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Introduction by David Barsamian
In the modern period, Iran has been the center of great power rivalries. First czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union, competed with Britain for supremacy in Iranian affairs. Since the end of World War II, the United States has projected its military, diplomatic, and economic power on Iran and the Middle East. For good reason: Iran has huge oil and natural gas reserves. The area constitutes, in the words of a 1945 State Department document, “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history” (Chomsky and Barsamian, Imperial Ambitions, 2005, p. 6).
In late October 2006, the United States deployed a “strike group” of military vessels to the Persian Gulf, including a nuclear aircraft carrier, a cruiser, a destroyer, a frigate, a submarine escort, and a supply ship, as well as Marine Corps units, just off Iran’s coast. The task force was dubbed the Eisenhower Strike Group. The former president’s name has special resonance for Iranians. It was Eisenhower who approved the 1953 coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. The latter, a popular figure, had the temerity to believe that Iran’s oil wealth should benefit the Iranian people. Clearly, Mossadegh did not understand the basic rule of international relations as explained by top State Department planner George Kennan: it is “our oil.” So when Mossadegh nationalized the oil wells, Washington, egged on by London, overthrew him. The shah was restored to power. His tyrannical rule set the stage for the rise of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. Ayatollah—“sign of God”—is the supreme Shiite clerical title.
The 1953 coup is one of the central events of twentieth-century history, and its repercussions continue to this day. Yet most Americans know little about Iran and the coup against Mossadegh. Ask the average American about the hostage crisis, however, and I am certain you would get a much higher level of recognition. Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah (2006), for example, is a 680-page book with only four references to Mossadegh. Bowden’s book received extensive media coverage and hit best-seller lists. One cannot understand the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis, the subject of his book, without the context and background of the 1953 coup. The coup, code-named “Ajax,” was directed by Kermit Roosevelt and run out of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Twenty-six year later, the militants, with some reason, feared a rerun. Months before the seizure of the embassy, President Jimmy Carter dispatched Robert Huyser, a top general, to Tehran to inspire a countercoup using sympathetic elements in the Iranian military. Huyser did not succeed.
The 1953 coup was doubly significant; it not only terminated the democratic experiment and brought back the shah, but it effectively ended British influence in Iran. The United States was now in the driver’s seat, exactly where it wanted to be. Marginalizing the British and also the French in the region was one of Washington’s primary policy goals in the post–World War II era. So the Iranian coup was a big step in realizing their geopolitical objectives. For Iranians, the events of 1953 are not ancient history. Their memories of the destruction of their democracy are vivid. And the memories extend beyond Iran. While I was on a lecture tour of Lebanon and Syria in 2005, whenever I mentioned the coup, members in the audience were well informed about its details and ramifications.
Under the shah, Iran was a cornerstone of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East for more than twenty years. Iran and Israel were, as Nixon’s defense secretary Melvin Laird said, local “cops on the beat” ensuring that “radical nationalists” would not threaten U.S. interests.
The Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 ended that equation and altered regional power dynamics. With the overthrow of the shah, Iran severed itself from the United States. Not only did the United States lose one of its main regional allies, but the new government in Tehran signaled the end to the flow of Iranian cash going to U.S. military contractors. The shah had spent tens of billions of dollars purchasing U.S.-made weapons. He had also, with Washington’s blessing, embarked on a nuclear energy program.
Today, the United States and Iran are on the brink of war. Much of what we see playing out today had its origins in the events of the late 1970s. The “loss” of Iran was a huge blow to Washington’s larger strategy in the Middle East. The humiliating and interminable hostage crisis, coupled with a botched rescue mission, further hardened Washington’s stance toward the new government in Tehran. The United States cut off diplomatic relations and imposed sanctions, conditions that continue to this day.
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