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.

A protest in Iran
A protest in Iran

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

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  1. Katie Mindling

    Karen, thank you for helping us admit that we need to be more outward looking and informed about what is going on around our world. The sheer flood of information that comes in always needs to be understood and it is so very helpful that you call us to take a look back in history and to assess things with that perspective. The call for non-violence is so clear and, again, thanks to you and to all on the Mercy Justice team for helping us to understand, to face the dire consequences for our brothers and sisters and to take action to get to the underlying causes of these atrocities.


  2. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM

    Karen, thanks so much for your very clear and relevant account of our history with Iran and other nations. Our status as one of (if not ‘the’) largest and richest countries in the world requires us to promote the good of all, not to be the world’s bully.


  3. Jackie Moreau

    Facts in history. Help perspective THanks

    Jackie Moreau


  4. Martha Larsen

    Thank you, Karen for this excellent article. I have become more and more aware that the American Empire is the cause of deep suffering of peoples across the globe. Our defense of our interests, corporate interests, in oil, etc. has led to the situation of refugees fleeing the chaos and violence in their country. It deeply saddens me, but also motivates me to do more to try to change the systems that are supported by corporate greed.


  5. Mary Trainer

    Karen, thank you for alerting us to history bearing on the present.


  6. Patricia E Fairfield

    Sad to say but too many of us (Americans) probably did not know this history and now must respond prayerfully for discernment in each situation. God help us all.


  7. Fran Repka

    Karen,
    Thank you for your well-written and clear article on Iran. Very helpful. You have worked for justice and peace for many years. I hope you keep writing informative articles such as this on other current justice issues to keep the rest of us informed.


  8. Jean Strawbridge

    Karen, reading your Iran article as I sit watching Impeachment procedings, thanks for putting it so clearly. As involved citizens, we are right to celebrate the good and generouse things done in the name of world peace, e.g. the Marshal Plan, AND we are also called to own our missteps in relating to the rest of the owrld.