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What’s the deal in Iran?

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Issue 2604
US-backed forces on the streets of Tehran in 1953
US-backed forces on the streets of Tehran in 1953 (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

In their more sanctimonious moments Western politicians like to talk of bringing “democracy” to Iran. Their interventions in Iran have made sure that never happened.

From coups to wars to sanctions, the US has given Iranians plenty of good reasons to hate it.

Economic sanctions imposed on Iran’s oil and banking industries by the US, Britain, France and Germany have contributed to mass unemployment and poverty.

US president Donald Trump’s plans to impose fresh sanctions on the country is stoking up fear of a new war in the Middle East.

This hits Iranian people hardest.

But this has also fed into resistance, most recently in December last year, where protests fed into a wider anger, and spread to sections of workers.

Or 2009’s “Green Movement” over election results that saw protests sweep through Iran.

Iran’s 70 years of turmult show the lengths the Western politicians will go to, if they feel their interests are under threat.

Britain and US governments have had a long-term interest in Iran’s resources—their spies organised against an elected Iranian government in 1953.


For the first half of the century Britain controlled and plundered Iran’s oil industry through the company now known as BP.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was 51 percent owned by the British state, and was so powerful it practically ran the country.

The Iranian government, controlled by the royal family the Shahs, did as it was told.

AIOC’s private police force dealt ruthlessly with oil strikes, and the state took care of the rest.

Iranian ruler Reza Shah brutally suppressed all trade unions and political opposition.

A rising tide of anti-colonialism eventually did for the British Empire in the Middle East.

In Iran the Shah was forced to appoint secular nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq as prime minister in 1951 after his National Front party won a majority in parliament.

Mossadeq’s nationalism was a progressive movement of the oppressed. Like other nationalist movements across the Middle East it challenged colonial rule.

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Mossadeq nationalised AIOC without compensation. It was a humiliating blow to the British Empire, and Britain’s Labour government considered invading to recapture Iran’s Abadan oil refinery. Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided against it. He’d already sent the British army to put down a colonial uprising in Malaya, defend British interests in Egypt, and join the US’s war in Korea.

More importantly the US was against intervention and Attlee admitted, “We could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind”.

The US wasn’t too worried about protecting Britain’s oil.

It was quite happy to replace Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East. But it was worried by Mossadeq—and what he had unleashed.

Over the next two years ordinary people demanded more economic reforms of Mossadeq’s government.

The US feared that the Communist Tudeh party—which had organised strikes, riots and protests—would gain enough support to replace Mossadeq.

In 2013 and 2017 the CIA released hundreds of previously classified documents relating to its role in overthrowing Mossadeq.

Early files show an obsessive fear about support for the Tudeh and the possibility that Iran would fall under the influence of Stalinist Russia. They even discuss organising among groups in support of Mossadeq against the Tudeh.

But by April 1953 the US decided Mossadeq had to go. The CIA, along with British spies in MI6, orchestrated a coup against him.


In 1954 CIA agent Donald Wilber wrote a secret booklet describing how they planned their secret operation—codename Ajax—and how it panned out. It shows how the CIA approached Mossadeq’s leading opponent—army general Fazlollah Zahedi—with a plan to install him as prime minister.

The CIA planted anti-Mossadeq articles in newspapers and circulated pro-Zahedi propaganda throughout Iran.

The first coup attempt failed. Zahedi went into hiding with the CIA and the Shah fled to Iraq. But amid the confusion in the days that followed, CIA agents did all they could to stir up opposition to Mossadeq through the press.

Within a few days supporters of the Shah took to the streets and the coup was relaunched, this time successfully. Mossadeq was arrested and spent the rest of his life in prison or under house arrest.

Defiant, he told his trial, “My only crime is that I nationalised the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth”.

The CIA secretly funnelled £2 million to Zahedi’s government to prop it up immediately after the coup.

With huge military aid from the US, the Shah established a new military dictatorship. Iran became a base for 24,000 US soldiers, and the capital Tehran home to the CIA’s Middle East headquarters.

The CIA trained Iran’s new secret police, the Savak, which killed and tortured thousands of Iranians.

US companies benefited from the carve up of Iran’s booming oil industry, but vast numbers of ordinary Iranians stayed in poverty.

A “modernisation” programme was backed up by harsh repression used against Iran’s growing working class.

Pressure built up. When the economy crashed in 1977, it led to mass protests by some of the poorest people in Iran that developed into a full-blown revolutionary movement.

There was a huge strike wave, and a guerrilla struggle. Strike committees, known as Shoras, began to take over the running of some factories. Mass protests and even public poetry performances brought tens of thousands—then millions—onto the streets.

It was a profound democratic awakening. Naturally, the US was against it.

The same Shah that saw the overthrow of Mossadeq was himself overthrown by the ordinary people of Iran in 1979. The US gave him refuge, and imposed sanctions on Iran.

Revolutions are complicated. After the fall of the Shah a section of the middle class led by Muslim clerics assumed the leadership.

A new repressive government formed, led by a cleric called Ayatollah Khomeini.


It repressed the left and workers’ organisations, but gathered support because of its opposition to the US.

In November 1979 protesters led by student supporters of Khomeini occupied the US embassy and took its staff hostage for over a year.

Their demands reflected anger at the years of US-backed repression against them. They wanted the Shah returned to Iran for trial, an end to the sanctions—and an apology for the coup against Mossadeq.

The US opposes the regime today—but not because of the reasons given by its warmongering presidents and supporters in Britain. Some of the West’s closest allies are warmongering, heavily armed tyrants in the Middle East.

The real problem is that since the revolution Iran never made peace with US imperialism.

So the year after the revolution the US supported Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein as he invaded Iran. The war lasted eight years and led to the deaths of 300,000 Iranians.

The US has attacked and destroyed Iranian oil facilities, and in 1988 even shot down an Iranian commercial aeroplane—killing all 290 people on board.

Years of US sanctions against Iran have caused misery for ordinary Iranians—including severe shortages of medicines for serious illnesses.

The US has cynically backed revolts and protest

movements against the government in Iran—such as those that erupted earlier this year. But the closest it ever got to bringing Iran in from the cold was with the nuclear deal in 2015. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme if the US lifted sanctions.

Even then the threats continued, and now Donald Trump has imposed new sanctions and encouraged Israel to make war on Iran.

And, just as it was in 1953, US policy may well be geared toward regime change.

The flame that fuelled the protest movement in recent years shows the potential for power on the streets. Ordinary people should take to the streets again and fight for real change.

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