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Digging up the roots of Iranian resentment as tensions rise

In 1953 America helped Britain overthrow the Mohammad Mossadegh government, which represented the high point of liberal democracy in Iranian history.

I love my country and am grateful to my grandparents, all of whom came here as Russian Jewish immigrants and got this glorious American chapter in the family history started. Thanks. I’m having a great life and hope my own descendants will keep the lucky streak going.

But as a student of U.S. history, I don’t avert my eyes from the many dark chapters that interfere with the fairy story that America loves democracy and goes around the world spreading it. In fact, the United States has overthrown several nascent democracies around the world, and replaced elected leaders with U.S.-friendly dictatorships for utterly self-serving reasons. One of those cases was in Iran in the 1950s, which I’m inspired to dig up because of recent events. I’ll do that below, but first a few thoughts on last week’s near-attack on Iran:

We are told that Donald Trump authorized (or almost authorized, they’re fudging on that bit) an air strike on Iran last week to retaliate for Iran shooting down a U.S. drone. Then Trump changed his mind and called it off because the drone shoot-down didn’t kill any Americans, while the air strike would kill quite a few Iranians, and because Trump has occasionally told Americans that he didn’t want to get into a stupid war in Mideast. Maybe he means that sincerely.

With all due respect for the statements coming out of this White House – and I seriously mean “all due” respect, which in the case of this administration is not that much respect – color me skeptical. We are somehow supposed to balance the idea of Trump, a man who, as a candidate asked why we have all these nuclear weapons if we can never use them — with a man who was reluctant to kill an estimated 150 Iranians.

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It’s true that Trump has also said occasionally that getting into a war in the Mideast would be a bad idea. On the third hand, or whichever number hand I’m up to by now, in the run-up to the last big U.S. war in the Mideast, Trump, as a private citizens, half-assedly endorsed the U.S. war in Iraq. When it turned out badly, Trump claimed he had always opposed it. Here’s the backup for that:

When asked by his buddy Howard Stern, live on the radio at the time of the run-up to the Iraq war, whether he favored going to war, Trump bravely replied: “Yeah, I guess so.” That’s on the record and verifiable.

The other pre-presidential public expression of his highly principled aversion to Mideast wars occurred on Fox news, when, asked whether George W. Bush should invade Iraq, Trump lucidly explained:

“Well, he [President Bush] has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know. He’s under a lot of pressure. He’s — I think he’s doing a very good job. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem.”

Note the reference to the polls. It’s hard to be overly cynical about this guy. And I have no inside knowledge. But my view/fear/suspicion is that as Trump views the current situation, it would be foolish to start a glorious war against an evil regime too far ahead of the next election, in case it goes badly. On the other hand, if it looks like he needs to rally the electorate a little closer to Election Day 2020, he could always do it then. Forgive me for my cynicism. It shocks even me. Henry Clay, who lost several bids for the presidency once famously said, “I’d rather be right than be president.” I believe Trump would rather be president than be right, and has trouble with the concept of a decision that would be “right” that wouldn’t be good for him.

But we sort of elected this guy. And, under the new, improved (but unamended) Constitution, a president can apparently start a war without prior approval from Congress. So take all of the above into account when you hear about Trump’s current stated reluctance to bomb Iran. And, of course, Iran is a deeply anti-American nation where it’s easy to get the crowd chanting things like “Death to America” at rallies.

I don’t claim to know whether, when they chant that, they are thinking of the other historical tale that I also set out to review here, but it is the case that the United States, for its own selfish, greedy and oily reasons, overthrew the most promising moment of democracy in Iran’s history.

I suspect most Iranians know a version of the tale, as most Americans do not. I’ve told it before, but not for many years, so I’ll give it a recap here today, on a day when I am starting to worry that Trump may be playing the Iran card to prop up his declining chances to win a second term. Here goes:

The high point of real democracy in Iranian history occurred in the 1950s, back when the Shahs were still the royal family with ultimate power, but at a time when the Shahs permitted real elections for a parliament that had actual and growing power. It’s possible to look at this period and see the potential that Iran was on a path to become much more of a real constitutional democracy with a more ceremonial royal family — like, you know, the U.K.

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This was also a period when Iranian oil was produced and marketed almost exclusively by the British, who ran the industry mostly for their own benefit under the auspices of something called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This exploitation was a large and growing political issue among Iranians, who thought more of their most valuable natural resource should benefit them rather than the Brits.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh
Wikimedia Commons
Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh
A populist and reform-oriented member of the Iranian parliament named Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister. He was unable to pressure the Brits to allow more of the oil wealth to benefit the Iranian people. So the Mossadegh-led parliament nationalized the oil.

This was wildly popular with Iranians, but not (as you might guess) with the British. In that adorable way of imperial powers, the Brits decided to overthrow Mossadegh and tamp down the rising Iranian democracy. In 1953 they recruited their best buddies and allies, the Americans, to help.

Washington gladly did so. As a result, U.S. oil companies became much bigger players in the future exploitation of Iranian oil. That lasted until the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah (whom the rebels accurately portrayed as something of an American puppet).

That revolution created the Islamic Republic that exists still, which was and remains hostile to America. And the feeling is mutual. Iran has an elected somewhat secular government, but the top power was vested in and remains with a top Muslim cleric, to whom we refer as the “ayatollah.”

Resentment of the United States, and resistance to its domination of the Mideast, was and remains a fundamental of Iranian foreign policy. “Death to America” is still an available chant, although it’s obnoxious, and not really smart.

But, as a matter of real history (which occasionally conflicts with Americans’ desire to see ourselves as a force for democracy) Iran’s four decades of anti-Americanism are at least somewhat (quite a bit, I think) rooted in the history above of America’s role in overthrowing the Mossadegh government, which represented the high point of liberal democracy in Iranian history.

I don’t believe Donald Trump knows this history, or cares to learn it. I do believe he understands that Iran is mostly unpopular in U.S. public opinion. Many Americans dislike their country being referred to as the “Great Satan,” and perhaps are insufficiently interested in thinking about why anyone might feel that way.

So if the president needs to gin up a war or the prospect of one to energize his base for political reasons, perhaps closer to the election, I don’t doubt he might decide to do some saber-rattling at Iran. And I don’t doubt it will have quite an effect on those who don’t know the tale I just reviewed.