Most Americans trace the origins of the US-Iran conflict back to the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran by Islamist revolutionaries overthrowing an erstwhile valuable regional ally. What most people in the United States don’t know is that the actions of those young Iranians nearly 40 years ago were in fact an explosive reaction to more than half a century of US and Western meddling in their country’s affairs, a mostly one-way relationship in which Iran’s vast oil resources were terribly exploited by foreign corporations while the Iranian people were brutally oppressed by a US-backed dictator.
"We Shall Soon Be in the Position of Actually Running Iran"
The British were the first to exploit Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which despite its equitable-looking hyphenation was a British-owned virtual monopoly known today as BP, literally fueled much of Britain’s war machine during World War II. At the same time, the United States was, both by circumstance and planning, supplanting Britain as the world’s dominant superpower. During the war, US government and businesses began cozying up to Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in what seemed at first like a symbiotic relationship. The Americans got access to Iranian oil while reducing Soviet regional influence, while the Shah got aid and support for his authoritarian regime. Washington’s true intentions, however, were soon apparent: "The obvious fact," State Department official Wallace Murray wrote in 1942, "is that we shall soon be in the position of actually running Iran."
In 1951 the people of Iran, perhaps emboldened by President Harry S. Truman’s promise to "assist free people to work out their own destinies in their own way," elected Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh as their new prime minister. Mossadegh fought to end Western exploitation, nationalizing Anglo-Iranian Oil, expelling British technicians from its refinery and breaking off diplomatic relations with London. His was the most popular – and democratic – government Iranians have ever known. Time, in naming him its "Man of the Year" for 1951, called him "the Iranian George Washington."
The British were nearly as infuriated by Mossadegh as they were by the original George Washington. They hatched a plot to depose Iran’s democratically elected leader, and they sought the help of their closest ally. Truman would have none of it, but London found a more receptive ear in his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, who warmed to the idea of a coup. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, whose brother Allen Dulles was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, were keen to see Mossadegh go. Both brothers had also been attorneys at a law firm that represented Anglo-Iranian Oil.
The CIA launched Operation Ajax in 1953, fomenting unrest through street violence and an aggressive propaganda campaign. A reluctant Shah was swiftly returned to his throne and Mossadegh was deposed and imprisoned. Iran’s oil was once again firmly in the grip of foreigners, but with one major difference – this time the United States seized 40 percent of the oil for itself. Washington would later claim all of this was done to prevent Iran from "going communist." However, a 1953 State Department report concluded that Mossadegh had no communist sympathies and had in fact opposed Soviet meddling. Iran’s main communist party had vehemently opposed his rule.
In order to help the Shah maintain an iron grip on his country, the CIA, working with Israel, created SAVAK, Iran’s notoriously brutal internal security force. SAVAK specialized in horrific tortures, sometimes taught using CIA instructional films showing people being beaten and raped. Five successive American presidents enthusiastically supported the Shah over the next quarter century, lavishing him with a billion dollars in aid and selling him the latest high-tech US weaponry. Jimmy Carter, the so-called "human rights president," feted the dictator at the White House and toasted his "brilliant leadership" at a New Year’s Eve soirée in 1978. Ignoring angry protests against the Shah’s tyranny, Carter declared there was "no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more."
Tremendous long-simmering animosity toward the United States inevitably boiled over, culminating in the familiar events of those 444 days in 1979-81. We Americans would do well to remember all the history that preceded the hostage crisis the next time our leaders accuse Iran of irrational hatred of the United States.
Instead of acknowledging its role in stoking the flames of revolt, the Carter administration reached out to an even worse dictator, Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, in an attempt to thwart Iran’s nascent Islamic republic. The US provided bogus intelligence assessments that intentionally underreported Tehran’s military might in a successful bid to encourage Hussein to invade Iran. He did, starting a bloody eight-year war of attrition that would ultimately claim more than a million lives.
"I Will Never Apologize for the United States of America"
The United States was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war. However, Washington provided Hussein’s forces with valuable intelligence and in 1982 President Ronald Reagan removed Iraq from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, opening the door for billions of dollars in US and Western aid. Reagan repeatedly dispatched special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet with Hussein; images of the two men pressing palms would later gain worldwide notoriety as President George W. Bush tried and miserably failed to make the case for war against America’s formerly favored despot.
That infamous handshake preceded the transfer of deadly chemical and biological materials, including anthrax, from the US and its allies to Iraq, materials which Hussein’s scientists promptly weaponized and unleashed upon both Iranian troops and his own dissenting people. Reagan officials knew for years that Iraq was launching WMD attacks but kept up their support while denying knowledge of such heinous war crimes.
As the disastrous war drew to a stalemate ending, US hostility toward Iran continued. On July 3, 1988, a US Navy warship in Iranian waters accidentally shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 carrying 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children. All perished. An indignant Reagan blamed the "barbaric Iranians" for the wholesale aerial slaughter of Iran Air Flight 655; Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running for president, infamously spat, "I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are." Bush won the presidency in a landslide.
"Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran"
Fast-forward now to the second Bush era, when saber-rattling toward Iran reached epic proportions. At times, like when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sang "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys’ "Barbara Ann," America’s aggressive posturing was almost comical. But Bush’s provocations and acts of outright war against Iran were almost always anything but funny.
Bush’s war plans against Iran reportedly included a false-flag plot hatched in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to send Navy SEALs in boats disguised as Iranian naval vessels to attack US warships in the Straits of Hormuz. The plan was rejected, but Bush nevertheless ordered US Strategic Command to plan a massive attack while Special Forces troops were secretly deployed inside Iran on reconnaissance missions and to forge alliances with various dissident groups.
Chief among these were the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, better known by its Farsi acronym MEK, a State Department-designated terrorist group that had previously assassinated six US officials when it was fighting the Shah’s regime. Despite this, the US military secretly trained MEK fighters in Nevada, while the terror group paid leading US figures including Rudy Giuliani and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) handsomely to lobby for its cause.
The Bush administration went so far as to pressure the World Bank into suspending emergency relief aid after the 2003 Bam earthquake, which killed more than 26,000 Iranians and left more than 100,000 others homeless. Later, Bush imposed harsh new economic sanctions on Iran, which to this day cause great suffering for ordinary people even as a well-connected elite grows fantastically wealthy.
The Obama Years: Attacks, Then Hope and Change
The menacing of Iran continued unabated through most of Barack Obama’s presidency. From Israel’s assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists to a wave of cyberattacks and sabotage, US and Israeli actions against Iran would surely be seen as severely punishable acts of war if they were committed against the United States. Meanwhile, the administration sold a record amount of weapons to Iran’s regional adversaries, further raising tensions in the world’s most volatile region.
Obama ultimately chose cautious cooperation over confrontation with Iran, a decision that led to the landmark July 2015 agreement between Washington, Tehran and leading world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions. The Iran nuclear deal, however, faced vicious bipartisan opposition from its earliest stages, from liberal senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to mainstream Republicans and neoconservative hawks like John Bolton, who repeatedly voiced his desire to bomb Iran – and who is now President Trump’s top national security official.
Much of this opposition can be traced to Israel’s vehement rejection of any peace overtures toward its sworn enemy, which it claims is hell-bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel says the Iran nuclear deal is bad, and that Iran is lying about its nuclear ambitions. Israel does not say that Iran is building nuclear weapons or violating the deal, because Iran is doing neither of those things. In fact, top Israeli political, defense and intelligence officials, as well as all 16 US intelligence agencies, have repeatedly concluded over the years that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.
Return to Hostility
Even Trump admits Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Yet that hasn’t stopped him from tearing it up, proving once again, critics say, that an agreement with the United States isn’t worth the paper its printed on and sending a most alarming and discouraging message to other adversaries who would negotiate with it, chiefly North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Another message Kim and other nuclear aspirants have surely internalized is that the most surefire insurance against US aggression and regime change is an atomic arsenal. They need look no further than the grisly fates of Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom disarmed and were subsequently deposed and executed. Now that its deal appears sunk, Iran may indeed determine its best interest lies in the hasty development of a nuclear deterrent.
Yet for all the US aggression, provocation and demonization against Iran, the country has not initiated a war in modern history. Meanwhile, the US has attacked, invaded or occupied dozens of nations over the past century, killing millions of men, women and children. It has built many thousands of nuclear weapons – and has used them twice. It has nearly encircled Iran with bases in mostly hostile nations, which it has armed to the teeth as well. Iran has no nuclear weapons, no bases within 10,000 kilometers of the United States, which spends around 50 times as much on its military as does Iran. Yet Americans – 70 percent of whom falsely believed that Iran had nukes in a 2010 CNN poll – perennially name Iran as the greatest danger to world peace, while most of the rest of the world views the US as the biggest threat.
There is really only one entity that stands to benefit from dismantling the Iran nuclear deal and a potential regime-change war against Iran, and that is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has privately boasted about his power to manipulate America, has been pushing Washington away from cooperation and toward confrontation with Iran for more than a decade. Netanyahu is fond of comparing Iran to Nazi Germany despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of Jews living more or less as freely in Iran as anyone is permitted to live under an Islamist theocracy. Meanwhile Jews, who once numbered over 100,000 in Baghdad alone, have completely disappeared from neighboring, US-backed Iraq.
Iran isn’t without its major faults. It is run by an oppressive, authoritarian regime that crushes dissent with deadly force. It supports the brutal Assad regime, as well as resistance groups – the US, Israel and others call them terrorists – like Hamas and Hezbollah in their fight against Israel. However, Iran poses a minimal threat to anyone outside its own borders and the Iranian people, who have so many reasons to hate the United States, overwhelming don’t. Those "death to America" chants so often shown to demonize Iranians are aimed at the US government, not her people. Iranians, it seems, posses a power many Americans don’t; namely, the ability to discern between a country’s government and its people.
It is up to us, the American people, to cut through the lies, misinformation and vilification we’re fed about Iran by our (mis)leaders and the establishment media, and to hold those who would wage war to account for their policies and actions. When it comes to understanding Iran, we would do well to start with history, not hysteria.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His work, which has recently appeared in thx, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, and Daily Kos, focuses on issues of war and peace, human rights and social justice.