of his country, to that of tragic figure. In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence toppled the government of Mossadeq in an organized coup d’etat (Operation TPAJAX) that installed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, into power. With Britain at risk of losing its vested oil interests in Iran, they convinced American president Dwight Eisenhower to come onboard for a coup using the “Soviet threat” angle. America was soon in charge. There is little evidence to suggest that the Soviet Union had designs on Iran as they had withdrawn from Iran only a few years earlier. Former president Harry Truman saw no similar threat and had previously turned down the British request to oust Mossadeq over the oil issue or any issue — but this was the era of the Rosenbergs and Joe McCarthy, and Britain found a willing participant in Dwight Eisenhower for the ousting of Mossadeq. There is also little evidence to suggest that Mossadeq would in any way acquiesce to any Soviet interference. Indeed, that suggestion goes against everything known about Mossadeq to this day.
After the coup d’etat, Dr. Mossadeq was imprisoned for 3 years and following that placed under house arrest by the Shah until the day he died in 1967. The CIA’s overthrow of Dr. Mossadeq was the first time the CIA engaged in such an action and served as a blueprint for subsequent similar American operations in other countries over the following decades.
The Shah of Iran and Revolution
The dynasty of the new Shah was brutal. With the assistance of the CIA-backed secret police, (SAVAK, formed in 1957) the Shah went on to murder and torture Iranians for 26 years. In 1976 Amnesty International declared Iran as having the single worst human rights record on the planet. But the Shah was the darling of America in the Mideast and received billions in aid; his human rights abuses were not only overlooked by various American administrations, but aided, with CIA members training SAVAK in torture methods that were originally used by the Nazis. The seeds of hatred towards America were being planted. Soon those seedlings would break ground.
During his rule, Pahlavi offended not only students and intellectuals seeking democratic reforms, but in contrast, also offended Islamic religious leaders who feared losing their traditional authority. After Pahlavi allowed government officials to swear their oaths of office on religious books other than the Koran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the Shah’s sworn enemy. The Shah’s continued repression of the people caused increasing discontent as his policies benefited some classes at the expense of others; the ruling elite lived in luxury but the main populace simply lived. If they chose to speak out, there was SAVAK to deal with. In September of 1978, amidst repression and government corruption, the seeds of revolution broke ground with multiple demonstrations and the Shah imposing martial law.
From exile, Khomeini coordinated the demonstrations and opposition to the Shah and on January 16, 1979 the Shah fled Iran. The brutal dictator was deposed, and without a popular democratic figure like Mohammed Mossadeq to rally around, on February 1, 1979, a cheering crowd of more than one million people welcomed Khomeini home to Iran. America’s hegemonic influence in Iran was over and a failure. In the face of repression and in the absence of the democratic system that America removed in 1953, Iranians, in effect, chose religion to be their governing authority.
After being diagnosed with cancer while still in Iran, the Shah sought treatment in the United States. Enraged by what Iranians saw as America still caring for the man who murdered so many of their own, on November 4, 1979, Iranian militants took over the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans captive. President Jimmy Carter failed to bring about a resolution to the hostage crisis and was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. In an ironic twist, Iran had now deposed an American leader. On the day of President Reagan’s inauguration, the United States released $8 billion in Iranian assets and the hostages were freed. This was not the only time Reagan would pay for the release of hostages.
The Iran-Iraq War
Any wounds that were beginning to heal between Iran and the United States were reopened on September 22, 1980. On that day Iraq attacked Iran and shortly afterwards America re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq, which had been broken in 1967 because of Iraq’s involvement in the six-Day War with Israel. Over the next eight years, America provided Iraq with satellite intelligence about Iranian troop movements, missile technology, removed Iraq from its list of nations supporting international terrorism and at the same time failed to condemn Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops. According to Col. Walter P. Lang, a senior American DIA officer at the time, “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.”
America then took things a step further when they provided Iraq with Bell crop-spraying helicopters which Saddam Hussein used to spray chemical weapons not on Iranians, but on Kurds in 1988. Also by 1988, America had increased its presence in the Persian Gulf with Kuwaiti shipping carrying American flags and American naval ships making incursion-runs into Iranian territorial waters. On July 3, 1988, while in Iranian territorial waters, the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew, furthering 35 years of Iranian discontent with America.
The Iran-Contra Affair
Throughout the 1980s and during the Iran-Iraq war, 30 Westerners, including a number of Americans were kidnapped and held by militant Islamic extremists in Lebanon. American intelligence officials believed that Hezbollah (founded in Lebanon in 1982) was behind most of the kidnappings with an unknown degree of aid being given by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. There is no adequate segue to link up with what takes place next. The Contras were opponents of Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction and had the backing of the Ronald Reagan administration. Despite legislation being in place that would prevent any American government aid of any kind going to the Contras, in 1986, the administration of President Ronald Reagan approved a plan where an intermediary would sell arms at a considerable profit to Iran with the proceeds of those arms sales going to the Contras of Nicaragua.
The Reagan administration would achieve 2 goals; it could circumvent the law and current legislation and financially support the Contras, and it would appease the Iranians who would influence Hezbollah to release the American hostages being held in Lebanon. Things didn’t go exactly as Reagan had planned. As a result of the bargaining, three hostages were released but on November 3, 1986, the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa exposed the illegal dealings of the Reagan administration. American Colonel Oliver North was soon maxing out his Pentagon credit card on IBM paper shredders and the scandal was on. President Reagan was forced to admit that he had indeed negotiated with terrorists and his approval ratings plummeted to 46 before finishing his presidency with a strong rebound. The effects on Iranian-American relations as a result of the Iran/Contra Affair were few, other than tarnishing the historical memory of a president in the eyes of some Americans.
Towards an Axis of Evil
Throughout the late 1980s and all of the 1990s, to a certain degree, Iran flew under the American radar, resurfacing on occasion mainly through its alleged ties to Hezbollah. In April of 1995, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning trade with Iran because of alleged terrorist activities. On June 25, 1996 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers — 19 America servicemen are killed and more than 500 others are injured, 240 of them Americans. In March of 2000, American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew Mossadeq, but failed to apologize. Instead, the U.S. lifted sanctions on Iranian luxury goods. In June 2001, an American federal grand jury indicted 13 Saudis and a Lebanese for the bombing of the Khobar Towers. Prosecutors said they were given support by Iranians. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to name the Iranians but claimed that they “inspired, supported, and supervised” the named suspects who belonged to a group called Saudi Hezbollah. Iran denied all accusations that it was involved in the bombing. Interestingly, Ashcroft did not chastise the government of Saudi Arabia and saved his criticism for Iran.
On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked with 3,000 lives lost.
On January 29, 2002, American president George Walker Bush accuses Iran of being in an “Axis of Evil” with Iraq and North Korea. Interestingly again, and in contrast with previous accusations made towards Iranians, the men who murdered thousands of Americans on September 11 were almost exclusively Saudi, yet the involvement of Saudi citizens didn’t merit Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the Axis of Evil. Also, in contrast with Iran, diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia were not severed and no sanctions were imposed.
Few Lessons Learned: The Tragedy of Iran
“Now it seems that the Americans are pushing towards the same direction again. That shows they have not learned anything from history.” — Ibrahim Yazdi, former Iranian foreign minister.
The seeds of discontent in Iran were planted with the installation of Shah Pahlavi, they grew into an Islamic revolution in 1979 and blossomed into an oppressive regime with someone now in charge of Iran who was born and nourished on the crops grown out of American foreign policy. Today, George Bush speaks of “domino democracy” in the Middle East and some people wonder why Iranians are skeptical of American influence in the region and why Iran is possibly acquiring nuclear capabilities after being named a member of the “axis of evil” by the leader of a country that has treated it decidedly poorly in the past. Iranians may have a different definition of “evil” — that being, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, SAVAK and the countries that enabled and installed them.
Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq is surely one of the great tragic figures of history. Passionate in his goals of fair play for all, only to be removed by a foreign power that ironically longs for someone like him now to take the place of the ruling parties in Iran. But the tragedy goes far beyond one man; all Iranians have suffered, those who were oppressed and killed under the regime of the Shah and those who are now oppressed and killed under the current government. The dream of Iran under Mossadeq is just that; a dream and nothing more. What he would have done is pure speculation, but the man’s character indicates that he was capable of great things. Unfortunately, Mossadeq never had the chance to move Iran forward with his noble vision of a modern democracy. The trickle-down effect of his overthrow, though, can be measured in hundreds of thousands of lives lost and a nation’s continuing discontent with those responsible not only for the coup that signaled Mossadeq’s demise, but for 53 years of hostile foreign policy.
M. Gary Hucul lives in British Columbia, Canada.
M. Gary Hucul is a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada,