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Just days before his arrival in New York for the UN General Assembly, advisers to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced their government’s willingness to directly negotiate with the United States in order to end the decade-long nuclear standoff and to remove international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. “We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart,” Rouhani wrote in an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post.
If sincerely pursued, these promising developments have the potential to repair fraught, decades-old cleavages in the American-Iranian relationship. While many on the American right would prefer to believe those frictions began with the Islamist-led revolution of 1979, many Iranians still remember the US-backed coup of 1953 which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically-elected prime minister—its well-known participation in which the CIA only officially acknowledged last month—and how, for decades after, American companies and government officials exploited the Iranian economy and directly assisted in the suppression of its people.
Throughout those decades, Nation writers reported from Iran about the discord, anger, and frustration American meddling had instilled in the Iranian people. After 1979, writers like Kai Bird and the late Fred Halliday reported on the promise and eventual disappointment of the revolution. Reading these articles today, perhaps at the dawn of a new era in Iranian-American relations, gives a sense of how much has gone wrong between the two countries, but also how much could be set right with smart diplomacy and new leadership.
In the September 24, 1960 issue of The Nation, a Fulbright scholar named Stanley Cooperman wrote a remarkable article, “Iran’s False Front,” detailing the extent of American activity in the country and the bitter resentment it was causing among the people. With telling detail and astounding prescience, Cooperman’s article provides a window onto life in Iran during the Shah’s regime and, in hindsight, shows why the revolution which eventually did come bore such ill-will toward the United States:
Teheran seems almost a boom town. Construction is proceeding at an enormous rate, and there is hardly a block, especially in the northern or ‘European’ sections, that is without its new apartment building. These new buildings, however, are inhabited almost exclusively by Europeans, especially Americans; the rents are extremely high by any standard, and astronomical for an economy in which an experienced engineer earns $200 a month, or just about the cost of a decent apartment…
It is, most certainly, a typical Alice-in-Wonderland situation: American dollars are being spent on structures only Americans can afford to rent. One Persian, an office supervisor, explained it this way: “I hate the sound of foreign aid. Before American dollars started coming here, I had one job and a decent apartment. Now I have three jobs and still had to leave my apartment because the landlord wanted to rent to an American. Who is being ‘improved,’ anyway? …