The US government has drawn a big sigh of relief. After decades of being on the retreat, Iran’s pro-democracy forces have regained momentum and are once again moving their country in a more liberal direction. The historic 2015 nuclear deal, which benefited Iran’s moderates, appears to be holding ground. In turn, Washington has decided to double down on diplomacy in order to further move Tehran toward reconciliation and reintegrate it into the global community. Engagement has paid off, and the United States is recommitting itself to the path that’s proven to be the only effective policy toward Iran.
Just kidding. The above would hold true in a parallel universe, one in which US policy toward Iran was characterized by rationality. In the universe we live in, however, Washington’s approach is motivated by an irrational fear of losing Iran as an enemy. Instead of welcoming the country’s courageous democratic steps—which Washington for decades has claimed it desires—President Trump clenched his fist and doubled down on enmity by calling for regime change and Iran’s isolation. Only Saudi Arabia and hard-line elements of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet in Israel welcomed this belligerent move—the same two countries that also opposed the nuclear deal.
But it isn’t just the path to US-Iran reconciliation that Trump is blocking by outsourcing Middle East policy to Saudi Arabia and Israel. He also risks jeopardizing Iran’s path toward reform and democratization. And it wouldn’t be the first time the United States stood in the way of the Iranian people’s yearning for democracy.
In the early 1950s, Iran was an embryonic democracy. The 1906 Constitutional Revolution had replaced the millennia-old absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy—the first of its kind in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia still doesn’t have a constitution). Iran had a Parliament that was directly elected by the people, which in turn elected the country’s prime minister. The Iranians had fought hard for these pivotal steps toward full democracy. However, Great Britain, then still a dominant Middle Eastern power, stood in the way. Ever so hungry for Iran’s vast oil reserves, London interfered incessantly in the country’s internal affairs to keep it weak and incapable of fending off British theft of Iran’s riches.
Led by Mohammad Mossadeq, a nationalist member of Parliament who was elected prime minister in April 1951, the Iranians began demanding that the country’s oil industry be nationalized so that the wealth from it would benefit their own country rather than end up in British coffers.
But Britain was in no mood to share Iran’s oil wealth with the Iranians. And the Shah—Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—was wary of the increased power and popularity Mossadeq was gaining from whipping up nationalist sentiments. Even an illegal naval blockade imposed by London, which almost entirely cut off Iran’s oil sales, failed to diminish Mossadeq’s popularity.
As Stephen Kinzer describes in his indispensable book All the Shah’s Men, London concluded that it needed to get rid of Mossadeq and expand the power of the Shah. However, vastly weakened by World War II, Britain needed America’s blessing and assistance; earlier attempts to draw Washington into the conflict in support of Britain had failed. But as political deadlock gripped Iran, Winston Churchill’s government began using a new argument, to which Washington was exceptionally vulnerable: If Mossadeq wasn’t removed, he would eventually move Iran into the Soviet camp. This would be a significant blow to the United States at the height of the Cold War. Although there was no evidence that Mossadeq had communist sympathies, the British argued that he could develop such inclinations and that Washington couldn’t afford this risk.