You hardly have to be a political science major to have heard about the recent assassination of General Soleimani, who some say was the second most powerful figure in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini. From protests in both American and Iranian streets against Trump, to the president being heralded a national hero, to memes about the incident being shared on social media, it is safe to say the news is everywhere.
If you’re a millennial, chances are you’ve probably only ever seen the US and Iran as major enemies. You might view Iran as a dictatorial Islamic autocracy, that wants death for the entire Western world. Perhaps you’ve heard of the hostage crisis, popularized by the film Argo, in which you might believe that Iranian thugs ruthlessly and unexplainably took 52 American hostages. If you’re a history buff, maybe you have heard of the 1979 Iranian revolution in which an Islamic dictator seized power.
However, what you’ve heard might not be as accurate as what history tells us. History tells us a story of repeated and intense American and British involvement in Iran. A story of a CIA led coup. A story of a dictatorial shah and his tyrannical secret police, supported heavily by the United States. And of course, what story of British and American involvement in the Middle East is complete without – you guessed it – oil.
The story begins in May 1901, when a British businessman purchased a 60-year petroleum search concession from the Iranian government for just 20,000 pounds, worth roughly two million pounds today, not nearly the real worth of the concession.
The businessman would end up selling his share to a British oil company that was then bought by the British government, a purchase that essentially nationalized Iran’s oil industry for the British. The government named this new company the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), although Britain had practically full control, Iran only owning 16% of the shares. At times, Iran attempted to resist, but Britain, while descending as colonial power, was still far too strong. Additionally Iran’s leaders at the time, the Shah Reza Shah, and then his son and successor, Reza Pahlavi, both enjoyed quiet and comfortable relationships with the British.
By 1949, the shah had become an object of resentment to the Iranian people as he was seen as a pawn of foreign influences, and also was extremely dictatorial. A failed assassination attempt just pushed him further into tyranny.
As a result of these escalating tensions, a party called the National Front rose up against the shah. Its primary goals were to end the shah’s tyrannical rule, and to reclaim control of Iran’s oil industry. The party was headed by Mohammed Mossadegh, a veteran politician who had a long history of fighting for a more democratic Iran. Support grew rapidly for the National Front allowing them to take power from the now furious shah. When he desperately tried to remove Mossadegh, the uproar from the citizens was so great, he had no choice but to reinstate him.
However, the shah was not the only one fearful of what Mossadegh might bring to Iran.
Britain had also taken notice, recognizing the threat Mossadegh and the National Front posed to their control of the AIOC. They began negotiations with Mossadegh to try and ensure their majority share of the company remained in place. Mossadegh, of course, refused vehemently. After realizing Britain might undertake more aggressive measures if negotiations broke down, he offered them one final deal that proposed Iran and Britain evenly split the shares of AIOC. When Britain refused, Mossadegh declared them a national enemy, cutting all ties.
Britain, fed up with Mossadegh and his quest for nationalization, immediately launched an embargo against Iranian oil, shutting off the country’s primary income source. Britain also created boycotts against Iranian products.
These actions were devastating on Iran’s economy. With withering government coffers and increasing political unrest, Mossadegh’s support began to wane. In desperation, Mossadegh began to take authoritarian measures, simply causing the Iranian people to resent him further.
For the final nail in the coffin, Britain decided to engineer a coup to topple Mossadegh’s government and reinstate the shah. They reached out to the CIA to assist in the coup, who were all too happy to help, considering their interest in Iran’s oil and positive relationship with the shah. The U.S. was also concerned that Mossadegh’s nationalization and left wing populist policies might attract the support and eventual annexation from the Soviet Union. They feared Iran, like other nations, might be their latest loss to the Soviets in the cold war.
The US had high confidence for the coup’s success. After all there were practically masterminds, having been involved in countless regime changes in Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and other nations. They bribed thugs and other actors to take to the streets in protest against Mossadegh, engineering a hatred for him and his cabinet. Eventually, after forcing Mossadegh to once again, take undemocratic measures, his regime was overwhelmed and the shah took power.
In return for carrying out the coup, Britain granted five U.S. oil companies access to Iran’s oil industry to share in AIOC’s profits.
The shah, newly indebted to the U.S., took measures to crack down on all Mossadegh sympathizers, and created the SAVAK, a secret police force trained by the CIA to help solidify the regime change. The shah would rule for the next 26 years, modernizing the country with the White Revolution, but also crushing all opposition leading to widespread corruption.
Perhaps more importantly, the shah also rejected much of the religious section of the Iranian constitution, deeply angering the Iranian citizens.
As discontent with the shah grew, so did religious fervor among the people. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution was carried out by a united religious group and a secular left wing group. Protests erupted in the streets calling for the shah to step down, and nationwide strikes followed shortly after. Eventually, Khomeini and Islamic leaders took power and declared Iran an Islamic republic, while also turning on their left wing allies and excluding them from the new government.
The hostage crisis unraveled shortly after as a result of the U.S. refusing to extradite the shah back to Iran to stand trial. Iranian protestors, furious at not being able to bring the shah to justice, stormed the U.S. embassy and the rest is history.
The U.S. and Iran have never had a positive relationship since. From almost a decade of controversy and conflict in the Iran-Iraq War, to years of intense debate over the now defunct nuclear deal, the Iran-U.S. tensions have boiled over to impact not only these two nations, but the entire world.
These countless clashes have brought an immense anti-Iran sentiment to the United States. Many Americans see Iran as just a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, a nation has always been in conflict with the West, a nation that has taken a natural path to reach its current state in global affairs. However, after taking a closer look at the history of the relationship between the two nations, the strength of this narrative begins to waver, and we realize that Iran’s path has been anything but natural. One begins to wonder – if the United States and Britain had not involved themselves in Iran, with motivations centered primarily around oil and Western ideas of freedom, how different would things be today?
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Musa Hussain is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.