Just two months before handing the keys to the Oval Office over to Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman insisted that all covert action in Tehran be put on hold. “We tried to get the block-headed British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran,” Truman complained privately, but “no, no, they could not do that.” — Historian Douglas Little on U.S.-Iranian relations
By way of providing historical context for the just announced U.S. – Iranian “framework” for a deal on Iran’s nuclear capability, let’s see if I can reduce more than 100 years of history between the two countries to one, very, very long sentence. Hang on.
The U.S. and Iran: History in a Sentence
As long ago as 1900 the U.S. and Britain coveted Persian (as it was then called) oil, a valuable commodity that became critical to powering the Royal Navy during World War I; some guys in Persia decided that locals weren’t getting a fair share of the oil revenue from the Anglo-Iran Oil Company – we call it BP today – so they set up a fellow called the Shah; this first Shah flirted with Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – some people still say the Iranians are “Nazi-like” – and alarmed the western allies, so Churchill and Stalin secretly plotted to depose him and they installed the Shah’s son in his place, Iran was then occupied by Allied and Russia forces and after the second World War the U.S. cozied up to this new Shah – Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – believing he would be a good buffer against Soviet designs on the region (and the oil), but in 1949 an Iranian politician named Mossadegh – he never
liked the Shah – complicated things when he started arguing for more
local control over the oil (he wanted a 50-50 split with Britain, that’s what Harry Truman was referring to above) and then he became the democratically elected prime minister, but, fearing Mossadegh was a dupe of the Russians, the CIA sponsored a coup in 1953 to force him out – Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson was the CIA officer in charge and the Shah just happened to be out of town – and the reformist prime minister (Mossadegh again) was arrested and imprisoned (he died under house arrest in 1967), the Shah was now fully in control and could return to town, while his secret police (with CIA support) cracked down on all dissent, but the U.S. still liked the Shah and kept him on the diplomatic A-list (he was anti-communist, after all), even while Iranian clerics termed him a puppet of the United States; an impression Richard Nixon seemed to confirm when he gave the Shah a big load of military equipment in the 1970’s believing that the Shah and his army would help create “stability in the region” (he was anti-communist, after all), but finally things got really shaky for the Shah, even after Jimmy Carter toasted him on New Years Eve in 1977 and called his regime “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” but the Iranians were restless and the clerics demanded change, and before long the U.S. had to tell the Shah it was time for him to go and he left for Egypt, but he was sick with cancer and the United States – for humanitarian reasons it was said – let him come to New York for treatment, which dredged up old memories of that U.S. coup back in ’53 when the Shah was conveniently out of town, and twelve days later the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun by students and a bunch of U.S. citizens were held hostage for 444 days, while an ancient Ayatollah started really running things in Iran, a hostage rescue mission failed pretty much sealing Carter’s re-election defeat and cementing the power of the clerics, then a few minutes after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 the hostages were released, which may have been the least of Iranian concerns at the time since they were locked in a hugely bloody war with their neighbors in Iraq and, of course, the U.S. backed a guy named Saddam in that war, which ended in a stalemate in 1988, but when the U.S.’s one time friend Saddam then invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Iranians suddenly didn’t look all that bad, but there was a lot of history here and when the U.S. subsequently invaded Iraq in 2003, the Iranians were opposed to “the great Satan” messing around in their back yard – even though they hated Iraq and fought a war against Saddam they considered the U.S. a bigger threat (maybe history had something to do with it) and they also wanted to “bring stability to the region” by supporting their guys in Iraq – and, about the same time, Iran really started supporting an outfit called Hamas – terrorists to some – and they hated the idea of Israel, but that was a long-standing deal going back to that first World War, and Iran didn’t care much for Saudi Arabia either, a U.S. ally, and some U.S. guys – Dick Cheney comes to mind – welcomed a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons and, oh yes I nearly forgot, when Reagan was president some smart guys in the U.S. government came up with the idea of engineering a complicated trade of weapons for hostages with money from the deal then going to support the Nicaraguan Contras (they were anti-communist, after all), but the whole deal – illegal in any event – got botched up by a Marine Corps Lt. Colonel named North and Congress investigated what we started to call the “Iran-Contra affair,” and Reagan apologized, and a couple of guys went to jail, and then in 2008 the United States elected a new president who seemed to be saying “since we’re so worried about an Iranian nuke, and since the Israelis already have nukes, and rather than stabilizing the region the Iraq war, where we not only didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, but just helped make things in the region crazier, maybe – all the history aside – maybe we should just talk to these people rather than default to another war that might not bring stability to the region,” and the Iranians might be forgiven for thinking (after all this history): what the heck, can we trust these guys?
A Simpler Sentence…
There is a simpler sentence to explain the long and troubled relationship. Let’s just say: It is complicated, very, very complicated.