Iran: Can We Afford Not to Pay Attention?
January 16, 2020
By Sister Karen M. Donahue
In many ways, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 2, 2020, is just the latest chapter in the ongoing hostilities between the United States and Iran, which stretch back decades. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush included Iran as part of an Axis of Evil that threatened world peace, and in recent days, commentators have reminded us of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis (November 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981), during which 52 Americans were held captive for 441 days. The impression given is that these 1979 events mark the beginning of the problematic relationship between the two countries.
Listening to these various accounts of our history with Iran, I have been struck by the scant attention paid to an earlier U.S. intervention, the 1953 coup engineered by the United States and the United Kingdom that overthrew a democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, elected in 1951.
Beginning in 1908, the British, through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (forerunner of British Petroleum, or BP), controlled Iran’s oil reserves. One of Mossadeq’s early acts as prime minister was to nationalize Anglo-Iranian to ensure that the Iranian people benefitted from this resource. Unsurprisingly, this move did not sit well with the British or the Americans.
The CIA played a major role in the 1953 coup, which paved the way for many more to come, throughout the world. In the wake of that coup, the U.S. and the U.K. facilitated the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty and placed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power. The United States backed the shah’s brutal dictatorship for more than 25 years, until resistance exploded in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
I admit that I was not paying much attention to what was happening in Iran during those years. Even so, Iran was not entirely off the radar when, in the late 1970s, I worked at an intercommunity peace and justice center in downtown Chicago. Iranian students were holding regular demonstration in major U.S. cities at that time. We could hear their chants through the windows of our un-air-conditioned office, but it never occurred to me to find out why they were demonstrating.
Maybe this is our challenge. How much attention do we pay to events happening around the world? A closer examination would reveal that American foreign policy is at the heart of many chaotic situations miles from our shores. The U.S. has supported (and continues to support) repressive leaders around the globe because they serve our economic, political and military interests.
Just one year after the 1953 coup in Iran, the CIA executed another coup against a democratically elected leader, Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala, who was putting the welfare of his people ahead of U.S. corporate interests by initiating a land reform program that would benefit Guatemala’s peasant farmers.
A contemporary example, again in Latin America, is Honduras, where in recent years the U.S. has supported a coup and a fraudulent election and now backs a repressive government unresponsive to the needs of the Honduran people. The result? Thousands fleeing the country seeking refuge at our southern border.
Iran may be one of the first instances of what historian Chalmers Johnson called “blowback,” which is the unintended consequences of American actions abroad. Unfortunately, it will not be the last.
MORE: Read Sister Patricia McDermott’s statement: Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Demand No War with Iran