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August 2019
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The History You Don’t Know: Understanding the Painful Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Iran

originally uploaded by [ raymond ].

My countrymen lack the bare necessities of existence. Their standard of living is probably one of the lowest in the world. Our greatest natural asset is oil. This should be the source of work and food for the population of Iran…if our oil industry continues in the future as it has in the past, if we are to tolerate a situation in which the Iranian plays the part of the mere manual worker in the oil fields of Masjid-I-Suleiman, Agha Jari and Kermanshah and in the Abadan refinery, and if foreign exploiters continue to appropriate practically all of the income, then our people will remain forever in a state of poverty and misery.

From Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s address to the United Nations in New York City, 1951.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for the dismal demise of pop legend Michael Jackson or the sordid Latin American globetrotting antics of beleaguered South Carolina governor Mark Sanford to overshadow one of the most profoundly visceral events to play out on the world stage. When Iranian citizens risked their personal safety and even their lives to take to the streets in protest over the bogus reelection of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they recalled the symbolic embodiment of freedom and the father of their once burgeoning democratic nation, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

While Mossadegh is best remembered for nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and sending the imperial British occupiers scurrying from his country, he also stood as the unifying voice of Iran—one which addressed the sweeping reforms and autonomy from foreign powers his country so sorely craved. The country was poised, at last, to eschew the rigid and oppressive imperial influences that had weakened it for so long. Had Mossadegh not been deposed via a baleful plot orchestrated by CIA operatives (which, among other nefarious deeds, put the Shah back in power and precipitated the long thread of events that sparked The Iranian Revolution), hard-line clerics using Islam as their sacred bully pulpit would probably have diminished political purchase and Iran might enjoy democracy today.

It is hardly an understatement to conclude that the election of U.S. President Barack Obama came at a spectacularly prophetic moment for Iran, just as the election of Dwight Eisenhower came at a spectacularly bad one. Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry Truman, had steadfastly refused to act on increased pressure from Great Britain to oust Mossadegh. Truman instinctively understood that force, rather than careful diplomacy, would greatly undermine Iran’s precarious stability. After Truman left office, unfortunately, Eisenhower gave free rein of Iran’s eventual fate to John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles. The Dulles brothers were, respectively, Secretary of State and Director of the CIA. They were also apparently the forerunners of The Dick Cheney School of Bush League Diplomacy. Their modus operandi was one of harsh, incendiary rhetoric which included, especially, the threat of force and the actual use of it, as well as underhanded coercion of anyone who stood in their way. Theirs was a take-no-prisoners, bully-till-you-draw-blood, superior, imperialistic attitude, and one which has frightening parallels with the Bush administration’s wide-spread abuse of executive branch powers. The Dulles brothers’ machinations to overthrow Mossadegh’s government before Eisenhower had been sworn in as president mirrors Bush and Cheney’s stalwart determination to invade Iraq (while paying only the most rudimentary lip service to diplomacy) before Bush had taken his oath of office. It is also an eerie case of history repeating itself.

Stephen Kinzer makes many of these points in his groundbreaking 2003 book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. While Kinzer wrote a new, cautionary preface to his book in 2008— which considers the Bush Administration’s increased ratcheting up of hard-line rhetoric—the author could scarcely have anticipated the staggering public disquiet that erupted in Iran after the recent election results. Kinzer prophetically concludes his preface with the observation that “The world is crying out for an American leader with comparable audacity, one who can visualize a relationship between Iran and the United States different from the one that has existed since 1979.”

While that leader may well have arrived in the form of Barack Obama, it is virtually a foregone conclusion that Obama’s sensitivity to the issues and aplomb with diplomacy can not eradicate years and layers of Iranian distrust toward the United States, or, even more acutely, toward the British.

Both the Iranian Revolution and the Iran Hostage Crisis that followed, can, of course, be directly linked to the Operation Ajax, the coup staged in Iran by the U.S. government under the auspices of the CIA in 1953. In 1979, few Americans had any sense of how reviled they were by Iran or, more importantly, why. Anti-American sentiment seemed to materialize out of thin air, and U.S. citizens were outraged when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after a group of Islamic students and militants took over the American embassy in Tehran. Americans were largely ignorant of the historical significance behind this seemingly baseless, aggressive action, while Iranians understood the historical chain of events all too well. They were aware that the U.S. government had effectually prevented the continuation of Mossadegh’s democratic government by orchestrating his overthrow and replacing him with a brutal dictator. That dictator, of course, was none other than Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. After being forced into exile following the tumultuous events of the Islamic Revolution, The Shah was granted permission to enter the United States by President Jimmy Carter. Carter allowed it because Pahlavi was seeking treatment for cancer. Believing this to be a false pretext and merely a foil for another American coup d’état, Iranians sprang into action. They were not going to allow their newly elected government and all their hard work of ousting the despotic Shah come to a roiling boil in the duplicitous cauldrons of Washington.

A full thirty years after this chain of events, the Iranian people have still not shaken themselves free from the shackles of dictatorship, now in the form of iron-fisted clerics such as Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Khameni, like Khomeni before him, has brought the art of vitriol and hatred toward his perceived Western enemies (most notably Britain and The United States, in that order) to a new level. Iranian protesters showed a moxi and contagious spirit of defiance not in evidence since the days of the Revolution when they shouted “Death to Khameni,” a chant which is taboo in Iran. Although a measure of empathy and understanding should perhaps be extended to Khameni, who was tortured by the brutish secret Savak police charged with carrying out the Shah’s dirty work, it is interesting to note that a man who suffered so greatly at the hands of a cruel and oppressive regime would strive so exhaustively to be the instrument of its continuation, albeit under the righteous flag of Islam. Despite this, the young people of Iran (who form the greater part of its population) are beginning to take long, hard glances through the veils of artifice. In demanding that their votes be counted and by giving a voice to their grievances against crushing government oppression, they are taking important steps toward their eventual liberation. Their courage in the face of brutality and censure on the part of their government has rightly been applauded by the world.

It should be applauded especially loudly by the apathetic generation of Americans who chose couch patato-dom over their right to a peaceful demonstration and March on Washington in 2000, when the Supreme Court (to my mind egregiously) ruled that George Bush had won the presidential election over Al Gore. It was the court’s third intervention in the case, and it was decided by a margin of 5-4:

The Court’s third and final intervention in the 2000 presidential election came just days later. In its unsigned opinion, the Court explained that it had voted 5-4 to put a stop to the Florida recount. Allowing the recount to go forward, the Court said, would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back down to the Florida Supreme Court, which had no alternative but to dismiss it. The presidential election of 2000 had been decided, in essence, by the vote of one Supreme Court justice.

Protesting this decision would have merely involved organization rather than courage in a country where the right to free assembly and speech is provided for under our constitution. Sadly, our failure to contest that tragic ruling ushered in a new era of a staggering loss of American freedoms, as well as a hostile foreign policy worthy of the Dulles Brothers. Its most damaging example was the Bush administration’s brazen decision to invade Iraq and to treat nearly all Islamic states as terrorist-hoarding enemies. By voting for the Bush/Cheney ticket in the 2004 election, American voters are culpable by proxy, however unwittingly, of worsening already delicate relations with Iran. For this and many other reasons, the election of Barack Obama was timely. Like Truman before him, Obama is a master of diplomacy who wisely dispenses inflammatory rhetoric sparingly. With the olive branch offered by the Obama administration to Iran now dangling precariously over an ever-widening gorge, inflammatory language is no way to bridge it. The neoconservatives who squalled loudly in the background, pecking like angry hens while demanding that Obama denounce the Iranian government are obviously poor, or at the very least absentee, students of history. As Harry Truman put it so brilliantly, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you don’t know.”

The fate of Iran remains in the hands of the Iranian people. How or when that fate is manifested is not the business of the United States or any foreign power to dictate. If Iran is to be liberated from the harsh dictators of yesterday (and today) it will come at the behest of its own people or not at all.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Haddad. This photo is copyrighted and may not be used without prior permission.