excerpted from the book


How our covert wars have created enemies
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.

by Mark Zepezauer

Common Courage Press, 2003, paper


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 system.

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 for valor.

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.


Index of Website

Home Page