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America v Iran: Who started it?
In 'The Last Shah,' Takeyh sets the record straight on the history of US-Iran relations
Hollywood and decolonization Democrats have a peculiar history narrative on Iran. In the movie Argo, Iran is depicted as a country ruled by a dynasty for 2,500 years. In 1950, according to Argo, the Iranians elected a secular democrat, Mohammad Mossadeq, who nationalized British and American oil companies. In 1953, America organized a coup that toppled Mossadeq and “installed” Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was excessive, opulent, and bent on Westernizing the country, against the will of its conservative Shia population. Problem is, there were no US oil companies in Iran in 1950, Pahlavi succeeded his father as shah in 1941, was never toppled until 1979, so he could not have been “installed” in 1953.
In three minutes, a Hollywood movie that topped the box office disseminated so much historic inaccuracies that justified the hatred of the current Iran regime toward America, on the false grounds that it was the nefarious CIA that started it: Toppled an elected Iranian leader for the sake of its oil companies, and installed a puppet who led Iran to ruin. While similar to the line that the pro-Iran regime lobby peddles in Washington, none of the Argo narrative was true. But Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, sets the record straight in his book The Last Shah.
“It may be difficult for Americans, raised on a Hollywood diet of nefarious CIA intrigue, to appreciate how humble the agency was” in its contribution to the coup that failed, according to Takeyh. Mossadeq had “rigged elections, disbanded parliament, usurped powers of the monarchy, and showed little respect for the constitution,” he wrote. The CIA was complicit, but its role was exaggerated.
In reality, the shah used his constitutional authority to fire Mossadeq, and appointed in his place his oil minister, Amini, who accepted the same deal that Mossadeq had agreed to before him. Mossadeq, however, was too obsessed with nationalism and his populist image that he never carried through with the deal.
Amini, for his part, agreed that Iran splits oil revenue with an international consortium, justifying his move before Parliament by saying: “We can reach the ideal solution only when we achieve the power, wealth, and technological means that give us the ability to compete with countries that are big and powerful.” Parliament endorsed oil deal by 113 to 5.
Amini was a statesman and a leader who was honest with Iranians: Without technological know how or infrastructure, Iran had to share its oil revenue until it was able to nationalize it. In 1973, the shah — presumably America’s puppet according to Argo — nationalized all of Iran’s oil.
But even if we are to believe that the shah was America’s guy, accusing him of impoverishing Iran cannot be substantiated. According to Takeyh:
Iran’s oil income shot up from $885 million in 1971 to $17.8 billion in 1975. Its GDP skyrocketed from $4 billion in 1961 to $54 billion in 1976, and during the same period, industrial output increased by an annual rate of 20 percent. The shah’s fifth development plan, which originally set an investment goal of $36 billion, was nearly doubled to $63 billion. Throughout Tehran, hotels and high-rises went up at a record pace.
So the shah’s Westernization was hardly sinking Iran into poverty. If anything, Iran under the shah lived unprecedented economic expansion, which was coupled with his savvy foreign policy. Takeyh again:
The Shah’s management of foreign affairs was nothing short of brilliant. He was a nationalist who relentlessly increased the price of oil. He developed good relations with the Soviet Union while holding tight to his alliance with America, dominated the Persian Gulf while checking the radical republic in Iraq, and had good relations with the Arab monarchies — as well as with Israel — all of who recognized Iran as a source of regional stability. He expanded trade relations with Europe and Asia. He was a Third World leader who did not bother with the grievances of the non-aligned movement. If he never transformed Iran into a great power, he did make it a possible stakeholder.
And if economic prosperity and global prominence were not enough, the shah implemented land reform that greatly benefited the peasants. By 1971, land reform had achieved impressive results that even the Islamic Republic would later acknowledge “that some two million peasants received land through the shah’s reforms.”
As former President Jimmy Carter made of human rights a global piece of his foreign policy, the Iranian monarch embarked on liberalization. In his Constitution Day address in 1978, the shah announced that he would guarantee free speech, and that free and fair elections would be held in June 1979. Despite relaxing his grip, the shah could not garner good will with the mullahs, the most moderate of whom, Grand Ayatollah Kazem Sharitmadari, insisted on the formation of a new cabinet.
The new prime minister “relaxed censorship, cashiered a number of (army) officers, abolished the cabinet position for women’s affairs, closed down bars and liquor stores, and restored the Islamic calendar.” He also offered amnesty to political dissidents, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then in exile in France. Sharitmadari and Mahdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the revolution, shared the plan with Khomeini, who rejected it, and insisted on overthrowing the shah and establishing an Islamic Republic, which Khomeini once described, in his manifesto, as such:
From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagens, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present. Later they were joined by other groups, who were in certain respects, more satanic than they. These new groups began their imperialist penetration of the Muslim countries about three hundred years ago, and they regard it as necessary to work for the extirpation of Islam in order to attain their ultimate goals.
But while in exile, Khomeini was under the global spotlight, and thus dialed down his radicalism and anti-Semitism, and endorsed a lighter version of Islamic government, one authored by Iraqi Shia cleric Mohamed Baqer Sadr, in which clerics play only an advisory role in government. Khomeini also tried to compete with Communists over winning the lower income Iranian, and worked hard to dispel the popular (and true) idea that “Iran’s mullahs were enablers of monarchial absolutism.” Khomeini attacked the monarch, disparity of wealth, and Iran’s ties to America and Israel. Khomeini said: “They can no longer call us reactionary.”
Khomieini then promised a new Iranian constitution that “is Islamic and must conform to the laws of Islam which are the most progressive.” On gender rights, he said: “Women are free to choose their own activities and destiny as well as their mode of dress within Islamic standards.” On media Khomeini said: “All press is free unless their essays are against the country.” On speech: “Freedom of expression is allowed, if it is not detrimental to the nation.” On political parties: “All parties will be free in Iran, unless they are against the exigencies of the nation.” Takeyh quipped: “For every promise there was a hedge.”
To the friends of the Iranian regime in Washington, who insist on calling Iran a democracy, Takeyh narrates an interesting nugget. As Iran prepared to vote in a referendum over an Islamic State, PM Bazargan suggested adding another choice on the referendum: A democratic Islamic Republic. Khomeini responded: “Don’t use the Western term democratic. Those who call for such a thing don’t know anything about Islam.” When Bazargan drafted a new constitution, Khomeini accepted the initial draft, but suggested “only that women be barred from serving as president and judges.”
Takeyh also dispels the myth that it was America that gave its ally the shah his nuclear program, writing that Washington offered Tehran a multinational enrichment facility that would have supplied Iran with nuclear power it needed for peaceful energy, but not military use. The shah’s people refused the offer, saying that it infringed on Iranian sovereignty, the same excuse that the mullahs use today.
In another historical parallel, Europe — back then, like today — undermined America on Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Takeyh wrote: “The shah would have better luck in Europe, were both France and West Germany were eager to provide Iran with nuclear technology. The French nuclear industry needed money, and the Germans were looking to expand their trade with Iran.” When the shah went into exile, France continued pandering to whoever rules Tehran by refusing to receive the terminally ill Iranian monarch.
Iran’s ruling tyrant Ali Khamenei, whose knowledge in governance is nil, thinks Iran can become economically self sufficient, and create an economic zone with countries that Iran dominates, such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, in addition to America’s rivals Russia and China. But save for China, whose economy depends on bilateral trade with America, Russia’s economy is too weak to help Iran circumvent American nuclear sanctions. The Iranian economy has therefore gone into free fall, but Khamenei thinks the Iranians can get over such hardship by the sheer will of their nationalism, thus repeating Mussadeq’s disastrous anti-imperial, nationalist and populist policy.
“Like the monarchy in later years, the Islamic Republic (today) is at an impasse, having become a regime that cannot reform itself even when it senses an urgent need for change,” Takeyh argues.
The only weakness in The Last Shah is that it leaves out a hypothesis that the West, including America, saved Khomeini and hoped to use him as Plan B, should the shah collapse and the Soviet Communists invade from the north. Takeyh does highlight Carter’s correspondence with the exiled Khomeini, but suggests that Khomeini stuck to his maximalism. Takeyh does not explore this line further.
The author, however, quotes America’s ambassador in Tehran, Sullivan, as warning of the threat of Communism: “Our national interests demand that we attempt to structure modus vivendi between the military and the religious, in order to preempt Tudeh.”
Th rise of the Carter Doctrine — consisting of “quick military intervention” and even authorizing the use of tactical nuclear weapons to stop a possible Soviet invasion of Iran — could further substantiate the “fear of Communism” in Carter’s calculus when dealing with non-Communist, Islamist, Khomeini.
In her book The Black Wave, Kim Ghattas narrated — without clear attribution — the following:
On August 29, 1978, the shah was in the middle of a banquet with visiting dignitaries when he received a phone call from Saddam Hussein, the vice president and de facto ruler of Iraq. The shah broke protocol by leaving the dinner table and listening to the stunning suggestion from the Iraqi leader: Ayatollah Khomeini was becoming a nuisance for everyone, it was best to get rid of him. Saddam wanted the shah to agree first. After discussing the proposal with close aides, the shah decided against it. PM (Shahpour) Bakhtiar had reopened the airport and indicated he would allow Khomeini’s plane to land, but there were no guarantees beyond that. Khomeini team wanted high profile journalists on the plane as human shields, to deter the Iranian generals, still loyal to the shah, from shooting down the plane.
Given that throughout his book, Takeyh repeatedly argued that the shah rarely, if ever, consulted with his advisors, whom did he consult over Saddam’s offer to kill Khomeini? And who guaranteed that Iran’s air defenses, the most loyal to the shah, would not have shot down Khomeini’s Air France plane on its way from Paris to Iran?
There is high probability that Carter saw in Khomeini a Plan B against Communism in Iran. There was probably initial contact between the two, especially given how Khomeini gradually — rather than abruptly — subdued his rivals and imposed his absolute rule.