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Making sense of US foreign policy – Part III: The US has been waging war on Iranians since 1953

January 6, 2020

In Part I,  we provided a framework for how to critically examine US Foreign Policy. In Part II, we made it clear that US imperialism is a bi-partisan affair, demonstrating that there is no fundamental difference between who controls the White House or Congress, as both the Republicans and Democrats are deeply committed to US imperialism. 

In Part III, we want to look at how the US has been waging war on the Iranian people since 1953. With the Trump administration’s killing of a high ranking Iranian official and sending several thousand US troops to the region, it is understandable that people mobilized over the weekend to express their opposition to a potential war with Iran. However, it is vitally important for us to take the long-view of US foreign policy as it relates to Iran, since the last four generations of Iranians have experienced one form or another of US imperialism.

CIA Coup in 1953

In his conversations with the Shah, Kermit Roosevelt said he had at his disposal “the equivalent of about $1 million” and several “extremely competent, professional organizers” who could “distribute pamphlets, organize mobs, keep track of the opposition – you name it, they’ll do it.” He described Operation Ajax as based on “four lines of attack” First, a campaign in mosques, the press, and the streets would undermine Mossadegh’s popularity. Second, royalist military officers would deliver the decree dismissing him. Third, mobs would take control of the streets. Fourth, General Zahedi would emerge triumphantly and accept the Shah’s nomination as prime minister.

This excerpt of the CIA planning for the coup in Iran, is from Stephen Kinzer’s book, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The CIA coup was prompted by the nationalization of Iran’s oil in 1951. Iran’s oil had been under the control of the British Empire before the nationalization, but like many countries in the Global South at that time, Mossadegh sought to use Iranian resources to benefit the Iranian people. However, Mossadegh did offer the British compensation for nationalizing the oil, included a continuing 25% of net profits from the oil and retention of all British oil employees.

The British responded with military threats and sanctions, which had hurt the an already struggling Iranian economy. The Truman administration supported the British position, as did the Eisenhower administration, but it was the Eisenhower administration, specifically John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State) and Allen Dulles (Director of the CIA) that gave the green light to Kermit Roosevelt to implement Operation Ajax.

The CIA also sent Major General Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. to persuade the exiled Shah to return to rule Iran. Schwarzkopf trained the security forces that would become known as SAVAK to secure the shah’s hold on power.

When the Shah returned to power he quickly sought to crack down on pro-democracy forces and paid off the Islamic parties to support his rule. However, over time, many of the mullahs would reject the Shah’s plans for Iran, specifically his desire to Westernize the country. With the Islamic leadership increasingly becoming critical, the Shah began to repress Islamic institutions. In March 1963, the Shah’s security forces attacked Faizeiyejh Theological School, arresting dozens of students and killing two. The survivors ran to the nearby home of Iran’s most respected cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

US governments would continue to support the Shah of Iran, all the way from Eisenhower through Jimmy Carter. The support they offered was both economy and military support, despite the fact that the Iranian security forces, SAVAK, had essentially become a death squad. In 1976, Amnesty International announced that Iran had the worst human rights record in the world. Iran’s horrendous human rights record, didn’t stop US President Jimmy Carter from inviting the Shah to Washington in 1978, toasting the Iranian leader by saying, “Iran under the leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

Just weeks after visiting with Jimmy Carter, the Shah escalated his repression and killed  over a thousand protestors on September 8, 1978, a day known as Black Friday in Iran.

Of course, a year later, the Shah would be forced to flee Iran, as the opposition forces coalesced behind Khomeini. Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, friends of the Shah, lobbied to bring him to the US. Their efforts were successful.

Unfortunately for many Iranians, the Ayatollah turned out to be as ruthless as the Shah and he began torturing and murdering dissidents. In addition, the Iranians took the US Embassy in February of 1979, holding Americans hostage. The Carter administration was unable to bargain for their release and according to investigative reporter Robert Parry, a separate bargain was made with a group of ex-CIA officers who were supporting a Reagan-Mush presidential campaign. The bargain was made in October of 1980, in what became known as the October Surprise, since Khomeini made a deal with the US to release hostages in exchange for $40 million is US military equipment. The US also required a list of known Iranian leftists, which Khomeini rounded up and executed.

At this time the US news media had made Iran a pariah state, filled with evil muslims. In this context, the Reagan administration had no problem demonizing the Middle Eastern country. The Iran-Iraq war began in 1980 and lasted a decade, resulting 200,000 Iranian deaths. The US provided weapons to both sides, but only Chemical weapons to Iraq, which used them on Iranians.

Despite the ongoing animus towards Iran, the US sold even more weapons to Iran in 1986, which was a violation of the Arms Export Control Act. However, the sale of US weapons to Iran was part of a much larger US foreign policy objective, one which would play out over the next year, in what was referred to as the Iran/Contra Scandal.

The Iran Contra scandal was the biggest scandal since Watergate, it dominated the news starting in late 1986, when word broke about the administration’s illegal backing of Contra rebels in Nicaragua and illicit sales of high-tech weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  When President Ronald Reagan acknowledged that the two operations were connected it raised the stakes even higher, including rumblings for impeachment. However, Oliver North became the fall guy for the Reagan administration, leaving many members of the Reagan White House untouched. For details on the Iran/Contra scandal, see Malcolm Byrne and Peter Kornbluh’s important book, The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History.

The Clinton administration continued to treat Iran as a parian state, adding increased sanctions. In May of 1995, Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting all American trade, trade financing, loans and financial services to the Islamic Republic. To further punish Iran, Clinton signed into law in August of 1996 a bill that imposed a secondary boycott on foreign companies and governments investing more than $40 million in Iran’s oil and natural gas industry. This law provided an array of additional sanctions as well.

After the US war with Iraq in 1991, the US was also rethinking some of its foreign policy in the region. Israel was the main US partner in the Middle East and Israel began pushing the US to adopt even more punitive measures against Iran. The main issue for Israel was Iran’s interest in developing a nuclear industry. The reality is that Israel is the only country in that region, which possesses nuclear weapons. For the last 20 years, this issue has dominated US policy towards Iran.

The George W. Bush administration made Iran part of the Axis of Evil, along with North Korea and Syria. Iran, during the Bush administration claimed, was exporting terrorism and needed to be overthrown. This was an interesting claim, especially since the United Nations had ended disbanded their special committee on Iran in 1998, stating that human rights violations were significantly reduced with the Khatami government.

The Bush administration then began its war/occupation of Iraq in 2003, which took their attention away from Iran momentarily. However, the doctrine of pre-emptive strike in Iraq was now sounding like it could apply to Iran. All of this rhetoric was never based in fact, since Iran was not exporting terrorism and not a serious threat in the region. In fact, the real threat in the region was the US, especially to Iran, since the US had dozens of military bases in several countries, essentially surrounding Iran.

The Bush policy was then adopted and continued by the Obama administration. Much of the same rhetoric was used and Iran was still being isolated by the US. However, in 2014, the US government decided to use a different tactic to pressure Iran to accept a no nuclear position. Iran eventually agreed to this position and the US media celebrated the outcome. What was instructive, particularly about US media coverage during these negotiations is that the US news media failed to ask some fundamental questions during the negotiations. First, there was rarely any acknowledgement that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, even though the US repeatedly denied it. Secondly, why was it acceptable for the US to have the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, but Iran could not develop even a nuclear power program? The US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons on another country (Japan), so how does the US have any moral authority on this matter? Of course, the US doesn’t, but they are the most powerful nation on the planet and remain largely unchallenged.

For an excellent investigation into the past 20 years of US policy with Iran, specifically how the nuclear issue became central to this policy, see Gareth Porter’s excellent book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

As the Trump administration deliberates on relations with Iran and whether or not to go to war, it is vital that we familiarize ourselves with this history and begin to realize that the US has been waging war on the Iranian people since 1953.


Trailer for new documentary on the CIA Coup in 1953, entitled Coup 53

National Security Archives documents on US/Iran Relations

All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer

Killing Hope: Us Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII, by William Blum

Boomerang: How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America, by Mark Zepezauer

Lying for Empire: How to Commit War Crimes With a Straight Face, by David Model

Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, by Rashid Khalidi

Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, by Bruce Cummings, Ervand Abrahamian and Moshe Ma’Oz

Who Rules the World, by Noam Chomsky

Retargeting Iran, by David Barsamian

(Photos credited to John Rothwell)

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