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Introduction: The Iran syndrome

Millspaugh was writing in 1946 – five years after the United States and Britain replaced the ‘pro-German Shah’ with his 30-year-old son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seven years before Eisenhower backed a coup to secure the Shah on his peacock throne and 33 years before US-Iranian relations would be severed permanently in the crucible of revolution. By this time, the US had already been involved in Iran for decades, mainly through commerce and missionary work. His book, Americans in Persia, detailed flaws in policymaking that, subsequently, disappeared largely from sight during more than three decades of everdeepening intimacy. The development of this relationship was in no sense pre-ordained but rather grew out of the various needs and wants that influenced US foreign policymaking at various times. Moreover, it progressed in stages. From the early 1940s to 1950, the US took on the mantle of distracted benefactor. Although driven in part by altruism, other concerns such as oil, and more importantly, war, informed how policymakers viewed Iran. The most sympathetic of the great powers (FDR for example, had considerably less tolerance for the colonial proclivities of his alliance partners), US attention was sporadic, often peripheral, focused as it was on a bigger, more important picture. The Second World War, then the Cold War, established the context within which

relations would develop. Insofar as it did involve itself in Iranian affairs, the US was motivated primarily by a desire to utilise this geopolitical asset (the state was initially used as a route through which the US re-supplied Russia) and to protect it from external interference or domination. As a result, in what became known as the first Cold War standoff, the Truman administration weighed in to prevent its friend, turned foe, from establishing a permanent foothold in this most valuable of locations. The Soviet Union may have chosen, for its own reasons, to depart from Iranian Azerbaijan in 1946 and Iranian politicians may have played a more substantial part than was attributed to them, but Truman’s tough stance and the retreating Red Army convinced many, then and later, that the US was the most powerful player, who could dictate and dominate the affairs of those with whom it came into contact. It was here that an exaggerated sense of American omnipotence gained traction in Iran. One of the many threads that wove into the relationship’s fabric, this perspective would provide an explanation for events in Iran often far beyond what the facts bore out. 1950 to 1953 was a period dominated by aid and indecision rather than distraction. The US encouraged the Iranian government to focus on political and economic reform, as opposed to national security, which, to all intent and purposes, was taken care of by America. Like many developing states, Iran received millions of dollars in aid, a substantial figure, but nowhere close to what was being channelled to Europe at the time.3 Considerable sympathy existed for the popular, democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, whom, it was thought, faced no serious challenge from the Communist Tudeh party and whose regime, intelligence analysts believed, almost certainly desired to keep US support as a counterweight to the USSR.4 Against the backdrop of the Korean War and the Shah’s repression, officials in Washington feared that Iran would become vulnerable to the Soviet Union. Aid commitments increased and efforts were made to convince Britain and Iran, by now embroiled in a bitter dispute over control of Iran’s oil, to reach agreement. Mossadegh’s intransigence, the prospect of a breach in alliance relations and, more alarmingly, a Soviet incursion into fractious, vulnerable Iran (not to mention the poor impression the Prime Minister made on a visit to Washington and repeated British entreaties), eventually convinced America’s new president to approve covert intervention. Eisenhower took a dimmer view of reform movements than his predecessor and gave the go-ahead to the 1953 coup that removed an increasingly erratic and authoritarian Mossadegh and restored the Shah. This ushered in a ‘you break it, you own it’ phase from 1953 to 1960, characterised by the consolidation of the Shah’s rule and the establishment of what Mark Gasiorowski has termed the cliency relationship.5 The coup may have been long anticipated but this did nothing to lessen its impact. The shoring up of an authoritarian monarch at democracy’s expense put an indelible stain on US-Iranian relations that has retained a vibrant immediacy undiminished by time, and forms another thread in the narrative. The intelligence analysis surrounding the event confirmed its success while, at the same time, warning that the intervention had done nothing to mitigate future problems. ‘The overthrow of the Mossadegh

government on 19 August 1953 checked the drift in Iran toward Communism and isolation from the West’, confirmed the 1953 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on probable developments in Iran through 1954. It added, however, that ‘the accession of Zahedi to power [the Shah’s new Prime Minister] had eliminated neither the economic and social problems which have long plagued Iran, nor the weaknesses and inadequacies of the Iranian political system’.6 Now tied to the Shah as never before, the Eisenhower administration increased its support (both development aid and military assistance), training, for example, the Shah’s secret police, the Organisation for State Security and Information (SAVAK).7 The Shah’s consolidation of power and his insistence that the US facilitate his desire for a large national-security capacity (as opposed to help with and pressure regarding socioeconomic reforms) made it an uneasy association. In late 1954 analysts noted:

So long as the Iranian government continues to expect US economic, financial, and military assistance, it will remain responsive to US influence. As oil revenues are restored and US aid is reduced, however, Iranians may become increasingly determined to manage their own affairs and more resistant to US guidance.8