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Part II, America And Iran: Burning Bridges, Igniting Hatred

by Jeff Elliott

Why They Hate Us

to MONITOR series "Why They Hate Us"
Mention Iran and Americans think of the hostage crisis -- 444 days of national anguish, waiting helplessly for our citizens to be released. Ask almost any Iranian about their homeland and you'll learn that the entire nation has been held hostage now for nearly fifty years, first by a repressive monarch and then by religious fundamentalists.

The fable of Iran touches the heart of conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Here are all the elements that show why we are so widely hated: Decades of treating them as a colony, failure to help grassroot democratic movements, support for despots, and an callous lack of interest in what abject misery that our policies caused the average person. But their modern fable begins in 1952, with rise of a short-lived democracy movement.

Iran was one of the very few Muslim countries in the Middle East or Central Asia that escaped becoming an European colony directly, but they were still under the thumb of Western interests. Then called Persia, the country had been a monarchy since 1925, when the military dictator crowned himself Shah. Their vast oil reserves had made Iran wealthy via the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), but it was the British who held controlling interest in the oil consortium -- as well as Iran itself.

The Brits made it clear in 1941 that they called the shots. After the Shah appeared sympathetic to the Nazis, a joint British-Soviet invasion ousted him and placed his 22 year-old son on the "Peacock Throne." The Allied military occupation continued through the end of the war to ensure the steady supply of oil to military forces and a Russian supply route. In 1946, Iran was the scene of the first real skirmish of the Cold War; Soviet forces were slow to withdraw from their occupation of Iran's northern province. Their retreat after saber-rattling by the Allies was marked as the first strategic victory for the West.

Iran's real turmoil began when a grassroots political party won a majority in the January 1952 elections. The progressive National Front was already a growing power in Iran, and a direct threat to the Shah's rule. Under the threat of a popular revolt the Shah had appointed a National Front leader, Mohammed Mossadeq, to be Prime Minister.

Iranians cheered when Mossadeq made good on the party's promises to nationalize the oil companies, but Western monied interests were horrified. Britain called for a global boycott of Iran's oil to shut off their economic lifeline. Mossadeq kept pushing for more reform and demanded that the military turn control of the nation over to elected officals. The Shah countered by firing Mossadeq. Riots followed until Mossadeq was returned to power. Iran appeared on the brink of a great democratic revolution -- until it was quashed by the United States.

Mossadeq was pro-American, and thought it vital for the U.S. to have a role in reshaping Iran into a democratic and independent nation. The lame-duck Truman administration attempted to help with diplomatic efforts on resolving the oil embargo, but Britian and AIOC rejected the deal. After two years of economic hardship caused by the West's boycott, Mossadeq made a fatal mistake: He announced that he was considering selling oil to the Soviets. The new Eisenhower White House took it as a signal that Iran was turning pro-communist, and launched Cold War sabotage. CIA document

Details have been slow to emerge, with some documents only becoming public last year. But they show that the CIA orchestrated a covert operation to undermine Mossadeq's government with British aid. Their mission: A "quasi-legal" coup (the CIA's own words) to destroy the democracy movement and restore the Shah as absolute monarch. The planning documents show they intended to oust Mossadeq even if the Shah refused to cooperate. Why wouldn't the Shah help them remove his political nemisis? The racist Agency planners noted that there was a "recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner."

As Operation Ajax (or more properly, Operation TPAJAX, the "TP" representing the Agency's code for Iran) began, events must have been bewildering; one week pro-Mossadeq riots suddenly broke out, demanding overthrow of the Shah. A few days later there were new riots protesting the previous riots. What Mossadeq didn't understand in the summer of 1953 was that the U.S. -- the very country that he looked to for help -- was attacking him.

It was all an elaborate sham being directed by the CIA. The Mossadeq supporters and the Mossadeq protesters were exactly the same people, all hired by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt.

Besides hiring faux rioters, the CIA was liberally spending money on bribes, particularly given to top Iran's military and police officials. Over $1 million had been smuggled into Iran by General Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the Gulf War general.

The crisis came to a dramatic end in August 1953. The Shah ordered Mossadeq's arrest but his supporters fought off the troops, even capturing the soldiers. Apparently expecting revolution, the Shah fled the country. The next assult on Mossadeq succeeded, as about 300 of his supporters were killed by the Imperial guards. With Mossadeq now under arrest, the Shah made a triumphant return to Tehran. "I owe my throne to God, my people, my army -- and to you!" The grateful Shah told his CIA keeper.

Both the U.S. and Shah continued to make the situation worse
When the CIA engineered the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq, the U.S. turned a dark corner. Our CIA operatives hadn't hesitated to use terrorism; a leading cleric's home was bombed by operatives disguised as Mossadeq supporters, and religious leaders were harassed. The coup also sent a shocking message to reformers elsewhere in the Muslim world -- that the U.S. was just another Empire that wanted colonial rule over them. If we would undermine a popular leader like Mossadeq in favor of a despot like the Shah, then there was no hope that we'd support any democratic movement (or at least, any movement that conflicted with our Cold War mania). But maybe the biggest change of all was that the coup recast the United States as an economic force in the Middle East. A year after the Shah was safely back in power, U.S. interests were in control of most of the oil flowing out of Iran.

Iran was now in the United States' sphere of influence, and a colony in all but name. We bought their oil, but at the same time, we expected kickback via goods and services purchased with their oil sales. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy years alone, Iran spent about $2 billion on arms and military training from the West. By the end of Nixon's time in office, Iran was the Pentagon's top customer.

Also in the 1950s and 1960s, an endless stream of Western experts, consultants, and technocrats were hired by the Shah as he pushed forward swift modernization. In just a few years, this "White Revolution" pole-vaulted Iran from a developing country to an industrialized nation. Winners and losers followed no simple patterns. Everyone in Iran had a gripe with the Shah for one or more reasons:

  • Good news: Western money pours into Iran following Mossadeq's overthrow. Bad news: it causes years of rapid inflation that eats away at their economy.

  • Good news: Industrial workers are guaranteed profit-sharing. Bad news: The workers come from the rural peasant class, forced off the land they had farmed for generations.

  • Good news: The Shah forces the absentee landowners that own most of the farmland to sell it to the government, which in turn redistributes it to mid-sized farmers. Bad news: the landlords are paid generously for the land, with the expectation that they will reinvest their windfall profit in those new industries -- a form of trickle-down economics. Instead, the rich take the money and run.

  • Good news: Women gain the right to vote (1963), some freedom of the press is encouraged, and a rural literacy outreach begins. Bad news: any dissent is violently suppressed by the Shah's notorious SAVAK secret police, trained by the CIA.

  • Good news: The Shah creates a two-party political system. Bad news: The leaders of these two parties are top aides to the Shah, and the progressive National Front and Communist Tudeh Party are shut out of the elections. Charges of fraud in 1960 are so outrageous that the Shah cancels the election.

Khomeini The Shah faced oppositions to his grand plans in the riots of 1963, when an obscure cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini became a leading protester of the reforms. He was arrested three times that year, and hundreds of his followers were killed. And as with all revolutions, each death spawned a hundred new foes against the tyrant. Khomeini was exiled the next year and between then and his triumphant return after the 1979 revolution, Iran sank deeper into the mire.

Khomeini touched a raw nerve with his message that the U.S. treated Iran like a colony, and that the Shah was blinded by "Westoxication" -- embracing all things American. He was mostly right about that; Iran's course was blown about by conflicting Harvard economic consultants, CIA experts on suppression, and policies of three different presidents in the 1960s. The Shah spent more and more money on weapons Iran didn't need.

SAVAK became known worldwide as experts in torture. The rich got richer -- particularly the "Thousand Families" that made up Iran's elite. And the Shah's benefactors in Washington let the problems fester. Instead of promoting democracy, the reforms were reinforcing the monarch's absolute power.

Khomeini won a strong following among Iran's poor, mostly illiterate and traditionalist. They were bypassed by the reforms and sufferied most from inflation and other economic fallout. Iran's traditionalists shared Khomeini's hatred for reforms, particularly women's rights and that clerics no longer controlled education. The wealthy land owners --- many of them part of Iran's clergy -- sympathized with Khomeini's fight against land reforms that forced property owners to sell to their property to the state for distribution. And the merchants in the bazaar helped fund Khomeini because they saw their small businesses had no future in the Shah's grand plans.

Even as opposition was steamrolling, the Shah continued to make the situation worse. In his first meeting with Jimmy Carter in 1977, he told the president that the crowds demonstrating against his rule were just "a few communists and their sympathizers" who had no popular support. All that was needed were arrests of ringleaders and more violent suppression, he said. As delusional as that sounds today, the U.S. also indulged in wishful thinking. When it was obvious that the Shah could no longer stay in power, the State Department predicted that Khomeini -- whom the U.S. Ambassador called the "Gandhi" of Iran" -- would take a non-political, benevolent role as national figurehead.

The 1979 revolution was carried out in the name of Khomeini, but the clerics were not the leaders of the revolt. Iranians didn't expect the revolution would create a theocracy -- and an extremist one, at that. Scholars today are still uncertain why Khomeini and the ultra-conservative clerics ended up the prize as the dust cleared. The real powerbase was politically liberal to moderate -- the democratic student movement and Iran's middle/ working class, all well-educated and urbane. Many thought of the grim, black-clad ayatollah and his followers as potent symbols of their proud Persian heritage, but regarded their views as absurd throwbacks to medieval times. Nonetheless, in a series of small steps over the course of a year, the mullahs siezed power.

With each challenge, Khomeini's power grew

Where Western corporations and the Shah's "Thousand Families" once controlled Iran's economy, now the factories are owned by "bunyads," religious groups that pay no taxes and have complete monopolies. Leadership of the bunyads is appointed by Khomeini's successor as religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Fundamentalist vigilantes still act as bullies and self-appointed experts on Islamic law, although they are now sometimes in the pay of the bunyads.

Current president Mohammed Khatami was reelected in June with 77 percent of the vote, which was interpreted as a rebuke of the mullah's absolute control because Khatami promised "Islamic democracy" with greater social, media and political freedoms. But supreme religious leader Khamenei still has veto over everything, controlling the courts, the military, and every aspect of the economy; he has often reversed decisions by the president, leaving Iran's control completely in the hands of the clerics. Even the slightest compromises are rejected. Earlier this year, moderates failed in their efforts to raise the marriage age for girls from 9 to 13.

Iran today is a youthful nation; over half of the voters are under 30, and remember little about Iran before Khomeini, who died in 1989. Reports that appeared in the Western press in the months leading up to the recent election describe a generation seething with anger at both the elderly clerics and the vigilante "basiji" who enforce obedience to the mullahs.

The Shah fled Iran in January, 1979, leaving behind a moderate transitional government. Millions welcomed Khomeini's return from exile a month later. Trouble began immediately.

An election was scheduled for March. The moderates tried to put together a ballot of candidates, but Khomeini would hear none of it. There were two choices: a vote for the monarchy or a vote for an Islamic republic. The latter won unanimously -- although no one had defined what such a republic would look like. A similar scenario happened a few months later with the drafting of a new constitution. The National Front and other political groups were shoved aside. Khomeini became ruler for life. Again students took to the streets -- but this time to protest Khomeini, not the Shah. With each challenge, Khomeini's power grew.

Khomeini had one political strategy: diversion. He used it brilliantly, first in a phony war with the Kurds that summer, and the next year with the long, horrific war started by Iraq. He knew well that war distracted critics from mundane politics. But to squelch the growing discontent over the extremist constitution, Khomeini turned to his old enemy, the United States. True to form, we presented him with the perfect weapon to use against us.

After his abdication the Shah zig-zagged around the world, never staying in any country very long. He was terminally ill with cancer, and wanted most to come to America. But the Carter administration felt certain that a visit to the U.S. would risk the lives of Americans in Iran -- salt, open wounds, etc. But after intense lobbying by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chase Manhan Bank chairman David Rockefeller, the Shah was allowed entry for "medical tests." The attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran soon followed, and the hostage crisis began.

By the time the hostages were released in January, 1981, Khomeini had cemented his control over Iran. Moderates and communists who had continued government service were purged; some imprisoned, some executed. A new parliment was seated (almost completely made up of Khomeini followers) and political dissenters found their lives at risk. Khomeini was in control of the courts, the state-run media, and, after purging the officer's ranks, Khomeini owned the military. A social crackdown was also underway. Women who were not wearing the traditional black chador were harassed by fundamentalists, as were merchants selling goods that might not meet new religious guidelines.

And so Iran's new Dark Age began.

The U.S. has shunned Iran since the hostages were released, and between $5-11 billion (Iran claims the higher figure) of funds impounded by president Carter at the start of the hostage crisis are still being held in U.S. banks. The U.S. still designates Iran as a terrorist state. The only change in our trade embargo came in 1997, when Clinton lifted restrictions on carpets, caviar and pistachios.

A significant part of the 2001 crisis is the lack of reliable information about America's history with the Muslim world. Most of the research here came from newspaper articles, books and academic journals not available on the Internet. Particularly valuable background came from two out-of-print books published in 1985: "All Fall Down" by Gary Sick and "Sacred Rage" by Robin Wright. These resources provide good starting points form more background on Iran:
 + Making Enemies Out of Friends
 + The Secret History of the Iran Coup
 + Amnesty International Reports
 + Stifling Dissent
 + Shutting down the Tehran Spring
But while America was nursing wounded pride and pretending that "rogue state" Iran didn't exist, Khomeini was preparing to spread his fundamentalist revolution worldwide. That we didn't pay close attention to these developments was folly that led directly to the horror of September 11, 2001.

After the 1979 takeover, Khomeini rattled Muslim leaders around the globe by vowing that he planned to export his Islamic Revolution. Khomeini preached hate against secular Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia as much as he denounced America, and leaders in those countries knew that it was a popular message for their fundamentalist minorities that made up 2 - 20 percent of their population. Thus when Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, much of the Arab world -- particularly the Persian Gulf nations -- did not remain neutral and sided with Iraq in the eight-year war.

Iran's neighbors had reason to be nervous. In March, 1982, a group of fundamentalist "liberation mullahs" from over 20 nations gathered in Tehran to discuss worldwide Islamic revolution. Not a single mention of this historic gathering could be found in the Western media until three years later when veteran journalist Robin Wright described it in her book, "Sacred Rage:"

The crucial bottom line was a declaration: under the guidance of these men, Islamic militants... would launch a large-scale offensive to cleanse the Islamic world of the "Satanic" Western and Eastern influences that were hindering its progress. To date, they had managed to carry out only a loose, rather haphazard campaign against other Muslim regimes. Now their operations would be intensified and exanded to include the West, specifically those nations that supported and supplied Iran's rivals. In effect, it was the launching of a crusade.


Within the next three years, Iranian and other fanatic operatives introduced a new modus operandi into the murky annals of terrorism... what started in Tehran shot throught the veins of Islam from Beirut to Baghdad, from oil fields to battlefields.

Analysts in the West dismissed the conference as another "gab fest" at the time, but soon came to regret it. Iran set up training camps that drew Islam's angriest young men from around the world. Here they were drilled in the practical aspects of running a Holy War: basic combat with rifles, flying jets and driving tanks (all leftovers from the armaments supplied by the U.S. to the Shah), running intelligence operations, setting up autonomous cells when they returned home so that could act without direct supervision.

The jihad recruits soon demonstrated the depth of their beliefs as they joined Iran's war with Iraq. Youths wearing white headbands cleared the way for Iran's regular army by walking over the battlefields, chanting "shaheed" (martyr) as landmines exploded beneath their feet. In her book, Wright offered a chilling quote from a movement leader: "I can in one week assemble 500 faithful ready to throw themselves into suicide operations," he said.

NEXT: All Roads Lead To Riyadh And The War On Women

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Albion Monitor October 25, 2001 (

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