A Brief History of US-Iranian Relations

Speech to a conference on Iran sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) in Houston on 20 March 2014:

On Mount Behistun in western Iran there is an inscription carved during the 5th century BC at the command of Darius the Great:

I [am] Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king in Persia, the king of countries … in all, 23 countries.

The inscription goes on to detail Darius’s various victories over his foes and gives advice to rulers to follow, whom he imagined would come stand before the mountain and be instructed in statecraft.

Aeschylus wrote his play The Persians in the same century that Mount Behistun was being carved to glorify Darius. In the play, the chorus speaks most somberly of Darius’s son:

[Xerxes,] the fiery lord of populous Asia, is leading his wondrous warrior-flock against the whole earth in two divisions, on foot and by the sea, putting his trust in his stalwart and stern commanders; he himself, a god-like hero whose race is sprung from gold.

Persia’s host cannot be withstood, and her men are courageous.

For by the will of the gods Fate has held sway since ancient time, and has ordained for the Persians the pursuit of rampart-destroying war, the turmoil of fighting horsemen, and the storming of cities.

Of course, Aeschylus was a Greek who used the chorus’s words to magnify an enemy whom the Greeks were going to slap down later in the play. But, like Europeans of the Renaissance and Baroque eras who were both fearful of and fascinated by the Ottoman Turks, Aeschylus gave an accurate picture of the enemy’s strength, ferocity, and reputation.

Let’s not just take his word; let’s go straight to the top: The Book of Isaiah speaks of Darius’s predecessor, Cyrus the Great:

Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him that their gates be closed no more: I will go before you leveling the heights. I will shatter the bronze gateways, smash the iron bars. I will give you the hidden treasures, the secret hoards, that you may know that I am Yahweh.

Iranians of today – ayatollah and secularist alike – all know and are intensely proud of their long and rich history, and they see their nation as the natural ruler of their corner of the earth. I contend – though of course cannot prove – that even if Iran were liberated from its clerical overlords and were a fully democratic state, it would still expect to possess nuclear weapons in order to stand proudly and equally among the great nations of the world — simply and purely because it always has.

But to return to the ancients, Herodotus wrote of the Persians:

They honor most of all those who dwell nearest them; then those who are next farthest removed, and … those who dwell farthest off they hold least honorable of all. For they deem themselves to be in all regards by far the best of all men [and] those who dwell farthest away have least merit of all.

During the 19th and early 20th century, there was no question whom the dishonorable foreigners were. They were the nations the Persians knew only too well: Imperial Britain and czarist Russia. The United States dwelt so far away as to be an unknown land. There were some early American contacts with Persia. As Dean Acheson wrote in his memoir, Present at the Creation: “Early in the 19th century, the efforts of American missionary groups to save souls in Persia were neither troublesome nor successful enough to arouse local opposition or the ready suspicion of the British or Russians.”

During the Second World War, the United States deferred to its British and Soviet allies when it came to Persia, or Iran. We endorsed their joint occupation of the country – the USSR to the north, the UK to the south – to foil a pro-German element in Teheran. After the war, the British withdrew but the Soviets did not.

President Truman scolded his first secretary of State, James Byrnes, for not pressing the Soviets harder on their refusal to evacuate Iran, calling it “an outrage if I ever saw one…. There is no justification for it…. I’m tired of babying the Soviets.” The US sent two “blunt messages” to Stalin saying the US “cannot remain indifferent” to their continued occupation, and in March 1946, the Soviets announced their immediate withdrawal. It was a rare occurrence, but then the Russians were more interested in occupying Eastern Europe than troublesome Persia.

We supported the British in their fight to keep their exceedingly favorable oil concession from Iran when it was challenged by the mercurial left-wing aristocrat, Mohammed Mossadegh, in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t really our fight. We were more attracted to the oil riches across the Gulf in our new regional ally, Saudi Arabia. Acheson, then secretary of State, sent the midcentury handyman Averell Harriman to Teheran in July 1951 to try to negotiate a solution to the dispute.

Daniel Yergin, in his classic history of the oil industry, The Prize, tells a wonderful story:

[Mossadegh] particularly feared the Moslem extremists, who opposed any truck with the foreign world…. Harriman, seeing how greatly this fear constrained Mossadegh, went to see the Ayatollah Kashani, the leader of the religious right, who had been imprisoned during World War II for his Axis sympathies.

The mullah declared that though he knew nothing about the British, the one thing he did know was that they were the most evil people in the world. In fact, all foreigners were evil, to be dealt with accordingly. The ayatollah then went on to tell the story of an American who had come to Iran some decades earlier and had involved himself in oil. He had been shot on the street in Tehran and then rushed to a hospital. A mob, searching for the American, broke into the hospital and found him on the operating table, where they butchered him.

“Do you understand?” asked the ayatollah.

Harriman immediate recognized that he was being threatened. His lips tightening, he struggled to keep his anger under control. ‘Your Eminence,’ he replied in a steely voice, ‘you must understand that I have been in many dangerous situations in my life, and I do not frighten easily.’

“Well”, shrugged the ayatollah, “there was no harm in trying’”

The new Eisenhower Administration was equally committed to its wartime ally in London and firmly opposed to any regime that toyed with Moscow, and it agreed to take measures to remove Mossadegh and strengthen the Shah. How we did so is a story that has been told many times in many places, and I won’t say much more than:

(1) The coup almost failed. Indeed, the Shah and his empress fled to Rome, where they holed up in the Excelsior Hotel until the army, backed by a crowd encouraged by American cash, succeeded in ousting and arresting Mossadegh. And

(2) The Iranian leadership of today bitterly remembers this episode. It certainly fueled the anger of the students who seized our embassy in 1979 and held our diplomats hostage for the next 444 days.

President Eisenhower, in his memoirs acknowledged that, “Throughout the crisis, the United States government had done everything it possibly could to back up the Shah [even though] some reports from observers on the spot in Teheran during the critical days sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact.”

The Shah told the CIA’s chief “observer on the spot”, Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt Jr: “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army – and you.”

As a result of “Operation Ajax” in Iran, the Agency gained a reputation as a toppler of regimes we don’t like. This is more legend than fact. But it is a definite fact that the Shah was deeply grateful to the United States for its support and its efforts.

Henry Kissinger published his first volume of memoirs, The White House Years, in 1979 – after the downfall of the Shah but before the capture of the US embassy in Teheran. In it, he wrote:

Whatever the failings of the Shah, wrestling perhaps with forces beyond any man’s control, he was for us that rarest of leaders: An unconditional ally…. He had been restored to the throne in 1953 by American influence …. He never forgot that; it may have been the root of his extraordinary trust in American purposes and American goodwill and of his psychological disintegration when he sensed that friendship evaporating…. He nevertheless retained an almost naïve faith in the United States.

Under the Shah’s leadership, the land bridge between Asia and Europe, so often the hinge of world history, was pro-American and pro-West beyond any challenge. Alone among other countries of the region – Israel aside – Iran made friendship with the United States the starting point of its foreign policy….. Iran under the Shah, in short, was one of America’s best, most important and most loyal friends in the world.

Unstinting Iranian friendship was viewed as highly useful to the US during the Nixon Administration. It was preoccupied with the war in Vietnam when a broke United Kingdom announced withdrawal from “east of Suez”. American military forces could not then be spared to patrol the Persian/Arabian Gulf in response to what Kissinger called “Soviet intrusion and radical momentum”. The vacuum would have to be filled by a friendly local power, and Iran was willing to play the role.

And so, until the Shah was deposed just a few years later, Iran was America’s satrap in the Gulf – satrap, by the way, being an ancient Persian word for a local governor. We sold brand-new ships and planes to Teheran that are still in the inventory of the Islamic Republic today. If, during the same period, the far-off America was Iran’s best friend (or so the Shah thought), its closest regional ally was, it now seems amazing to recall, Israel.

Today, American policymakers have only a hazy knowledge of the anti-Mossadegh coup of 1953 that still infuriates many Iranians. So, too, do they forget the brief period when Iran was America’s proxy in the Gulf. I assure you that the Arabs living on the southern end of the Gulf have never forgotten this history. Indeed, it is why the Saudis reacted so furiously to the Obama-Rouhani telephone chat last fall. Adding the phone call to loosened sanctions in pursuit of a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, they fear that the United States once again wants Iran to dominate the region. Of course we don’t – though with the Obama Administration sometimes weird conspiracy theories turn out to be correct. But if to timeless Arab memory the Crusades occurred last week, the US-Iranian alliance was fifteen minutes ago.

Working against such a renewed alliance is of course the extreme hostility to America as “the Great Satan” which has powered Iranian foreign policy since the ayatollahs’ triumph 35 years ago. It was this hostility that caused us to support Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, of which the photo of Donald Rumsfeld (then our Mid East peace negotiator) shaking hands with Saddam Hussein is a souvenir. For a while, Americans used “Shiite” as a synonym for extremist – until the September morn when 19 Sunnis destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon.

Even if a changed political and strategic landscape in Teheran allowed us to strike some kind of deal with Iran, we would still face the peril of kitman. Before I describe what this is, we must go back once again to ancient times and ancient scribes.

Herodotus said of the Persians, “They hold lying to be the foulest [offense] of all.”

The Behistun Inscription quotes Darius as warning: “O thou who shalt be king in the future, protect thyself strongly from deceit. Whatever man shall be a deceiver, punish him, if thou shalt think ‘may my country be secure’.”

And Lord Byron noted in Don Juan: “The antique Persians taught three useful things: To draw the bow, to ride, and to speak the truth.”

Well, weighing against this reputation for truthfulness is kitman, which can be defined as either “pious dissimulation” or justifiable deceit. In view of Persia’s 25 centuries of existence as a state, kitman must be reckoned a fairly recent development, since it cropped up only sometime during the 14 centuries since Islam came to Iran. Sunni Arabs deem kitman to be a peculiarly and damnably Shia attitude. They maintain that it allows Iranians to lie freely in pursuit of any objective.

To be sure, kitman is not strictly an Iranian or Muslim tactic. The Russians/Soviets made it an art form, and we can’t forget that when the U2 was shot down over the USSR in 1960, the US initially called it a “NASA weather research plane”. But kitman is why our Arab allies are deeply worried that we child-like westerners, ill-equipped to go against Persians in the art of bargaining, might just sign an agreement in the naïve notion that the Iranians will actually live up to it.

But that is getting too far ahead of fact, and I defer to the other speakers today to bring us up-to-date. I close with the lament of Lord Salisbury, who was both British prime minister and foreign minister at the end of the 19th century. Concerning a problem in Persia, Salisbury said, “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

Twenty-five hundred years of Persian history tell us to expect exactly the opposite.

Comments are closed.