Stephen Kinzer’s excellent op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times provides another side of the story with respect to Iran. The title of the article is, “Iran’s First Great Satan Was England.” The article is an excellent starting point for understanding the background of the relationship between Iran and the United States.
Kinzer carefully documents why Iranians have long hated the British Empire and the U.S. Empire. Beginning in the 19th century, the British Empire treated Iran as one of its colonies. Then, according to Kinzer, “In 1913, the British government maneuvered its way to a contract under which all Iranian oil became its property. Six years later it imposed an ‘agreement’ that gave it control of Iran’s army and treasury. These actions set off a wave of anti-British outrage that has barely subsided.”
During World War II British troops occupied Iran to ensure supply lines would remain open for their war partner, the Soviet communists. The occupation brought about famine and disease among the Iranian people.
After the war ended, Iran attempted to implement a democratic system, but England and the United States would have none of that. When the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadegh, decided to nationalize Iran’s oil, with the unanimous consent of the Iranian parliament, British officials were outraged. As far as the British were concerned, Iran’s oil belonged to the British Empire, not Iran.
Desperate to regain control of Iran’s oil, the British sought to crush Mr. Mossadegh with measures that included harsh economic sanctions — sanctions comparable to the ones they are now imposing. When that failed, they asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to join in a plot to overthrow him. He agreed, not because he wished to help the British recover their oil but because he had been persuaded that otherwise, Iran might fall to Communism. Iran, after all, was on the southern flank of the Soviet Union, standing between it and the oil fields and warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf.
The CIA coup succeeded in ousting the democratically elected Mossadegh from power and installing the unelected dictator Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the “Shah of Iran,” into power. It was the Shah’s severe brutality, fully supported by the U.S. Empire, that ultimately led to the 1979 Iranian revolution, which ousted the Shah from power and installed the Islamic mullahs into power.
As Kinzer puts it, “In Iran, the words ‘anger’ and ‘Britain’ fit easily together. Outside interference is a central fact of modern Iranian history. And for most of the 2oth century, Britain was at the center of it.”
How many Americans know this side of the story? I’d venture to say not very many. After all, this is not the type of thing that is going to be taught to American schoolchildren in America’s public (i.e., government) schools. Those institutions spend 12 years inculcating in American children that the U.S. Empire is a force for good around the world, and nothing can be permitted to interfere with that myth. Those schoolchildren then grow up to become adults, with weak and malleable minds that easily fall for every bit of propaganda issued by the federal government.
But there is reality: After World War II, which cost England its vast empire, the U.S. Empire took its place. Ever since, the U.S. Empire has treated independent and recalcitrant nations just as the British Empire treated Iran — like a nation of an inferior race of people — people who need to be lectured, hectored, controlled, and subjugated through a powerful militarily enforced imperialist foreign policy.
All we hear from U.S. officials is how aggressive Iran is — how it is threatening the world with its aggression — how it’s trying to get WMDs to initiate a nuclear war against the United States — how necessary it is to spend billions of dollars on a missile defense system in Europe to protect against an Iranian attack.
It’s all a bunch of propagandistic crock.
Is Iran surrounding the United States with troops in Mexico and Canada? Are Iranian naval vessels patrolling the coastlines along the eastern and western United States and in the Gulf of Mexico? Is Iran imposing sanctions on the United States, covertly assassinating American scientists, and covertly engaging in cyber attacks on American computer facilities? Is it Iran that is flying spy planes over the United States? Is it Iran that has invaded and occupied two countries in the last 10 years? Is it Iran that has embarked on an international program of kidnapping, torture, assassination, secret international prisons, torture partnerships with brutal dictatorships, and extra-judicial execution?
No, it’s the other way around. It is the U.S. Empire that has Iran surrounded, with imperial troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the region. It is the U.S. Empire whose foreign policy is committed to violent regime change operations in nations like Iran — either covertly as the CIA did with Mossadegh or overtly like the Pentagon did with Saddam Hussein. It is the U.S. Empire that has invaded and occupied two countries in the past 10 years. It is the U.S. Empire that is undoubtedly engaged in covert operations in Iran. It is the U.S. Empire that has spy drones flying over Iranian air space. It is the U.S. Empire that is characterized by kidnapping, torture, assassination, secret prisons, torture partnerships with brutal dictatorships, and extra-judicial executions—the things that would be considered state terrorism if they were being done by Iran or any other nation.
And, of course, it’s the British government, harkening back to its halcyon days as an empire, that tags along, doing whatever the U.S. Empire does in the hopes of basking in its imperial glory.
Don’t get me wrong. The Iranian people are suffering under a cruel dictatorship. No doubt about that. But the dictatorship is no more cruel than it was under the Shah, whom Britain and the United States installed into power, after violently ending Iran’s attempt at democracy.
But the fact that Iranians are governed by a cruel dictatorship doesn’t mean that the dictatorship is bent on worldwide conquest. That’s just the type of a cover story that is designed to get Americans to support another violent U.S. regime-change operation, one that might well succeed in killing and maiming another million people or so.
Unfortunately, all too many Americans simply cannot place themselves into the shoes of foreigners who have experienced the heavy boot of the British Empire and the U.S. Empire. That’s ironic, of course, given that our American ancestors hated the British Empire as much as the Iranians do.
Equally ironic is the fact that the Iranian people love both England and the United States. Why is that? The answer lies in what a taxi driver in Cuba, which also has suffered the heavy boot of the U.S. Empire with a brutal embargo, terrorism, and assassination, once said to me. I had asked him, “Why are people in Cuba so nice to me given what my government has done to them for decades?” His response: “What responsibility do you have for what your government has done?”
In other words, the Cuban people, like the Iranian people, are able to do what all too many Americans are unable to do: draw a distinction between the U.S. and British governments and the American and British people. Iranians, like Cubans, love Americans and Englishmen and the values we have long stood for. They simply hate the British and American Empires and what such empires have done to them.
Stephen Kinzer’s article provides Americans with a starting point to understanding the deeply seated resentment, anger, and concern over the U.S. Empire’s actions against Iran, which mirror those of its worldwide predecessor, the British Empire. Understanding why people around the world feel the way they do about the U.S. Empire is a necessary and important step toward putting our own nation on the right track — away from empire and toward the principle of a constitutional republic on which our nation was founded.
P.S. I highly recommend watching Stephen Kinzer’s excellent speech at our conference “Restoring the Republic 2008: Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties.”