[Thanks to poets Tara Betts and Tyehimba Jess for sharing this story — Lew Rosenbaum]
First Posted: 06- 8-10 12:45 PM | Updated: 06- 8-10 02:48 PM
The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is a final onslaught launched from the grave of colonialism, perpetrated by a corporation that can compete with Goldman Sachs when it comes to creating misery around the world.
One of the most pivotal moments in world and United States history came in 1953 when the CIA and British intelligence forces staged a coup in Iran, overthrowing the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh, a national Iranian hero who was named Time‘s Man of the Year in 1952. That coup led directly to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which launched an era of Middle East anti-Americanism whose repercussions have since been felt in deadly ways.
Mossadegh earned the adoration of his people and the scorn of Britain for nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which controlled Iran’s oil reserves, shared little of the revenue and kept its workers in slave-like conditions. Anglo-Iranian became British Petroleum.
BP’s role in Iran’s descent into tyranny is no trivial historical coincidence. To this day, it is not difficult to find an Iranian living in America who refuses to buy gas from BP.
There was one primary purpose of the coup that overthrew Mossadegh and installed the Shah: To reclaim BP’s domination of Iranian oil.
Mossadegh’s government had attempted to negotiate a resolution, but BP’s executives flatly refused any compromise. BP’s stubbornness led to the most extreme policy move — full nationalization. Their failure to negotiate led Dean Acheson to coin what has become an oft-repeated analysis applied to varieties of bad actors: “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast.”
War — or, in this case, a coup — is political negotiation by another means. And BP’s failure in the first round of negotiations led directly to the more violent second round. How history would have unfolded had Iran’s liberal democracy been allowed to flourish can never be known. Policy makers at the time worried that the Soviet Union may have taken it over, though Stalin died shortly after the coup and the nation’s foreign policy turned away from imperialism. Indeed, its subsequent invasion of Afghanistan was launched largely in response to the Iranian revolution. In other words, a Soviet invasion of Iran was unlikely. Would a democratic Iran have been a bulwark against Middle Eastern extremism? Most likely. Would it have been an ally of Turkey and Israel? A real possibility. Would it have gone to war against Iraq? It’s doubtful. (Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, shortly after the revolution, worried about having a Shia theocracy on its border, given its own majority Shia population living in the south atop its own vast resources.)
If not for the coup, what would the Middle East look like today? We can’t know. But what we do know is that Iran’s oil was a global prize and one that BP had no plans to let go. When Winston Churchill helped seize it in the 1920s he called it “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.”
President Harry Truman resisted efforts by the British to persuade the U.S. to overthrow Mossadegh, respecting the will of the Iranian people. The British had better luck with Dwight Eisenhower. Shortly after he was inaugurated, the British made their pitch. “Not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire,” wrote Christopher Montague Woodhouse, a senior British intelligence agent involved in the campaign, “I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry.”
The coup, led by the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, TR’s grandson, was successful. The Shah, installed as leader, turned tyrannical, leading directly to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Protesters carried placards of Mossadegh through the streets in the course of the overthrow and once triumphant, many members of Mossadegh’s government were restored to positions of power. Within several years, however, the pluralist nature of the revolution receded and Ayatollah Khomeini tossed out the liberal element.
The hostage crisis was also directly an outgrowth of the coup. The students later said that they took the hostages because they were afraid that the CIA would manage to reverse the revolution and re-install the Shah — whom President Jimmy Carter had granted asylum. “In the back of everybody’s mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d’etat had begun,” one hostage-taker said. “Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible.”
Without the Iranian revolution, which led to the infamous gas lines, and without the hostage crisis, Carter very well may have been reelected in 1980 against a man who was considered at the time a very weak opponent: Ronald Reagan.
Of greater consequence than Reagan’s election, however, was the Islamist regime’s financial and ideological inspiration of a global, anti-Western network of Islamic terror. The 1983 Beirut bombing, which was organized by the Iranian regime, has been cited by Osama bin Laden as an inspiration. Witnessing Reagan pull out of Lebanon in the wake of the attack convinced him that the United States was vulnerable to attack.
The coup shattered Iran’s nascent democracy and taught Middle Eastern leaders that the West cared more for access to resources and stability than human rights and democracy. “We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadeghh, whom the CIA can snuff out,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was a top aide to Khomeini during the revolution and is now supreme leader in Iran.
“In retrospect, the United States-sponsored coup d’etat in Iran of August 19, 1953, has emerged as a critical event in postwar world history,” concludes political scientist Mark J. Gasiorowski, an expert on Iran.
The coup “paves the way for incubation of extremism, both of the left and of the right. This extremism became unalterably anti-American,” offers James A. Bill, author of “The Shah, the Ayatollah, and the U.S.”
In 2000, the U.S. finally acknowledged its role in the coup. “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
Woodhouse, the British agent who persuaded the U.S. to get involved, conceded years later that things had spiraled out of control in the simple effort to recover BP’s oil. “It is easy to see Operation Boot as the first step towards the Iranian catastrophe of 1979,” he acknowledged. “What we did not foresee was that the Shah would gather new strength and use it so tyrannically, nor that the US government and the Foreign Office would fail so abjectly to keep him on a reasonable course. At the time we were simply relieved that a threat to British interest had been removed.”
The quotes and research in this story come largely from New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer’s history “All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.”