The Nov. 3rd Forum ran a Washington Post story titled “Embassy seizure leaves legacy of bitterness between Iran, US.” As the story mentions, most Americans were not even born when the embassy takeover occurred but you have to go back even further in history to find the real reason for the bitterness between Iran and the U.S. When I was 10 years old, the Aug. 21, 1953, Washington Post included the headline “Mossadegh Surrenders to Foes.” Since hardly any readers will see the significance of this, I will explain why this date marks the real beginning of the enmity between Iran and the U.S.
In the early 1950s, Iran was emerging as a fledgling democracy (friendly to the U.S.) after many years of dominance by other countries such as Russia and Britain. Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh visited the United States and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as the 1951 Man of the Year. On the other hand, Mossadegh was hated by the British. Oil had been discovered in Iran in 1908, and unfortunately the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) had enjoyed a decades-long fantastically lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil. Since British engineers had discovered the oil, the British felt it belonged to them even though it was under Iranian soil. Very little of the oil profits were shared with Iran. Meanwhile, Iranian oil workers were paid 50 cents a day and lived in abject poverty. When no agreement could be reached to give Iran a greater share of the oil profits, Mossadegh threatened to nationalize British Anglo-Iranian Oil. This made Mossadegh a hero in Iran but outraged the British.
The British decided to organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Iran. They appealed to President Truman for U.S. help, but as Stephen Kinzer writes, “The idea of overthrowing foreign governments was abhorrent to Truman, in part because he recognized that the long term consequences were entirely unpredictable and might well be catastrophic.” However, because of the Cold War, the Eisenhower administration was more receptive to a coup, fearing that Iran might choose to become an ally of the Soviet Union. Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, was chosen to lead Operation Ajax; and on Aug. 21, 1953, Mossadegh was removed from power. Mohammad Reza Shah was installed as dictator and thus began a quarter century of fear and repression for the Iranian people. The CIA helped the Shah organize SAVAK, a secret police organization which brutally tortured and murdered thousands of Iranians who were suspected of opposing the Shah. On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took a group of Americans hostage after Washington refused to hand over for trial the toppled U.S.-backed Shah who had gone to the U.S. for cancer treatment.
In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote “The coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America.”
Award winning foreign correspondent, Stephen Kinser, concluded that without the coup, “Iran probably would have continued along the path to full democracy … and perhaps even a model for other countries. That would have profoundly changed the course of history.”
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So while U.S. bitterness toward Iran may have started in 1979, Iran’s bitterness toward us started much earlier and contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.