Thursday, 14 March 2013

Iranian-Western Relations Part 1

This blog is derived from two things: a friend’s radio show that I appeared on to talk about the history of Western-Iranian relations up to the modern day (, and something I wrote a week ago in an attempt to get an interview for an editorial position at the Warwick Globalist. It is part 1 of a 3-part series on Iran, the first giving the background to today’s headlines, and the second discussing the modern day Western-Iranian predicament.

In 1953 Mohammed Mossadegh was the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, a popular left-of-centre figure who wanted to nationalise the vast oil reserves of Iran, and distribute the riches amongst the Iranian people (today Iran is estimated to possess the 4th largest proven reserves of oil- and the second largest reserves of natural gas- according to the CIA). At the time Western oil companies, most prominently the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later British Petroleum, or BP), had majority control over Iranian oil, and reaped most of the profits. Award winning journalist and former writer for the New York Times Stephen Kinzer writes that ‘just 16% of the money it earned selling the country’s oil’ (Stephen Kinzer ‘Overthrow’, 2006, pp. 117) went to Iran. At the time, Iran was undergoing a shift in the political landscape, with growing demands for national control over the resources the country was resting upon. The UK’s reaction to this was illustrated strikingly by a British diplomat: ‘We English have hundreds of years of experience on how to treat the natives. Socialism is all right back home, but out here you have to be the master’ (Kinzer pp.118).

The British- at the time under the premiership of Winston Churchill- considered ‘bribing Mossadegh, assassinating him, and launching a military invasion of Iran’ (Kinzer pp.119),  but settled on overthrowing him instead, documented in detail by historian Ervand Abrahamian (see his article ‘The 1953 Coup in Iran’ in Science and Society, 2001, 65 (2), pp. 182-215 for an overview). When propaganda, inciting demonstrations by Shia fundamentalists (see Mark Curtis ‘Secret Affairs’, 2012, pp. 45-54), and economic leverage failed to topple the Mossadegh government, MI6 turned to the United States, and the CIA. From then on, it was only a matter of time before Mossadegh fell; ‘economic shocks’, working ‘through local Nazis’ and having a ‘direct role in kidnappings, assassinations, torture and mass street killings’ (Abrahamian pp. 184) eventually forced him out, and the Western-friendly Shah was installed in his place. After the coup, 54% of the shares of the resulting oil consortium went to British companies, 40% to American, and 6% to the French. The British and Americans had directly orchestrated a coup to overthrow an elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh; a leader who was described by President Truman’s ambassador to Iran as having ‘the backing of 95 to 98 percent of the population’ (Kinzer pp.123). The repressive monarch, the Shah, was installed in Mossadegh’s place, to act as a pliant puppet regime.

Throughout the Foreign Office documents from the time, emphasis is placed on ‘control’ of the oil reserves, and this illustrates an essential point in International Relations: the key geo-political aim is not access to resources, but control over them. More or less anyone can secure access to resources (Russia trades oil and natural gas with Europe and America), but control is where the real power lies. Only then do you reap the profits yourself, and gain the political power that comes from having control over the flow of the resources. Abrahamian references a Foreign Office document where the British Ambassador to the US said that ‘it is necessary for the UK to maintain control’ (FO 371/Persia 1951/91470 in Abrahamian); a theme common in the documents. Also worth noting is the role the American press played in the coup; newspapers ran a campaign of propaganda against Mossadegh, regularly describing him as a dictator, and contributing to a climate of hatred which helped legitimise his overthrow (although at the time it was unknown that it was carried out by the US and UK).

After the coup, the Shah ruled Iran as an oppressive dictatorship for 26 years, until the Iranian revolution of 1979 overthrew the dictator and replaced him with a new breed of theocratic Shia fundamentalists. Another lesson in international politics is that stifling of people’s legitimate demands for democracy and national independence has a tendency to foster fundamentalism as people become more desperate and incensed by their situation. One of the unique aspects of this particular coup is that it is possible to at least mention it in the mainstream (though not nearly enough). Barack Obama, for instance, acknowledged in his famous 2009 Cairo speech that “the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” ( Today, Mossadegh is a hero in Iran- akin to what Churchill is to the British. Ironically, Churchill’s government overthrew the democratic government in Iran, not the other way around; a more or less secret history that may sound bizarre to many of us.  

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