Poking a Stick in the Hornet's Nest of Iran

03/06/2012 11:05 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2012

When I visited Iran in the late '70s, only months before the Iranian revolution, some of the things I saw took on a different light after the overthrow of the decadent and autocratic Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. While Iran at the time appeared prosperous and calm on the surface, there were signs of a silent but powerful undertow beneath that halcyon veneer: There was an aura of disquiet among the merchant class and student body, which seem to herald a rogue wave lurking over the horizon.

Whether in Shiraz, Esfahan, or Tehran, every shopkeeper had a visible framed photo of the Shah displayed in full regalia. When I would ask about it, I was usually met with either a short reply or a wry smile.

Yet this subdued sentiment didn't cross the social hierarchical order: the mood was more buoyant among the glitterati, literati, and aristocratic spectrum of the populous -- the professional class also faired quite well. Monetarily, these groups were flush with the trappings of an affluent quasi Euro-style bourgeois class -- a phenomenon more overtly manifest in the city of Tehran than the other cities I visited.

Esfahan struck a balance between Tehran and Shiraz both in tradition and wealth. Historically spectacular, with its Shah Abbas Square, flanked by fabulous examples of Arabesque architecture and turquoise tile work, it had a sizable Armenian community and an old bazaar full of traditional artisan shops -- copper, carpets, spices, and more. With its rich poetic heritage and lush gardens, Shiraz was the most provincial of the three cities: the people were more traditional and of humbler means. There were some important ancient monuments an hour outside the city, among them the ruins of Persepolis, which was sacked by Alexander the Great. Persepolis is also known for Mohammad Reza Shah's excesses. In 1971 he built a tent city where he hosted a decadent celebration for the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. The Shirazis were kept out of this lavish affair, which made both national and international news.

Mohammad Reza Shah took power as a constitutional monarch after his father Reza Shah was forced out by the Brits and the Russians in 1941. Mohammad Reza Shah thought -- having been brought up with an exclusive Swiss boarding school-induced comportment -- his father tactics against his political foes were abhorrent. Yet like father like son: he would end up using similar methods to keep his stranglehold on Iran. After the coup of 1953, he went into a brief exile upon failing to oust a popular prime minister with the help of his British and U.S. advisors: Mohammad Mosaddeq.

He was reinstated as an authoritarian king with the help of the U.S., Britain, and some angry loyalists from Mossadeq's army (courtesy of MI6 and CIA). The anti-royalist Mossadeq favored the nationalization of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC): an act which displeased the Brits, who boycotted and blockaded any sale of Iranian oil in international markets, froze Iranian assets, and recalled their oil personnel from Iran. He was relieved of his position as prime minister, imprisoned for treason, and later placed in house arrest for being sympathetic to the leftist party Toodeh.

Mohammad Reza Shah's father Reza Shah Pahlavi came into power with the help of the Russians. Mohammad Reza Shah was then conscripted by his father into the brigade, trained by Russians officers. The Brits also provided some secret help in hopes of keeping Russian interests curtailed in Persia. Reza Shah Pahlavi decided to challenge the terms of the D'Arcy agreement, to the chagrin of the Brits and their proxy company, the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC): a creation of Burmah Oil Company and a share holder of William D'Arcy's company. Under D'Arcy, APOC pumped oil to its heart's content for a pittance -- giving just 16% of the oil profits to Iran. Binding for 60 years, the agreement covered a vast territory of Iran for future rights and explorations.

Reza Shah was successful in challenging the agreement and got a marginally better term at 21%. Still, the APOC (which became Anglo Iranian Oil Company/AIOC) cooked the books, with Iran getting shorted. AIOC paid Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) to lobby the British Government. They succeeded in securing Britain as one of their largest clients.

After the manufactured coup that ousted the nationalist Mossadeq as prime minister, Mohammad Reza Shah went about preserving his throne and formed SAVAK, with the help of the CIA and Mossad, to deal with his adversaries and dissenters. CIA sent in a team of officers (including Norman Schwarzkopf) to train this new secret organization.

SAVAK had tens of thousands of members, and was definitely much larger than its official claim of 5,000 personnel. It was one of the most hated organizations by Iranians who weren't part of the Shah's preferred group. They had unsurpassed police powers of detaining, interrogating, and torturing anyone suspected or convicted of opposition to the Shah's regime. According to dissidents, their tactics were brutal and they had the blood of thousands of Iranians on their hands.

Meanwhile the U.S., ill-advised by the CIA, was oblivious to the brewing anti-American sentiment as they reaped hefty profits by continuing to supply the Shah with arms, despite the atrocities he perpetrated on his detractors and dissidents. They were wined and dined at his Ramsar's palatial retreat and the casino, and received generous oil concessions. The frothy oil profits continued to impair their judgment, and they never saw the rogue wave of revolution crashing over them until it was too late in 1979.

Before we departed Shiraz, I met a young college student during an evening stroll. When I asked about the framed Shah's photos, he hushed me -- whispering, he said it wasn't wise to talk in the bazaar, and took me to a secluded area. He told me about SAVAK and their deeds, and that in actuality a lot of people detested the Shah. The framed photos were insurance against the Shah's secret service harassment.

The day we headed to Shiraz airport, we encountered a traffic delay. Our taxi driver informed us that there was a protest against the Shah. Mohammad Reza Shah had once said, "'Shah' is a kind of magic word with the Persian people." In his indulgent stupor he couldn't perceive that the magic had worn off.

Recent events in Iran have similar geopolitical hues. Iran only began to actively aspire to be a nuclear country in the last 15 years so -- although even by Israeli intelligence estimates it is nowhere near being a weaponized nuclear power. But even if it strove to be a non-peaceable nuclear power, one has to ask why would Iran pursue this, despite the onerous economic sanctions imposed upon it? Iran is not the first county to seek nuclear power, but there is one nuclear county in the Middle East:

Whatever the reasons behind the sabotaging, bombing, and assassinations of Iran's nuclear facilities and scientists, it should be of grave economic concern for the international community. No one knows who is behind all the curious incidences, but poking a stick into a hornet's nest endangers not only the stick holder but everyone watching from a distance: No country is economically safe.

About 20 percent of world's entire oil supply passes through the Straight of Hormuz (just 34 miles wide at its narrowest). I don't see how any bellicose militaristic approach can keep the lid on this Pandora's Box: Iran sees itself besieged on two fronts -- by the U.S, and harangued by the international community in the form of embargo and sanctions. Sound familiar? Iran's recent inclination to talk with the international community should be pursued relentlessly, as it is the 4th largest oil producer. The U.S. has already squandered several overtures to inculcate diplomatic ties on ideological grounds by certain policy makers who would rather see it bombed into oblivion. This would be a travesty, as a sizable portion of the population is still very pro West.