white man's burden," all in the name of fighting Communism.
Every so often when discussions of Iran's relationship with the United States come up, there'll be a reference to U.S. interference in Iranian politics in the 1950s. The fact the CIA engineered the overthrow of a popularly elected Prime Minister and helped strengthen an autocratic monarchy will get mentioned, but often the details are vague or the rationale obscure, e.g., "Iran was going to raise oil prices." That always had me wondering why we'd bother to overthrow a government over oil in the 1950s when we weren't as dependent on foreign oil then as we would be a few years later -- and so far as I know we didn't try to overthrow any governments in the 1970s when OPEC jacked up oil prices. Now I know the real story -- it wasn't oil that the U.S. worried about; it was Stalin.
All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by journalist Stephen Kinzer lays it all out: Iranian history beginning with the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, the importance of Shi'a branch of Islam, the role of the British in the Middle East, and the decision by the Dulles brothers to get the U.S. involved in suppressing nationalism and thus sow the seeds for generations of terrorism to follow. The years following World War II were troublesome ones for the European countries that had established colonies and "protectorates" around the world; more and more colonies decided they preferred governing themselves instead of putting up with exploitation by the British, French, Dutch, and other Europeans. Iran was never an actual colony, but generations of a corrupt monarchy had acquiesced in selling off the nation's resources to foreign interests. In the early 1900s, a British company obtained a concession giving that company exclusive rights to oil exploration and development in a region in southern Iran. On May 26, 1908, they struck liquid gold in what Kinzer describes as the greatest oil field ever found. Later that year, a group of investors formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Within a few years, they had drilled hundreds of wells, laid many miles of pipeline, and built what was for many years the world's largest oil refinery on the island of Abadan in the Persian Gulf.
Under the terms of the concession, the British had complete control of Anglo-Persian. The Iranian government received royalties every year, but no Iranians were involved in managing the company or even working at professional positions such as engineer. The only Iranians employed were persons working at the lowest level jobs (i.e., manual laborers), those Iranians were paid subsistence wages, and the only housing available was a slum with no sewers, running water, or paved streets. In contrast, the British workers lived in a company town that was what Kinzer calls a "typical colonial enclave." These were conditions that anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together would recognize as a status that could not continue indefinitely, but the British chose to remain willfully ignorant.
It was not until after World War II, though, that Iranian unhappiness about the oil concession finally reached the point of no return. Over time, Iranians had become more and more unhappy about the many ways the British were screwing the country over: among other things, the oil company management refused to allow any representatives of the Iranian government to audit the books so there was a strong suspicion that the amount being paid in royalties was much smaller than the actual amount owed. The situation got worse when U.S. oil companies negotiated a deal with Saudi Arabia to form the Arab-American Oil Company and agreed to a 50/50 split on the oil revenues. The British flat out refused to agree to such an arrangement. In fact, according to Kinzer, no matter what proposal the Iranians put on the table, the British simply responded with a flat no. As far as the Brits were concerned, there was no negotiating points. From their perspective, everything was fine and they didn't intend to change a thing.
Then the Iranians elected Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister. Mosaddegh decided Iran had been getting cheated by the British long enough; he gave them an ultimatum: negotiate or Iran will nationalize its oil. Once again, the Brits said no, apparently assuming that Mosaddegh was bluffing. He wasn't.
Even before Mosaddegh followed through on the threat to nationalize Iran's oil, the British had begun plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. They had a well-established network of spies and covert operators in Iran; the British Secret Service had no qualms about sabotaging a democratically elected government if that government was threatening Britain's interests. Unlike the Americans who would take over the plotting when the British were expelled from the country, the British were motivated almost solely by greed. British investors didn't want to lose any of the money they'd been getting from the Anglo-Persian Oil company. While the Americans fretted about Communism creeping over the border into Iran from the Soviet Union, the British knew it was an unlikely prospect. Their decades of experience in the country meant they actually had a pretty good idea of what was a real threat and what wasn't. In 1952, as far as the British government was concerned, the real threat was financial and not ideological.
At the same time, the British knew that the U.S. would never agree to help with the Iranian problem if they realized the real issue was monetary rather than ideological. So they started pushing the threat of a Communist incursion, doing their best to make it sound like Mossaddegh and his political allies were one step away from inviting Stalin in to replace the Shah. That ploy didn't work on the Truman administration, but as soon as Truman was gone and Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, things changed. British officials had begun talking with John Foster Dulles and Allan Dulles as soon as Eisenhower was elected. Both men were obsessed with combating the threat of Communism to the point of being unable to accept any other explanation for world events. Rather than seeing the rise of nationalism in former colonies as the natural desire of exploited peoples to be able to govern themselves, they were convinced every revolution was begun by agents funded by Moscow.
In December 1952 Winston Churchill himself insisted to Eisenhower that Mossaddegh had strong Communist leanings, a line Eisenhower apparently swallowed. Mossadegh, in fact, was strongly anti-Communist and was disdainful of even moderate socialism. In March 1953 John Foster Dulles, who was serving as Secretary of State for Eisenhower, directed the CIA (headed by his brother Allan Dulles) to spent $1 million to stage a coup to overthrow Mosaddegh. Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Theodore Roosevelt) was sent to Iran to manage events in person. By the end of August, the CIA's coup d' etat had succeeded, the Shah was firmly on the Peacock Throne, Mosaddegh was in prison, and the British were back in charge of the oil.
Having placed the Shah firmly back on the throne, the U.S. began funneling massive amounts of foreign aid to Iran to keep the Shah in power. As we all know now, the Shah become increasingly autocratic, the Iranian secret police terrorized the population, and opposition to the Shah and hatred of the U.S. government (the Great Satan) grew exponentially. Following the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. managed to cement its image as the Great Satan even more by welcoming the exiled Shah with open arms. It's no surprise that the Iranian government under the ayatollahs provided funding and guidance to various Islamic radical terrorist groups, such as Hamas. We're still paying today for the arrogance of the Dulles brothers and the British. They gave a good-sized chunk of the world valid reasons to hate us.
As for the Dulles brothers, having succeeded in overthrowing one government, they apparently decided that it would be fun to do it again. The CIA's second coup was in Guatemala, where once again the U.S. helped topple a democratically elected government in order to install a dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and the country is still recovering from decades of civil war and unrest. Their obsession with Communism is why we wound up in Vietnam, and it also gave us the Bay of Pigs. They set a pattern for the CIA that probably continues to this day. They may not have been as openly evil as Hitler or Stalin, but they set in motion events that over time may have killed just as many people. The more I learn about the Dulles brothers, the more I find myself hoping that there really is a Hell. If there was ever anyone who deserved to be roasted over a slow fire, they qualify.