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Iran’s Islamic Revolution: A Consequence of Western Influence
The end of a 2500 year old monarchical Iran was surely brought about because of an ever growing totalitarian aspect of Mohammad Shah’s regime, but culminated mainly because of a long history of Western secular imperialism. The ever famous Ayatollah Khomeini established the first Islamic Republic of Iran and declared in a speech in 1979 that “America is the Great Satan” (Buck 2009, 136). In the blink of an eye an Iran that had been one of the most secular countries in the region would turn into a hardline Islamic state. How did a nation flip overnight? Much of it was due to a secular reform program implemented by the Shah in the 60’s which increased unemployment, but the 1953 coup d’etat over oil is what set the gears in motion towards revolution (Byrne & Gasiorowski 2004, 178-200).
Fearing a new alliance between the long ruling Shah of Iran and Nazi Germany, with his ever sympathetic view towards Hitler’s authoritarian regime, a British-Soviet invasion in 1941 deposed Reza Shah and declared his son Mohammad as the new king of the throne. At the time, Nazi Germany was almost at the peak of its power, and railway access as well as oil in southern Iran would have proved vital to the Axis countries for their African campaign. Britain had long known of Iran’s abundance of oil and wanted to deter any possibility of losing a vital footing in the Middle East. The first company that struck oil was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), whose exploitation of Iranian oil left the country with a mere “16% of net profit” (Kinzer 2003, 58). The APOC promised chances for advancements in multiple aspects of Iranian life to Reza Shah in 1933, of which none were fulfilled and this ultimately added to the man’s resentment during World War II leading him to see the Nazi’s as far more co-operative (Kinzer, p 67 & Holocaust Encyclopedia). The ability of the Nazis to provide a somewhat equal trade boosted Reza’s outlook on the regime, considering that “by 1940–1941”, the final years of Reza’s reign , “nearly half of all Iranian imports came from Germany; 42% of all Iranian exports went there” (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). At the time, Mohammad Reza was seen to be more cooperative with the Allies than his father and in reality this was due to his incompetent ability to rule, having been thrown into the King’s chair through force (Kinzer 68). Iranian nationalism was on the rise following the second World War and many hardliners would push for APOC, now AIOC due to Persia becoming in Iran in 1935, to offer a larger portion of the company to Iran in exchange for it’s allowance in the country. Many Iranians felt it was only fair that a company on behalf of another nation should seek to concede a greater portion of its assets and administration to the country it happened to operate in, yet despite this little was done except for meaningless supplements which undermined Iranian sovereignty (Kinzer 75). In 1951, the then Western-backed prime minister Razmara was assassinated due to a coalition of enemies proposing nationalization of oil. A year prior it became known that the American-Arab Oil Company was splitting it’s profits 50/50 with the Saudi Kingdom and this set off a flame amongst proponents of nationalization of oil (Kinzer 77). PM Razmara’s previous abrupt dismissal by the AIOC head in regards to concessions by AIOC led to his ultimate downfall, for the British did not want to concede any more than they had to the Iranians (Kinzer 77). While Razmara’s death was marked with no mourn, the political death of the man who would take his place would leave a lasting impact on the Iranian people (Kinzer 78-80).
Mohammad Mossadegh had been the first Iranian to earn a doctorate in law in Europe and was elected prime minister of Iran shortly after Razmara’s assassination (Kinzer 2008). As opposed to Razmara’s loyalty towards the Shah and Western influencers such as AIOC, Mossadegh had a different view towards authoritarian rule, both by the Shah and Western backers. Mossadegh had a history with Reza Shah prior to his throne abdication and due to suppression of oppositional voices in politics, Mossadegh returned to his estate and sought a life of early retirement. Soon after 1941, Mohammad Reza’s role as the new weak Shah allowed for Mossadegh to be elected into parliament and return to his passions (Kinzer 2003, 60). Prior to Mossadegh’s election into office, Mohammad Shah convened the Senate for the first time in the nation’s history following an assassination attempt on his life in 1949. This assembly established many more monarchical powers as compared to his father’s rule and helped the timid Shah develop a stronger political backbone in his country (Daniel 2001, 141). Nevertheless, Mossadegh’s role as prime minister would put a thorn in the Shah’s side because although he now had the power to dissolve parliament whenever he liked he still needed the support of the people. The only thing in common between Mossadegh as well as the Shah was the support for nationalization of oil and so in 1951 due to public sentiment, the Iranian parliament nationalized all oil production, expelled AIOC, and thusly caused a crisis from 1951-1953 in which Britain could not abide by (Lanz & Wu 2019). Following failed deals between Mossadegh and Britain for “pseudo-nationalization” of oil, wherein foreign powers would “monitor” Iranian oil production, the following was written by officials at the office of the Ministry of Fuel and Power in Britain, admitting to their proposals as “merely dressing up the AIOC control in other clothing”:
“If Dr. Mussadiq (sic) resigns or is replaced, it is just possible that we shall be able to get away from outright nationalization … It would certainly be dangerous to offer greater real control of oil operations in Persia. Although something might be done to put more of a Persian facade on the setup, we must not forget that the Persians are not so far wrong when they say that all our proposals are, in fact, merely dressing up the AIOC control in other clothing … Any real concession on this point is impossible. If we reached settlement on Mussadiq’s terms, we would jeopardise not only British but also American oil interests throughout the world. We would destroy prospects of the investments of foreign capital in backward countries. We would strike a fatal blow to international law. We have a duty to stay and use force to protect our interest … We must force the Shah to bring down Mussadiq” (Abrahamian 2013, p. 122-123)
The time for diplomacy had come to an end after 3 years of nationalization and although Mossadegh’s message of national unity and expulsion of foreign powers was agreed upon, his support slowly withered while the nation suffered due to the British boycott on Iranian oil (Kinzer 195-196). Britain’s boycott of nationalized Iranian oil was only the beginning of their mission to reestablish control in Iran as far more extralegal methods were employed by MI-6 and the CIA.
The United States had some interest in Iran during WWII mainly because of its significant railroad access in the “Persian Corridor” and oil reserves yet up to that point, the CIA had never overthrown an entire government (Gasiorowski 1987). Just 8 years after the end of WWII, the United States would seal its fate as it allied itself with Britain to overthrow one of Iran’s first democratic regimes. The British would seek the United States help in a coup in 1952 but were ultimately seen by Truman as too imperialistic, and Truman encouraged the need for Iran’s nationalist sentiment to rid itself of influence. A year later, Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Dulles and CIA director John Dulles would support a coup not out of love for the British, but out of a fear that Iran would turn into a communist state (Kinzer 4). The two countries would go on to cooperate in establishing a new pro-western prime minister and to lead the task at the behest of the CIA was an experienced agent, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit Roosevelt (Kinzer 4). Roosevelt would undertake a failed coup as well as the ultimately successful coup through help from the disgruntled Islamic clergy, manipulation through bribes of public officials, and massive distortion of news media through implications of Mossadegh’s relations and sympathy with communist ideologues (Lanz & Wu, 2019). It was estimated by Richard Cottom, one of the main propagandists in charge of manipulation through the papers, that at one time “four fifths of the newspapers in Tehran” were directly under CIA influence and stories written “were designed to show Mossadegh as a Communist collaborator and a fanatic” (Kinzer 6). This cooperation from the United States is what led a recently exiled Imam to declare them the great Satan of the West.
A decade later in 1960’s Islamic cleric Khomeini would criticize the now totalitarian Shah, whose backing by the U.S. emboldened his regime and attitude towards his people. The Shah launched a wide reaching series of reforms to further secularize the nation, intending to undermine those who supported the traditional legal system. Although these reforms helped to modernize Iran, it also left many suffering from land reforms as they had to become independent farmers and this produced a massive wave of unemployed and angry poor Iranian men. Having no loyalty to the regime, they would slowly join and back Khomeini in his opposition of the Shah, and while the Shah’s implementation of modernization helped in many regards it was still slow in the educational realm resulting in “68 percent of the adult population still remaining illiterate, and 60 percent of children did not complete primary school” (Abrahamian 2008, 139-143). Over the years Islamic traditionalists were suppressed, or exiled in the case of Khomeini, for their opposition to both this “White Revolution” of reforms and the Shah’s new willingness to allow U.S. troops stationed in Iran to undergo Military tribunals under U.S. law rather than the Iranian legal system (Gerecht 1997, 207). By 1979 the masses were calling for the Shah’s abdication of the throne in favor of new government and both far-leftists and Islamists fought for control and influence of the government. When the Shah eventually fled Iran due to the ever growing threat, the long exiled Khomeini returned and was greeted with massive crowds who supported his idea of Velayat-e faqih, or Governance of the Jurist, and the lead jurist or “Supreme Leader” was self declared by Khomeini. Khomeini’s 14 year exile gave him time to write a book on this age old Islamic concept of an Islamic government ruled by a clergy of jurists and a main “guardian”, also including a declaration of monarchical rule as an un-Islamic conception of governance and upon his return disgusted with the provisional government stated “I shall kick their teeth in. I appoint the government” (Taheri 1985, 41). The Shah’s prime minister had no strength to govern with the little pro-Shah loyalists and moderate democratic forces supporting him fled to France where in 1980 he was assassinated. Khomeini had installed his government and the 444 day hostage crisis that would occur during the revolution and would embarrass newly elected president Jimmy Carter would be the longest hostage crisis in history (Kohler 2000, 287). Not until years later would the CIA admit to its culpability in the coup in 1953 that kept an authoritarian in power versus conceding more resources to the democratically elected man who sought the fairest deal for his country (Lanz & Wu 2019).
Following Mossadegh’s removal from office Iran saw economic prosperity once again as oil began to flow outward, yet the public opinion of the West never changed between 1953-1979, and the Shah’s growing power from Western influence ultimately led to his defeat and the establishment of an Islamic government versus a more secular one. Many communists, Islamists, and other fringe parties joined Mossadegh’s proposition in nationalizing oil but their efforts were no match for Western imperialist rule. His support from enemies of his enemy, the Shah, helped the agents of MI-6 and CIA convince many by the time of his arrest and trial that Mossadegh was a Bolshevik bent on ruining Iran. From then on, resentment grew among the Islamic clergy and exiled communist parties who lacked the strength to combat the Shah’s regime. Over the years, the Shah’s callousness towards members of the traditional Islamic clergy and outright exiling of any person or parties who sought to keep Iran free from foreign influence would lead to his downfall. The establishment of an Islamic state which would start out brutal and bloodthirsty would eventually loosen its grip when it was made clear to the West that interfering in Iran’s governance would no longer be an option met with diplomacy.
- Abrahamian, Ervand. The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. New Press, 2013.
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- Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2003.
- Kinzer, Stephen. “Inside Iran’s Fury.” Smithsonian, Oct. 2008, www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/iran-fury.html?c=y&page=3.
- Köhler, Michael; “’Two Nations, a Treaty, and the World Court – An Analysis of United States-Iranian Relations under the Treaty of Amity before the International Court of Justice’”, Wisconsin International Law Journal, Winter 2000
- Taheri, Amir. The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Hutchinson, 1985.
- Wu, Lawrence, and Michelle Lanz. “How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days.” NPR, NPR, 7 Feb. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/01/31/690363402/how-the-cia-overthrew-irans-democracy-in-four-days.
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