Socialist Worker

Bloody history of intervention in Iran

Issue No. 2045

The people of Iran have every reason to be fearful and suspicious of US and British military activity in their region. Both powers have a long history of imperial intervention in Iran – installing dictatorships, fomenting wars and terrorising ordinary people.

Prior to the First World War, Iran was controlled by the Qajar monarchy and fell under Britain’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. The discovery of oil in the country at the beginning of the 20th century was a turning point.

Britain set up the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – a forerunner of today’s BP – in 1909. This company struck a “concession” deal with the Qajar king that effectively handed over control of Iran’s oil reserves to the British.

In 1921 the Qajars were overthrown by an army officer, Reza Khan, who was backed by the West as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia.

He took the name Reza Shah and ruled until 1941, when the British forced him to abdicate in favour of his son.

By the end of the Second World War, the renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was Britain’s largest overseas asset.


AIOC, which was half owned by the British state, made £200 million in profits in 1950 – but paid Iran only £16 million in royalties. Anger grew against the Shah’s autocratic rule.

In April 1951 the nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadeq was elected prime minister, promising to take on AIOC and end foreign interference. He announced the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry.

The British government, under Labour prime minister Clement Attlee reacted with fury. It planned to seize the Abadan oil refinery by force – but this plan was shelved when the US made it clear that it would not support British military intervention in Iran.

Attlee lost power in Britain and Winston Churchill’s new Tory government promised to cooperate with the US in covert operations against Iran. The CIA organised and financed a coup against Mossadeq in August 1953, aided by Britain.

The coup swept aside democracy in Iran and made the Shah the country’s absolute ruler. He proceeded to rule over Iran, supported by the notorious Savak secret police organisation, with the utmost brutality.

Iran’s oil was placed in the hands of an “international consortium”.

From then until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it was US imperialism that dominated Iran, with Britain as a junior partner.

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