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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In August 1953, the CIA sent one of its most intrepid agents, Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, to Tehran with orders to overthrow Mossadegh. Employing tactics that ranged from bribing newspaper editors to organizing riots, Roosevelt immediately set to work. From a command center in the basement of the U.S. Embassy, he managed to create the impression that Iran was collapsing into chaos. On the night of August 19, an angry crowd, led by Roosevelt's Iranian agents—and supported by police and military units whose leaders he had suborned—converged on Mossadegh's home. After a two-hour siege, Mossadegh fled over a back wall. His house was looted and set afire. The handful of American agents who organized the coup were, as Roosevelt later wrote, "full of jubilation, celebration and occasional and totally unpredictable whacks on the back as one or the other was suddenly overcome with enthusiasm." Mossadegh was arrested, tried for high treason, imprisoned for three years, then sentenced to house arrest for life. He died in 1967.

The 1953 coup put an end to democratic rule in Iran. After Mossadegh was deposed, the CIA arranged to bring Mohammad Reza Shah back from Rome, where he had fled during the pre-coup turmoil, and returned him to the Peacock Throne. He ruled with increasing repression, using his brutal secret police, Savak, to torture opposition figures. No independent institutions—political parties, student groups, labor unions or civic organizations—were tolerated during his quarter century in power. The only place dissidents could find shelter was in mosques, which gave the developing opposition movement a religious tinge that would later push Iran toward fundamentalist rule.

Throughout the cold war, relations between Washington and Tehran were exceedingly close, largely because the Shah was, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir, "that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally." Iranians, for their part, came to see the United States as the force that propped up a hated dictatorship. "Iranians traditionally believed that the United States was not a colonial power, and older people remembered [President] Woodrow Wilson's anti-colonial views," says Mansour Farhang, who was the revolutionary government's first ambassador to the United Nations and now teaches history at Bennington College. "Even Mossadegh initially had great goodwill toward the United States. But during the 1950s and '60s, largely as a result of the 1953 coup and concessions the Shah made to the Americans, a new generation emerged that saw the United States as imperialist and neo-colonialist. As time went by, this perspective became completely dominant."

Flush with money from oil revenues, the Shah sought to transform Iran into a regional military power. The United States sold him tens of billions of dollars' worth of advanced weaponry, which brought huge profits to U.S. arms manufacturers while securing Iran as a powerful cold war ally on the Soviet Union's southern border. In the long run, though, this policy would have dire repercussions.

"Some of the things the Shah purchased from us were far beyond his needs," notes Henry Precht, an American diplomat who served in Tehran during the 1970s and later became the State Department's desk officer for Iran. "Prestige and his fascination with military hardware played a great part. There was no rational decision-making process. It was the same way on the civilian side. There was tremendous waste and corruption. Shiploads of grain would arrive and there were no trucks to offload them, so they would just heap the grain in mountains and set it afire."

Anger at the U.S. military presence and the Shah's dictatorial rule culminated in a national uprising in 1979. It was Iran's last modern revolution, like previous ones, a rebellion against a regime that was seen to have sold out to a foreign power. Nearly every important group in Iranian society joined the anti-Shah uprising. Muslim clerics were prominent among its leaders, but so were others ranging from pro-Soviet communists to democrats who had supported Mossadegh in the 1950s. In one of the most astonishing political turnarounds of the 20th century, the Shah, who many in Washington and elsewhere had come to see as invulnerable, was overthrown and forced to flee. He left Iran on January 16, 1979, and after stays in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas and Mexico, was admitted to the United States for medical treatment on October 22 of that year. Many Iranians saw this as evidence that the Carter administration was plotting to place him back in power. Thirteen days later, militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Fundamentalist Shiite clerics used the crisis to crush moderate factions, consolidate control over the new government and transform Iran into a theocratic state under Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned from exile in Paris on February 1, 1979.

The deepening hostility between Tehran and Washington led to a catastrophe that no one in Iran had anticipated. Saddam Hussein, dictator of neighboring Iraq—which had been a rival of Iran since the two countries were the kingdoms of Persia and Mesopotamia—saw that Iran suddenly lacked a powerful ally and that its military was in disarray. Seizing this chance, he launched an invasion of Iran in September 1980. The ensuing war lasted eight years, devastated the Iranian economy and cost Iran as many as one million casualties, including thousands who were killed or incapacitated by chemical weapons. Iraq saw between 160,000 and 240,000 killed.

The United States, still fuming over the hostage crisis, sided with Iraq, which it saw as a bulwark against Shiite militancy that threatened perceived U.S. interests such as the stability of the Sunni monarchies in oil-producing countries. President Ronald Reagan twice sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to Baghdad to discuss ways the United States could help Saddam. In the wake of his visits, Washington provided Iraq with aid, including helicopters and satellite intelligence that was used in selecting bombing targets. "The war had two profound effects," says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Muslim politics at Sarah Lawrence College. "First, it deepened and widened anti-American feeling in Iran and made anti-American foreign policy a fundamental raison d'être of the Iranian government. Second, Iraq's use of chemical weapons, and the American role in preventing an investigation [of them] and shielding Saddam from criticism, convinced the [Iranian] mullahs that they needed to pursue a program to develop unconventional weapons of their own."

The hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War and the religious regime's intense efforts to undermine U.S. power in the Middle East and elsewhere have turned Iran and the United States into bitter enemies. To many Americans, the blame seems to lie only with a radical, aggressive and almost nihilistic regime in Tehran, which has threatened Israel, opposed U.S. efforts to resolve Middle East conflicts and has been linked to terrorism in cities from Berlin to Buenos Aires.

Iran's current leaders—conservative Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the provocative, incendiary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—skillfully exploit the country's nationalist sentiment, citing threats and demands from Washington to justify harsh crackdowns on students, labor unions, women and other dissatisfied groups. Sometimes Ahmadinejad even defends these draconian measures while sitting in front of a photo of majestic Mount Damavand, a traditional nationalist symbol.


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