Operation Iranian Freedom
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."