Iran and the West: Why 1953 Still Matters

Photography by whiskeybravo

“It is reasonable to argue that but for the coup, Iran would be a mature democracy. So traumatic was the coup’s legacy that when the Shah finally departed in 1979, many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953, which was one of the motivations for the student seizure of the U.S. Embassy. The hostage crisis, in turn, precipitated the Iraqi invasion of Iran, while the revolution itself played a part in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan.” Mostafa T. Zahrani, World Policy Journal, Summer 2002

The recent Iran talks in Moscow were a familiar exercise in futility. The West remains focused on stopping Iran’s nuclear development through economic sanctions. Russia won’t support sanctions in order for it to pursue oil deals with Iran. The rest of the international community throws its hands up in dismay at the lack of progress. This cycle of Western tension with Iran can be traced back to choices made in 1953 by the U.S. and Great Britain when they orchestrated the coup d’état against democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

Before Mossadegh’s election in 1951, Iran had been exploited by the British. The oil discovered in Iran in 1908 was owned by the Glasgow-based Burmah Oil Company (BOC) through a contract with Shah Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar. To oversee oil production, the BOC formed a subsidiary, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). When it took APOC public in May 1914, the British government purchased a majority interest, changing the company name to Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935.

The AIOC’s practices exemplified classic colonialism. The British employees of the company lived in well built homes with access to tennis courts and swimming pools, while the nearly 10,000 Iranian workers lived in slums without basic amenities or healthcare. In short, the profits belonged to Britain, but the exploited resources were Iranian.[ref]Prime Minister Mossadegh addressing the United Nations “To give you an idea of Iran’s profits from this enormous industry, I may say that in 1948, according to accounts of the former Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, its net revenue amounted sixty-one million pounds; but from those profits Iran received only nine million pounds, although twenty-eight million pounds went into the United Kingdom treasury in income tax alone…” Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle Eastern Terror, pg. 123.[/ref] As a result, when Mohammed Mossadegh was elected he began a crusade to free Iran from the British. He nationalized the oil industry, rejecting all of Britain’s ownership claims. The AIOC became the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Mossadegh championed Iranian sovereignty, toured the United States, spoke eloquently at the United Nations, and was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1951.

In retaliation for the AIOC, the British enacted an embargo on Iranian oil in August 1951 and encouraged the U.S., with whom it had recently founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to participate. In October 1952, Mossadegh broke off diplomatic ties with Great Britain, closed the British Embassy and expelled British diplomats. Seeing no hope for negotiation, and not wanting to threaten the stability of NATO, the U.S. agreed to aid the British in overthrowing Mossadegh and re-installing Western-ally Mohammed Reza Shah (the former leader of Iran, who the British had installed in power in 1941). The project against Mossadegh was dubbed Operation Ajax and was led by the CIA on the ground, with help from British intelligence. Though the initial effort failed, the second attempt was successful. On August 19, 1953, Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown.

Not surprisingly, given its beginnings, the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah (1953 – 1979) was disastrous. His “White Revolution” which was meant to bring economic prosperity to the Iranian people, failed miserably. Iran earned billions from oil contracts with the West, yet very little of that money went into land reform. By the mid-1970s only one-fifth of Iranian land was properly irrigated and one-third of the land had no water distribution at all; agricultural production was growing at only 2-2.5% per year, while the population was growing at 3% and consumption of agricultural products at 12%.[ref]Keddie, Nikki R., Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran, pg. 167.[/ref] In short, political corruption had to stop or the Iranian people would starve. These conditions helped fuel the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Fast forward to the talks in Moscow – Iran emphasized its history with Britain and the U.S. and its need to develop nuclear power to be on par with the West. However, the November 2011 report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAE) concluded that “…Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”[ref]“Israel squares up to Iran”, The Economist, November 12, 2011.[/ref] The Western members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with veto power – the United States, Great Britain, and France – are greatly alarmed by this report, while China and Russia remain firmly opposed to more punitive sanctions on Iran. Due to its refusal to back down, Iran is painted in the Western media as hard-line, but given the events of 1953 and their consequences is it any wonder that Iran is loathe to succumb to Western pressure? Perhaps certain Western countries should take their own murky role in Iranian history into consideration before lecturing Tehran about its nuclear programme. Reassuring Iran rather than hectoring it might be a good way to start.

Image courtesy of whiskeybravo

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About Elizabeth Austin

Elizabeth Austin has a Master’s in International Affairs from the American University of Paris (AUP), where she was awarded an AUP Travel Grant and completed her thesis field work in the South Caucasus. She then studied Russian Language and Literature in a year-long, multi-level course. Elizabeth also has a Master’s in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, where she completed her dissertation field work in Cambodia, and she is a graduate of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Elizabeth has contributed articles to International Policy Digest and Global Politics Magazine, and book reviews to E-International Relations.

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