The United States' next oil war will likely take place in Iran, so now might be a good time to look back at the history of our involvement in that country. What the United States did in Iran in 1953 set in motion a chain of events that led to the 1979 hostage crisis and provides a background for understanding of the 9/11 attacks and the almost global antipathy toward America. A look at Operation Ajax will show that George W. Bush had the wrong answer to the right question: They hate us not because of what we are but, rather, because of what we do.
During the first half of the 20th century, Iran was essentially owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The stereotype of the arrogant, brutal colonial occupation was probably never more true than in Iran at the time. Oil from Iran brought tremendous revenue to Britain and fueled the British Navy during World War II, but virtually none of the wealth was returned to the people of that nation. Efforts to negotiate a more equitable arrangement were repeatedly rejected by the British, and, as a result, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular, liberal democrat who greatly admired the United States, came to power in 1951, promising to nationalize Iranian oil and invest that wealth in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. That same year, Mossadegh was chosen Time magazine's Man of the Year.
Not surprisingly, Britain scoffed at this idea and urged Harry S. Truman to approve a coup to oust Mossadegh. The British argued that their American big brother should be concerned about the spread of communism and the examples these Third Worlders would be giving other countries. Truman declined, recognizing that this was a nationalist movement to oust colonial forces, not so different from an earlier chapter in American history.
The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 changed everything. His friendship with re-elected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill may have been the deciding factor, or perhaps it was pressure from the military-industrial complex he would later warn Americans about, or perhaps he quite simply wanted to grab Iranian oil. Whatever the cause, the Central Intelligence Agency was soon on the job. Operation Ajax was carried out in 1953. Mossadegh was ousted and Iran returned to a monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. A brief glimmer of hope had been extinguished, and Iran spent the next 25 years under a murderous goon propped up by the Americans.
Frustration, which could have been expressed democratically, predictably turned toward extremist theology, the results of which we are seeing today. The shah was ultimately toppled, the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed control, and Muslims throughout the Middle East, with legitimate anger, could now look to a religious maniac eager to encourage and finance violent resistance.
The CIA went on to duplicate Operation Ajax all over the globe, wherever American commercial interests collided with popular democratic movements. Jacobo Arbenz was deposed in Guatemala, Salvador Allende Gossens killed in Chile, Sukarno removed from power in Indonesia, thuggish regimes established in El Salvador, Turkey, Greece, Brazil, the Congo, and on and on and on.
To use the Pentagon's term, the victims of 9/11 were "collateral damage" in our war to control the world's resources and markets. What goes around generally comes around, and many people have been warning us for a long time about the backlash that was sure to come. Unfortunately, we weren't listening. A wise nation would learn from its mistakes and change its behavior.