Regime change in Iran is all the rage again. The Trump Administration is ready to say Iran is not complying with the Iran Deal (even though the intelligence community says it is). And the White House recently circulated a report from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies calling for toppling Iran’s ruling clerics, and others–from Sen. Tom Cotton to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson–seem to be on board with the concept, at least. (Interesting to note, by the way, that FDD are some of the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq because of yellowcake in Niger, so this ought to be just as fun.)
But before we go overthrowing governments, I thought it would be a good idea to step back and take a closer look at Iran’s history. How else can we Americans understand what we think is best for them?
Iran: They Think We’re Great! is a four-part series that looks at the history of US-Iran relations and attempts to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.
It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!
Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.
And now (finally!): Part 1
IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!
Would You Like Tea With Your Lube Job?
Located in the exotic Middle East, Iran has a rich linguistic history and a strong tradition of poetry. It is one of the most educated countries in the world and has made enormous contributions to human civilization for more than 9,000 years. Despite this, we in the West generally know Iran as the Country Led By Scary Mullahs With Beards Who Call Us The Great Satan.
You read that right, they think we’re “Great”!
But alas, as countries, we are very far apart, not just geographically, but emotionally and politically. But it wasn’t always thus.
The story of modern-day Iran started much like the morning of so many maids working in the New York Sofitel: with unwanted advances from a foreigner.
The British first discovered oil in Iran in 1908. Having no historical context for just how much this was going to fuck them in the future, Iranians were happy to have this wonderful natural resource under their feet. The Brits would extract the oil and give Iran a (small) share of the proceeds, likely while patting their Iranian partners on the back and calling them “Ol’ Chap.” Indeed, the Brits were being super cool about the whole arrangement, making it clear Iran was an independent state and not a colony under British rule—as long as Iran didn’t act out too much.
That didn’t last long. Iranians began advocating for a better deal, as if the oil belonged to them just because it was, you know, located in their country. The British, being British and acting like they owned most of the world (because at that point they basically did), refused to negotiate.
The problem came to a head in 1941, after the Iranian monarch of the time, Reza Shah Pahlavi, flirted a little too openly with Nazi Germany. Fearing Iran would cut off the oil supply the Allies desperately needed to continue fighting Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union decided on a very subtle course of action: They invaded Iran. Reza Shah was shipped off to South Africa and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became the second (spoiler alert: and last!) monarch in the not-so-long line of the House of Pahlavi.
Self-Determination For All (LOL JK!)
After the war, the United States and Britain talked about everyone being free. High on having just wiped fascism out of Europe, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill promoted the idea of self-determination, saying people should be free to choose their own government and have control over their own country. They didn’t mean that literally, of course. Fuck no. It was more like a wink wink nudge nudge kind of thing. You do you, and we’ll keep taking the oil.
A charismatic statesman named Mohammad Mossadegh decided to change all that. Elected as Prime Minister of Iran in 1951, he fomented a nationalist movement and made the grave error of stating (out loud!) that he planned to nationalize Iran’s oil. Can you imagine the gall of this guy, thinking Iran’s oil belonged to Iran? The Brits and Americans felt slighted. They yelled about how they had paid for all the infrastructure to extract the oil. They pointed out that they were the ones who had trained Iranians how to extract the oil. Surely, they had a say in the whole thing?
But Mossadegh was having none of it. For some reason, he thought oil in Iran should belong to Iranians.
Churchill, who had just become Britain’s prime minister again after leading the opposition and drinking for six years, approached the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower and asked the United States to overthrow Mossadegh, presumably because the British were too proper to do such distasteful work themselves. While the covert plan was in reality about oil (most Western foreign policy is), Churchill was not so crass as to say that out loud. Rather, he used a tactic sure to resonate with Eisenhower: He whispered, “COMMIES!” over and over while pointing at Mossadegh.
But who could handle such a delicate operation? Overthrowing a government and making it look like a popular uprising is no easy task. The CIA turned to a veteran spy with years of experience in the Middle East: Kermit Roosevelt.
I know what you’re thinking with a name like that. Nepotism, am I right?
Oh, you mean “Kermit.” Yes, it’s true. People used to actually name their children that. The fact that he was Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson was irrelevant. Kermit was to be the quiet, hidden force behind the coup. Long before Pepe the Frog, Kermit was about to help install a government.
Next week: Rise of the (Pea)Cock