The victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections generated hope that the thirty-year standoff between Iran and the United States might be resolved.
During his first press conference after being sworn in as president, Rouhani declared that he was open to direct talks with the United States, while a White House statement released after Rouhani’s inauguration offered him a “willing partnership.”
Those conciliatory words, however, were accompanied on both sides with qualifications, skepticism, and antagonistic gestures. Congress continued to push new sanctions aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the Obama administration conditioned any partnership on Iran taking steps to meet its “international obligations.”
On the Iranian side, Rouhani emphasized that the United States must take “practical step[s] to remove Iranian mistrust” before he would be willing to engage in dialogue. His focus on Iran’s mistrust is not simply rhetoric but reflects what Iran sees as the long history of U.S. enmity.
While Americans understand relations with Iran in terms of its nuclear program and incendiary anti-Israel homilies, Iranians see the relationship as part of a long and troubling history of foreign intervention and exploitation that reaches back into the nineteenth century. Iranian leaders argue that if interactions between Iran and the United States are to improve, this history will have to be addressed and rectified.
The past is very much part of the present in Iran. A profound consciousness of history informs Iran’s political and strategic outlook, its conception of itself and its position in the world, and its non-relationship with the United States.
As both sides cautiously explore today’s opportunities to reset their fraught relationship, American policy-makers should take note of how Iran perceives the history of its relations with the United States, particularly the U.S. role in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.
The Legacies of European Imperialism
Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, Great Britain and Russia fell upon the country then known as Persia in their contest for imperial and economic domination. Though Persia promised different things to the different powers—control of the Caspian Sea and the long-sought warm water port for Russia; security of India for Britain—they sought to achieve their goals by weakening and controlling the country.
After several decades of invasion and imposed stagnation, combined with the profligacy and incompetence of Persia’s Qajar shahs, Britain succeeded to a large extent in doing both. In two separate concessions granted in 1872 and 1891, British citizens secured monopolies over almost all of Persia’s financial and economic resources.
According to British Foreign Secretary George Curzon, this was “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a Kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, much less accomplished, in history.”
Neither concession was fulfilled, however.
In some of the earliest instances of successful popular protests in the Middle East, Iranians rallied against the measures and eventually forced their cancellation.
The movements united the Iranian nation and paved the way for the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Having witnessed the shah’s penchant for selling off the country to foreign powers, Iranians forced him to create a legislative assembly (Majlis) and grant a constitution.
In Iran, then, the history of foreign intervention is bound together with a tradition of popular protest and defense of the nation. And this pattern repeated several times in the twentieth century.
During World War I, Iran declared neutrality but became a battlefield for the European belligerents nonetheless. Following the ceasefire, Great Britain took advantage of the weakened and sundered country to impose a highly unfavorable treaty that essentially turned Iran into a British protectorate.
Once more, however, the increase in foreign intervention generated a movement for national independence, which culminated in the suspension of the agreement, the ouster of the Qajar dynasty, and the establishment of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1925.
During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41), outside interference in Iran became much less direct. Until World War II his government was able to maintain a level of independence unprecedented in the country’s modern history.
Then, in 1941 the Allied Powers decided the sitting monarch’s pro-German sympathies and weak defenses were an intolerable threat. Led by Great Britain and the Soviet Union, they invaded Iran, forced Reza Shah to abdicate, and placed his young son on the throne.
Enter the United States
Like his abrupt rise to power, Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign owed much to the contrivances and support of foreign powers. In particular, the coronation of the second and last Pahlavi Shah was accompanied by the appearance of the United States as an important player in Iranian affairs.
Although America’s interest in Iran came comparatively late, Iranians view it as part of the longer history of foreign exploitation.
During the first decade of Mohammad Reza’s rule, social conflicts, economic problems, and foreign interference were acute. Together these crises generated demands for political and economic change and a powerful nationalist movement in the Majlis (parliament).
One of the main demands was for the revision of Iran’s concession to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which exploited the country’s oil wealth. After negotiations with the AIOC produced a highly unfavorable supplementary agreement in 1949, opposition to the company and to Iran’s subservience to foreign interests intensified, leading to popular demonstrations and, in March 1951, to the nationalization of the oil industry.
The nationalization efforts in the Majlis were led by Mohammad Mosaddeq, a veteran politician committed to freeing Iran from imperial domination.
As premier, Mosaddeq worked to curb the power of the shah, particularly over the armed forces. He refused to relinquish Iran’s control of its oil, and he allowed the Communist Tudeh Party, which had grown in popularity with the rise of anti-Western sentiment and which supported Mosaddeq (at this time), to operate more openly.
Opposition to Mosaddeq’s rule grew in the United States and Britain, which viewed the premier’s intransigence as the primary obstacle to procuring a new oil concession. In the context of the Cold War, Mosaddeq was portrayed in the Western countries as moving dangerously close to the Soviet Union.
In August 1953, therefore, British and American agents successfully engineered Mosaddeq’s overthrow and restored the shah’s control of the country.
To this day, Mosaddeq stands as a symbol of Iran’s nationalist ambitions and the role of outside powers in extinguishing them. His legacy is commemorated annually on 29 Isfand and on 28 Murdad, the dates on the Iranian calendar that correspond to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951 and the overthrow of Mosaddeq in 1953, respectively.
Iranians brandished his portrait when they demonstrated against the shah in 1978-79, and they did so in 2009 when they collectively called out to their potentates, “Where is my vote?” The fact that the leaders of the Islamic Republic also extol Mosaddeq as a martyr of imperialism is testament to the broad significance of his legacy.
A monograph published by a government agency in the early 1980s illustrates how Iranians view the role of the United States at this turning point in their modern history.
The 1953 coup removing Mosaddeq, the book asserts, was “executed by the direct intervention of the U.S., [and] imposed once again the Shah over the Iranian nation. There followed a dictatorial monarchy which would repress and oppress the nation for the twenty-five years to come. The Shah had no chance to return without the coup; he had also no chance of sustaining his faltering regime without military and financial support from America.”
The Shah: America’s Friend in Tehran
Once back in power with the support of the United States, Mohammad Reza Shah devoted his energies towards two ends: preserving his power and regime; and yanking Iran into the modern world. The shah equated modernization with Westernization and secularization, and to make Iran modern he sought support from American officials and advisors, encouraged American investment, imported American goods, and purchased loads of American weaponry.
In 1964, for example, the Majlis, now less independent, passed one bill to grant diplomatic immunity to American military advisors and a second authorizing a $200 million loan from the United States for the purchase of military equipment.
The bills were “publicly and strongly denounced” by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leader of the opposition against the shah and the future leader of the revolution that would overthrow him. Khomeini characterized the measures as “signs of [Iran’s] bondage to the United States.” After his attack was published and circulated as a pamphlet in 1964, the shah exiled Khomeini from Iran.
In subsequent years, the shah ruled through repression and violence and employed his internal security organization, SAVAK, which received aid from the CIA, to jail, torture, or kill those who opposed his rule. He enriched and empowered a small, Westernized elite, which became increasingly alienated from the rest of Iranian society.
By 1978, those outside the small aristocracy bore manifold, if differing, grievances against the shah’s rule—a regime that had been made possible by U.S. support, carried out with U.S. wealth and weaponry, or modeled on U.S. culture. As the vast majority of Iranians grew more anti-shah, therefore, they also grew more anti-American.
The 1979 Revolution and the Great Satan
As a result of the United States’ support for the shah, the Iranians who opposed his reign and took part in the revolution that overthrew him in 1979 made diminishing American power a key part of their platform.
In the first months of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s relations with the United States were a subject of debate in Tehran, with some favoring the maintenance of normal, though less substantial, relations and others favoring severing all ties with Washington.
The Carter administration’s decision to admit the shah into the United States for medical treatment in October 1979, however, gave credence to the latter group’s contention that the United States was actively working to subvert the new regime.