Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Separation: Iran and America

Darla and I saw A Separation last night with our friends Hoyt and Charlene. I found it a compelling story and Hoyt compared it to a Greek tragedy. Each character embodied a flaw and each flaw contributed to the disastrous sequence of events in such a way as to make the outcome seem inevitable. Sounds like a downer, but I enjoyed the film immensely.

Speaking of tragedies, how did the United States and Iran come to see each other as enemies in the first place? Greek tragedy? You be the judge.

The trouble may be said to have begun about a hundred years ago when the British gained control over Iran’s oil through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The AIOC was a classical colonial institution that for decades enriched itself at the expense of its Iranian employees.

Immediately after World War II (to make a long story short), the Iranian people, under the leadership of their charismatic prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, pressed for the nationalization of Iranian oil. In other words, the oil that had been enriching AIOC was now to be used for the good of the Iranian people.

The British government, which needed both the AIOC oil and its revenue, fought back against the Iranians and pleaded with U.S. President Harry Truman for help, telling him that Mossadegh was a madman. Truman invited the prime minister to visit him at the White House, and when he did so, Dr. Mossadegh impressed the president as a sincere and worthy leader. So the U.S. said no to British pleas.

Then came 1953: Truman retired, Eisenhower became president, and the latter appointed John Foster Dulles as his secretary of state.  Dulles was a right-wing ideologue who saw the destruction of communism as his life’s mission. His younger brother, Allen, was made head of the CIA.

The British easily convinced the Dulles brothers that Mossadegh was a tool of Iranian communists (he was not), and so the brothers began to plot the overthrow of the prime minister. The story of how the CIA destroyed Iran’s democratic government in August 1953 and replaced it with a dictatorship under the control of the Shah is told in detail in Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.

The CIA coup itself is an embarrassingly sordid tale involving American-sponsored acts of terror, the bribing of politicians, of military leaders and of newspaper editors, attacks on mosques designed to look like they were the work of Mossadegh supporters and various other underhanded activities.

This coup was not only a mistake, in my opinion, but a disgrace. Once the shah was in control of Iran, with American backing he set up the SAVAK, a secret police force that used torture, execution and imprisonment to terrorize the Iranians into subjugation.

The good news for Americans is that most Iranians seem willing to let the past lie. But, naturally, the current talk of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel does not help matters.

And what about the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company? They survived the coup with flying colors and continue to enjoy bodacious profits even today. We know them as BP.