The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

A brief history of Iran-US relations, part 1: Constitution to Khatami

with 15 comments

One hears bits and pieces of Iranian-American history in the blogosphere. They travel like whispers, implied in stories that seem to fall somewhere between gossip and truth. But I have felt for some time that if Americans really understood their country’s past relationship to Iran, public policy would be dramatically different.

Juan ColeLast week, my wife Lori and I were privileged to hear Juan Cole, the University of Michigan’s distinguished expert on Middle Eastern affairs, at a luncheon of the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council. It occurs to me that notes from Prof. Cole’s brief lecture, with a few supporting resources, could provide a valuable structure for people – perhaps especially Americans – to understand the back-stories that provide the, “Oh, I get it!” when reading of today’s crises. Ironically, much American history is well known to people of other nations, but remains virtually untold here in the US.

Mostly following Prof. Cole’s chronology, then, here’s my list of headline-making bullets from the last hundred years of Iranian-American relations. Quotation marks indicate direct quotes from Prof. Cole. Italics indicate quotes from other sources, which are referenced by links within the quotes themselves. Watch for Part 2: Ahmedinejad, weapons, and nukes in a week or so, along with Part 3: Understanding US withdrawal from Iraq.

By all means, check out Prof. Cole’s Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion for reflection on news events as they happen.

* * *

  • 1905-1911: IRANIANS DEMAND A CONSTITUTION; US INFLUENCE WELCOMED. The US started off looking like “an honest broker” to the Iranians. From 1905-1911, the Iranian public demanded a constitution and good government. They got the constitution. American advisors were invited to help with the government.Churchill
  • 1913: OIL PRODUCTION BOOMS – UK SEIZES PROFITS. The British government, at the impetus of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, partly nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1913 in order to secure British-controlled oil supplies for its ships. Iranians would receive, perhaps,15% of the profits from their own oil for the next forty years. 85% of the profits fueled British economic growth, instead. APOC eventually became British Petroleum (BP).

[One wonders how many millions we’re talking about here. It must have paved roads, built schools and hospitals, and paid teachers for half a century of British, rather than Iranian, citizens.] …

  • 1940s: WW2 – US, UK DEPOSE KING, OCCUPY IRAN. Iran’s location enhanced its importance to the US during World War 2. Allied with the Soviets against the Nazis, the US needed a route for supplying war matériel and food to Moscow. Since the Iranian king was unwilling to kick the Germans out of the country, the US and Britain . . . deposed him and occupied the country, installing young Mohammad Shah Pahlavi on the throne.
  • 1946: US EJECTS SOVIETS, COLD WAR BEGINS. After the war, contravening pre-war agreements, the US muscled out the Soviets, triggering the Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946 and the beginning of the Cold War.
  • MossadeghLATE 1940s: IRANIANS ELECT POPULIST PRIME MINISTER, RECLAIM OIL INDUSTRY. A nationalist party arose in Iran in the late 40s, electing Mohammed Mossadegh Prime Minister. Mossadegh insisted on re-negotiation of oil agreements, offering the British a 50-50 split. When the British refused, the Iranian Parliament nationalized its petroleum industry in 1951.
  • 1950s: CIA SPONSORS COUP; P.M. REMOVED; US, UK ORGANIZE ECONOMIC BOYCOTT. In reaction, the USA and Britain organized a worldwide boycott of Iran, driving the Iranian economy “into penury.” By 1953, the US had dispatched senior CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of T.R.), to organize a coup (Operation Ajax), forcing the Shah to remove Mossadegh. “From then on, there was none of this democracy business.”

[Operation Ajax was the first time the Central Intelligence Agency was involved in a plot to overthrow a democratically-elected government. The success of this operation, and its relatively low cost, encouraged the CIA to successfully carry out a similar operation in Guatemala a year later.]

  • Shah and Empress1960s and 1970s: US-SUPPORTED SHAH BECOMES DICTATOR, NATION REVOLTS. The Shah, however, grew increasingly “megalomaniacal,” accumulated vast wealth, and flaunted it before the world. Secret police ruthlessly suppressed dissent. [My friend naj, blogger at the excellent Neo-Resistance, observes that those dissenters murdered by the secret police tended to be of communist leanings rather than dissenters generally, suggesting American complicity. I do recall hearing, I think, that the Savak – the secret police – were trained by the US. See Comments, below. (She also pointed out that I was calling Mossadegh the President rather than the P.M. Thanks for the correction, friend!)]. By 1978, a wide array of diverse Iranian groups joined in revolution, toppling the American-backed regime. Religious conservatives, perceived by the public as an honest alternative to the corruption of the past, come out on top. Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the Revolution, becomes the first Supreme Leader of Iran (not to be confused with the current Supreme Leader and former President, Seyyed Ali Khamane’i).

[I remember living through this period, completely unaware of Operation Ajax. Perhaps it hadn’t yet been brought to light in the US. That bit of historical ignorance made the attack on the embassy appear to be nothing but unreasonable fanaticism: What paranoid fool would fear America? How profoundly a little awareness of historical precedent changes one’s read of things!]

  • 1980s: IRAQ INVADES IRAN, US BACKS IRAQ WITH ARMS, INTELLIGENCE, CHEMICAL/BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS. Rumsfeld HusseinIn what became the longest and most horrific conflict since World War 2, both nations were devastated. Iran lost an estimated one million lives (perhaps that would compare, proportionally, to the impact a loss of ten million – twenty times American losses in World War 2 – might have on the US); 100,000 suffered death by American-supplied chemical and biological weapons. Donald Rumsfeld, later US Secretary of Defense (click on photo), visited Saddam Hussein in 1983 and 1984, normalizing relations in all but name. The war ended with a cease-fire in 1988.

[Saddam, later deposed by the American invasion of 2003, would be indicted by the subsequent US-backed regime for using the Americans’ chemical weapons, but will be hanged on other charges before trial on these. Thus (and with curious convenience for the US), the ironies involved never receive the public scrutiny a trial would have brought.]

  • KhatamiLATE 1990s: REFORMERS LEAD TOWARD MODERATION. Desire to move away from religious strictness led to the election of a reform parliament and a reform President, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami had a degree in western philosophy, had lived in Germany, had written a book on the nurture of open society, and advocated dialogue with other nations. Knowing the conservative religious leaders would not tolerate government -to- government relations with the US, Khatami came to the US with a proposal for “people-to-people diplomacy.” The US hindered it at every turn, refusing to allow most Iranians entrance to the country, and extended its hostage-era boycott.Twice more, Khatami offered proposals of cooperation to the US. In 2003, his offer to help overthrow Saddam and to recognize Israel was rejected by Vice President Dick Cheney and key White House advisor Karl Rove.
  • 2005: REFORMERS APPEAR IMPOTENT – HARDLINERS SURGE. Iranians soon saw the reform movement’s failure to initiate dialogue with the USA as a sign of impotence, and the hardliners closed it down, setting the stage for a resurgence of control by religious conservatives.


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Written by Monte

March 6, 2007 at 2:09 am

Posted in Iran, Iraq, Politics, Terrorism

15 Responses

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  1. […] the core issue: American support is the kiss of death for reform movements in countries like Iran. Ever since the CIA took down the Iranian democracy in 1953, the parties in power now have seen anything American as a threat to national security. If the […]

  2. Great Summary. Thanks.


    March 14, 2008 at 1:05 am

  3. Rosemary – I see in you the core of what, to me, matters most: the well-being of innocent people. Like you, I’ve been terribly impressed with the Iranians I’ve met.

    It seems to me that governments wage wars with governments over issues, but the people who get hurt are vastly under-represented. I may be wrong about how the issues should be resolved, but I think standing up for those who suffer is nearly always right.

    Thanks for your heart!


    May 3, 2007 at 9:42 am

  4. I hope you understand that some of my friends who are Iraqis and live in Iraq did not approve very kindly to Juan Cole. I do not trust his credibility so easily. Most people have to earn their credibility with me.

    CNN has lost its international and national with me also. If you will remember, they admitted to suppresing the truth so as to keep a Baghdad station office open. For shame.

    I am, however, very interested in the well being of innocent Iranian people. I have some Iranian friends, and they are very warm and giving. I guess I could propably say this about any ‘group’ of people, but I prefer to speak about the individuals. I feel ‘icky’ talk about ‘groups’ of people. No group thinks or feels alike! ;)

    Have a wonderful day, and thank you for stopping over at the Bos’un Locker.


    May 1, 2007 at 11:14 pm

  5. Howdy Monte,

    I made a post about the relevance of $ in all these conflicts. I didn’t see a mention of Euro-based Iranian Oil Bourse in Prof. Coles analyses. But I think it is very pertinent. I suddenly got a wakeup call and realized that our blogging community has not be vocal enough about this, which I think underpins a LOT of things.


    March 10, 2007 at 11:54 am

  6. Thanks very much, A.D.! I’m flattered. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Digg, too.


    March 10, 2007 at 1:36 am

  7. Monte,
    I’ve just discovered I’m not sure exactly how it works, but you can link to web stories that you “digg.” I took the liberty of linking to this post. One that was linked to a post of mine resulted in a real up-tick in traffic.

    Alien Drums

    March 9, 2007 at 3:06 pm

  8. lol A fine post. It makes far too much sense for those that currently inhabit the White House. ;)


    March 8, 2007 at 9:41 am

  9. Ah, so sorry! Darn those facts.
    Thanks, Servant – you lightened it up just right!


    March 7, 2007 at 10:10 pm

  10. This post just contains a bunch of facts. It doesn’t make any sense. Where are the Kibuki drums and the name calling and other conservative theatre devices? Where are the Islamofascists? I can’t even tell who the bad guys are.



    March 7, 2007 at 8:15 pm

  11. A.D. (and I really like the name): Your comment makes writing the piece worthwhile. That collection of facts had the same impact on me! Amazing how little we know of it, isn’t it?
    Many thanks!


    March 7, 2007 at 2:03 pm

  12. Monte, you have exposed blind spots in my own understanding. While I have been firmly against threatened US military action against Iran, the historical synopsis you gave is helpful for expanding my understanding. Thanks.

    Alien Drums

    March 7, 2007 at 7:45 am

  13. Ah, thanks, friend! Your comments are most helpful. Corrections made!


    March 6, 2007 at 3:35 pm

  14. By the way, maybe it’s worthwhile researching the conditions underwhich Khomeini was exiled first to Iraq and then to France.

    One should always wonder why the “dictator” did not just KILL him!

    In fact, most those who WERE killed by shah were the (pseudo)communist ones! (Which were killed by the Islamic regime as well) …

    Always at the service of America!


    March 6, 2007 at 12:56 pm

  15. Hi Monte, this is a nice post. I am in running now, but a couple of comments:

    Mosaddegh was not the elcted president, but the elected prime minister. Shah was still the head of state. Mosaddegh wanted shah to be the king (like the Q of England was) and to leave the affairs of the government to the parliament and the cabinet. The 53 coup was disctated by the Americans even to Shah, as his first wife’s memoir’s reveals!

    Also, Shah was not quite a despot as he’s advertised to be. In fact, he introduced reforms in the context of “white revolution” which were much detested by the Feudalists of teh country, a large number of which consted of the Clerical elite. His dictatorship, by comparison, faded in presence of the Islamic dictatorship bestowed on Iranians by Imam Khomeini, and thanks to American’s dubious policy that favored the religious faction over the nationalist one!


    March 6, 2007 at 12:53 pm

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