Iranians carry an anti-American banner during an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, on Azadi (Freedom) Street in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Iranians are marking the revolution with the same old chants of "Down with the U.S." and "Death to Israel," Tuesday as they commemorate the 35th anniversary of the revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought Islamists to power. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
“Death to America.” “Death to Obama.” “Death to Kerry.”
These were some of the signs and chants of Iranians celebrating the 35th anniversary of their Islamic revolution this past week. This overt hostility toward America and its leaders doesn’t seem like a good omen — especially when crucial negotiations to resolve Iran’s disputed nuclear program are set to begin on Tuesday in Vienna.
It’s worth noting that this celebration is normally organized by Iranian hard-liners who do not trust America. And we mustn’t forget that last June, in substantial numbers, Iranian voters rejected all the hard-line candidates and elected the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as their president. They did so because he promised to relieve Iranians of the heavy burden of international economic sanctions through negotiations in which Iran would persuade the world that it was not trying to make nuclear weapons.
To the surprise of many in this country and elsewhere, the new president has so far been true to his word. But now the real hard part is about to begin — talks that will demand significant compromises from both sides. President Rouhani, like President Obama, is going to be under great pressure from within his own country not to make such concessions. Yet the stakes could not be higher, because if these talks fail, a major new Middle East war in which the United States will be involved seems likely.
Against this background, I believe it would be helpful if more Americans had a better understanding of why Iranians should still be shouting “Death to America” 35 years after their revolution. To start with, remember that their revolution marked the end of the 25-year, increasingly repressive rule of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi — the shah of Iran — who came to power when the democratically elected Iranian prime minister was overthrown in a coup engineered by British and American intelligence agencies.
The story of this event and the men behind it are richly detailed in a new book, “The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times foreign correspondent. The brothers of the title are John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state and CIA director.
Long before they joined the Eisenhower administration, the Dulles brothers had been deeply involved in American foreign policy. They were both students of professor Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and were with President Wilson in Paris to help write the Treaty of Versailles, which divvied up the spoils of World War I. Like Wilson they had a selective definition of “self-determination” for colonized peoples that didn’t include the Middle East, Asia or Africa.
Foster became a highly successful corporate lawyer representing many of America’s biggest corporations doing business abroad. Allen did similar work, although he became more interested in the black arts of intelligence, having served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and later in the top ranks of its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. Foster and Allen both believed that what was good for American business was good for America and thus the world. Foster was so fervently anti-communist that well into the late 1930s, he still supported Hitler as a bulwark against Bolshevism.
As the Eisenhower years began in 1953, America was in the throes of another Red Scare. The Soviet Union now had the atomic bomb. China had gone communist, and much of this country was under the spell of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his claims that the State Department and the U.S. Army had been significantly infiltrated by communists. The idea of a world divided between good and evil fit perfectly with the Dulles brothers’ world view, and they had already decided Iran would be the ideal place to demonstrate the new administration’s determination to engage in clandestine warfare.
The prime minister of Iran, Muhammad Mossadegh, was no stranger to Foster and Allen. As the opposition leader in 1951, he had ferociously opposed a huge, development project involving 11 major foreign construction firms that Allen Dulles had sold to the young, inexperienced shah. Appealing to patriotism and decrying foreign influence, Mossadegh persuaded the Iranian parliament to kill the deal.
And when the parliament then chose him as prime minister, he first asked for a vote to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The vote was unanimous, which was a major blow to British and American oil interests. Author Kinzer writes, “Mossadegh’s opposition to Western privilege, made him the sort of leader the Dulles brothers instinctively mistrusted ... a populist rabble-rouser who stirs the masses by rejecting the way the world is run. This made Mossadegh the first monster the Dulles brothers set out to destroy. Deposing him was among their highest priorities for 1953.”
How the actual coup was organized is another long story. In short, it was directed in Tehran by CIA Middle East operative Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Theodore). When the coup initially failed, the shah got scared and fled to Rome. Author Kinzer picks up the story: “Roosevelt decided to stay in Tehran and try again.
He paid street gangs to terrorize the city, marshalled dissident military units, and by midday, on August 19 (1953) helped guide a mob toward Mossadegh’s house. Three hundred people were killed in the climactic battle. By dawn, the Mossadegh government was no more.” With that the shah returned to claim the Peacock Throne for the next quarter century.
President Eisenhower, who had given his silent approval for the coup, wrote in his diary that Mossadegh’s fall had been a “serious defeat” for the Soviets. The Dulles brothers’ propaganda machine had painted Mossadegh, at best, as a communist pawn. But history suggests that Mossadegh included the Russians with other foreign powers like the British and the Americans whose domination he was determined to prevent.
Does any of this really matter today? Yes, because most Americans know little or nothing about this event. And the vast majority of Iranians know it in every detail. This is the gulf in perception responsible for many, if not most, long-standing conflicts.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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