The day democracy died in Iran they weren’t wearing burkas

Iranian men and women (note the Western clothing) demonstrating in the streets of Tehran in the early 1950’s, calling for nationalization of the oil industry. Mohammed Moussadek, their democratically elected President made it happen and that made us angry.

Almost immediately, the CIA and British Intelligence orchestrated a coup, arrested the President and installed Shah Reva Pahlavi, who then – over a quarter century – destroyed democratic institutions, jailed dissidents and ruled as a Dictator. And oh yeah, the British got their oil back.

Having lost any political voice, Iranians turned to their clerics and it was in the mosque that anti-Shah sentiments were nurtured. Imams preached Islamism and radicalism. The early goal of restoring their treasured democracy stolen by the West was replaced by growing anti-Western attitudes and a commitment to overthrow the Shah.

We all know what happened 25 years later. And we’re all too familiar with the Iran of the 25 years since then. Blowback, the very definition of.

https://i1.wp.com/img1.imagesbn.com/p/9780805094978_p0_v2_s260x420.JPGFor all of that, we can thank two men: the then Director of the CIA Allan Dulles and his brother US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the same boys who shortly thereafter brought us Guatemala and Vietnam.

I just added to my reading list The Brothers,the story of how their belief system was formed, and how it – for a decade or more – became the very basis of American foreign policy.

28 responses to “The day democracy died in Iran they weren’t wearing burkas

  1. You can look at it that way or, with equal factual accuracy, you can look at the coming years when future American administration refused to finish as they started and failed to back the Shah’s successors – and failed to quietly assassinate Khomeini when he became a credible threat and was reachable in Paris and blame those fools.

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  2. Thanks for the book recommendation, Moe. I’m going to put The Brothers on my reading list.

    Right now I am of two minds about the matter. I’ve read others who have the same view as jonolan, basically saying the Shah’s problem was that he was too soft on the opposition. I think present-day Egypt is a good example of why democracy isn’t appropriate for every country, heretical as that might sound, but it’s hard to grow it when there’s little tolerance in a culture for diversity of thought and especially of religion. On the other hand, I have also read that Iran was beginning to to be Westernized under the Shah, despite his dictatorial powers. This is no simple thing. I hope the book can clarify it objectively. Please let us know what you think if you finish it first.

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    • The book won’t clarify it, Jim. It’s not about that. It’s nothing but a screed – possibly deserved, possibly not – against the Dulles brothers couched in the framework of a dual biography.

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      • I read most of the book reviews on Amazon, jonolan, including the most negative and the most positive. Did you? Or have your read the book? Your comments would be more convincing if you sourced them.

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    • [the Shah’s problem was that he was too soft]

      Sadly, you weren’t able to experience the pleasures of a long stay in a SAVAK torture chamber.

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      • You want me to be tortured for recalling the opinion of a faction? Ouch. The opinion I recall is that the Shah should have assassinated the heads of the opposition instead of lesser actions. I’m not saying I agree with it, only that it is an assertion worth considering.

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        • While you’re “considering” your assertion, try imagining yourself in the place of the victims; you might find it instructive.

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          • I am no advocate of torture. I have reflected on it and have actually experienced its milder, less-destructive forms in military situations and hazing, so I need no instruction in it.

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            • Nevertheless, in your comment, both options you “consider” maintain the Shah in power. And the Shah maintained his power through brutality, murder, and torture. At least think through to the inevitable outcome of what you advocate: brutality, murder, and torture.

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              • As I see it, there was no clean option to our foreign policy, then or now for that matter. Which to pick?

                1. Support dictator as Iran modernizes.
                2. Withhold support from dictator to promote democracy.
                3. Invade, overthrow dictator, and nation-build into an ally.

                There are precedents, pro and con. For no. 1, U.S. support of Egypt’s Mubarak and Sadat before him. It produced decades of relative stability relative to Israel and to oil flow. For no. 2, there is what is happening in the Arab Spring, including Egypt. Nations have been shattered and there seems to be little hope for stability in any of it. For no. 3, there is Iraq and Saddam Hussein. There can be no doubt that despite Saddam’s cruelty, his Iraq was far more stable and the people were generally happier and more prosperous than now. Hundreds have been killed in sectarian attacks each month this year, and the country’s civic infrastructure, including basic utilities, education and healthcare has yet to even reach pre-war levels. On the other hand, our intervention in Japan and with the Marshal Plan in Europe had very positive outcomes.

                I guess what I’m saying is that foreign policy is like economics. It is an art, not a science, and therefore it seems simplistic to me to assume that supporting a dictator is always wrong just because his country hasn’t yet reached a stage where it can accommodate a government like ours. Also, speaking of ours, I’ve noticed that since the rise of the Tea Party, ours ain’t working so well either. 🙄

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                • My point is that supporting dictators may serve US business and strategic interests in the short term, but overall the US postwar project of toppling legitimate governments, then installing and propping up tin pot tyrants has been a disaster–if one takes into consideration the costs in human lives.

                  Moreover, the practice–by generating so much ill will, hatred, and resistance worldwide–has been detrimental to US standing in the world (or what remains of it), and revealed assertions regarding American “values” to be the sham they are.

                  And I’m not so naive as to believe that human life, or rather the lives of the citizens of other countries, is a factor in the geopolitical calculations of the leaders of any nation, especially those of the US. I just ask people to realize the terrible costs to real human beings when they cavalierly advocate these policies.

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  3. Everything the US government claims to want for Iran—civil society, secular government, democracy–the Iranians had in 1953, and the US took away, giving the people the Shah and SAVAK in exchange. The hypocrisy is staggering.

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    • With the exception of democracy, something largely unsuitable to Muslims, the Shah provided everything that use say we wanted for Iran.

      It should also be noted that Iran was not a democracy and that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi WAS the ruler of Iran in the first place and all the US did was help consolidate his power and oust his parliament which as already turning, under Prime Minister Mossadegh, into the hyper-nationalistic, anti-Western government that Iran “enjoys” today.

      So not a lot of hypocrisy there at all.

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      • Ha-ha–a few days in the Shah’s torture chambers would be enough to make anybody “anti-Western.”

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        • Perhaps but the sentiment in their parliament predates SAVAK’s formation as they weren’t formed until the Shah broke Mosaddeq’s attempt to both seize Western oil wells and refineries within Iran and remove the Shah from any real power.

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          • The point is that when you oppress people, they often don’t submit; they fight back, harder than they did before, and with a tougher ideology. Without the US-backed coup and the Shah’s brutality, there would have been no Khomeini.

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            • That doesn’t really follow, ojmo. The Shah wasn’t brutal to the vast majority of Iranians and increased their wealth and overall freedoms, whereas Mosaddeq looked like he would go the opposite direction.

              Frankly, the Iranian Revolution made no sense unless one allows that it was truly a jihad meant to create a theocracy. It was even nearly bloodless – the savagery not happening until after the Mullahs took power, though it did then last close to 20 years.

              So really, we can’t with any confidence say that without the US-backed coup and the Shah’s brutality, there would have been no Khomeini. And yes! That’s odd because normally you can look back and see the causation but you really can’t in this situation.

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              • Well, I can see how you would find the revolution a mystery if you don’t accept the idea that the people were oppressed. Nevertheless your point about its relative bloodlessness is important: by all reckoning, a revolution should not have been possible, due to the strength of the Shah’s security forces. And just like Syria today, there were many groups–democratic and socialist, secular as well as religious–opposing the Shah.

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                • You’re right, ojmo. Neither I nor any other foreign policy experts can accept the idea that the people at large were oppressed by the Shah…because they weren’t for the most part, if one accepts the caveat that the Shah refused to allow the Mullahs to have any say in the government and backed that up with force when he had to.

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                • Typo that needs correcting: Neither I nor any other foreign policy experts… should be Neither I nor any foreign policy experts. I’m not going to call myself a foreign policy expert.

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                • Please. The Shah lived the high life while the peasants-75 percent of the population-starved. SAVAK was everywhere, snatching anyone who dissented. All opposing political parties, newspapers, and books were banned. Instead of feeding the people, Shah used the proceeds from oil-plentiful in the 70s-to buy fancy toys for the army. The only voice the Shah couldn’t suppress was the clergy. It’s no wonder a large portion of the opposition coalesced around Khomeini; but for the masses this was not about jihad, it was about survival.

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                • ojmo, you might want to read a little more about the actual situation in Iran pre-Revolution. Overall wealth and comfort went up significantly under the Shah and he significantly modernized the country using oil revenue and his ties to the West.

                  Of course this policy of modernization and secularization brought him into conflict with the bazaari, and his recognition of Israel as a nation didn’t help him any either.

                  You might also want to read more accurate and comprehensive sources about SAVAK. What you’re describing is far more myth than reality – a myth possibly started by the SAVAK themselves. They were brutal by our standards, true, but not nearly so much by the standards of the Muslim World or even by many other states in the 1950s – 1970s. They also weren’t nearly so large or powerful as you seem to make them out to have been.

                  Finally, you’re right about a revolution should not have been possible, due to the strength of the Shah’s security forces. But the Shah chose not to use those forces against his people.

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                • A deft inversion of historical facts. The oil-driven increase in wealth went to a tiny minority. And the Shah had no qualms about using his security forces against Iranian citizens, as soldiers fired on street demonstrators in Tehran and Qom in 1978; thousands were killed. The same year SAVAK chased demonstrators into a theater and set it on fire, incinerating 400 women and children. When the Shah finally fled, there were a massive number of desertions from the army. In the end, it was the Shah’s security forces that refused his orders to kill Iranian citizens, rather than the other way around.

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              • As I suggested earlier, try studying the history more and better. It’ll give you a better picture of what really happened. You’ve gotten hold a bunch of facts and near-facts and somehow pieced them together into a tapestry that doesn’t match the historical record.

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            • Exactly – I (finally) commented below on the rise of populist anti-Americanism in Iran. It began with the ’53 coup.

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      • jonolan – the Iranian parliament was turning nationalistic (oil) but NOT anti-Western, just anti-British and anti-colonial. Iran itself was far less Islamic and far less radical than it became after the Shah – a situation that was totally reactionary. The Shah was overthrown because he was hugely unpopular, resented – all based on his own actions and policies.

        “The goal of the National Front (the Parliamentary party led by Mossadech as Prime Minister) was to nationalize Iran’s oil resources and to counteract British dominance of Iran’s internal affairs by initiating direct relations with the United States.”

        The ’53 coup effectively kicked off a change in attitude toward the US – it was the origin of anti-Americanism, not the result.

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        • I’m forced to disagree with that assessment because Mossadech was very anti-West in general and he was the center of the cult of personality (his) that was the leaders of that Parliament.

          Initiating direct relations with the United States was just a politica ply to garner support from more moderate elements. It’s unlikely that such relations would have been actually pursued in a manner that wasn’t designed to show that America couldn’t be dealt with any better than the British – nor could we be from their standpoint, btw.

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