These days, with a crisis atmosphere growing in the Persian Gulf, a little history lesson about the U.S. and Iran might be just what the doctor ordered. Here, then, are a few high- (or low-) lights from their relationship over the last half-century-plus:
Summer 1953: The CIA and British intelligence hatch a plot for a coup that overthrows a democratically elected government in Iran intent on nationalizing that country’s oil industry. In its place, they put an autocrat, the young Shah of Iran, and his soon-to-be feared secret police. He runs the country as his repressive fiefdom for a quarter-century, becoming Washington’s “bulwark” in the Persian Gulf — until overthrown in 1979 by a home-grown revolutionary movement, which ushers in the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs. While Khomeini & Co. were hardly Washington’s men, thanks to that 1953 coup they were, in a sense, its own political offspring. In other words, the fatal decision to overthrow a popular democratic government shaped the Iranian world Washington now loathes, and even then oil was at the bottom of things.
1967: Under the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” program, started in the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Shah is allowed to buy a 5-megawatt, light-water type research reactor for Tehran (which — call it irony — is still playing a role in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program). Defense Department officials did worry at the time that the Shah might use the “peaceful atom” as a basis for a future weapons program or that nuclear materials might fall into the wrong hands. “An aggressive successor to the Shah,” went a 1974 Pentagon memo, “might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran’s complete military dominance of the region.” But that didn’t stop them from aiding and abetting the creation of an Iranian nuclear program.
The Shah, like his Islamic successors, argued that such a program was Iran’s national “right” and dreamed of a country that would get significant portions of its electricity from a string of nuclear plants. As a 1970s ad by a group of American power companies put the matter: “The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world. Yet he’s building two nuclear plants and planning two more to provide electricity for his country. He knows the oil is running out — and time with it.” In other words, the U.S. nuclear program was the genesis for the Iranian one that Washington now so despises.