In August 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, regarded by the Eisenhower administration as too weak in the face of growing communist influence in Iran, was forced from office by street violence engineered, in part, by CIA operatives with the help of British counterparts. The acquiescence of certain Iranian political and clerical elites facilitated the coup. The young shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had fled the country in the midst of the violence, was restored to the throne.
I was among a half-dozen young Foreign Service officers pulled from other assignments (Kobe, Japan, for me) and put to work in an expanded U.S. mission under Ambassador Loy Henderson. Thus began a rapidly evolving, close and frequently rewarding security relationship between the United States and Iran. Over the next 25 years, U.S. economic assistance, especially in agriculture and education, and private investment fueled the shah's determined modernization drive. But it became apparent that change was too rapid. The economic aspirations of ordinary citizens were going unmet. The frequently well-meaning shah was unable to overcome his imperial pretensions and an innate lack of trust in his people, including his own advisers.
As a result, more and more Iranians became alienated from a regime that seemed to identify with U.S. political purposes and culture at the expense of Iran's own cultural and religious traditions. At the same time, the shah's reluctance to legalize political opposition and participation frustrated Iranians. A pervasive and feared security system, the Savak, intensified his political isolation. All this culminated in the shah's overthrow in 1979, the advent of the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the attendant hostage crisis, which ended in 1981.
Today, with the future of U.S.-Iranian relations a principal item on our post-Saddam Hussein agenda, we would be well advised to recall that regime change in 1953. Mossadegh was hardly a democrat, but to most Iranian readers of history, his ouster halted an evolving democratic impulse that the shah's increasingly rigid rule ultimately killed. As hostages in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy, when we railed about our status, a typical response from our captors was that the U.S. government had taken an entire country hostage in 1953, so we had no basis to complain.
While the exact dimensions of U.S. involvement in the shah's restoration to power remain a matter of historical debate, the United States thereafter was seen as the real power behind his throne, setting the high-water mark of foreign intrusion into the body politic of Iran. In the 19th century, it was the Russians under the czars, in occasional collusion with the British. In the 20th century, the Soviets in Azerbaijan and the British in the oil-nationalization crisis before the ouster of Mossadegh meddled in Iranian affairs.
Khomeini built on this historical "foreign-hand" theme in Iranian politics to accomplish his revolution with the rallying cry of America as the Great Satan. Today, that theme continues to politically underpin the clerical leadership's hold on power, even in the face of clear evidence that a majority of Iranians favors dialogue with the United States.
The revolution, from its beginnings, has been out of touch with Iran's national and cultural traditions. Khomeini's doctrine of veleyati i faqui - the concept of the supreme leader as God's representative on Earth - is out of line with Shiite doctrinal traditions. The provision for a separate executive - today in the person of President Mohammad Khatami - is demonstrably unworkable. The result is that Iran's immense human and material potential is hobbled by a failing governmental structure. Students are again on the street protesting the theocracy's denial of their desire for greater political and personal freedom.
Regime change in Tehran is inevitable. But it must come from within. Iran is not Iraq. It is big; it is populous: 70 million and counting. It is overwhelmingly Shiite. Its people are culture-proud and intensely nationalistic. The current student unrest is symptomatic, but there is little evidence of a burgeoning public movement sufficient to press revolutionary change. A quasidemocratic process and an evolving civil society work to keep political agitation largely under control, with the Basij and other militants put on the streets to curb student unrest. After the climactic events of the revolution and the eight years of devastating war with Iraq, there is little public readiness for institutional upheaval. Nor is there any evident alternative leadership of any stature among the students or other opposition.