There have been many untruths spoken about the American role in Iran since the rise of the revolutionary Islamist government in 1979. As Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran, infamously told audiences at a campaign rally: “The beautiful cry of ‘Death to America!’ unites our people.” (Rouhani, mind you, is supposedly a moderate.) In fact, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have been foundational pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Whereas the “Blame America First” crowd throughout the world largely assumes that the Americans brought the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran on themselves, the Americans are not responsible in any way for the abiding radicalism of the regime.
Let us first divide the events which led to the rise of the current Islamist regime in 1979 from the events of August 1953, when an Anglo-American plot to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh went into action. Too often, critics of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran conflate these two seminal events, using Washington’s role in the 1953 so-called coup to excuse the various provocations of the Iranian regime since 1979.
Much like today (and in 1979), the Iran of 1953 was a hotbed of political uncertainty. The British and Soviets had divided the country between themselves during the Second World War when the Iranian king, known as the Shah, was rumored to be sympathetic to the Nazis. The British and Soviets forced the Shah to abdicate and hand power to his oldest son, Reza Pahlavi. The shahs had ruled Iran (previously known as Persia) since Cyrus the Great was coronated more than 2,000 years before the Second World War. Iran was a constitutional monarchy and in 1951 the Shah appointed Mohammad Mossadegh, a democratic firebrand who was both stringently anti-monarchical as well as fiercely anti-imperialist, to become prime minister. (The Iranian parliament had already nominated Mossadegh as such.)
Iran in 1953: Cauldron of Chaos
After the Second World War, the Soviets withdrew from Iran, leaving only the British Empire. Britain was Iran’s primary trading partner. Through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum), Britain developed and enjoyed most of the fruits of Iranian oil and natural gas. Mossadegh was unhappy with this arrangement. He understandably wanted Iran to have a greater stake in the British mining operation. The British refused and cut off trade with Iran.
Soon, the fledgling Iran was isolated economically and diplomatically. These actions drastically harmed Iran’s economy and caused political instability in the country. As the instability increased, the Shah sought to remove Mossadegh and restore good relations with the West. Meanwhile, Mossadegh became politically reliant on the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party.
The closer that Mossadegh got to the Tudeh Party, the more worried the Americans became. At that time, the United States had successfully contained the Soviet Union. If, however, a pro-Soviet regime arose in Iran, then Moscow would have broken its containment and would have gained access to one of the world’s most bountiful oil and natural-gas hubs, as well as Iran’s vital warm-water ports for the Soviet Navy. With the British, the Americans acted to oust Mossadegh. Yet, as Darioush Bayandor outlined in his 2010 book on the matter, the Anglo-American plot to overthrow Mossadegh was not the reason why the democratic prime minister was overthrown. In fact, the British and American intelligence operation was largely on the periphery of the movement against Mossadegh. The Anglo-American mission was but one of many attempts by various parties within Iran to push Mossadegh out from his position.
Further, Iran’s clerical class—the same people who ultimately founded the Islamic Republic in 1979 and today wage a little Cold War against the United States and its allies—opposed Mossadegh as much as the British and Americans did. Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, one of Ruhollah Khomeini’s mentors, was the supreme leader of the Shiite faith in Iran. He was fond of telling followers, mamlekat shah mikhahad, or “the country needs the king.” Yet, Borujerdi represented the old guard. His students, like Ruhollah Khomeini, who would go on to found the Islamic Republic in 1979, did not share Borujerdi’s traditionalism.
These young, avant-garde Islamists hated the Shah, because he was a vestige of Iran’s history of unbelief. What’s more, the Shah’s close relationship with the West meant he was a conduit for Christian and Zionist influence. Mossadegh, however, was no better, according to the revolutionary Islamists in Iran. After all, Mossadegh’s close associations with the Tudeh Party implied that his continuation in power would inevitably lead Iran into the bosom of the Soviets. This, in turn, would be a disaster for the Islamists, as the only thing more revolting than Western democracy was Soviet Communism. Besides, Mossadegh and the Tudeh Party supported women’s rights in Iran, which was a non-starter for the Islamists. (The matter of women’s rights in Iran would ultimately be one of the motivations for the Islamic revolution in 1979.)
The Islamists of Iran are demagogues
Generally, the Islamists chose to sit the 1953 coup out. Some Islamists did involve themselves in the coup, but it was to assist the Anglo-American plotters in removing Mossadegh. So why do critics of U.S. actions continue to argue that if the United States had not involved itself in the internal affairs of Iran in 1953, hostilities between the Washington and Tehran would not exist today?
The clerics who toppled the Shah in 1979 did not behave as they did to avenge Mohammad Mossadegh’s ouster in 1953. What’s more, the Islamic Republic today does not engage in international terrorism and nuclear brinkmanship with the West because of America’s ancillary role in the Mossadegh affair in 1953. The Iranian regime behaves as it does because it adheres to an ideology that is inherently violent and expansionistic. Such a regime will brook little compromise with the unbelieving West and will make good on its threat to see that Israel is “removed and eradicated.”
So, when Iranian leaders blame America for their malicious actions, know that the Islamists of Iran are demagogues unworthy of being taken seriously. And as the Iranian people continue marching in protest against the regime—while refusing to engage in the time-honored Iranian practice of stomping on American and Israeli flags—understand that the United States did not cause any of the events in Iran over the last 40 years. Only the Islamists have brought Iran to its present state. More importantly, only the Iranian people can remedy this sad state of affairs.