An ecumenical delegation of church officials recently has returned from a warm meeting with the Iranian president in Tehran. Unfortunately for them, they got to Iran too late to join in the annually celebrated "Death to America" holiday. But they still, no doubt, got the flavor of Iranian antipathy towards the U.S. And they understand the reasons for the justifiably deep pain.
After all, the U.S. helped restore the Shah to power in a counter-coup in 1953. According to lore, Iranians have been reeling with anger ever sense.
The Religious Left, like the secular left, believes that indigenous cultures everywhere are sinless until corrupted by Western culture. Iran was yanked from the Garden of Eden when the CIA helped overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, an official with the National Council of Churches, explained the mythology upon his return with the ecumenical delegation from the Islamic Republic:
"When Iranians think about the United States, the first images that come to their mind are from 1953, when the CIA collaborating with the British intelligence overthrew Iran's first democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. His sin, nationalizing the oil industry! He argued that Iran should benefit from its oil industry rather than the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum. In his stead, they placed the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Iranians recall how this U.S. backed dictator oppressed them for 25 years, until in a popular rebellion inspired by a confluence of factors, including religious fervor, the people overthrew the Shah and instituted the world's first Islamic Republic."
So who can fault the Iranians for their rage?
IN TRUTH, THE CHURCH OFFICIALS did not need to go to Iran to learn what they already surmised about the Iranian 50-year angst over America. Delegation member Jim Winkler, who heads the United Methodist Church's lobby office in Washington, D.C., explained in a speech last year:
"I well remember living among Iranian students in the late 1970s in college dormitories in Illinois. These students carried out lonely protests against the Shah of Iran wearing paper bags over their heads for fear of detection by the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, which operated with impunity in the United States thanks to the close relationship between the United States and Iran. In fact, the Shah owed his very throne to the United States. The democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, had been overthrown with the support of the U.S. in 1953. Although most Americans have forgotten this fact, I assure you it is well known in Iran. There is a direct line from the events of 1953 to the revolution of 1979 to the present tensions between Iran and the United States."
Blaming America is reflexive for leftist church officials. But their Iranian mythology, like their other myths, is more ideological than historical.
Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, after having forced the young Shah into exile, was himself dethroned in a counter coup covertly supported by the United States and Great Britain. No less than Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, the premier statesmen of their age, directly approved of the covert action. Churchill called Mossadegh an "an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists."
Mossadegh had risen to power based on his uncompromising opposition to British influence in Iran. He urged Iran's parliament to seize the British oil facilities in Iran, to which Britain responded by blockading Iran's oil shipments. Iran's parliament elected Mossadegh its prime minister, with the acquiescence of the young Shah. Initially, nationalists, Islamists and Iran's communist Tudeh party all supported Mossadegh, based on their common opposition to the British. But the British embargo, Mossadegh's refusal to compromise or accept foreign mediation, along with his socialist economic plans, all fueled an economic meltdown.
Mossadegh eventually dismissed parliament, called for a national referendum, and claimed election results of 99.9 percent for himself. He also had successfully seized the Shah's constitutional authority over the armed forces. Mossadegh then ruled by emergency powers. The Shah attempted to dismiss him, but Mossadegh arrested the Shah's messenger, prompting the Shah to escape into exile. Meanwhile, Churchill had returned to power in Britain, in part by condemning his predecessor's failure to act strongly against the seizure of British oil assets in Iran. The United States under Truman, and initially Eisenhower, had urged both Britain and Iran to compromise. But Mossadegh explained to the U.S. before concluding a Washington visit: "Don't you realize that in returning to Iran empty-handed, I return in a much stronger position than if I returned with an agreement which I would have to sell to my fanatics?" One British newspaper called him a "Robespierre fanatic" because of his obsession with Britain.
Eisenhower was eventually persuaded to back a coup that would restore the Shah to power. Iran was economically and geographically too important to allow to slide into chaos. When the Shah's father had foolishly sided with the Nazis at the start of World War II, the Soviets and British forced him from power and helped enthrone his son. After the war, the Soviets had refused to leave northern Iran. Their intransigence helped inspire Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, and eventually persuaded Harry Truman to issue an ultimatum demanding their departure. Not willing to risk another Korea, Eisenhower believed that Iran under the Shah was more reliable than Iran under the quixotic Mossadegh.
Thanks to the economic upheaval, once supportive nationalists, communists, clerics, and army officers peeled away from Mossadegh. The Shah, from his exile, once again dismissed Mossadegh from the premiership. Concurrently, the CIA and British organized demonstrators to agitate against Mossadegh, who surrendered after marchers and army tanks surrounded his house. He spent most of the next 15 years of his life under house arrest. The Shah returned in triumph and told the CIA officer in charge: "I owe my throne to God, my people, my army -- and to you!"
THAT CIA OFFICER, the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, afterwards met with Churchill who told him: "Young man, if I had been but a few years younger, I would have loved nothing better than to have served under your command in this great venture." Eisenhower awarded him the National Security Medal. The Shah would rule for 25 years, modernizing the economy, granting rights to women, protecting religious freedoms, aligning with the United States, and maintaining some ties with Israel. He also was an authoritarian who, like nearly all other rulers in the region, imprisoned and sometimes executed his enemies. Often weak-willed, and with a political tin ear, he did not understand the Islamist Revolution that rose against him in 1979. Nor would he use his powerful army against it. Instead, he fled into exile, this time permanently.
In its first years of power, the Islamic Republic of Iran, under the Ayatollah Khomeini, would quickly murder many times the number of victims whom the Shah had tormented during his 25 years. The Ayatollah imposed a vicious Islamic theocracy that suppressed all political and religious opposition to his form of Shiite Islam. Iran also has funded and armed terrorist groups like Hezbollah that share its religious and political enthusiasms.
The countless crimes of the Islamic dictatorship in Iran did not interest the ecumenical church delegation that visited Iran last month. Instead, delegation member Jim Winkler has recalled that the Shah was "a dictatorial, murderous tyrant," words that none of the delegation members have ever applied to the current Iranian theocrats. Winkler and others grudgingly acknowledge that Iran's current regime is imperfect. But for that, isn't America to blame?