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Britain, the CIA and the Iran Revolution

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As the U.S. tightens its three decades of sanctions now joined by Britain, that action must evoke bitter memories of an earlier time and place in Iran.

In a classic example of history repeating itself, today's 'tough' sanctions by western powers to deny its oil access to international markets, access to its assets in western banks and otherwise undermine its global financial relationships is not new to the Iranians. In addition, insistence from Israel and its neo-con supporters that the US take the lead in an attack on Iran is reminiscent of when another US ally, in this case the British, strong-armed the Truman Administration in 1951 to join its covert action and invasion of Iran.

The British government's control of 51% of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) does not adequately explain the dastardly history of its colonial domination of all aspects of Iranian life; especially its lifeblood of revenue-producing oil. Among the world's poorest and most backward countries yet with untold wealth buried deep within its land, the APOC Agreement of 1919 removed the last trace of that country's sovereignty as its government succumbed to bribes and intimidation in exchange for 16% of oil profits. Today, APOC is better known as BP.

By the time Mohammad Mossadegh returned to Iran in 1921, the country was in turmoil with the passing of the old order and a glimpse of democracy. Swiss-educated as an attorney and an aristocrat who identified with the Iranian people's suffering, Mossadegh became Reza Shah's I Minister of Finance until his anti-corruption campaign forced his resignation. In 1924, Mossadegh won a seat in the Iranian parliament as an anti-imperialist and champion of the rule of law.

As the Shah banned political parties reducing the parliament to no more than a rubber stamp and manipulated the election process, Mossadegh lost his seat in 1928. Political foment continued to tear apart the country with the Shah abdicating in 1941. Mossadegh reentered politics and was elected to the parliament in 1943 with Britain still in control of the new Reza Shah and APOC.

By 1950, Mossadegh's election as a prime minister pledging to nationalize the country's petroleum set the stage for a furious battle with Britain warning that nationalization would have "serious repercussions on the whole free world."

As nationalization occurred in 1951, the Brits threw everything they had into sanctions that would sabotage Mossadegh and deprive the government of its critical revenue to function. In stepping across the line of international law, the British stationed a Royal Navy armada in the Persian Gulf, pressured other countries to boycott Iranian oil, disrupted recruitment of necessary engineering staff, intercepted tankers carrying Iranian oil and filed a Complaint with the International Court of Justice which ultimately decided in Iran's favor. British escalation made little secret of its intent to overthrow the government with First Lord of the Admiralty Fraser suggesting that Britain needed to show it would not be 'pushed around by Persian pipsqueaks," In response, Mossadegh closed the British Embassy and expelled its personnel.

Attending a UN meeting to defend nationalization against a British resolution, Mossadegh, Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1951, captured the world's attention with a principled statement that "the oil resources of Iran, like its soil, its river and mountains, are the property of the people of Iran. They alone have the authority to decide what shall be done with it, by whom and how."

To his credit, President Harry Truman's steadfast refusal to participate in military action against Iran suggested to British Prime Minister Attlee that neither country should "be in opposition to the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people' set the stage for lengthy, often testy, diplomatic negotiations between the two allies.

It was not until Cold Warrior Winston Churchill succeeded Attlee and Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953 that the Iranian matter moved forward. It took little time for the Dulles brothers at the CIA and State Department, respectively, to turn the CIA loose, sending Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy's grandson, to Iran. Armed with $1 million, Roosevelt assumed the clandestine network already established by the Brits as he bribed government officials and clerics to attack Mossadegh with staged protests and street riots. Perfecting the art of manipulation of public opinion, Roosevelt's provocateurs used a sympathetic media to spread lies and effectively staged violent demonstrations by phony Mossadegh supporters that brought instability and chaos to the country.

Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men provides an invaluable, illuminating history of how extensively the CIA, less than five years after its creation, totally altered the futures of Iran, the Middle East and the United States.

With Mossadegh's ouster in 1953, he was arrested and tried for treason, served several years in prison and lived the remainder of his life under house arrest. The Shah, who had fled the country, returned to consolidate power and established SAVAK, a new secret police and ruled until fleeing the country again in 1979.

A retrospective of the US-British-Iranian history of the 1950's raises important questions about what the world; specifically the Middle East, might look like today if Churchill and Eisenhower had not given the green light for a coup, if Mossadegh had been allowed to fulfill his commitment to bring self-determination to his country or if the CIA had been limited to its original charter in 1947 to "intelligence affecting national security."

We can only imagine that if a moderate Mossadegh had been able to hand-off the baton of democracy into the future, how different his country's relationship with Israel might be today. Mossadegh's absence created a vacuum of leadership that encouraged the rise of fundamental religious extremists in 1979 and the ultimate creation of the Taliban and al Qaeda in response to a US foreign policy of intervention. Still entangled in a Cold War mentality and unmindful of the long term and unintended consequences of its meddling in foreign countries, the US has yet to learn the necessity of minding its own business.