Iran and post World War II history: Independence thwarted


Editors' introduction: Below we present a slightly edited version of the author's original article which was posted on the "Justice Initiative". The piece makes an important contribution to the current discussion/debate regarding US-Iranian relations and US relations with the broader Middle East. We would like to add a couple of points. 1) As the author mentions, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq's economic proposals and policies could be seen as progressive for his time, but they were not radical. He was considered a threat by the western powers during the 1950s because he aimed to break the British and American hold on his nation's valuable oil resources. The fact that he apparently turned to the Soviet Union for support at some point during the crisis of the early 1950s, as the British were blockading his country, was simply one more strike against him as far as "the West" was concerned. 2) Any account of post World War II Iranian politics would be strengthened by including mention of the role of the Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran. The Tudeh played a role in building mass support for demands to nationalize Iran's oil resources before being driven underground after the return of the Shah to power in 1953. Twenty-six years later it played a role in bringing down the Shah's US backed regime. PA editorial collective.

The current dialogue with the Iranians is a positive move on the part of the Obama administration, especially since the U.S. Senate overcame opposition and presented the White House with a victory on this agreement. This is encouraging, though it is still being debated in the House of Representatives and elsewhere at the time of this writing. However, relatively little history of the U.S. and its historic relationship with Iran is being shared. This is unfortunate as the consequences overall of U.S. foreign policy have been profound for the Iranian people and the Middle East since the end of WWII. 

World War II, the Atlantic Charter and Iran
To understand some of this we need to look again at the Atlantic Charter issued by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941.

The Charter was formulated by Roosevelt and Churchill when they came together aboard a naval ship near Newfoundland. It was largely based on Roosevelt's State of the Union address to Congress in January 1941 in which he said " ....we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms" (1) freedom of speech and expression; (2) freedom of every person to worship God in their own way; (3) freedom from want; and (4) freedom from fear. Churchill was anxious for U.S. assistance in the war against Germany so agreed to the Charter.

The eight principal points of the Charter were: 

1  no territorial gains were to be sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;

2  territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned;

3  all people had a right to self-determination;

4  trade barriers were to be lowered;

5  there was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;

6  the participants would work for a world free of want and fear;

7  the participants would work for freedom of the seas;

8  there was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a post-war common disarmament.

Sounds good doesn't it? One of the more controversial of the principles was the third one, as in "All people had a right to self-determination". Almost immediately, countries suffering from colonial oppression in various parts of the world confronted Churchill about this. Churchill refused to accept the universality of the Charter, and inferred it was meant for Britain threatened by Nazi control and not for those under Britain's colonial rule. Churchill's response led to major accusations of hypocrisy of Churchill himself and European imperialists/colonialists overall in the West. Roosevelt, on the other hand, implied that "Principle Three" of self-determination applied universally, but, he was not overt about it, as he worked to maintain the alliance with Britain. 

In the long run, however, the responsibility for failing to adhere to the principles of the Atlantic Charter rests with both the U.S. and British governments in subsequent years. 

At the time, many throughout the colonial world compared Nazism to colonialism. Europeans, it was pointed out, were alarmed at oppressive forced labor and dictatorial behavior by the Germans being utilized on them yet they employed similar tactics and oppression in their colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Some stated that the Germans learned their techniques of oppressive tactics from their own colonies and from that of other Europeans. As one researcher has argued:

Hypocrisy of this type formed the basis for many postwar anticolonial theorists' rejection of making arguments based on Western pronouncements and values. (Franz) Fanon observed with disgust that Western discourse is "never done talking of Man" and yet bases itself on raw violence directed against humans. Likewise, Aimé Césaire condemned European humanistic idealism, which he dubbed "pseudo-humanism," since it "has diminished the rights of man"....

Hence, Césaire showed that Europeans' outrage directed itself not toward Nazism itself, but rather "the fact that [Hitler] applied to
Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively" for the "darker peoples" of the world. Europeans applied the rule of colonial difference to their moral and legal condemnation of Nazism, by approving of its application in the non-Western world but rejecting its application in Europe.... Césaire saw similar inconsistency in Europe's vocal condemnation of Hitler's violence against European victims, but silence on Nazi-like methods applied to "Algiers, Morocco, and other places" of contemporary colonial violence. (Mark Reeves, The Broad Toiling Masses in all the Continent: anticolonial activists and the Atlantic Charter, Western Kentucky University 2014.)

Recent historians have also referred to the Churchill hypocrisy when comparing British colonialism to Nazism. For example, Indian historian M.S. Venkataramani noted "Winston Churchill governed more alien millions the world over than Adolf Hitler did at the zenith of his power." (Reeves) 

Iran was caught in the middle of the struggles in the Middle East regarding the major protagonists during WWII. The Shah, Reza Khan, who had seized the throne during the 1920s, had developed relations with Nazi Germany in an effort to counter the influence of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the Soviets and the British acted to depose the Shah and replace him with his young son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Iran, then, had ultimately assisted the allies in offering a route for resources to the Soviets and was acknowledged for this at the conference in Tehran. In fact, the Tehran Conference took place in 1943. Russia's Joseph Stalin, Britain's Winston Churchill, and the U.S. Franklin Roosevelt were in attendance. The following document was signed by the three leaders and in which is stated at the end "in accordance with the principles of the Atlantic Charter":

The President of the United States, the Premier of the U. S. S. R. and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, having consulted with each other and with the Prime Minister of Iran, desire to declare the mutual agreement of their three Governments regarding their relations with Iran.

The Governments of the United States, the U. S. S. R., and the United Kingdom recognize the assistance which Iran has given in the prosecution of the war against the common enemy, particularly by facilitating the transportation of supplies from overseas to the Soviet Union.

The Three Governments realize that the war has caused special economic difficulties for Iran, and they are agreed that they will continue to make available to the Government of Iran such economic assistance as may be possible, having regard to the heavy demands made upon them by their world-wide military operations, and to the world-wide shortage of transport, raw materials, and supplies for civilian consumption.

With respect to the post-war period, the Governments of the United States, the U. S. S. R., and the United Kingdom are in accord with the Government of Iran that any economic problems confronting Iran at the close of hostilities should receive full consideration, along with those of other members of the United Nations, by conferences or international agencies held or created to deal with international economic matters.

The Governments of the United States, the U. S. S. R., and the United Kingdom are at one with the Government of Iran in their desire for the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran They count upon the participation of Iran, together with all other peace-loving nations, in the establishment of international peace, security and prosperity after the war, in accordance with the principles of the Atlantic Charter, to which all four Governments have subscribed.





The Post War Period 

After World War II, the continued insistence of the British on dominating the Iranian economy and appropriating the oil profits brought forward a surge of nationalist sentiment and the election of the country's first democratically elected leader. Mohammad Mosaddeq was elected Prime Minister in 1951, prior to which he had presented the idea of Iranian oil nationalization to the Iranian people. Mosaddeq desired opportunities and reforms for his country outside western influence, which he realized could not be achieved without "economic" independence. Britain at the time, however, largely controlled the Iranian economy through its dominance of the Iranian oil industry. ( International Man)

Within 10 years of this historic Tehran Conference, Mosaddeq was ousted by the CIA. As the first Iranian to receive a Doctorate of Law (acquired in 1913 from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland), he has been described as a secular liberal. He was not a Marxist, a Communist or a radical Islamist. Emulating Roosevelt's policies, he had plans for a "New Deal" type government to benefit the Iranian masses, and sought ways to fund his program through economic independence, including Iranian control of its oil resources. 

Mosaddeq may have mistakenly believed that he could make Iran a sovereign nation. Objectively, he was attempting to adhere to Principal Three of the Atlantic Charter regarding self-determination, much to the chagrin of the British and the United States. Ultimately, the issue was Iranian "oil" and the British were not about to give up on the valuable resource they had controlled since 1908.

In 1908, a sizable deposit of oil was found in Masjed Soleiman, Iran and the British company the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was created. In 1935 it became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Importantly, Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror, notes that this company was the largest in the British Empire (Democracy Now ). He says further that " the Iranian oil is actually what maintained Britain at its level of prosperity and its level of military preparedness all throughout the '30s, the '40s, and the '50s". ( Democracy Now) 

However, Iran only received 25% of the proceeds of the oil industry. In fact, politically conscious Iranians were aware, however, that the British government derived more revenue from taxing the concessionaire, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, than the Iranian government derived from royalties. ( Iran Chamber) 

When Prime Minister Mosaddeq proposed an audit of the oil company, the British refused. In the early 1950's, the Iranians also discovered that Americans had established a 50/50 deal with the Saudi oil entities known as the Saudi-Aramco agreement. The Iranians also attempted this 50/50 concept with the British but were rebuffed. Finally in 1951, the Iranians nationalized the oil industry altogether.

Britain was outraged by the Iranian nationalization of the oil industry and wanted to overturn the Iranian government. U.S. President Truman was, apparently, somewhat sympathetic to Mosaddeq's demands or vacillated on the issue and would not agree to the British invasion of Iran. Yet according to Stephen Kinzer, Truman also thought he could talk Mosaddeq out of the nationalization scheme. That didn't work.  By 1953 a more conservative and Republican administration under Dwight Eisenhower approved the ousting by the CIA of the Mosaddeq government. It was known as "Operation Ajax" and it marked the first time the CIA had overturned a government. In the words of one author:

MI6, the UK's foreign spy agency, and the CIA would organize the coup. Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of former US President Teddy Roosevelt, was the CIA officer in charge.

 The goal was to return the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (also known as "the Shah") to power. (In Farsi, the Persian language, "shah" means "king.")

 The CIA and MI6 used classic methods of subterfuge. They paid Iranian goons to pose as communists and wreak havoc in Tehran, the Iranian capital, and vandalize its business district. The police couldn't restrain them, and the violence grew. (Nick Giambruno in International Man )

Mosaddeq was arrested and tried for treason. He was not killed but ultimately placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The British and Americans placed the young Shah (who had fled the country at one point during the August 1953 crisis) on the throne as ruler of Iran. The British hoped to go back to the previous arrangement of controlling the oil industry altogether, but public sentiment in Iran at this point was so strongly opposed that the British had to capitulate. As a result, also under pressure from the U.S., a consortium holding company was incorporated in London in 1954 called the Iranian Oil Participants Ltd (IOP). It was composed of British, American, Dutch and French oil interests. Iran was to receive 50% of the oil profit (emulating the Saudi-Aramco arrangement) but Iran was not allowed to audit the industry nor could Iranians serve on the board of directors.

In 2013, the 60th anniversary of the ousting of Mosaddeq, the CIA released documents affirming its involvement in the coup. ( RT Question More, 19 August 2013) The British papers about the coup remain secret even though, according to the Guardian, Iranian school children know all the details of the coup. In 2009 the former foreign secretary Jack Straw publicly referred to many British "interferences" in 20th-century Iranian affairs. (Following the CIA release of U/S. involvement, the British) Foreign Office said it could neither confirm nor deny Britain's involvement in the coup.Guardian)

The Iranian-Armenian historian Ervand Abrahamian, author of "The Coup: 1953, the CIA and the Roots of Modern US-Iranian Relations", said in a recent interview that the coup was designed  "to get rid of a nationalist figure who insisted that oil should be nationalized. Unlike other nationalist leaders, including Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mosaddeq epitomised a unique "anti-colonial" figure who was also committed to democratic values and human rights...." (Guardian

  In Iran, the IOP continued to operate until the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini confiscated all of the company's assets in Iran... and annulled the 1954 agreement and all regulations pertaining to it. ( Wikipedia)  

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there has been a wide range of sanctions against Iran imposed by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Click here for a summary of the sanctions. 

Both the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini were not democratically elected as was Mosaddeq. It is rather mind boggling to speculate as to what might have happened had the U.S. not overturned the Iranian government in 1953 and instead had assisted the Iranians in having control over their own oil resource and respected the democratic process in Iran by adhering to the Atlantic Charter and Principle Three's concept of "self-determination". Nevertheless, the Iranians have suffered from isolation and economic sanctions from the west largely because some sectors decided to take the situation into their own hands rather than serving the dictates of the United States or the West overall. As Noam Chomsky notes: 

Why the assault against Iran? ....In 1979, Iranians carried out an illegitimate act: They overthrew a tyrant that the United States had imposed and supported, and moved on an independent path, not following U.S. orders. That conflicts with the Mafia doctrine, by which the world is pretty much ruled. Credibility must be maintained. The godfather cannot permit independence and successful defiance, as in the case of Cuba. So, Iran has to be punished for that. (Democracy Now) 

Hopefully with the recent acceptance of the agreement with the Iranians in the U.S. Senate and the possible projected lifting of the sanctions against Iran, opportunities for the Iranians might again be in the offing. It is an exciting prospect. 


The unfortunate lesson of it all was that the United States sent a message to the Middle East and to the world at large, that the United States was not interested in democratic systems and processes.  As Stephen Kinzer noted: 

When we overthrew a democratic government in Iran, ....we sent a message, not only to Iran, but throughout the entire Middle East. That message was that the United States does not support democratic governments and the United States prefers strong-man rule that will guarantee us access to oil. And that pushed an entire generation of leaders in the Middle East away from democracy. We sent the opposite message that we should have sent. Instead of sending the message that we wanted democracy, we sent a message that we wanted dictatorship in the Middle East, and a lot of people in the Middle East got that message very clearly and that helped to lead to the political trouble we face there today. (Democracy Now) 

Further, it appears that the principles of the 1941 Atlantic Charter are not something the United States and Europe are willing to adhere to particularly if it regards threats of access to capital, control of labor and control of raw materials, such as oil and/or access to seeds and control of seeds in the agricultural sector and many other examples. 

The disruptive Republican members of the House of Representatives in their opposition to the Iranian agreement are yet again arrogantly displaying their disdain for a semblance of justice and respect for the other. Nor are they adhering to Roosevelt's directive of "what we could do by an unselfish foreign policy" and/or the possibility of dialogue and negotiation.  As they say in southern Africa, " A luta continua" - the struggle continues!   

Heather Gray is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 25 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at 

Photo: President Nixon with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran May 1972. US arms sales to Iran increased sharply after Nixon's visit.  The Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies;;

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  • The US message from 1979 forward is very similar to the message from 1953 forward. US Capital rules. Not only in the Middle East but globally. There is in the article only one mention of imperialist, no mention of imperialism. And the word isn't used in the editor's comment at all. But the editor does use the term "the West," there also in quotes. In my lexicon "the West" is a euphemism for imperialism. Certainly the term has no geographic meaning, Cuba not being part of "the West" and Japan and South Korea fitting in neatly. Nor, given the inclusion of those Asian states does "the West" require a history linked to biblical times, or the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, or the Renaissance. No, "the West" refers to imperialism. It would be good to drop the euphemism. When President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in February 1945 the US started its Middle East protection racket - back the Saudi tyrants on all things in return for oil concessions and compliance. By 1979 the Iranians had put up with imperialism for 26 years before booting out the Shah. Since then, they have suffered sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and threats of nuclear - "all options are on the table" - annihilation from US imperialism. Not only is it interesting to think how different Iran might be had the CIA not been given the go ahead to start its global reign of terror, it is interesting to think what Saudi Arabia might become if the Saudi people took a page from the book of Iran. And what such a setback for imperialism might engender in the belly of the beast.

    Posted by HenryCT, 10/28/2015 4:53pm (6 years ago)

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