PARIS - Iran is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its historic 1979 Islamic revolution, a seismic event that shocked Washington and changed the political landscape of the Mideast.
The prevailing view of Iran in North America is that of angry, bearded men and chador-clad women chanting 'Death to America,' and its bombastic president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, blasting the West and Israel, and secretly working on nuclear weapons.
To understand why relations between Tehran and the West are so bitter, and Iranians so angry at the West, we must look back at the historical context.
Iran's jagged relations with the West began during World War II. In 1941, the British Empire and Soviet Union jointly invaded and occupied the independent kingdom of Persia, as it was then known. This oil-motivated aggression was every bit as much wanton aggression as the German-Soviet occupation of Poland in 1939, but has been blanked out of western history texts.
The Allies deposed Iran's ruler, Reza Shah, and installed his weak, pliant son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, on the throne as the latest puppet ruler in the British Empire.
But in 1951, a highly popular Iranian democratic leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, became prime minister and promptly nationalized Iran's British-owned oil industry, ordering its profits be used to lift Iran from poverty rather than enriching Britain. The Shah and his entourage of western advisors fled.
Two years later, U.S. and British intelligence mounted a coup that overthrew Mossadegh, ending Iran's first democratic government. The Shah was restored to the Peacock Throne. Iran's oil wealth returned to British and, now, U.S. control. Washington and London proclaimed they had won an important victory against 'Communism.'
Washington and London set about turning Shah Pahlavi into the 'gendarme of the Gulf' to protect their oil interests. The Shah quickly blossomed into a megalomaniac, styling himself the 'Shah of Shahs,' and 'Imperial Light of the Aryans' (Iranians are an ancient Indo-European people), comparing himself to the ancient Persian emperors, Darius and Xerxes.
The Shah's relatives and Iran's tiny ruling, western-oriented elite looted the nation, living like pre-Revolution Russian royalty. Wives of the elite flew to Paris to have their hair done for gala parties. The nation's oil revenues went to buy large amounts of U.S. and British arms and build gaudy palaces. The rest of Iran remained mired in abject poverty as the nouveau riche royal court flaunted its wealth.
Iran's elite put on European airs and dismissed Islam as a backwards faith of superstitious peasants. In this sense, they much resembled today's so-called urban 'secular' Turks who bitterly oppose Islam.
Iranians who objected to the court's lurid ostentation, Iran's status as a Western puppet, or the looting of its oil wealth, were branded Communists or Islamic fanatics.
Savak, the vastly powerful security agency, imposed a reign of terror on Iran. American and Israeli experts advised and taught Savak. Real and imagined opponents of the Shah, the Shia clergy, and leftists all fell victim to Savak, whose tortures and brutalities were legendary, even by brutal Mideast standards.
Iran and Israel, both hostile to their Arab neighbors, became very close allies, to the fury of deeply religious Iranians and the Shia clergy, which strongly supported the Palestinians. The Shah even negotiated to buy Israeli missiles with nuclear warheads in exchange for a steady supply of oil. Dick Cheney flew to Tehran and offered to sell Iran 26 nuclear reactors.
By the late 1970s, the Shah's grandiose imperial pretensions, the arrant corruption of his family, and the elite's scorning of Islam brought Iran to a boil. In 1979, an exiled Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, returned from exile in France and led a popular revolution that quickly overthrew the hated Shah. The U.S. was caught flat footed by Iran's revolution. It had relied entirely on Savak for political information.
Popular fury quickly turned against the Shah's primary supporter, the U.S. Mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy, taking hostage and bringing the two nations close to war. Shredded CIA documents patiently pieced together by Iranian women showed the amazing extent of the Central Intelligence Agency's influence over Iran. CIA's Iranian 'assets' in the military and court were shot.
Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed his nation's oil wealth would be devoted to social programs. He called on the U.S.-backed Arab oil states to follow the Koran's teachings and share their wealth with poor Muslims everywhere. He called for the overthrow of other Mideast rulers, whom he damned as illegitimate apostates, thieves, and western stooges.
Washington and London immediately began planning the overthrow of Iran's new revolutionary Islamic government which directly threatened the Anglo-American domination of the Mideast - the 'American Raj,' as I call it in my new book of the same name. CIA mounted a number of military coups. All failed. Forty percent of Iran's government leaders were assassinated by the Marxist underground group, 'People's Mujahidin.'
In 1980, when these efforts failed to overthrow the Islamic regime, the U.S., Britain and their Arab oil clients got another U.S. `gendarme,' -- Iraq's Saddam Hussein - to invade Iran.
The resulting bloody, eight year Iran-Iraq war cost Iran one million casualties, half of them dead. Iran thus suffered more dead in this war than the U.S. did in World War II. So violent and desperate was the World War I-style trench fighting that 12-year old Iranian boys and old men went forward to clear Iraqi minefields with their bodies. Iranian volunteers delivered suicidal human-wave attacks against entrenched Iraqi forces.
The U.S., Britain, and the oil Arabs financed and helped arm Iraq. Israel sold Iran a reported $5 billion in U.S. arms and spare parts. Europe supplied Iraq with chemical weapons, food and arms. U.S. satellites monitored Iran's forces and fed the vital information to Baghdad.
After the U.S. Navy entered the war on Iraq's side, Iran was forced to sue for peace. Iran lay in financial and emotional ruins, with an entire generation killed in battle or horribly maimed by Iraq's western-supplied chemical weapons that included the burning agents mustard gas and lewisite, chlorine, cyanide, and a variety of deadly nerve gases.
As I discovered in Baghdad in 1990, the U.S. and Britain were also supplying Iraq with germ weapons, notably anthrax, for use against massed Iranian formations.
Rightly or wrongly, most Iranians blame the West for their historical suffering. They see the Western powers and Israel continuing efforts to overthrow their government, isolate Iran, and seize its oil. Many Iranians expect their nuclear program to be attacked by either Israel or the U.S.
A former highly decorated, courageous commander in the Iran-Iraq War, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who led many dangerous missions behind Iraqi lines, is today the president of Iran. While Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retains the nation's real executive power, the bombastic, anti-western Ahmadinejad speaks for much of Iran's people.
President Barack Obama, who says he wants to open serious talks with Iran and establish better relations will have his work cut out for him. His first step is to read Iran's modern history.