At the beginning of the 20th century, the British were busy converting their steam navy to engines powered by petroleum. Oil had been discovered in Iran, and the British government bought the right to exploit the oil fields. They called their operation the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The next few decades saw massive industrial development, and two world wars. There was a fantastic increase in the use of petroleum to power vehicles, airplanes, ships and other machinery. Iranian petroleum allowed the British to defend their empire. Unfortunately, they neglected to pay fair royalties to the Iranians for the oil. The Iranians became increasingly unhappy with that situation.
The British managed their Iranian enterprise with the cooperation of a weak monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who would eventually become known to the United States as the Shah of Iran. Iranian citizens promoted a very popular democratic leader who had been educated in Europe, Mohammad Mossadegh. After WW II, Mossadegh and followers nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and expelled the British.
The British, recovering from prolonged war, nationalized their own coal and steel industries. But when Iran’s leader, Mossadegh, nationalized Iranian petroleum, the British were incensed. The British considered going to war against Iran, but they were rebuffed by U.S. President Harry Truman. So, the British asked Truman to grant U.S. assistance in an overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government. Truman declined.
President Eisenhower was elected in 1952. He had been a first-hand witness to the carnage of industrial war. That caused him to consider clandestine operations as an alternative to war. At the time, not much thought was given to the possible consequences of clandestine operations. Two of Eisenhower’s appointees, the Dulles brothers, were fervently anti-communist. Foster Dulles became Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles directed the Central Intelligence Agency. The British seized the opportunity to again present their case for recovery of their oil wealth, but this time they presented the scheme as an anti-communist operation. Cold war fear was a motivating factor in that era, and the U.S. agreed to the British request. The U.S. government assigned the task of overthrowing the Iranian government to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
America’s CIA station chief in Iran was so opposed to the overthrow idea that he had to be removed. Our new man in Iran was Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of former U.S. President “Teddy” Roosevelt. Roosevelt managed a successful coup in 1953 and removed the Mossedegh government. The U.S. government kept the CIA role secret from Americans, but the Iranians knew what happened, and they were angry and dismayed because the one Western country they admired had betrayed them.
The U.S. embellished the power of the Shah of Iran as a replacement for the Mossedegh government. The Shah became a ruthless tyrant, developed a brutal secret service, the Savak, and eliminated any and all political competition. He used Iranian revenue to purchase fancy military hardware from the U.S., honed his anti-communist credentials, and allowed his family to become wealthy while most Iranians suffered. In 1979, the Iranians sent the Shah into exile.
The next influence in Iranian governance was not foreign, royal, democratic, or military; it was religious. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from years of exile, demonized America, and imposed a religious orientation in Iranian government. Subsequently, Khomeini’s followers seized the American Embassy and held the embassy employees hostage for almost 15 months. Their eventual release was obtained, in part, by the sale of U.S. military weapons to Iran. The U.S. secretly and unlawfully transferred the funds from that transaction to Nicaraguan terrorists.
In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were at war. The U.S. provided assistance to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. More recently, the U.S. spiked the computers at Iran’s nuclear generating station. We continue to embargo Iran.
Currently, the U.S. is attempting to negotiate a sensitive agreement with Iran that would allow that country to use nuclear power to generate electricity but not to develop nuclear weapons. Some American politicians say that Iran cannot be trusted. That may be true. It is equally difficult to imagine that any Iranian would trust the United States.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company changed its name to British Petroleum, the same BP that gave us a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Jack Stevenson is now retired from military service. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).