I’ve recently finished Stephen Kinzer’s magnificent book, All the Shah’s Men, and if you’ve never read this book, you really ought to go out and get a copy. It’s a very fast and interesting read through the history of British and American meddling in the domestic affairs of Iran.
To make a long story short, the British were angered when Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the duly elected leader of the country, decided to take on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as British Petroleum, or BP). The company refuesed to allow Iranians access to it’s accounting books, had no Iranians in the management of the company, and paid very little in royalties to Iran. Furthermore, the Iranian workers lived in absolutely appalling conditions. It was your typical European colonial enterprise, extracting the wealth of the colony for the benefit of the metropole.
The Truman administration was not interested in involving Americans in this and, to their credit, the British Labor government, under Prime Minister Atlee, was not willing to go so far as the more belligerent elements in England wished. There were members of what would become MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service as it was known at that point) who advocated for a coup, while others with in the military wanted an invasion and take over of the oil fields (once the Iranians nationalized it in 1952).
Unfortunately for Mossadegh, and the later history of Anglo/American-Iranian relations, the fall of 1952 saw a change in government in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Churchill was once again elected as Prime Minister and Truman was replaced with Dwight Eisenhower. Churchill was certainly an advocate of British Imperialism and not one for negotiation with those he viewed as, to a real extent, colonials. While the new American president was not at all interested in Iran, his Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence, John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, were both not only interested in Iran, but took the side of the British in this dispute.
To be fair, both men viewed Iran through the lens of the Cold War. If a nation was not obviously on the side of the Anglo/American alliance, then that nation was potentially a Soviet ally. The problem for Mossadegh is that he never really understood the danger he was in. By nationalizing an industry he opened himself up to criticism of being a communist sympathizer at best, and possibly an ought right communist at worst.
Needless to say, the CIA took the lead on this issue (the British had all been expelled from Iran during the dispute with the Prime Minister) and, in August of 1953, they successfully removed and replaced the PM of Iran with the pro-Shah Fazlollah Zahedi, and set the stage for further CIA intervention in places such as Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam and Chile. It also explains why Iranians in general, and their government in particular, is so distrustful of the West and their motives.
As someone who was about 9 when the Iranians took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and remembers the “hostage crisis” like it happened just last month, I found this book a fascinating look at what would cause not only that crisis, but in a way led to many of the problems of the last two decades, including 9/11.