Britain’s historic role in why Iran and the US are enemies

The summer lull is a time for conspiracy theories and wacky ideas to be rolled out to fill space in the media. But one current topic of discussion has a deadly seriousness: the probability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is believed to be reaching for nuclear weapons readiness, a state where it could at short notice (a few months) create nuclear weapons. It denies this but the logic of doing so is strong. Iran has noticed two countries with nuclear weapons that seem to have bought some powerful negotiation power with the west – Pakistan and North Korea. If Iran fears that it is at continuing risk from a hostile US then a nuclear option has value.

Meanwhile, the logic for many other countries but particularly Israel, is that a nuclear Iran would be a disaster. Israel officially doesn’t acknowledge its own nuclear status but everyone knows it has a large nuclear armoury which is its ultimate protection against the threat of national destruction from hostile countries. Other regional countries such as Saudi Arabia would also be appalled at a nuclear Iran and would likely feel the need to follow, promoting a regional nuclear arms race with a higher risk of accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. Israel, a small country with a concentrated population, is especially vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction so its national priority is to stop other countries having them or, a much inferior outcome, to deter their use. The extreme rhetoric of Iranian politicians over the years casts some doubt on whether deterrence would work in this case. And deterrence can fail through error (as nearly happened in at least three cases in the US-USSR cold war).

The whole world should worry if Israel is attacked as there is something known as the Samson Option (following the Biblical story of Samson tearing down the walls of the temple, in the process killing himself) in which Israel would destroy not only the country that attacked it (it could utterly devastate Iran and kill the great majority of its people) but also the whole region and perhaps European cities too, including a large fraction of the world’s oil supplies. By implicitly holding much of Europe – and perhaps even the US – as hostage, Israel incentivises other countries to ensure that such an event, triggered by an all out attack on Israel, doesn’t happen.

The case against an Israeli attack is rehearsed here and here. Here is the view that it really might happen (together with a fascinating view of how the wider Middle East may be disintegrating back into the tribal and clan rivalries that were temporarily suppressed by European-imposed artificial nation states). The timing is no surprise – it’s all about the US election and the negotiating power of Israel to push the US either into military action themselves (far more likely to be successful than Israel alone) or into much more unconditional promises to use force if sanctions fail. Obama doesn’t want an Israeli independent strike nor does he want to look weak. Israeli politicians are understandably using this period to get what they want. The element of negotiation between the US and Israel is captured here. (Israel’s wider strategic problem is analysed here.)

These experts disagree on what will and should happen in the coming months. It is depressing to be reminded of one reason we are in this mess, which is the British-inspired and American-executed coup in Iran in 1953. I first read about this remarkable story in All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer. More detail has emerged with a recent book on the deposed Iranian Prime Minister, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue . I haven’t read this book but there is a detailed and fascinating review in the New York Review of Books here.

The basic story is that a duly elected Iranian government under Mossadegh in 1951 decided quite reasonably to improve the terms on which the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which became British Petroleum – BP – in 1954) extracted oil from Iran. Kinzer’s book describes the wretched conditions of Iranian oil workers, the arrogance of AIOC employees and the grossly unfair financial payments to the Iranian government. The AIOC, backed (and partly owned at that time) by the British government, opposed this of course. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a brilliant war time leader but an old fashioned imperialist, upset by the recent “loss” of India, saw no reason why Iran should have any say in how AIOC ran its business there. Mossadegh responded by nationalising AIOC’s Iranian assets. Invoking the threat of Iran going communist, at an early stage of the Cold War, and with the conflict in Korea in progress, Churchill persuaded the American president, Eisenhower, to instruct the CIA to create a coup. The goal was to evict Mossadegh and install a more pro-western government under the thin legitimacy of the Shah, who was bribed by the promise of lots of western arms and a free hand in running his own national tyranny. In a sad rehearsal of the Vietnam disaster, a local and nationalist movement was seen in Washington as part of a global communist conspiracy that required US action to halt the Soviet Union (or China) with grave consequences for the country concerned and the US. The Shah tolerated no dissent and made the mosques the main source of opposition to his regime. The late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE argued that the roots of the Iranian revolution were not so different from other revolutions, involving normal considerations of class and power. The religious extremism was grafted on later, somewhat in the way that the Bolsheviks hijacked the orginal Russian revolution in 1917. The modern ugly fusion of religious extremism and authoritarian politics thus goes back, in part, to the Shah and the coup.

The details, including the local head of the CIA Kermit Roosevelt being smuggled into the Shah’s palace in a rolled up carpet, are like something out of a spy thriller. But the reality was a massive plan to bribe Iranian journalists, generals and politicians to go along with the fiction that a state of chaos could only be resolved by a military regime replacing the elected parliament. The role of Britain was mostly in planning and persuading and in their arrogant attitude, of which the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson later wrote: “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast” (quoted in this review of Kinzer’s book).

Years later, when the Iranian revolution of 1979 was followed the taking hostage of 52 Americans for over a year in Tehran, Americans wondered, why do these people hate us? Every Iranian I’ve met has told me that deep down the Iranian people like the US and regret the countries’ hostile relations. But one very important cause of that hostility was the 1953 coup. Without the coup and the ending of parliamentary democracy, there would still be rivalry, to put it mildly, between modern Iran and its Arab/Sunni neighbours and even more so with Israel. But a democratic and non-theocratic Iran would be a lot better to deal with than the current religious regime. Churchill has a lot to answer for.

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