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The Roanoke Times: That old, familiar feeling in Iran

By Tommy Denton

Once upon a time, the British crown so frowned upon certain aspirations among its colonists in America that the Redcoats waged an unsuccessful war to quell the usurpations.

For the Americans, what began as a tea party finished in the birth of a new nation, the sovereign people determined to be masters of their own destiny.

About 125 years later, in 1901, the British crown agreed to help relieve the indebtedness of Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar, then shah of Iran, by “accepting” a 60-year concession to develop Iranian oil fields. Englishman William Knox D’Arcy struck the first commercially important reserve in 1908, later transferring controlling interest to what became the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. in 1909.

After World War I, the British crown saw the wisdom, practicality and efficiency of simply nationalizing the oil, later securing it by stationing British troops in strategic parts of Iran.

As restless natives historically have been wont to do, the Iranians became restive with the plundering of what they considered to be their own oil, with a modest 16 percent of the profits set aside for the home folks. Nor were the Iranians at all pleased with British interference in their Persian Constitutional Revolution, much less British use of Iran as a platform to invade Russia in a vain attempt to reverse the Bolsheviks’ October revolution.

In 1921, the British crown saw the usefulness of engineering a coup in Iran that installed Reza Pahlavi as the shah. A great era of modernization and development began, especially the Persian Corridor with its railroads for both military and civilian routes, but then Reza began to show a troublesome independent streak.

Reza redrafted the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. concession in the mid-1930s, reducing the land available for the venture’s exploration and increasing his government’s share of the profits. By 1941, the British invaded and generally took over — railroads, oil production and effectively the government as well, installing Reza’s compliant 22-year-old son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, as shah.

In postwar Iran, the crippled British government relied significantly on oil revenues from its empire. But the increasingly nationalist impulses of the Iranian government led to increased assertiveness, including demands for accountability in payment of royalties.

By 1951, tensions grew. Prime Minister Ali Razmara was assassinated in March. By April, the parliament passed a bill to nationalize the oil industry. Led by Western-educated Mohammed Mossadegh, the lawmakers indicated during debates that such independence was necessary to break free from the grip of British intelligence services. Mossadegh was elected prime minister in May.

Alas, Iranians were more easily inspired than they were gifted with sufficient competence to maintain production and export levels, although the British naval blockade was no minor hindrance. Still, the Iranians prevailed in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where Great Britain sought a ruling that the nationalization was illegal. The crown lost.

Hemmed in, the Iranians began easing into the Cold War orbit of the Soviet Union, its next-door neighbor. Still, President Harry Truman refused British overtures to subvert the parliamentary, sovereign Iranian government.

The election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 was more agreeable to British interests. The joint U.S.-British plot code named Operation Ajax, aided by Central Intelligence Agency intervention, would overthrow Soviet-backed Mossadegh in August of 1953 and replace him with the presumed anti-Soviet Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi and restoration of the influence of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

In return for its support, however, the United States demanded an end to any British-Iranian oil monopoly and opening of exploration and development as well to five major U.S. oil companies, plus Royal Dutch Shell and a French firm.

The strategic bonanza of opening an outpost on the Soviet border during the Cold War may have been huge, but the deal-maker that allowed it to happen was the U.S. demand for access to Iranian oil.

All those considerations, especially the CIA role in the coup that removed Mossadegh, help explain the anti-America passions of the revolutionaries who in 1979 seized power, expelled the shah and decided to assert Iranian sovereignty over Iran.

Alas, recent news reports of presidentially approved CIA covert actions to topple the government in Tehran have a sort of 1953-ish ring of dejA vu all over again.

When will we ever learn?

Denton’s column appears in the Sunday edition of The Roanoke Times

Published: Jun 03, 2007

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