July 19, 1953 – Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. Arrives in Iran and the Revolution Begins

In 1901, the Shah of Persia (the country was renamed Iran in 1935) granted the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the corporate predecessor of today’s BP) a monopoly on extracting, refining, and selling Iranian oil. The Persian government had no idea about how to exploit its oil assets, and so made a deal to let Anglo-Iranian (owned by Britain) pay Persia just 16 percent of earnings (although the company could well have paid Persia even less, since its books were never subject to scrutiny).

After World War II however, anti-colonialist sentiments roiled countries around the world, including Iran. An Iranian nationalist, Mohammad Mossadegh, became prime minister in 1951. In Iran, nationalism meant controlling its own oil resources, and so Iran passed a law nationalizing the oil industry. The Iranian Government agreed to compensate Anglo-Iranian shareholders for its investment in infrastructure, but not to pay anything for the “going concern” value of the company. Britain was outraged.

Mohammad Mosaddeq

Mohammad Mosaddeq

Mossadegh learned of a British plot to have him assassinated, so he closed the British embassy and evicted all of its diplomats. But Mossadegh had not counted on the unique friendship between Britain and another great imperialist opportunist, the United States. Britain argued to American intelligence that nationalization was just one step away from Communism, the common enemy after World War II.

John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State from 1953 to 1958, had a deep Christian faith and was looking for a way to channel it into the fight against “the evil methods and designs of Soviet Communism.” His campaign speeches on behalf of Eisenhower promised that Communism would be “rolled back” by securing the “liberation” of nations that had fallen victim to its “despotism and godless terrorism.” With his brother Allen as head of the CIA, the U.S. commitment to the Cold War was assured. Together the Dulles brothers convinced Eisenhower of the need for and benefits of helping Britain get rid of Mossadegh.

Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. was a grandson of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, and the chief of CIA operations in the Middle East. He slipped into Iran on July 19, 1953 and immediately began his subversive mission. This work included bribing journalists, editors, Islamic preachers, and members of the police and army to “create, extend and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh and his government.” Thugs were hired to stage attacks that could be blamed on Mossadegh. Roosevelt decided that Mohammad Reza Shah would be the perfect puppet, and pressured him to join the coup. Roosevelt used agents that he both bribed with cash and threatened with death in order to get street gangs to set off riots around the city. These rioters claimed to be acting in the name of “Mossadegh and Communism!”

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr.

Several American authors credit Roosevelt with arranging mass demonstrations and orchestrating the seizure of Radio Tehran, the foreign ministry, the central police station, and the army’s headquarters. Mossadegh himself was arrested and the new Shah was placed on the Peacock Throne (i.e., made the leader of Iran) and a pro-western politician was installed as prime minister.

The revolution against Mossadegh was over, but the revolution in Iran was just beginning. The people of Iran remained fundamentally split politically. The Shah’s reign lasted until 1979, when he was overthrown by Khomeini and Shiite theocracy.

The Shah traveled from country to country in his second exile, seeking what he hoped would be a temporary residence. In October, President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah into the United States to undergo medical treatment for his pancreatic cancer. This act further inflamed Iranian revolutionaries, who already resented the U.S. role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, and its support for the Shah’s rule. The Iranian government demanded the return of the Shah to Iran to stand trial; the American government refused to turn him over.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

This refusal resulted in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the kidnapping of American diplomats, military personnel and intelligence officers, which soon became known as the Iran hostage crisis. It ended after 444 days, when the hostages were released on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.

[Much of the source material for this article was derived from the book Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer. Additional insight can be gained from the book CIA: A Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner. Both are excellent books.]

December 31, 1977 – Jimmy Carter Praises Iran As An Island of Stability

On this day in history, President Jimmy Carter, visiting the Shah of Iran in Tehran, made a speech to toast the Shah at a state dinner.

President Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, at a state dinner in Iran in 1977.

President Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, at a state dinner in Iran in 1977.

He said in part:

Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”

The “island,” however, was in fact in turmoil. Opposition to the Shah was mounting, with the Shah increasingly relying on his notorious secret police, SAVAK, to crack down on dissent. Protesters began filling the streets, and on January 16, 1979, the Shah fled to Egypt. When the Shah found out he had cancer, he asked Carter for permission to come to the U.S. for treatment. Carter knew it would cause problems, but decided he could not refuse the Shah out of humanitarian considerations, and in October, 1979, he extended a public invitation to the Shah. He later said:

I was told that the Shah was desperately ill, at the point of death . . . I was told that New York was the only medical facility that was capable of possibly saving his life and reminded that the Iranian officials had promised to protect our people in Iran. When all the circumstances were described to me, I agreed.”

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. The hostages were not released for 444 days, until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. As the History Channel reports:

Iranian hostages

Iranian hostages

The immediate cause of this action was President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow Iran’s deposed Shah, a pro-Western autocrat who had been expelled from his country some months before, to come to the United States for cancer treatment. However, the hostage-taking was about more than the Shah’s medical care: it was a dramatic way for the student revolutionaries to declare a break with Iran’s past and an end to American interference in its affairs. It was also a way to raise the intra- and international profile of the revolution’s leader, the anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”

Portrait Of Ayatollah Khomeini taken in Paris, shortly before the 1979 revolution. Photograph: Denis Cameron/Rex Features

Portrait Of Ayatollah Khomeini taken in Paris, shortly before the 1979 revolution. Photograph: Denis Cameron/Rex Features

July 3, 1988 – The U.S. Accidentally Shoots Down Iran Air Commercial Flight 655

On this day in history, a U.S. Navy Captain commanding the guided-missile cruiser Vincennes in the Strait of Hormuz mistook Iranian Airbus A300 for an F-14 fighter jet.

Captain Will Rogers III ordered the American SM-2 surface-to-air missile to strike the plane, killing all 290 passengers, including 66 children.

A press conference held by Adm. William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, some seven weeks after the event, claimed that Iran Air’s pilot bore the blame for the incident, even though all the allegations made about the incident by the Americans had been proven to be false.

When Iran asked the U.N. Security Council to censure the U.S., Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, stated:

I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are.”

In 1992, Adm. Crowe admitted on ABC’s Nightline that the he knew the Vincennes was in Iranian waters, not international waters, and that the Vincennes captain was regarded as overly aggressive. (Rogers was, however, awarded America’s Legion of Merit medal by President George H.W. Bush the next year.)

Finally, in 1996, President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed to pay compensation to the Iranian government and the families of the victims if Tehran would drop its case against the U.S in the International Court of Justice.

William C Rogersin 2009, enjoying retirement in California after he was cleared of any wrongdoing over the 1988 Iranian passenger jet crash.

William C Rogersin 2009, enjoying retirement in California after he was cleared of any wrongdoing over the 1988 Iranian passenger jet crash.