The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) affectionately known in the U.S. as the
Iran Nuclear Deal was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s executive leaders. A panel of Iranian lawmakers concluded the JCPOA was flawed but recommended approval. Zee News reported on October 4, 2015, that the Iranian panel found the Nuclear Deal posed a potential security threat and skirted Iranian lawmakers. During the Nuclear Deal negotiations, the executive branches of both Iran and the U.S. bypassed their respective legislative bodies. Skirting Iran’s lawgivers and circumventing the U.S. Congress yielded the same outcome; begrudging approval of the JCPOA by a bunch of grumpy elected politicians.
Through time media and political focus on Iran rises and ebbs depending upon the current administration’s Middle East game plan. Iran’s become a seasonal spectator sport; a gift the U.S. gave itself back in the 1950s. The new season opened with Benjamin Netanyahu’s impassioned speech to the U.S. Congress against the Deal and President Obama’s United Nations subsequent end run on Congress for approval of the JCPOA.
Today’s Iran is all that remains of Persia, an ancient and magnificent civilization. Persia, a
succession of empires, can trace its lineage back 5,200 years. From its pinnacle around 550 BCE, Persia fell to Alexander about 200 years later, then rose from ashes to once again assuming a global leadership position. By the time the Empire finally fell to the Rashidun Muslims in about 651 AD, it was an economically vibrant, culturally diverse nation that boasted connective highways, civilized infrastructure, taxes, and one primary religion—Zoroastrianism, which promoted the idea that its followers “be among those who renew the world…to make the world progress towards perfection”.
The Rashidun Muslims ushered in the Muslim faith as the one and only official religion of Persia although other religions were still tolerated. It was also the time of the Islamic Golden Age of science, art, architecture, philosophy and scholarship. Under the Rashidun Muslims Persia became a Caliphate administered by an elected religious/state leader or Caliph. Rashidun Muslims were disciples of the Prophet Muhammad. Today’s Sunni Muslims, who followed the Prophet’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, adopted and adapted many aspects of the Rashidun Muslims.
About 800 years later, Twelver Shia Muslims in the guise of the Safavid Dynasty ascended to power. Twelver Shia Muslims, who believed in the twelve Imams chosen by decree, are followers of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, a blood relative. The populace was quickly converted with little tolerance for other religions. Even today, Iran’s leaders frequently refer to the imminent arrival of the Twelfth Imam who will rule for a period before the final judgment. Under the Twelver Shia, Persia entered into an expansionist phase. It conquered vast areas to become among the largest and, for a little while, the most influential empire in the world. During the 1800s however, Persia lost huge tracts of land, including the Caucasus territories, to an expanding Russian Empire. In 1906, the year of the Persian Constitutional Revolution, Persia’s Muslims fought hard for, but lost, the Caliphate. Persia became a constitutional monarchy in 1906 and by 1935 was known as Iran.
Leading a country out of medieval darkness is messy. Declaring a constitutional monarchy
and actually making it work is scrappy. Between 1906 and 1953, the world fought two wars and squared off for the Cold War. The winds of change in Persia (Iran) blew up a 47-year storm of swirling politics, coups, and outside interference. A quick timeline provides perspective:
1906: Mozaffar o-Din Shah signed the Constitution on December 30, 1906, but died five days later.
1907: An Iranian equivalent of the Bill of Rights provided, within limits, for freedom of press, speech, association, and for the security of life and property. Mohammad Ali Shah took office and attempted to undo the constitution and parliament with Russia’s help. The people were not pleased.
1908: The Shah used his Persian Cossacks Brigade, led by Russian officers to bombard the Majles (parliament) building and close down the government.
1909: Mohammad Ali Shah was deposed and fled to Russia.
1910: The Shah attempted a come-back. Russia and England split the baby when they implemented the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907; the Russians operated with free reign in the North and the British in the South.
1911: Morgan Shuster, a U.S. lawyer hired by the Iranian parliament as treasurer general, tried to collect taxes from the Russians in their northern partition of Iran. It didn’t work even when he sent in the police. Afraid of a Russian takeover, the Bakhtiari tribe acted first and ruled through their chiefs.
1914-1918: Iran was occupied by Russian, British, and Ottoman troops.
1921: A coup d’état created havoc, again.
1925: Reza Shah Pahlavi rose to power as one of the leaders of the coup d’état. He had high hopes for a prosperous Iran and a good idea of how to get there through building including large-scale industries, major infrastructure projects such as railroads, a national public education system, a reformed judiciary, and improving health care. Unfortunately, he was also brutal and dictatorial. Reza Shah managed to infuriate his people and alienate both Soviet and British empires.
1935: Persia officially became Iran.
1941: Reza Shah Pahlavi was arrested and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, took the throne. Reza Shah’s Trans-Iranian Railroad was built and operational, however. The British and Soviets used their WWII alliance and rumors of the Shah’s deals with Hitler as an excuse to get rid of the problematic Reza Shah Pahlavi to take control of the new railroad.
1942: The U.S. sent the military into Iran to maintain and operate the railroad. Britain and the Soviets signed an agreement to withdraw from Iran right after the war ended (about six months).
1946: The U.S. finally withdrew its troops.
1949: An attempt to assassinate the Shah failed and the perpetrators’ party, the Tudeh communist party, was banned. The Shah expanded his powers and reform was in the air.
1951: Iran nationalized the oil industry, and Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was elected prime minister.
1953: The CIA’s Operation AJAX in cahoots with an Iranian general overthrew Mossadegh who quickly became the poster child for Iranian nationalism.
An idealist, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was 72-years old in 1953. He believed in a free Iran and held on through the twists and turns of the death throes of the absolute monarchy from the time he was a very young man in 1906. Elected to the Majles (Parliament) at 21, he studied political science in Tehran and Paris. He returned to Europe to obtain a Law degree in Switzerland so becoming the first man in Iran to be a lawyer. Mossadegh fought corruption in the Finance Ministry resulting in the indictment of several officials in 1919. He fought tirelessly for the democratic rights of Iranians and fiercely for Iran’s economic freedom for which he engineered the nationalization of the oil industry. Mossadegh said, “The moral aspect of oil nationalization
is more important than its economic impact.” Mossadegh was a nationalist whose passion was fanned by idealism for Iran’s independence, freedom, and democracy. And that brought him head-to-head with the U.S. CIA. Mossadegh’s nationalistic idealism was mistaken for communism and that was enough to ignite Operation TP-AJAX led by senior CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of the late U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
Rumors about CIA involvement circulated for years. New York Times journalist James
Risen confirmed the rumors when he published a CIA document regarding Operation TP-AJAX in Secrets of History the CIA in Iran during April and June, 2000. Risen summarizes:
- Britain, fearful of Iran’s plans to nationalize its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the United States to mount a joint operation to remove the prime minister.
- The C.I.A. and S.I.S., the British intelligence service, handpicked Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and covertly funneled $5 million to General Zahedi’s regime two days after the coup prevailed.
- Iranians working for the C.I.A. and posing as Communists harassed religious leaders and staged the bombing of one cleric’s home in a campaign to turn the country’s Islamic religious community against Mossadegh’s government.
- The shah’s cowardice nearly killed the C.I.A. operation. Fearful of risking his throne, the Shah repeatedly refused to sign C.I.A.-written royal decrees to change the government. The agency arranged for the shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlevi, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Desert Storm commander, to act as intermediaries to try to keep him from wilting under pressure. He still fled the country just before the coup succeeded.
The CIA Operation TP-AJAX toppled Iran’s legally elected government and returned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to the throne. The U.S.’s Operation TP-AJAX succeeded, but the price was high; the U.S. suffered great loss of moral capital and earned the enmity of Iran’s people. During the planning and execution of Operation TP-AJAX, President Eisenhower was fully briefed and consented to the operation by his silence. At page 134 in Stephen Kinzer’s book about Allen and Foster Dulles, The Brothers, he states, “…On April 4, exactly one month after Eisenhower gave Operation Ajax his tacit approval, Allen signed an order approving the expenditure of $1 million to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” Never before had an official of the United States government approved such an order. The chain of command was elegantly direct: from the president to the secretary of state to his brother, the director of central
Under the Shah, Iran became a police state scrutinized by the brutal SAVAK secret police. Dissenters and political opponents were jailed and often tortured. On the other hand, many different religious affiliations were tolerated. Under the Shah the economy and middle class grew in size and number. Women were freer. The chador or hijab (the full-body veil) was outlawed and women were encouraged to obtain university educations and jobs outside the home. The modernization and underlying police state rankled many and by the 1970s full-scale rebellion was in the air.
“People poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, chanting “Marg bar Shah” or “Death to the Shah,” and “Death to America!” Middle class Iranians, leftist university students, and Islamist supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini united to demand the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. From October of 1977 to February of 1979, the people of Iran called for the end of the monarchy – but they didn’t necessarily agree on what should replace it.” About Education
The final stretch to the overthrow of the Shah began in August 1978 when about 400 people died in a movie theater fire in Abadan. Islamists were furious about several reforms and particularly incensed about the new freedoms for women were later suspected of starting the blaze, but at the time there was a burst of propaganda blaming the SAVAK. Anti-government emotions ran high and in February 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini, an ardent Shia Muslim, returned to Iran from his exile in France. The Shah, who was terminally ill, was safely extracted from Iran at the urging of Henry Kissinger who interceded on the Shah’s behalf with President Carter. Khomeini called for the dissolution of the Bakhtiari government, vowing “I shall kick their teeth in.” and he did.
The Ayatollah Khomeini did not forget President Carter’s actions to save the Shah. History.com summarizes:
“On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in
Tehran, taking more than 60 American 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. The students set their hostages free on January 21, 1981, 444 days after the crisis began and just hours after President Ronald Reagan delivered his inaugural address. Many historians believe that hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term as president.”
It was a busy 1979 in Iran. By the end of October 1979, Iran had a new constitution, CONSTITUTION OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC, which supplemented and modified the 1907 Constitution. Actually, the supplements largely erased the freedoms protected in the 1907 constitution. The ruse, however, kept and still keeps the illusion of the government’s legitimacy alive. What began as an experiment in freedom became a mind-numbing theocracy born by the long-suffering Iranian people. Lisa Reynolds Wolf, published an excellent article entitled SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR IN COLD WAR IRAN on the Cold War Studies site. Wolf concludes, “…Low job growth, the increasing population burden, and low productivity have combined to effect a 47% decline of gross domestic product between 1979 and 1987. This decrease has had a disproportionate impact on the poorer sections of society. Not only did the poor have less money to spend, but their numbers are expanding….Absolute poverty increased 43% over the 1979-1985 time period with over 65% of the population falling beneath the poverty line. Even more telling, wealth disparity greatly increased, with the number of billionaires expanding from about 100 families in the revolutionary years to over 900 families in the post-revolutionary period…”
Iranian culture is complex and deeply ingrained. Iran’s effort to extricate itself and evolve into the Anglosphere was painfully, perhaps finally, trounced by the U.S. and British in 1953. Firmly pounded back into the medieval Islamic bottle, who knows when Iran may try again. For the U.S. and its negotiators the JCPOA is a reap what you sow deal. Whether
or not one ascribes to the Bible, its words offer good advice, Proverbs 16:18 – Pride [goeth] before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. President Woodrow Wilson wanted a seat at the world table and used the bodies of our soldiers in Europe during WWI to buy the chair. Along with the power served at the adult table comes responsibility. In many instances, like Iran and Vietnam, the U.S. took the power and left responsibility at the door. The U.S. government would do well to study and understand history. Neither Iran nor the U.S. should be trusted with the JCPOA. What’s up with Iran’s current tests of long range missile delivery systems? Maybe it’s to measure the effects of global warming?
Author’s Note: My University indoctrination during the 1980s was a real education. One of my colleagues included a delightfully sophisticated nephew of the deposed Shah of Iran trying to avoid assassination. He, his siblings, and his mother, together with some money left Iran in 1978. His father, a doctor, was one of the last to leave. Banisadr released from jail and he left Iran on foot that night in what he was wearing. He escaped across the border into Turkey. A few of my other friends were died in the wool university intellectuals playing communists who marched to demand of the Shah’s execution.