This week, the Iranian people are celebrating a dubious holiday – the 30th anniversary of their Islamic Revolution – which the United States and Britain, in part, can take credit for helping to bring about.
America’s post-WWII involvement in Iran is a tragic parable that can help teach us the limits of empire building, and the dangers of foreign policies that place the acquisition of petroleum above the rights and sovereignty of our neighbors.
In 1953, the U.S. and British intelligence services implemented a controversial secret coup plot, code named operation TPAJAX, to overthrow the leadership of Iran and reinstall its Western-leaning Shah. This plot was eventually outlined by Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist James Risen in two New York Times articles in 2000.
Risen’s exposé reveals the details of the successful return of the Shah of Iran, and provides a perfect example of America’s obsession with securing control of foreign oil reserves – and the catastrophic effects this foreign policy obsession can have on our national security.
By the end of WWII, Risen writes, Iran had become a target of both the United States and the Soviet Union due to its massive oil reserves.
In the early 1950s, friction began growing between the Iran’s supreme leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlami, and the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh over Western influence over Iran’s oil reserves. In 1952, the Shah removed Mossadegh temporarily until angry public demonstrations forced him to reverse his decision.
The following year, both U.S. President Eisenhower and the British Prime Minister agreed to a coup plot devised by the CIA and the SIS – Britain’s military intelligence service – to overthrow Mossadegh as Iran’s Prime Minister.
After first refusing to sign CIA-drafted royal decrees dismissing Mossadegh on August 1st, which were delivered by Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf – father of the Desert Storm hero of the same name – the Shah finally agreed to back the CIA plan on August 13th. But the delay had allowed time for Mossadegh gain knowledge of the coup.
Mossadegh managed to fend off the U.S. and the British efforts to remove him, and three days later the terrified Shah flew to safety in Iraq, which at the time was also a strong U.S. ally in the region.
What occurred during the next three days in Tehran is now legend among the CIA’s old guard, as agency operatives fanned out across the city, hiring gangs of thugs to storm the capital and intimidate the population into demanding the return of the Shah.
By 1954, with Mossadegh in prison and his followers either incarcerated or executed by pro-Western units of the Iranian Army, the Shah was reinstalled as Iran’s leader.
The brutal rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlami was therefore extended by more than 25 years by this U.S. and British covert operation. America’s oil rights in Iran were reestablished, but the Shah’s notorious private terror squad, known as the SAVAK, increasingly denied self-determination and civil rights to the Iranian people.
One victim of the Shah’s ruthless subjugation was a popular religious leader named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was exiled to Turkey in 1964 after raising public objections to the Shah’s relationship with the United States.
The 15 years following Khomeini’s exile were filled with horrors for the Iranian people as the SAVAK grew in size and brutality. Eventually numbering 60,000 members, the vicious punishment meted out by the Shah’s enforcers increased to match their leader’s growing unpopularity.
Finally, in 1979, a revolution guided by Ayatollah Khomeini from his new home in France forced the Shah to flee Iran. He eventually ended up in the United States where he sought treatment for the cancer that ultimately took his life in 1980.
With the triumphant return of Khomeini to Iran, the proverbial wheels of U.S. Middle East policy were immediately torn off, and the decades long American domination of the Iranian oil fields came to a dramatic and tragic end.
In a brutal attack that occurred shortly after Khomeini’s arrival in Tehran, which was identified as a direct response to Western interference in Iranian affairs during the preceding years, revolutionary radicals captured the U.S. embassy and held 52 American employees hostage for 444 days.
This agonizing chapter in U.S. foreign policy provided both an insight into the intensity of radical Islamist fundamentalism, as well as a sobering example of the destructive implications that petroleum-centered foreign policy decision-making can have on American national security.
Unfortunately, it took the events of Sept. 11, 2001 – over 20 years later – for America to finally realize that our oil-dominated foreign policy choices can radically affect our national security. And in the intervening three decades, Iran has suffered under the weight of a repressive theocratic régime whose existence we helped usher in.