Inside Iran's Fury

Scholars trace the nation's antagonism to its history of domination by foreign powers

Iran's anger over decades of foreign meddling in its internal affairs reached its apex in the 1979 revolution. (Abbas/ Magnum Photos)
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Although many Iranians were appalled by Reza Shah, they admired and supported him because they believed a strong central government was needed to fight back against foreign domination. It was during this period that the modern idea of what it meant to be Iranian began to take shape. "Before the beginning of the 20th century, if you asked a villager where he was from, he would say he was from such-and-such village," says Janet Afary, a professor of history at Purdue University who has written extensively about the Constitutional Revolution. "If you pressed him about his identity, he would say he was a Muslim. National identification, in the sense of everyone in the country calling themselves Iranian, started with the intellectuals of the Constitutional Revolution and was institutionalized under Reza Shah."

The Iranian government developed close economic and political ties with Germany, the European rival to Iran's traditional enemies, Britain and Russia. That relationship prompted the Allies to invade Iran in 1941. They crushed Iran's pitiful army in a campaign that lasted less than a month. This showed Iranians that despite all Reza Shah had accomplished, Iran was still too weak to resist foreign powers. It was yet another national humiliation, and led to Reza Shah's forced abdication in September 1941. His 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza, took his place.

The winds of nationalism and anti-colonialism that swept across Asia, Africa and Latin America in the years after World War II whipped up a sandstorm in Iran. Since the early 20th century, the immeasurably rich Iranian oil industry had been under the control of a British monopoly, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was owned principally by the British government. Iranian oil powered the British economy and made possible the high standard of living Britons enjoyed from the 1920s through the 1940s. It also fueled the Royal Navy as it projected British power around the world. Most Iranians, meanwhile, lived in wretched poverty.

Anger over this glaring inequality triggered the next Iranian revolution, a peaceful but deeply transformative one. In 1951, Iran's parliament chose as prime minister one of the most highly educated men in the country, Mohammed Mossadegh, whose degree from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland made him the first Iranian ever to earn a doctorate in law from a European university. Mossadegh championed what had become the nation's transcendent goal: nationalization of the oil industry. Even before taking office, he proposed a nationalization law that both houses of parliament passed unanimously. The British, to no one's surprise, refused to accept it. They withdrew their oil technicians, blockaded the port from which oil was exported and asked the United Nations to order Iran to withdraw the plan. Mossadegh's popularity at home skyrocketed; as a British diplomat wrote in a report from Tehran, he had done "something which is always dear to Persian hearts: he flouted the authority of a great power and a great foreign interest."

Mossadegh's daring challenge to Britain also turned him into a world figure. Time magazine chose him as its 1951 Man of the Year. In October he traveled to New York City to plead his case at the United Nations. It was the first time the leader of a poor country had mounted this august stage to challenge a great power so directly.

"My countrymen lack the bare necessities of existence," Mossadegh told the U.N. Security Council. "Their standard of living is probably one of the lowest in the world. Our greatest national resource is oil. This should be the source of work and food for the population of Iran. Its exploitation should properly be our national industry, and the revenue from it should go to improve our conditions of life." Most American newspapers, however, were unsympathetic to Mossadegh's plea on the grounds that he was defying international law and threatening the flow of oil to the free world. The New York Times, for instance, decried Iran as a "defiant scorner" of the United Nations, and further blamed "Iranian nationalism and Islamic fanaticism" for carrying the dispute "beyond the field of legality and common sense."

The epic struggle for control of the oil industry helped transform Iranian nationalism from an abstract idea into a movement. "While Reza Shah crafted the vessel, it was Mossadegh who filled it," says Iranian-British scholar Ali Ansari. "Between 1951 and 1953, Persian nationalism became truly Iranian—inclusive, broad-based and with increasing mass appeal." During this period, many Iranians came to hope the United States would emerge as their friend and protector. Most of the Americans who had come to Iran during the first half of the 20th century were teachers, nurses and missionaries who had left highly positive impressions. That view changed abruptly in the summer of 1953, when the United States took a step that made it an object of deep resentment in Iran.

After trying every conceivable way to pressure Mossadegh to abandon his nationalization plan, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered British agents to organize a coup and overthrow him. When Mossadegh learned of the plot, he closed the British Embassy in Tehran and expelled all British diplomats, including the agents who were plotting his overthrow. In desperation, Churchill asked President Harry S. Truman to order the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency to depose Mossadegh. Truman refused. "The CIA was then a new agency, and Truman saw its mission as gathering and collecting intelligence, not undermining or overthrowing foreign governments," says James Goode, a historian at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran and later taught at the University of Mashhad. "He was almost as frustrated with the British as he was with the Iranians."

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, however, U.S. policy changed. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was eager to strike back against growing Communist influence worldwide, and when the British told him that Mossadegh was leading Iran toward Communism—a wild distortion, since Mossadegh despised Marxist ideas—Dulles and Eisenhower agreed to send the CIA into action.

"The intense dislike that Dulles and Eisenhower had toward Mossadegh was visceral and immediate," says Mary Ann Heiss, a historian at Kent State University who specializes in early cold war history. "They were not interested in negotiation at all. For Dulles, coming from a corporate law background, what Mossadegh had done seemed like an attack on private property, and he was bothered by what he saw as the precedent that it might be setting. He was also worried about the possibility that the Soviet Union might gain a foothold in Iran....It was all very emotional and very quick. There was no real attempt to find out who Mossadegh was or what motivated him, to talk to him or even to respond to letters he was sending to Washington."


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