excerpted from the book
How our covert wars have
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.
by Mark Zepezauer
Common Courage Press, 2003,
The history of America's relationship with Iran illustrates the
distance between the claim that we stand for democracy and freedom
throughout the world and what the U.S. actually does when that
principle is stacked up against another interest: controlling
the spigot of the world's oil supply. In 1953 the U.S. toppled
Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, putting the
Shah of Iran firmly in control. By 1979 our support of the Shah
had turned most Iranians into bitter enemies of the United States.
They chased him out of power and installed a fundamentalist Muslim
regime that bedevils us to this day.
The reason the U.S. toppled the Mossadegh
regime boils down to one word, the same word that governs most
of our policy in the region: oil. When Mossadegh became prime
minister, Iran had one-quarter of the world's proven oil reserves.
And yet his country received more income from the sale of its
carpets abroad than from its petroleum. The British Empire held
a controlling interest in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC),
and they were not shy about exerting that control.
When Britain assumed control of AIOC in
1913, Iran's share of royalties was 16%, and was based only on
the sale of its crude, not on the more profitable refining business.
The Iranian government was never allowed to audit the books to
ensure they were getting a fair deal, nor were any Iranians involved
in the management of the company. Even the drinking fountains-on
Iranian soil-were marked "not for Iranians."
But by 1951 the Saudis had cut a deal
for a 50-50 split of the profits for the jointly owned company
with the U.S., and a similar arrangement had been made in Venezuela.
The British, however, were unwilling to go quite that far-until
it was too late. When negotiations bogged down, the Iranian legislature
voted to nationalize the AIOC. Mossadegh was then swept into office
on a wave of nationalist fervor, determined to use oil revenue
to construct highways and railroads and improve the educational
The Iranian prime minister offered Britain
compensation, including a continuing 25% of net profits, as well
as retention of all British employees. His Majesty's government
responded with a threatening flotilla of gunboats, followed by
an economic blockade and a boycott of all Iranian oil products,
enforced by oil companies worldwide. Rather than modernizing his
country, Mossadegh presided over its decline into chaos.
As the crisis deepened, both Iran and
Britain turned to the U.S. for assistance. The Truman Administration
was uninterested in helping the British get their oil company
back, but when Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, his
secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, saw Iran as yet another
pawn in the Cold War. Iran's communist party, the Tudeh, received
little support from Moscow, and was illegal in Iran. But Dulles
saw Mossadegh as insufficiently keen to suppress the Tudeh, and
feared the economic decline caused by the British boycott might
strengthen the party's hand. Then, too, Dulles and his brother
Allen (head of the CIA) were also corporate lawyers who represented
a number called the Shah a "miserable wretch," and announced
that "it will be difficult for us to tolerate you much longer....
The nation will not allow you to continue this way." Predictably,
the Shah had Khomeini arrested, and just as predictably, the streets
of Iran's cities erupted in fury. In three days of rioting, 86
people were killed, and it took martial law to restore order.
Though the Shah would sit on the Peacock Throne for sixteen more
years, this was the beginning of the end for him. Ironically,
his U.S.-backed purge of leftists and centrists left open no other
avenue for dissent besides Islamic militancy.
Khomeini challenged his authority again
the following year, denouncing a treaty which allowed U.S. citizens
immunity from Iranian laws. For this affront, the Ayatollah was
sent into exile in neighboring Iraq. There he continued to spread
the word of militant Islam through writings and audiocassettes,
widely distributed in his homeland.
Shah Reza Pahlavi entered a downward cycle
of ever greater repression of the Iranian people, which stirred
up ever more opposition to his rule. By 1976, Amnesty International
announced that Iran had the worst human rights record on Earth,
no small distinction on this particular planet. The secret police,
SAVAK, trained by Israel and supplied by the U.S., were infamous
for the use of torture and assassination. And meanwhile the Shah's
personal corruption grew ever more blatant. Iran's vast oil wealth
was squandered on palaces and ceremonies, used to enrich a small
class of cronies and collaborators, and funneled into massive
weapons purchases from the U.S.
Throughout the last years of the Shah's
reign of terror, as opposition grew and the security forces massacred
more and more demonstrators in the streets, U.S. support never
wavered. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter toasted Reza Pahlavi,
reading off some speechwriter's inane prose: "Iran under
the leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of
the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute
to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect,
admiration and love which your people give to you." Within
a year the Shah's leadership would be over, and some ten to twelve
thousand of his people would be dead at his hands. Hundreds, perhaps
thousands of protestors were killed on a single day, September
8, 1978, known as Black Friday in Iran. From that point on any
compromise <4 with the Shah's regime became impossible.
Opponents of the Shah, both left and right,
coalesce behind the figure of Khomeini. His call for a government
based on the tenets of Islam appealed to the traditionalists,
while his opposition to the American presence strengthened his
nationalist credentials. Unfortunately, Ruhollah Khomeini turned
out to be every bit as ruthless, intolerant cynical, humorless
and bloodthirsty as the man he replaced in 1979. Neither the far
left nor the center had the muscle to overthrow the monarchy on
their own, and many held romanticized views of the exiled cleric
that ran into the brick wall of reality once he gained power.
The gallows and torture chambers were
never retired. The Shah's own torturers were the first to be executed;
like many successful revolutionaries, the mullahs spilled more
blood to prevent a counterrevolution. But the killing didn't stop
there. As Khomeini gradually drained power from the civilian government,
opposition began to grow. The Islamic republic entered the familiar
cycle of repression, dragging the country into a virtual civil
war. Democratic centrists, the remnants of the Mossadegh regime,
were purged from the government, and a new constitution was rammed
through in an election fraught with irregularities. On the left,
many survivors of the Tudeh party had rallied behind a theology
that combined Marxism with Islam. But the leftist mullahs were
purged as well; only Khomeini's theology could reign. Before long
Marxist guerrillas were in open conflict with the regime.
Two things happened to help the conservative
mullahs strengthen their grip on power: the hostage crisis and
the war with Iraq. In February 1979 the U.S. embassy was seized
by militant Muslim students, angered when the Shah was admitted
to an American hospital for medical treatment. Against President
Carter's better judgement (and the vehement warnings from the
U.S. embassy in Tehran), the Shah's friends, Henry Kissinger and
David Rockefeller, successfully lobbied to bring him to the U.S.
Iranians feared a repeat of the 1953 CIA plot that re-installed
the monarchy (though in reality Reza Pahlavi was rapidly dying
of cancer). Shredded documents from the "nest of spies"
were painstakingly reassembled, making public the details of CIA
collaboration with the Shah's secret police. Nationalist sentiments
were further inflamed when the U.S. Iaunched a failed military
rescue of its 53 hostages; the regime played it up as the first
battle of a planned counter-coup, foiled by Islamist troops (though
in reality the U.S. helicopters had crashed in an unexpected sandstorm).
In frustration, the U.S. cozied up to
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He was thirsty for revenge over
a 1975 territorial dispute with the Shah. The U.S. hoped that
a war with Iraq would force the Khomeini regime to bargain for
the hostages to gain spare parts for the Shah's U.S.-built arsenal.
Both sides figured the war would be short and relatively painless;
in reality it would last eight years and cost over a million lives.
Khomeini was indeed willing to bargain
for military equipment. But unfortunately for the Carter administration,
according to investigative journalist Robert Parry, the bargain
was made with a group of ex-CIA officers who supported the Reagan-Bush
presidential campaign. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the civilian president
of Iran in the first year of the revolution. In his memoirs, he
explained that Khomeini's anti-American rhetoric was just show
business for the masses, and that behind the scenes the Ayatollah
had no problems dealing with the "Great Satan." For
instance, in 1983 the U.S. secretly provided lists of leftist
infiltrators in the Iranian government, which Khomeini used for
mass roundups and executions.
According to numerous witnesses, representatives
of the mullahs met in Paris with William Casey (later named CIA
director) and other Reagan campaign officials in October 1980.37
This was done behind Carter's back and also behind Bani-Sadr's
back, and though both caught wind of what was happening, they
were unable to stop it. Iran agreed to keep the hostages until
Carter was defeated for reelection, in return for $40 million
in military equipment. Shipments of U.S. arms through Israel commenced
shortly after Reagan was inaugurated. About the same time Bani
Sadr was forced from office and fled Iran under threat of assassination.
The nationalist fervor surrounding the embassy seizure allowed
Khomeini and the mullahs to purge centrists from the government;
soon clerics controlled both the judiciary and the military.
Meanwhile the war with Iraq rallied Iranians
behind the regime, discrediting the armed resistance, which was
receiving backing from Baghdad. U.S. diplomats had told Iran that
for geopolitical reasons, they would not allow Iraq to prevail.
Unfortunately, for the same reasons, the U.S. would not allow
Iran to prevail. At various times, the U.S. covertly offered both
material and intelligence to both sides, while publicly maintaining
neutrality. The war dragged on through years of bloody stalemate,
with both sides unwilling to negotiate so as not to seem weak
at home. Alarmed by Khomeini's willingness to export his theocratic
revolution, the U.S. and its allied Gulf monarchies funneled billions
of dollars of military aid to Iraq. By 1987, the U.S. was willing
to intervene overtly on the side of Saddam Hussein.
As both Iraq and Iran had been attacking
vessels in the Persian Gulf, American flags were raised over Kuwaiti
tankers, and American battleships retaliated massively against
any Iranian moves. The U.S. destroyed Iranian oil platforms after
a frigate was damaged by mines. Then in July 1987 the USS Vincennes
shot down an Irani passenger jet, killing all 290 civilians on
board. The captain claimed that the plane appeared to be menacing
his ship in international waters; later investigations showed
it was on a regularly scheduled flight-in Iranian airspace-at
the time of the shootdown. Vice President George Bush announced
at the UN, "I don't care what the facts are; I will never
apologize for the United States of America!" As if to underscore
the point, the captain of the Vincennes was later given a medal
A year later, Khomeini reluctantly accepted
a UN cease-fire resolution. The war had cost Iran over $125 billion,
and of the one million dead, three-quarters were Iranian lives.
For Khomeini, it had cemented his hold on power, whereas for the
U.S. and its allies it had mostly contained his Islamic revolution-at
least for the time being. Once Iran had learned that hostages
were a valuable commodity, it used proxy forces in Beirut to seize
more of them, and the Reagan Administration had duly bargained
further military aid for their release, one at a time. But wearied
by eight years of war, Iran saw diminishing returns and little
success in an expansionist foreign policy. After Khomeini's death
in June 1989, the remaining hostages were released.
Since then, Iran has continued to support
anti-Israeli forces in Lebanon, but has also tried to reach greater
accommodation with the West. The more moderate Khatami regime
was elected in 1997 and overwhelmingly re-elected in 2000, but
the mullahs still maintain veto power over the legislature and
continue to dominate the judiciary. Following the 9/11 attacks,
Iran has both condemned the U.S. war on Afghanistan and offered
to help rescue downed pilots on its territory. While the U.S.
has maintained a trade embargo, other nations have been willing
to resume business as usual with Tehran, and U.S. oil companies
are impatient to get back in the game. But Iran was lumped in
with North Korean and Iraq as an "axis of evil" in President
Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, setting back reformist
forces in Tehran by almost a decade.
The blowback from U.S. interventions in
Iran will reverberate for years to come. Our policies, meant to
establish "stability" for a secure oil supply, have
instead left a legacy of bitterness in Iran, destabilized its
neighbors (including Afghanistan), strengthened Saddam Hussein,
and given both literal and rhetorical weapons to enemies of the
United States. The disregard for the disastrous (and largely foreseeable)
consequences of these policies should be recalled every single
time that we are tempted to intervene abroad. But among many consistent
threads through U.S. foreign policy is a complete indifference
to the carnage wreaked by our interventions, a point we see illustrated
by the 1991 war against Iraq-a war that continues in many ways
to this day.