In this academic article, based on Abas Amanat’s Iran, A Modern History (Yale, 2017) I will try to point a few key points in Iran’s modern history, showing how sometimes accidental, sometimes unavoidable events can lead to wide-ranging and consequential upheavals. I am especially interested in history’s inner logic, the major external and internal factors that influence how a country moves along sometimes almost against its own will.
In 1501 Isma‘il, a 15-year-old descendant from the house of Safavi in the Iranian Azarbaijan declared himself the “King of Kings” and the founder of a new Shi‘i state that came to be known as the Safavid dynasty. The Safavids had hostile political and ideological relations with the Ottomans and this made Iran’s access to the Mediterranean route limited. This directly contributed in the eighteenth century to Iran’s economic isolation and had an effect on the impoverishment of its cities as it was unable to take advantage of new trends that were rapidly changing Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the end of the 19th century, this meant lagging behind the superpowers.
Tsarist Russia came to control nearly two-thirds of Iranian territory, while Britain controlled the south. That the collapse of imperial Russia did not lead to a certain disintegration of Iran is a huge coincidence. With the exception of the Great War itself, no other international event left as lasting an effect on Iran’s early twentieth-century history as the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Soviets gave up their territorial claims to Iran.
The next big factor in 20th century Iran is the discovery of large reserves of oil in Iran by a British financier William Knox D’Arcy in the Masjed Soleiman oil field in the center of the southwestern province of Khuzestan, inside Bakhtiyari territory. The Khuzestan field proved a vital strategic resource for Britain throughout the Great War. The discovery of oil enmeshed Iran’s fate with the fortunes of the Great War. No other resource came to play such a crucial a role as oil in shaping Iranian politics and economy. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) started as a private enterprise but by 1914 the British government had acquired the majority of APOC stocks, allowing the government full control over this commodity. In his role as the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was the driving force behind the purchase, an accomplishment he later hailed as one of the greatest in his career. Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 was meant to bring Iran into a semi-protectorate status of subjugation to oil-hungry Britain. The controversial agreement was the brainchild of two men: George Curzon, then the British acting foreign secretary and Percy Cox, the British envoy in Tehran and one of the most influential players in the shaping of the Arab Middle East. Britain agreed to provide Iran with financial and military assistance in exchange for Iran’s exclusive reliance on Britain for defense and foreign advisers. The arrangement protected Iran from the threat of Bolshevism but also made Iran a link in a Pax Britannica (i.e. the sphere of British influence, literally ‘British Peace’) that stretched from India and the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt. Curzon’s idea impressed Winston Churchill, who in 1919, as secretary of state for war, realized the importance of securing Iranian oil fields for Britain and its post-war prosperity.
Reza Khan took advantage of the vacuum created by retreating Bolsheviks and British forces. By November 1923, the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, the end of the caliphate and Mustafa Kemal as its first president, impressed the Iranian political class. Uncanny parallels with Reza Khan’s republicanism and secularizing agenda in Iran were hard to overlook. Shi‘i Iranians were afraid that the clerical establishment would be dissolved if Iran turned into a republic. Reza Khan became more circumspect and opted for a dynastic monarchy as an alternative to the republic. This caused a long tradition of dynastic rule. He adopted the family name Pahlavi and the Pahlavi hereditary succession became a major obstacle to long-term political change even after the fall of Reza Shah in 1941. That the British had no problems with the Pahlavi centralization program because the centralized military was still capable of securing Britain’s investment and strategic interests.
The Cold War concerns of the United States transformed its relations with Iran—as elsewhere in the Middle East, South East Asia, and Latin America—from an anti-Imperialist and a bystander of goodwill to a hegemonic ruler who wanted to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Covert Anglo-American interventions can be seen during Mosaddeq’s turbulent term as prime minister. He nationalized the Iranian oil industry and displeased the British. For this, a covert CIA operation Ajax had to depose him. Iran’s return to arbitrary Pahlavi rule after 1953 put a premature end to Iran’s experiment with participatory politics. Mosaddeq saw oil nationalization as key to economic sovereignty, prosperity, and an end to foreign intervention. The British government lodged complaints with the International Court of Justice at The Hague, demanding that Iranian oil nationalization be declared illegal. On July 21, 1952 the ICJ agreed with Iran, stating that the court lacked jurisdiction in the Iranian oil dispute since AIOC was a nonstate entity; therefore, the court could not hear the case, as the British government had wanted. With Mosaddeq’s position strengthened by March 1953, the new Eisenhower administration was convinced that the only viable solution for the United States was to remove Mosaddeq by means of a military coup. The Eisenhower doctrine was designed primarily to contain what Americans feared as the communist threat. Among countries neighboring the Soviet Union, Iran proved particularly important because of its long borders with its northern neighbor, its oil reserves and access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US oil giants, among them Standard Oil of California, searched for new oil fields and Iran offered an excellent opportunity now that the Iranian nationalization had stopped the British monopoly.
Three days after the coup, the shah returned from Rome. The gradual return to autocratic practices after 1953 ushered in an era of stability, bought at a cost as it was politically repressive. It remained essentially unchanged until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the collapse of the Pahlavi order. The small network of well-connected technocrats controlled massive oil revenues. Foreign policy was the only domain of the shah. He remained a strong ally of the United States and a friend of the Western Bloc while improving relations with the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and the People’s Republic of China. Over the years, he grew more independent and wished to find a balance between the superpowers. In the U.S., Iran enjoyed a privileged position over Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Even though the US public image suffered badly in the eyes of the Iranians during the civil rights movement, and even more so because of the Vietnam War and thereafter the Watergate scandal, the shah’s overall standing was not seriously threatened by taking sides with the US Republican establishment. The events that led to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini were a classic example of the modern popular revolution. The revolution awakened / or was the effect of Shi‘i messianic aspirations, anti-Westernism, and anti-Pahlavi sentiment. The establishment of the Islamic Republic boosted Islamist activism throughout the Muslim world with consequences reaching to this day.
High-level diplomatic contacts between the United States and Iran have been lacking since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Trump administration stepped up sanctions against Iran and, May, declared that there was a threat of imminent Iranian attack and deployed warships and bombers to the region. Then, on May 21 it announced that the threat of hostilities has receded as a direct result of the U.S. military deployment and American lawmakers were assured by the Administration that the threat of an imminent war had passed. The only reason this sudden escalation fizzled out so quickly is because Donald Trump is well aware that with a war against Iran he would never win a second term as the President of the U.S – he was after all elected on the promise of ending America’s wars. Trump assumes that such pressure will usher in a dramatic deal with Iran, while hawks in his Administration, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, are assuming that such intense pressure on the Iranian regime will make it topple like the Soviet Union in 1991.
Iran, with the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world has seen its exports drop by more than half, inflation has spiked to close to 40 percent and Iran’s economy is expected to contract by 6 percent this year. A third of all Iranians are estimated to be living in poverty. Clearly, sanctions are not a deterrent and a military operation is out of the question.
I wished to hint at some of the reasons behind anti-Americanism in Iran. If the U.S. can appreciate Iran’s modern history, perhaps it will find itself capable of normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, as the only viable solution to the almost intractable security threat posed by anuclear power suspicious of the Western superpowers and their motives. At the same time, political normalization can threaten the theocratic rule in the country and as such can be seen as dangerous in the eyes of the Iranian regime; consequently overtures to normalization require a nuanced approach, which, however, calls for a level of competency not seen in the present U.S. administration. Just like with the environmental issues, perhaps the only answer is to wait for a new administration and hope that it does not revert to the old ways and oversimplified views of Iran.