Map of Asia with Iran circled

Iran’s recent history is full of imperialist meddling and the national backlash against it. And since the biggest revolt against outside interference in 1979, its government’s refusal to submit totally to US interests has made the country one of the prime targets of Western hostility in the Middle East.

The fact that Iran’s main religious sect is different from the one dominant elsewhere in the region also plays a role; but political power games are arguably much more of an issue.

***Key points***

    • Oil, Western meddling, and the 1953 coup.
    • Strategically important authoritarian ally for US during Cold War.
    • 1979 revolution, Islamism, and devastating war with Iraq.
    • Western sanctions and aggression.


Oil and the shah

The story of oil in Iran began at the start of the 20th century. Its initial oil well was reportedly the first in the Middle East. And thanks to a dodgy deal, the controversial Anglo–Iranian Oil Company would dominate the industry for decades.

Military leader Reza Khan took power in 1921 and soon became ‘shah’ (or king). His repressive regime helped to industrialise and modernise the country, though it would sit uncomfortably with religious and pro-democratic parts of society. Because he was a bit too cosy with Hitler’s Axis powers in the Second World War, meanwhile, British and Soviet forces invaded in 1941. His son became the new shah.

Oil and the 1953 coup to restore Western control

One of the most promising moments in Iran’s 20th-century history was the secular, democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddegh after the Second World War. But he passed reforms that the West, and the shah, didn’t like (perhaps the most sensitive one being the nationalisation of oil). Ultra-conservative religious elements of society – like the Islamist forces that would cement their power after 1979 – also helped to sow the seeds for Mosaddegh’s defeat. Reza Fiyouzat wrote at Counterpunch:

A coup could not have been orchestrated by some foreign powers if there were no internal social forces to carry it forward, and the clerical [elites] knew that their interests placed them on the side of the imperialists and not the socialists, progressive nationalists, true liberals and democrats who supported Mossadegh’s party, and who paid a heavy price for that support.

US and British agents helped to engineer the successful effort to get rid of Mosaddegh in 1953. In 2013, the CIA formally acknowledged its involvement.

Western governments then backed the shah’s brutal dictatorship that followed. In particular, they gave support to its ruthless secret police (the SAVAK). Torture reigned. These dynamics created widespread distrust, and even loathing, of Western powers.

1979 revolution

Then came the 1979 revolution. Prof Fred Halliday wrote in 2009:

a broad coalition of opposition forces came together to overthrow a dictatorial regime, building on longstanding social grievances but also energising nationalist sentiment against a state and ruler seen as too compliant to foreign interests

Mass strikes and protests that started in 1978 were a powerful tool to weaken the shah’s regime. And they united left-wing and conservative forces against the dictatorship. This collective civil disobedience, Halliday said, was key to toppling it. But in part because Shia Islamist forces played a key organisational role in these actions, they quickly came to dominate the post-revolutionary political process.

The new government dissolved the SAVAK and took some other positive steps to appease the population. But it also sought to make religion a dominant cultural and political force, sidelining or murdering those who didn’t submit. As Reza Fiyouzat insisted, it didn’t significantly change the economic system, and it “ultimately crushed the revolutionary demands of the people and their organizations”. For women in particular, the ultra-conservative takeover would mark a particular regression in their freedoms.

So one of the big reasons for Western governments’ rage wasn’t that this was a radically left-wing revolution. It was that it had toppled a key, strategic ally in the region. (The taking of hostages at the US embassy didn’t help, either.) With numerous explanations at different points, Washington has imposed sanctions on Iran for decades.

One big event that would help Islamist leaders to cement their power early on was a brutal war that lay just around the corner.

Iraq-Iran war

Iranian neighbour Iraq was under the rule of Saddam Hussein – a longstanding US asset. And in 1980, he decided to invade Iran. The US, UK and France all backed Hussein during this period. This was despite his regime deploying chemical weapons to subdue both Iranian forces and thousands of Iraqi civilians who opposed him. Without Western support, the war may not have lasted eight years. Over a million people died. And the conflict left scars that both countries would struggle to heal.

During this war, US forces downed a non-military Iranian plane. This 1988 killing of 290 civilians (with 66 children among them) was one act of terror in particular that Iranians wouldn’t forget.

Another notorious event during this war was that, despite the US officially not selling arms to Iran anymore, it sought to sell them secretly (via Israel) in order to secure the release of hostages in Lebanon. Washington then ensured that the money it earned from this trade went to Nicaragua’s far-right Contra terrorists in their efforts to undermine the left-wing government there. The ‘Iran-Contra Affair‘ became a high-profile public disgrace for Ronald Reagan’s government.

Neoliberal theocracy

Shortly after the end of the war, neoliberal figure Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – who had been a key player in consolidating the Islamist regime’s power – became president. This marked a small window of better relations with the US. But the connection between the regime and Iranian citizens was weakening.

In 1999, this came to a head when students took to the streets in protest. They faced harsh repression, with ensuing riots killing several people, injuring 200, and leading to the arrest of 1,400. A government crackdown on opposition media also followed.

Despite official hostility to the US decreasing in previous years, George W Bush’s government – high on ‘War on Terror’ propaganda – decided to target Iran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’. The hostility of US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia towards Iran likely played a role in this decision.

Tensions increase in the Bush and Obama eras

Continuing US aggression only sparked a backlash in Iran, which said it would develop nuclear technology for power generation. Many tensions with the West in the following years would focus on this nuclear question.

In 2005, meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. While not a left-winger (he reportedly continued the privatising momentum of previous governments), he embraced a more populist platform and spoke out against international hostility. This increasing resistance from Iran’s government attracted new sanctions from the US and its allies. Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 sparked protests from the political opposition, in which government loyalists killed dozens of people and arrested around 4,000.

After the US-led invasion of Shia-majority Iraq in 2003, meanwhile, a lot of the resistance against the occupation and against the growth of Wahhabi terrorism (the extreme form of Sunni Islamism whose most famous proponents are al-Qaeda and Daesh) came from Shia forces sympathetic to Iran’s Shia government. The 2011 withdrawal of US troops facilitated greater and greater Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. The US and EU then tightened sanctions. The resulting pressure on the economy was partly responsible for helping to propel Hassan Rouhani (a “proponent of neoliberal economics”) to the presidency in 2013.

The nuclear deal and the hawkish Trump regime

Rouhani made efforts to end sanctions and reach an agreement with Western powers. He also oversaw support for both Iraq and Syria in their fight against Daesh and other Wahhabi terrorists.

In 2015, Iran signed an agreement (the JCPOA) with the US and other nations which would restrict its nuclear programme but provide relief from sanctions. But when Donald Trump came to power in the US, a hostile push for regime change resumed. Trump’s allies in the UK government gladly helped.

The US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, essentially killing it. The superpower then increased sanctions and threatened Iran militarily in a fairly obvious attempt to provoke reaction. Trump’s decision to order the murder of key Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at the start of 2020, meanwhile, briefly pushed the two countries to the brink of war.

Trump’s regime was particularly noteworthy for its pandering to Washington’s key allies in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Israel. As academic Noam Chomsky pointed out, the special hatred these two countries’ elites have for Iran would be a key factor pressuring the US not to pursue peace with Tehran.

Western hypocrisy on Iran

Trump’s time in power exposed US double standards like perhaps never before. Because the theocratic regimes of both Iran and Saudi Arabia have poor records on human rights (especially regarding women). But as Washington targeted Iran with aggression, it gave Saudi Arabia a free pass. And this all came as Riyadh was knee deep in perpetuating the horrific conflict in Yemen – the world’s worst humanitarian crisis during Trump’s presidency. It also had a long history of fuelling Wahhabi terrorism in the region and the wider world.

The US argument was largely that Iran sponsored terrorists. Leaving Washington’s own list of terrorist acts and alliances to one side, this was a blatant example of hypocrisy. And Saudi Arabia was the most obvious comparison. Because it was getting away with civilian murders in Yemen while facing accusations of “providing direct and indirect support directly to al-Qaeda” and boosting its activities there.

No one should ignore Iran’s own abuses, of course. But as Chomsky had highlighted previously:

In comparison with Saudi Arabia, Iran looks like a civil rights paradise.

Trump backed the Saudi dictatorship wholeheartedly, though, because doing so favoured US economic interests.

Sanctions during the coronavirus pandemic

The cruelty of US sanctions on Iran was particularly clear during the 2020-21 Covid-19 pandemic. It soon became one of Middle Eastern countries to suffer the most. And sanctions arguably contributed to the premature easing of government measures to fight the virus.

Jeffrey Sachs insisted:

US policies vis-à-vis Iran… are cruel and most likely constitute crimes against humanity.

Iran today

Western hostility towards Iran continues today. Since 2006, the UN and the EU have increasingly put more sanctions on the country. Iran says, meanwhile, that its economy suffered $1tn worth of damage simply as a result of the unilateral US sanctions of the Trump era. And the context above, which feeds heavily into ongoing tensions, rarely gets the attention it deserves.

The post-1979 government in Iran has been no hero to many of its citizens and  no role model for people around the world hoping for progressive change. Its rate of executions, for example, is of particular concern. At the same time, though, the country is not a unique threat to the West or anywhere else. International tensions come in a long context of foreign meddling and extreme distrust. And many years of sanctions and ongoing interference haven’t helped.

The country’s next presidential election is due to take place in June 2021.

Iranian music

Check out our playlist of Iranian music:

Note: The opinions expressed in the lyrics of the songs above do not necessarily represent the principles of Phoenix Media Co-operative.

Lead contributor Ed Sykes

Main article image via Ktrinko