In the modern theatre of international relations, it is often quite difficult to come to any understanding of how certain disagreements between nations have come to be. Often the cause is reduced to soap opera, using terms like "jealousy" or "hatred". Yet the truth is always more nuanced than mainstream media would have us believe.
Take our current face-off with Iran over nuclear power. The players involved – the US, Britain and Russia – have a shared history that is so complex, so entangled, as to be nearly unbelievable. Yet after reading Stephen Kinzer’s superbly detailed book All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, I feel 1,000% smarter about the current state of affairs not only in Iran, but in the region as a whole. Kinzer himself addressed the BP-Iran link in a June 29th article on the Tom’s Dispatch web site.
The following is an attempt to condense complex information into a length that is easily digestible for this format. I have also included some other sources that support and strengthen Kinzer’s already rock-solid reporting. I urge you all to click through each of the links in the article in order to be more fully educated on the matter. For now I will attempt to compress fifty years of history into a handful of paragraphs...
In 1901, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah, freshly drafted into power in Iran after his unpopular father had been shot to death following years of selling concessions to foreign interests for a fraction of their worth, continued the family tradition by granting a sixty-year oil concession to an Englishman named William Knox D’Arcy. This began a search for oil that would prove fruitless for many years.
Britian and Russia signed an agreement in 1907 to annex the nation, with Russia occupying the North and Britian the South. This patrician arrangement was made without consulting the Iranian government, which was not necessary since it consisted of corrupt men put in place by Britain. (However, in 1917 Russia, under Bolshevik control, relinquished all claims to Iran and canceled their debts.)
When oil was discovered in 1908, it cemented the British policy of imperialist occupation: the investment would finally pay a dividend. The following year saw the establishment of the Anglo-Persian (later Anglo-Iranian) Oil Company, of which the British government bought a 51% interest to the tune of £2 million. Iran was to receive a mere 16% of profits, much of which, by all accounts, were never paid.
By 1919, Britain had seized overt control of Iran’s military, economic, transport and communications systems, imposing martial law. The southern refinery town of Abadan had become the ultimate symbol of exploitation: a worker camp for Iranians, with deplorable sanitation and little privacy, lacking schools for the young. Workers had no rights or recourse and lived in squalor while the British engineers and their families lounged on verandas overlooking manicured lawns, enjoying trips to the swimming pool or to private, British-only lounges. It was extremely reminiscent of colonial India.
After five decades of turmoil during which numerous factions vied for true power but were brutally beaten back either by the puppet Shah and his forces or by cronies paid by the British government, Mohammad Mossadegh, a longtime player in Iranian politics, was voted in as Prime Minister. A dramatic, popular figure with a fascinating history, highly regarded by the Iranian people for his ethical behavior, he was able to introduce the piece of legislation that set off political fireworks in a country that had already seen its share of dramatic developments: the May 1951 nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Britain protested everywhere – to the UN, to the World Court in the Hague and to its closest post-WWII ally, the USA; nothing could shake the world’s sympathy for Iran. Truman saw Iran’s nationalistic fervor as a good sign that it could withstand the spread of communism. Yet Britain controlled much of the distribution of oil in the Middle East, and they were able to use embargos to block Iran from selling any of the oil that they now possessed.
Finally, Truman did not run for re-election and, with Eisenhower in office, the British managed to convince the US intelligence community that Iran was on the verge of turning communist. Overrun with spies, agents provocateurs and men for hire after fifty years of intrigue, Iran was infiltrated by CIA agents, since the British were no longer welcome. Using the classic tools of espionage – propaganda, exploitation of existing internal discord and cold, hard cash - they were able to depose the people’s hero Mossadegh and install the government that would allow them to continue as they saw fit. The US and Britain shared in the spoils: an abundant supply of petrol.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would change its name several times before finally arriving at…BP. But in 1979 the Islamic Revolution arrived, a bloody tidal wave carrying away a long-suffering nation, washing them into isolation, paranoia and intense oppression. The people of Iran have never forgotten the interventions of the US and Britain, and this has informed all of the exchanges between Iran and those two nations.
As Hilary Clinton stressed recently, there will be no letup to US-led sanctions against Iran, although many critics are saying that they do more harm than good because “the people of Iran are taking the strain” while the ruling class remains unscathed. Iran has been under sanctions for 60 years, and Ahmedinejad welcomes the new measures as signs of his regime’s martyrdom.
Meanwhile, Russia has presented a much softer line on Iran relations, going so far as to provide material support to their controversial nuclear program. The IAEA will be closely monitoring the transfer of fuel from Russia to the Bushehr power plant. In light of Russia’s rapprochement to the US, this is highly encouraging news.
I implore you all to follow up this article by reading the posting “BP and the Axis of Evil” by BBC journalist Adam Curtis. There is an 18-minute video called “The First Oil Crisis” that is essential viewing for understanding what happened in this region over the last century. Then put yourselves in the place of the average Iranian citizen: slave to an unfair system, oppressed by a puppet government that is itself lorded over by a bloodthirsty, power-mad imperialist power bent on stealing all of your country’s resources.
It is only through understanding the true context of today’s potential conflicts that we can hope to have any kind of peaceful resolution. Believe it or not, the people of Iran don’t hate us. They just want their own power, on their own terms. Read, listen, learn and understand why.