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Powell writes: "In 1957, CIA secret agents helped the Shah establish SAVAK. Originally, this was intended to be an intelligence-gathering agency, but soon its mission became to help the Shah's friends and destroy his enemies. If widely-published reports are to be believed, SAVAK had as many as 60,000 secret agents, informers and collaborators. SAVAK's interrogation methods were said to include rape, extracting fingernails and attaching high voltage power lines to genitals."

The Shah of Iran at his ambassador's residence in London in 1972. (photo: PA)
The Shah of Iran at his ambassador's residence in London in 1972. (photo: PA)

How Did Our Friend Iran Become Our Enemy?

By Jim Powell, Forbes

27 December 11


This is an excellent primer on the full scope of the relationship between modern Iran and the US, and on the various historical animosities that remain ever-present in Iranian politics, but remain mostly unknown among the American people. - JPS/RSN


efore the United States goes to war with Iran, as many Americans seem anxious to do, we should first understand how Iran became our implacable enemy. U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Carter viewed Iran as our friend. The CIA didn't see this coming, and neither did our State Department.

The story goes back to the early days of World War II. In 1941, Great Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran, because the ruler, Reza Shah, seemed incapable of countering Nazi influence. They forced him to resign. He surrendered his wealth that included multi-million dollar bank accounts, some 2,000 villages as well as myriad other properties that he had expropriated. Reza Shah's son Mohammad Reza Pahlevi was installed as Iran's political leader, because he appeared likely to do the bidding of the Allies. He became the Shah and served as a constitutional monarch with very limited powers.

After the war and the humiliating invasions, an Iranian nationalist movement clamored to eliminate foreign intervention in their country. Great Britain withdrew its forces, but the Soviets stalled. Extended negotiations resulted in an agreement that an Iranian-Soviet oil company would be established. Soviet forces eventually withdrew, in part, because U.S. President Harry Truman sent a stern warning to Moscow. Nationalists orchestrated demonstrations against the proposed Soviet oil deal, and it was rejected.

Then nationalists targeted the British government-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that monopolized oil production. There were negotiations aimed at increasing Iran's share of oil revenues, but the company refused. Britain was desperate to maximize its oil revenues, because of its dire financial situation after World War II. The ambitious intriguer General Haj-Ali Razmara, who favored the British, was assassinated — a warning to those who defied Iranian nationalism.

The wily nationalist Mohammed Mosaddeq emerged as leader of the campaign against the oil company. The Shah favored nationalization, and despite British threats, he nominated Mosaddeq as prime minister in April 1951. Mosaddeq cancelled Britain's right to extract oil from Iran and ordered the seizure of its assets. The company shut down the refineries, withdrew their employees, oil production collapsed, and British navy blockaded Iran's ports, throttling the export of oil or the import of food. Diplomatic relations with Britain were severed.

Economic crisis led to political turmoil. Mosaddeq demanded more power, especially control of finances and the military. When Mosaddeq wasn't pushing the British for an acceptable deal, he was trying to undermine the Shah's position in the government by excluding him from meetings and preventing other politicians from contacting him. From time to time, Mosaddeq flirted with the Tudeh (Iranian communist) party or even the Soviet Union as he maneuvered among his political rivals. Meanwhile, Mosaddeq pursued Soviet-style expropriation of landed estates, and he established collective farms. As negotiations with the British dragged on, the Iranian economy deteriorated, and the Tudeh party displayed its strength by organizing riots and strikes.

Crowds began denouncing Mosaddeq, and the Shah became weary of Mosaddeq's constant scheming. On August 19, 1953, the Shah boldly dismissed him. Amidst escalating violence, the Shah fled to Iraq. While he was gone, loyal General Fazlollah Zahedi restored order and made it safe for the Shah to return. He demanded to be involved in political and administrative decisions. He insisted on exclusive control of the military. He gained supreme power in his country. Mosaddeq was imprisoned.

Diplomatic relations with Britain were restored, Britain's Iranian oil monopoly ended, and Iran offered a financial settlement for nationalized properties. The Iranian government began to receive oil revenue again.

Well, it turned out that the uprising against Mosaddeq and the pro-Shah military maneuvers were organized by British and CIA secret agents. A major concern was that Iran might be drawn into the Soviet orbit. Only a few years earlier, Soviet mass murderer Josef Stalin had seized control of Eastern Europe, and the Chinese mass murderer Mao Zedong had converted his country into a totalitarian communist state.

If a communist takeover in Iran was as serious a threat as feared, the coup might be considered successful. But for the rest of his days, the Shah was viewed as a tool of Western interests - and to a significant degree, he was. Moreover, as far as many people were concerned, by installing and continuing to support the Shah, the U.S. as well as Great Britain implicitly bought into his policies. Certainly U.S. presidents and other Cold War friends of the Shah were very discreet about publicly criticizing him.

This was a risky thing to do, because many seemingly stable governments collapsed amidst unexpected coups and revolutions. For instance, in 1952 Egyptian colonel Gamal Abdel Nassar led a revolution toppling the Muhammad Ali monarchy that had ruled Egypt since 1905 - far longer than the Iranian monarchy the Shah's father had started in 1925. Nassar promoted a witches' brew of nationalism and socialism. Then in 1958, the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, which King Faisal I had established in 1921, was overthrown in a military coup led by Brigadier General Abd alaKarim Qasim. The king, a prince and three princesses were gunned down. In 1960, Turkey's democratically-elected government was overthrown by a military coup.

The Shah was determined to consolidate his power and establish a police state. "My father's dictatorship was necessary," he was quoted as saying, "and my authoritarianism is also necessary." He paid off journalists and established a newspaper that could be counted on to portray him and his policies in glowing colors. The Iranian constitution was amended to increase the Shah's power. It established a new senate with 60 members, half of whom were appointed by the Shah. He responded to demands for free elections by picking at least two candidates for each elective office, then letting voters choose between them. Police observed as people cast their votes in open ballot boxes.

In 1957, CIA secret agents helped the Shah establish SAVAK. Originally, this was intended to be an intelligence-gathering agency, but soon its mission became to help the Shah's friends and destroy his enemies. If widely-published reports are to be believed, SAVAK had as many as 60,000 secret agents, informers and collaborators. SAVAK's interrogation methods were said to include rape, extracting fingernails and attaching high voltage power lines to genitals. Historian Gholam Reza Afkhami remarked: "SAVAK was more successful in antagonizing the supporters of the regime than in neutralizing its enemies."

The Shah strongly believed in a government-run economy. He insisted that government must control prices and that "key" industries must be government monopolies. He was determined to limit the accumulation of private sector wealth that could enable people to challenge his regime. He expropriated landed estates. He seized Iran's only private TV network, the oldest private university and the most valuable private mine, among other private assets. From the standpoint of victims whose property was stolen, the Shah must have been hard to distinguish from a hardcore socialist or communist.

"The Shah had a statist vision of the economy where the state could and should become an economic leviathan," observed Stanford University historian Abbas Milani. The Shah practiced corrupt crony capitalism on a colossal scale. A British Embassy study revealed there were "few branches of economic activity" that eluded the greedy hands of the Shah, his family and friends. They owned businesses in "banking, publishing, wholesale and retail trading, shipping, construction work, hotels, agricultural development and even housing." The Shah reportedly had a partainterest in cement, fertilizer and beet sugar production, as well as grain marketing. The Shah was a valued partner, because he could clear away regulatory obstacles that plagued entrepreneurs who lacked royal connections. But all this wasn't enough. The Shah and his cronies amassed even more loot simply by stiffing vendors with unpaid bills.

As a consequence of such statism and profligacy, the Iranian government was for many years in bad shape financially - despite all the oil. That's why the Shah repeatedly pitched American officials for cash. He complained that Iran didn't receive as much U.S. aid as Turkey or Pakistan. He wrote a long letter to President John F. Kennedy, pleading that Iran was "in need of assistance which only America can furnish." By continuing to bankroll the Shah and collaborate with him on military matters, the U.S. effectively supported his policies, helping to make his enemies our enemies.

During the 1960s, the Shah began to make enemies among Shia clerics. The traditional practice was for officials to take an oath of office with the Qur'an, like Western officials who used the Bible, but the Shah decided that various religious minorities could use their own holy books. Clerics were outraged. They insisted on the supremacy of the Qur'an. Moreover, the Shah believed that women should be able to vote and hold public office. The clerics were against this, even though women's ballots weren't counted.

Among those outraged was Ayatollah Khomeini, the same cleric who was to play a leading role in the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah. He slighted Khomeini by addressing him as "Hojat-al Islam," a lower rank in the Muslim religious hierarchy. The Shah was angry when clerics joined landowners to form organized political opposition. The Shah denounced the "little, empty and antique" clerics who tried to prevent Iran from becoming a modern nation. Khomeini, enraged, reached out to a rapidly expanding Muslim underground network that included terrorists plotting against the Shah. In 1965, there was another attempted coup and assassination. The Shah's armed forces killed some 200 people during Tehran riots. The Shah blamed those riots on Khomeini.

When the Shah visited the United States during the 1970s, he encountered large numbers of Iranian students protesting his oppressive regime. Historian Milani reported that the Shah "would never again travel to a Western European or American city without the specter of student demonstrations haunting him." Meanwhile, the political opposition gathered momentum at home. Dr. Yahya Adle, one of the Shah's friends, reportedly warned him: "You can't keep your throne afloat on a river of blood."

The Iranian businessman Abolhassan Ebtehaj gave a talk at Stanford University, warning that although the U.S. government had given the Shah's government more than a billion dollars, the U.S. was "neither loved nor respected." He explained, "where the recipient government is corrupt, the donor government very understandably appears in the judgment of the public to support corruption."

Major demonstrations against the Shah began in October 1977. They intensified in January 1978 and were followed by strikes that substantially shut down the Iranian economy. The Shah fled the country in January 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini, his nemesis since the early 1960s, emerged as the principal leader of the revolution and the theocratic successor regime that appears to be even more oppressive than the Shah's. Evidently the CIA and State Department failed to anticipate this upheaval because they had limited contacts with people in movements opposing the Shah.

Americans were stunned when suddenly, as it seemed, their Iranian "friend" became a bitter enemy, but political opposition had been gathering momentum for more than two decades as the Shah made more and more enemies. Middle class people disgusted at the blatant corruption of the Shah, his family and his cronies, Shia clerics offended by the Shah's arrogance and secular policies, families outraged because loved ones were tortured or murdered by SAVAK, businessmen who became weary of competing against the Shah's insiders with special privileges, landowners who suffered from expropriation, students who embraced revolutionary ideas - all wanted the Shah gone. It didn't help that former CIA secret agent Kermit Roosevelt bragged about his 1953 exploits orchestrating the downfall of Mosaddeq, thereby enabling the Shah to establish his dictatorship.

To be sure, the Shah did much to help the U.S. thwart Soviet aggression in the Middle East, but Iranian nationalists were bound to resist Soviet aggression as they previously resisted the Soviet and British presence in Iranian oil fields. If the Shah had been on his own, undoubtedly he would have resisted another Soviet challenge to his power - he didn't want to be somebody else's lackey. If the Soviets had conquered Iran, higher oil prices would have stimulated more production and exploration, increasing oil supplies, so global markets would have resolved the oil issue. In addition, the larger the Soviet empire became - it already extended across 11 time zones - the more over-extended and vulnerable it was. Ultimately, of course, the Soviet Union collapsed, as the over-extended empires of Napoleon and Hitler had collapsed before.

Soviet aggression was a serious risk, but a nationalist backlash was a serious risk, too. The Shah's enemies became America's enemies, since the U.S. played a principal role sustaining the power of the Shah. As if this weren't enough, Washington doubled down by backing another dictator - Iraq's Saddam Hussein - in an effort to check Iran's power. A reported 300,000 Iranians were killed and perhaps another 700,000 Iranians were injured in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). So, when the U.S. intervened in Iran and Iraq, it backed two dictators and ended up having to deal with two more enemies! Now that Iran is scrambling to develop a nuclear capability, it's hard to see how potentially lethal hatreds could be defused.

By now, we ought to understand that it's dangerous to view the making of enemies as something that can be satisfactorily resolved later. Hatreds, once provoked, have persisted for decades or even hundreds of years after people lost loved ones, surrendered territories or were otherwise humiliated by their enemies. In Ireland, Germany, the Balkans, the Mideast and elsewhere, hatreds have led to chronic, explosive violence.

We need a national defense strong enough to deter attacks, together with a foreign policy that involves less intervention overseas. Intervention and war ought to be the exception, not the rule.

Jim Powell, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of FDR's Folly, Bully Boy, Wilson's War, Greatest Emancipations, Gnomes of Tokyo, The Triumph of Liberty and other books. your social media marketing partner


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+20 # RMDC 2011-12-27 19:04
The US has never tolerated a nationalist government anywhere in the post-colonial world. Any leader who like Mossedeq, Qaddafi, Chavez, and so on who says that the oil wealth of the nation belongs to the people will eventually be overthrown by the US military or CIA. Don't forget Cheney's comment, "I don't see why god saw fit to put our oil under their sand."

SAVAK was also partly administered by Mossad and other Israeli agencies which were becoming the general purpose torturers of the middle east. Khomeni write about being tortured by Israelis.
+17 # Activista 2011-12-27 20:29
"Soviet Union collapsed, as the over-extended empires of Napoleon and Hitler had collapsed before"
could add -
USA is collapsing, as the over-extended empires of Napoleon, Hitler, and Soviet Union had collapsed before.
+4 # John Locke 2011-12-28 17:49
Activista: Yes! and we should never forget...
"where the recipient government is corrupt, the donor government very understandably appears in the judgment of the public to support corruption." we have supported and still support every dictator in the world, now maybe we can understand why we are so hated...
+4 # teachnet 2011-12-27 20:34
Forbes and the Cato Institute are hardly credible sources when it comes to US foreign policy. What a propagandist package of lies this is. There's a lot of accurate info on the web. Here are 2 I found quickly for starters:
-2 # Activista 2011-12-27 22:48
It is good to read US view - Soviet Union was expansionist - totalitarian - US motives were the same - generally in Europe it was MUCH better to fall under the USA than under Stalin.
I am glad that RSN is expanding - providing information - not ideology.
Best experts on Marxism were catholic priest - if one wants to defeat something than objective understanding is essential.
0 # hasapiko 2011-12-28 08:16
And the organ of the Revolutionary Communist Party is more credible???
0 # rdittmann 2011-12-28 23:01
Larry Everest is a superb researcher. Like Noam Chomsky, Si Hersch [?], Robert Sheer, Michael Parenti, Greg Palast, I take his analysis and history very seriously. He does his research and is very perceptive. He generally places analysis in a context of class conflict, which seems to have explanatory power, despite the imperial overlay.
+11 # Activista 2011-12-27 23:06
" the covert operation soon went into full swing, conducted from US Embassy in Tehran under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.. Agents were hired to facilitate VIOLENCE; and, as a result, protests broke out across the nation. Anti- and pro-monarchy protestors violently clashed in the streets, leaving almost 300 dead. The operation was successful in triggering a coup, and within days, pro-Shah tanks stormed the capital and bombarded the Prime Minister's residence. Mossadegh surrendered, and was arrested on 19 August 1953. He was tried for treason, and sentenced to three years in prison."
from the history of CIA/Iran - Libya, Syria is Déjà vu - same old tricks/details Forbes forgot to mention in detail..
+10 # wilkinsb 2011-12-28 01:11
Mossadeq was elected by the voters of Iran in a proper democratic election and as in Guatemala was overthrown directly by covert operations of the CIA.
+7 # maddave 2011-12-28 01:55
Part 1 -
Activista is spot on vis-a-vis his Iranian history, and Mr Powell (deliberately?) overlooked the UK's imperious attitude & actions manifested in its operation of Anglo Iranian Oil (AIO).

Following the age of sail & coal, AIO became the primary fuel source for its navy. However, the Imperial Brits, as is their wont, took complete control of AIO & excluded Iranians from all significant managerial positions. They doled out Iran's "fair share" of profits but denied Iranians access to - much less an audit of - the Company books. Understandably, this was a serious & growing irritant which gave rise to Iranian ire and Nationalism.
Cutting to the chase: Despite UK opposition/agit ation, democratic elections were held & Mossaddeq was elected on a pledge to "right the wrongs" within AIO, The UK refused to negotiate, so AIO & its assets were nationalized & the Brits were expelled.

Recognizing their predicament, the UK asked the USA to intervene, but Harry Truman refused - repeatedly. Upon his election, Pres. Eisenhower reversed HST's decisions, and the newly-unleashed CIA dispatched Kermit Roosevelt as an agent provocateur. His espionage & sabotage campaign are worthy of a book in their own right, and bottom line: he deposed Mossaddeq, installed & financed the new (puppet) government and returned AIO to the UK for business as usual, anti-CIA!.
(See next box)
+8 # maddave 2011-12-28 02:48
Part 2 -
Errata for Part 1 - make that "Mr. Forbes" vice "Mr.Powell"

In 1953, we set up the Shah, and we organized/train ed SAVAK. Subsequently, our respective oil & arms industries enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship.

Granted, the Shah was a greedy dictator, but he was "OUR" greedy dictator. That he alienated the Iranian people was another matter entirely. This led to the late 70s' Khomeini revolution, which we immediately denounced. The resulting hostage crisis is generally perceived as "the start of our problems with Iran", but that presumption is off by 15+ years & holds the wrong people responsible!

For the next 30+ years - whether from Israel or Iraq - we had a thumb constantly in Iran's eye, and now we are amazed, offended and outraged over Iran's apparent intention to go nuclear . . . perhaps to counterbalance Israel's existing, US facilitated nuclear arsenal?

IF THERE IS TO BE PEACE WITH IRAN, I propose it begin with President Obama's bravely making the following proposal to the Iranian people:
"We acknowledge that mistakes have been made, but it is now time for Iran & the USA to to put the past behind us and seek peace. In order to facilitate this dream, I suggest that we meet, place all issues on the table and negotiate as equals - with the mutual goal of lasting peace in the Middle East." or words to that affect.

(Read "All the Shah's Men" - AMAZON)
+3 # hasapiko 2011-12-28 08:22
Don't know if you've noticed, but states NEVER acknowledge their mistakes in public.
And with respect to nucear weapons, Iran after all, is surrounded by states with nukes - Israel on the west, Russia north, Pakistan east and US (Diego Garcia) south. Perhaps Iran is more nervous about Pakistani nuclear weapons rather than Israeli ones?
+8 # RMDC 2011-12-28 09:02
Activista -- you are exactly right. "CIA/Iran - Libya, Syria is Daja vu"

The violence and killings we are seeing in Syria are mostly done by CIA mercenaries. It is only our media who blames them on Assad and the Syrian government, just as they did in Iran in the 50s and have done ever since.

The CIA has become so proficient in creating violence and chaos in any nation they choose to overthrow that we hardly notice their presence.

The current head of the CIA David Patraeus is a specialist in this kind of war. He calls it "counterinsurge ncy war" but it is really "insurgency war" and death squads.
+5 # Guy 2011-12-28 10:22
All in all ,the past 100 year's history is mostly about the USA and Britain meddling in other country's affairs and controlling what the general population thinks and believes.
Very few people ,such as the ones that read articles in RSN,Truthout ,ICH and other organizations that instil discussions , are informed.
What a web of lies ,and soo many people have died ,for what? Imperialism,greed,power?
I do hope that there is something to the Mayan prophesy that,2012 will be a year of transformation for the world.Personall y I am tired of the lies and the needless deaths.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”Jimi Hendrix
+8 # reiverpacific 2011-12-28 10:53
Thanks to those of you who pointed out the most glaring omission in this article which briefly and conveniently passed quickly over the Anglo-US engineered coup by Churchill/Eden/ Eisenhower (after Truman spurned the original approach by the UK) using Kermit Roosevelt as the field agent provocateur and fomenter.
THAT'S the crux of the problem with Iran and it's been fermenting and growing ever since: so now we have a heavily entrenched theocracy.
And remember Bush the elder making a deal to have the Embassy hostages held over until Jimmy Carter's defeat was assured in favor of Reagan?
Britain is probably even more hated that the US by the Iranians old and young for this long-standing hurt and destruction of the potential for Democracy in Persia and possibly spreading to a significant part of the now mostly theocratic Middle East; perhaps even making Israel less needy and dependent on the US, without feeling the necessity for nuclear weapons (but that is purely speculation).
This is an example of "selective" history and very disappointing in it's content.
Read "All The Sha's Men" by Stephen Kinzer for the details; it will repay your curiosity and research.
-4 # Khan baba 2011-12-28 14:33
There would be no trouble if Iran was friends with Israel and didnot support groups which oppose Jews Right to live on Arab lands ...all other issues are unimportant..
+3 # Sandy G 2011-12-28 14:57
Anybody out there ever hear the expression: 'He may be a son of a bitch, but he's OUR son of a bitch. Its the HMBASOB-BHOSOB form of American diplomatic protocol.
+2 # reiverpacific 2011-12-28 16:53
Quoting Sandy G:
Anybody out there ever hear the expression: 'He may be a son of a bitch, but he's OUR son of a bitch. Its the HMBASOB-BHOSOB form of American diplomatic protocol.

Yep; It was used to support Saddam Hussein when convenient too (Remember that famous photo of ol' Rummy warmly shaking his mitt?).
+2 # ojkelly 2011-12-28 17:39
'I'll never engage in creating kings again: it's too great a strain.'
Gertrude bell, 1921. The Kings were all entroned by Brits as phony national lesders who were all on the UK payroll. The only one still about is Jordan havibng dropped the "trans" of TransJordan, some "king". The Saudi beat the British "hashemite" puppet outk, the rest went down as indicated. The "mandates" took the rest, the French crsted a "country" Lebanon, to have a majority and the Frankish general touchingly noted , "Saladin. we have returned " or some such. The whole mid east is a British colonial concoction , including Israel which is viewed as a colonial imposition a la South Viet Nam was a direct sucessor of the French Indo china,and has no legitmacy to the native born.
+1 # Kootenay Coyote 2011-12-29 10:42
Compared to the Soviet Influence issue, not enough is made here of the British & US Influence issue, beginning with Churchill about the time of WW I, of securing absolute access to Iranian petroleum.

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