In Washington, the hawks and vultures are beginning to gaze at Iran with greed-filled eyes. The British attack dog is barking and straining at the leash. And the Israeli ambassador to the United States has helpfully suggested that the onward march of the American Empire should not be brought to a premature halt in Baghdad. Teheran beckons, and then there is always Damascus. The only argument summoned by the blood-mottled “doves” is that the occupation of Iraq should be sufficient to bring the Iranian mullahs to heel. Naturally, this latter view does not satisfy the would-be Shah or his followers in Los Angeles. The Young Pretender is appearing regularly on the BBC and CNN these days, desperate to please and a bit too eager to mimic his father and grandfather. Might the empire put him back on the Peacock Throne? And, if so, how long would he last?

Neither party appears to be aware of all the recent traumas suffered by Iran or the fact that this is a nation and a people with a historical memory, something its poets have helped to preserve. But Iran has not forgotten that it was the United States and Britain that utilized king and cleric to bring about the regime change fifty years ago that destroyed Iran’s fledgling democracy.

When Ahmad Shamlu–the most gifted of modern Iranian poets–died in 2000, more than 100,000 people, young and old, marched in dignified columns behind his funeral cortege while crowds lined the pavements to sing his poetry and emphasize that hope was still alive. At various times Shamlu, whose life mirrored the ups and downs of Iranian politics, had described his country as “a land where no birds sing, where spring never comes…a prison so huge that the soul weeps tears of shame at its own impotence.”

It was not always thus. There were short periods in the history of twentieth-century Iran when breakthroughs appeared possible. On each occasion the mass movements for change were either usurped or defeated. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 shook the corrupt and degenerate Qajar dynasty, whose kings had virtually sold the country to the tobacco and oil interests of the British Empire. A parliament (Majlis) came into existence. It was accompanied in some regions by a peasant revolt against tax collectors and landlords, the only indigenous mainstay of the monarchy. Pro-democracy newspapers appeared, and Iranian intellectuals began to relish the modernist breezes blowing from Paris and Petrograd. Their relations with the clerics, some of whom had supported the constitutional upheaval, became increasingly tense. The court exploited these divisions and after a few years monarchist landlords, courtiers and state bureaucrats effectively sidelined the revolutionary democrats in the Majlis.

Not everything remained the same, however. In 1910, a young mullah named Ahmad Kasravi observed Halley’s comet from the roof of his house in Tabriz. He was seduced by the “star with a tail.” His curious mind did not rest till he had understood the mysteries of the universe and embraced “godless science.” Kasravi decided to enter the citadel of reason. His celebrated books and essays were carefully constructed polemics against ignorance and the Shiite orthodoxy that encouraged it. His plea for wide-ranging reforms (including rights for women) angered the clerics. The mullahs accused him of heresy and apostasy, and in 1946 he was brought to trial for “slandering Islam,” but his detractors did not wait for the verdict. He was shot dead in open court, an early martyr in the struggle against obscurantism.

The Shah and his British advisers had crushed the Constitutional Revolution, but the death agony of the dynasty could not be long postponed. The last Shah of the Qajar dynasty was soon removed by a military coup led by Reza Khan, a semiliterate officer of an old Cossack regiment, which had been created by czarist Russia and officered by Russians to protect the Qajar ruler and Russian interests. Following the 1917 revolution, the regiment lost its officers, who were replaced by locals. In 1921 the Soviet government denounced the “tyrannical policy” of the czars, canceled the Persian debt and renounced all concessions and extraterritorial privileges that had been accorded to the ancien régime. These unilateral renunciations highlighted the imperial depredations of the British and encouraged nationalism even inside the old Cossack regiment. That same year Reza Khan marched his troops to Teheran and took control. He was appointed minister of war. Four years later, he ordered the Majlis to abolish the Qajar dynasty.

Reza had been inspired by the example of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, who had foiled imperial designs and created a modern, independent state. But whereas Atatürk had abolished the Caliphate and declared Turkey a republic, his Persian impersonator, prone to flattery and corruption, had himself crowned king, with the hearty approval of the British. His halfhearted reforms were at best partial solutions that did little to alter the basically oppressive system. Reza antagonized the mullahs–who were sometimes publicly flogged–as well as the modernists. Like many dictators, he could read a subversive, antigovernment message in the most innocent of texts. Democratization was actively discouraged.

It was Reza’s wartime fondness for the Third Reich (the country’s name was changed from Persia to Iran on the suggestion of the embassy in Berlin, since Iran was “the birthplace of the Aryan race”) that led to his downfall. Not unreasonably, the British found this inconvenient. In 1941 they dumped Reza Khan and sent him into exile. His incompetent and weak-minded son, Mohammad Reza, was put on the throne. The new boy-Shah never forgot what had been done to his father. He learned the lesson that the key to a satrap’s success lay in never crossing swords with his patron.

The wartime occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union and their rivalry had created the space for the emergence of currents old and new: secular democratic nationalism and pro-Soviet Communism. The nationalists recalled the Constitutional Revolution and favored the immediate withdrawal of all the occupying armies and genuine political and economic independence for their country. Their leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, had, despite his birth (he was the son of a Qajar princess), always refused to do the bidding of the court. He resisted Reza Shah’s autocracy, refusing to serve him in any capacity and suffering the consequences. Now, after the war, he fought for the independence of his country. For him this meant the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iranian Azerbaijan and the nationalization of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

The Communists of the Tudeh Party, for their part, while strongly opposed to the British presence, saw no contradiction between this and their blind defense of Soviet interests. Mossadegh alone stood for Iran, and many Tudeh members and supporters were compelled to back him. The political zigzags this entailed weakened the party’s support in the population as a whole and its credibility among nationalist intellectuals. Despite this, the Tudeh Party continued to attract some of the finest intellectuals in Iran to its ranks.

Stephen Kinzer’s new book, All the Shah’s Men, is an ode to Mossadegh, the blue-blooded politician whose integrity, coupled with his dedication to the political and economic sovereignty of his country, won him the support of his people–especially the poor in town and country–and the enmity of two powers, the decaying British Empire and its upstart American rival and replacement. Not that the two shared common economic interests. As early as 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull was writing to Roosevelt that apart from the “humanitarian” reasons to counterbalance Soviet and British influence in the region, there was a “more directly selfish point of view,” which meant that “no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia.”

Accordingly, US military missions began to arrive in Iran from 1942 onward. The aim was clear: to transform Iran’s ragtag army into a tough instrument that could defend imperial interests in the region. But there were two major imperial powers, and as British dependence on the United States grew with every passing month of the war, they had little option but to agree to the ever-increasing US presence that had penetrated Kurdistan and Azerbaijan as early as 1943.

Then, as now, rivalries between competing government departments in Washington sometimes hampered the overall project, but it was obvious to London that the United States would one day dominate Iran. (The single best account of US-Iranian relations remains James Bill’s The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, which should be required reading for Foggy Bottom.)

Mossadegh’s stubborn nationalism ignited a mass mobilization that led to the flight of a frightened ruler in 1953 and the nationalization of an oil industry whose workers were treated like slaves. Kinzer (a longtime reporter for the New York Times) quotes an Israeli manager who worked alongside Iranian workers at the Abadan oil refinery and wrote in the Jerusalem Post:

They lived during the seven hot months of the year under the trees…. In winter these masses moved into big halls, built by the company, housing up to 3,000-4,000 people without walls of partition between them. Each family occupied the space of a blanket. There were no lavatories…. In debates with British colleagues we often tried to show them the mistake they were making in treating the Persians the way they did. The answer was usually: “We English have had hundreds of years of experience on how to treat the Natives. Socialism is all right back home, but out here you have to be the master.”

Labour imperialism has a long pedigree, even though these days socialism isn’t all right even back home and there is, of course, a new master. Labour Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison was determined to topple Mossadegh, but he was out of his depth. He assumed that gunboats and gurkhas would do the trick, but Harry Truman vetoed the adventure. His ambassador sent a dispatch arguing that Mossadegh “has the backing of 95 to 98 percent of the people of this country. It is utter folly to try to push him out.”

It was only after the victory of Dwight Eisenhower that an agenda of permanent counterrevolution (the predecessor of the current National Security Strategy) was implemented by the Brothers Dulles, and only then did Operation Ajax get under way. The secular democracy instituted by Mossadegh’s National Front was destabilized by British and American intelligence operatives. Kinzer has carefully reconstructed the entire operation, paying great attention to the details and the personalities of the principals. Much of what he writes was well established many years ago. What is remarkable is that nobody now bothers to deny what took place, leading one to ask whether it will be fifty years before we are told that both Bush and Blair knew perfectly well that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction. At one point Kinzer is mildly critical of Mossadegh for not appreciating American fears of the Soviet threat and reacting accordingly. This goes against the grain of the book. Mossadegh’s argument in his own defense before the Shah’s kangaroo court (quoted approvingly by Kinzer) invalidates any other justification: “My only crime is that I nationalized 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.”

That is why the 1953 CIA coup put the Shah (who had fled to Rome) back on the throne. After his return he began a policy of systematic persecution of liberals, nationalists and Communists. His secret police, SAVAK, devised new forms of torture, and opposition politics was criminalized. A mass migration of sad and depressed intellectuals fled the country to organize resistance from Europe and North America. Inside Iran only the doors of the mosque remained open. Gradually the mosque became the only arena where opposition to the Shah could be discussed and organized. US backing for the Shah’s dictatorship was complete, and even moderate oppositionists now became extremely hostile to Washington. In 1970, the poet Firaydun Tunakabuni expressed a near-universal view in Memoirs of a Crowded City:

If I were a cartoonist, I would sketch the American in complete military uniform. He has one of his heavy, hobnailed boots on the back of Latin America while the other boot stands on the back of Southeast Asia. His left hand has a black man by the throat….

When the storm finally arose and swept aside the Shah, it was the ayatollahs who took control. They had profited from the vacuum created in 1953. The clerical dictatorship that Khomeini imposed on his country turned out to be every bit as repressive as that of the Shah. The anti-imperialism of the mullahs was always the anti-imperialism of fools. The vision they offered was blurred from the beginning. The differences between Baathist and clerical repression are instructive. Although Saddam crushed all political opposition (liberal, Communist and especially religious), he did not interfere with the everyday life of Iraqis. During the past quarter-century, bars, discotheques and theaters sprouted all over Baghdad. The mullahs attempted to control every aspect of life. The religious police kept a permanent watch on young people, punishing infringements with fines, floggings or prison. This blanket cultural oppression turned large numbers of young people against the regime. Today there is a genuine hatred of the mullahs on the part of a majority of the population (60 percent of whom are under 25 years old), which has known only clerical rule.

Experience, the best of teachers, has educated the people of Iran. Not even all-powerful ayatollahs can override the laws of biology. If left alone the Iranians will get rid of their bearded oppressors in their own way and in their own time. It might even be the dawn of an Islamic Reformation. Certainly the vibrancy of the country’s filmmakers and the clandestine poems and texts that are being circulated are an indication of the change that lies ahead. If the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld team decides to speed up the process, it’s all but certain to create a giant mess that will only strengthen the most backward elements in the country. The interests of the empire rarely coincide with those of the people it is intending to “liberate,” especially when the people know that one reason they are in a mess is because of what the empire did in its own interests fifty years ago.