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Iran's stolen democracy

Thomas Latschan / smsAugust 19, 2013

The effects of the coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister in 1953 still keeps Washington and Tehran from being able to trust each other. But relations between the countries were not always so fraught.

Mohammad Mosaddegh Photo: "irdc.ir".
Image: irdc.ir

Few international relationships have been as plagued with recrimination than the one between the United States and Iran. Washington has had a variety of descriptions for Iran that range from "a fundamentalist regime working to create nuclear weapons," to a member of "the axis of evil." Tehran's descriptions of the US have been no less colorful: "the great Satan" and "the root of all evil" being among the most memorable.

Neither side trusts the other and each feels offended and demeaned. The reasons for the antagonism go back before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The United States first got involved in Iranian politics in 1953 - the effects of which have rippled through to events in the Middle East today.

Colonial attitudes and fears of Communism

But relations were not always strained. Shortly after World War Two the countries got along well enough for "Time" magazine to name Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh its "Man of the Year" in 1951, the year he was elected. His decision to nationalize British oil exploration earned him the respect of many US politicians.

Time Cover Mohammad Mosaddegh: The former prime minister of Iran. Photo: Time
Relations between the US and Iran were not always strained

"In the United States there was a great deal of sympathy for the anti-colonial freedom movements taking place in what was then called the Third World," said Jürgen Martschukat, a professor for North American history at the University of Erfurt. "Mossadegh would even be treated as a sort of Benjamin Franklin for Iran."

The British, however, were not as amused. They had been responsible for Iranian oil production since the beginning of the 20th century. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) brought in major profits for the British Empire.

"For decades the British literally robbed Iran of its oil," said Iranian author Bahman Nirumand, who currently lives in Berlin. "Iran got a small percentage - a pittance - for the oil that the British extracted."

At the end of the 1940s, Iranian politicians demanded a fair division of revenues. Great Britain, on the other hand, refused to change the lucrative contracts it had signed with Iran. The disagreement escalated in 1951 when Mossadegh was elected prime minister. Among his first acts in office was to cancel contracts with the AIOC and nationalize the oil industry.

London reacted angrily and threatened to invade the country and called on the United States for assistance. But US President Harry Truman refused. While the British were, of course, US allies, Washington did not see an interest in an ongoing weakening of the government in Iran and possibly even driving Iran into the arms of the communist USSR. Truman also felt that the British carried some of the blame for allowing the situation to escalate as far as it did.

The CIA and the coup

When Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Truman in the White House in 1953 the world had already watched two years worth of fruitless negotiations between Iran and Great Britain. The countries would not budge from their demands and the atmosphere was hostile. Great Britain placed a complete embargo on Iranian oil. The Iranian economy bottomed out and radical groups, including the communist Tudeh Party, gained support.

4th July 1951: General Eisenhower (1890 - 1969), who became the 34th US President in 1952, greets Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) at Grosvenor where they are both guests of the English Speaking Union. The General's wife Mrs Mamie Eisenhower (1896 - 1979) is seated on the far right. (Photo by Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Eisenhower, right, was willing to take more steps to support the UKImage: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Several anti-communist hardliners were among Eisenhower's advisors, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, who served as head of the CIA. They watched developments in Iran with alarm and went as far as calling Mossadegh "crazy." Their main fear, however, was that the confrontation with Great Britain would drive Iran into the arms of the Soviets.

"The decision was reached that the tricky situation would not be solved with Mossadegh," Martschukat said, adding that the United States still refused to launch a military intervention. "But the Eisenhower administration was ready to use other means that the Truman administration."

That was when the CIA entered the picture. In the summer of 1953, the US spies in Tehran launched "Operation Ajax" by bribing politicians, officers and religious leaders and molded them into an opposition against Mossadegh. At the same time, they convinced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to issue a decree removing Mossadegh from office. On August 19, 1953, there was a confrontation between Mossadegh supporters and those who supported the coup, in front of the prime minister's house.

"Some were amazed at the people who demonstrated against Mossadegh," said Nirumand, who experienced the coup d'état as a student in Tehran. "There were bands of murderers there and poor people from the south of the city who had been bribed."

But after the involvement of the military, which had largely remained on the Shah's side, Mossadegh fell from power and the Iran's experiment with democracy came to an end.

The shah regime and the Islamic Revolution

Even during the coup, Nirumand said, people "anticipated that it was not organized by Iranians." People's assumptions were quickly turned into certainties.

An Iranian woman passes in front of mural-covered wall full of paintings of U.S. Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the old U.S Embassy in Tehran, Iran UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah /Landov +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Repercussions from the coup still play out in US-Iranian relationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The oil industry was denationalized with half of profits going to Iran and half to a consortium of 17 mainly US and UK companies, and the shah received massive support from the United States. Shah Pahlavi created a dictatorship with the military, financial and personnel support of the United States.

"There were more than 10,000 American advisors in Iran back then," said Nirumand. "They controlled the country for nearly 25 years."

The shah would be overthrown in early 1979 by the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "Memories of Mossadegh were very present during the protests," historian Martschukat said, adding that many of the anti-shah protesters in 1978 held posters of the former prime minister.

When angry Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Western diplomats hostage, it had a major symbolic impact as it was the building from which the strings were pulled to remove Mossadegh from power.

Distrust deepens on both sides

The coup against Mossadegh was a trauma that still affects Iranian society, Nirumand said. The Mullahs' anti-American propaganda was able to survive 60 years after the event largely because the CIA was behind the destruction of Iranian democracy. "The Islamists in the country feed on it to this day," he said. "They say, 'Americans simply cannot be trusted.'"

Iranian students climb over a wall of the US embassy Photo: EPA/IRNA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The storming of the embassy in Tehran shook up the United StatesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

For the United States, the storming of the embassy in 1979 was "a massive turning point in the way the United States looked at itself," Martschukat said. The hostage-taking convinced Washington that Iran was an enemy. Following the embassy incident, the United States and Iran cultivated a mutual animosity that to this day makes direct talks between the countries nearly impossible.

A historical mistake

Over the short-term, the 1953 coup d'état was useful for the US. It ensured the shah's alliance for a quarter of century and provided nearly unhindered access to Iranian oil reserves. But over the long-term, the coup was a mistake, Martschukat said.

"Historians generally agree on that," he said, adding that at the beginning of the 50s the United States was well-regarded not only in Iran but across the Middle East. "As a country that freed itself from a European colonial power, the USA set an example."

That was the case until it decided its business interests dictated replacing a democracy with a dictator. "That's when the USA really gambled something away," Martschukat said.