For years, Americans treated Iran as an object, a strange, “backward” country in need of modernization. Attitudes toward Iran were laced with paternalism. As a result, policymakers turned away from promoting democracy, instead finding reason to back authoritarian rule as a suitable “cure” to Iran’s perceived ailment.
Recognizing this history is crucial for moving past the trauma of those 444 days and developing a more successful approach to Iran and the Middle East more broadly.
One of the first Americans to encounter Iran in an official capacity was Morgan Shuster, a financial adviser who came to Tehran in 1911, five years after the country underwent a constitutional revolution that produced the nation’s first “majlis,” or parliament. Shuster admired Iran’s revolutionaries, yet the bureaucrat bemoaned the confusion pervading “a fast decaying government.”
“Persia’s sole chance for self-redemption,” wrote Shuster, “lay with the reform of her broken finances,” but the country’s present crop of leaders were “neither equipped by experience … nor suited by character and disposition” to handle the task. Shuster’s view that the Iranian leadership was incompetent was shaped by imperial and racial ideologies that framed the country as ill-suited for democratic government, despite its recent constitutional strides.
Another American administrator, Arthur C. Millspaugh, who served as Iran’s financial adviser in the 1920s, came to a similar conclusion. After 1921, Iran had fallen under the sway of a dictatorial government led by Reza Shah Pahlavi. Should the shah die or resign, Millspaugh feared, “internal disorder and further decay seem more than likely to follow.” To Millspaugh then, only authoritarian rule provided an antidote to the instability observed by Shuster.
A similar quandary faced U.S. officials in the early 1950s. A popular nationalist government led by the constitutionalist Mohammad Mosaddeq had come to power and nationalized Iran’s British-owned oil industry. Despite his commitment to the constitution, Mosaddeq appeared a dangerous figure to American policymakers, who worried that his nationalist government would fall under communist influence. “Iran is sick country,” wrote U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson, “and PriMin is one of its most sick leaders.”
The United States covertly conspired with British secret services to overthrow Mosaddeq in August 1953. In official memory, the coup was necessary, “as the alternative to certain economic collapse in Iran.” The communist threat was vague and the intelligence supporting a coup insufficient, but the United States chose to act, regardless, dooming Iran’s nascent democracy in exchange for perceived temporary stability.
“Whatever we have done, good or bad … we can at least have the satisfaction that we saved Iran from communism,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower concluded several years later. U.S. policymakers, fearing Iran’s imminent collapse, had acted to “save” the strategically important (and oil-rich) country, violating Iranian sovereignty.
But this move left ordinary Iranians embittered, souring them on the United States and staining the post-1953 government, led by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with the mark of illegitimacy. While it may have served U.S. interests in the short-term, it proved disastrous over the long term — helping to precipitate the rise of the current anti-American regime and limiting American options in dealing with it.
This was not the outcome imagined in Washington. For the next 10 years, the United States tried to push Iran’s new authoritarian government toward political liberalization. While the shah deployed his fearsome internal security service, SAVAK, to repress all political opposition, U.S. policymakers saw this as unsustainable and a hallmark of Iran’s historical instability and inability to govern itself. Amid “administrative chaos … mismanagement, political rivalries, inertia and lack of skills,” it was “politically necessary that visible progress” be achieved.
“The shah means well; so do many of his ministers. … What they lack is the capacity for sustained, dynamic effort. They don’t have what it takes to run a country themselves,” lamented Robert Komer, an adviser to President John F. Kennedy.
In 1963, however, the shah launched his “White Revolution,” a campaign designed to consolidate his power while illustrating his modernizing bona fides. While the changes proved fairly unsuccessful at winning popular support for his regime, or creating prosperity in Iran, the shah’s strategy scored one major success: It reversed the perceptions of the U.S. government, which hailed him as a “revolutionary monarch.” In a 1964 interview, Komer embodied this changed perception, asserting that “any observer would call Iran one of the bright spots in the Middle East. The country is moving.”
Importantly, this shift resulted in the U.S. government’s easing up on the shah by the late 1960s.
But rather than reflecting a changed reality on the ground, this newfound perception of progress was a self-delusion spurred by the oil-rich monarch emerging as a major purchaser of U.S. weapons and a crucial Cold War ally in the Middle East.
Iran’s apparent stability and economic prosperity only masked the shah’s increasingly dictatorial governing style, the lack of real political reform, rising economic inequality and disaffection among Iran’s lower and middle classes.
Dissenting voices in the U.S. government understood this: Should the shah die, warned one official in late 1963, the country would simply “disintegrate.” Even if he survived, his lack of legitimacy and failure to deliver real economic progress to Iran’s rural and urban poor left him on shaky ground. The most likely outcome, according to dissident economist Hossein Mahdavy, was a violent confrontation, “as the only way to bring about a solution to Iran’s ills.”
Mahdavy’s prediction, made in 1965, took 14 years to come true.
A consistent theme in U.S. policy toward Iran before 1979 was a sense of missionary zeal — a determination to “save” Iran from its perceived state of instability. The United States eased up only in the 1960s, when it sensed that these efforts had succeeded.
But instead of saving Iran, American policies helped fuel the backlash that toppled the shah. This is perhaps the most relevant lesson 40 years after the hostage crisis, a realization that Iran is itself a nation, not a subject to be experimented upon, and that U.S. actions, however well-intentioned, often have dire unexpected consequences.
In the past three years, the U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure” has delivered pain and suffering to the people of Iran while accomplishing very little except fueling further hostility. As with U.S. policy in the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis has been on short-term gains — there is no apparent overarching strategy, apart from a not-so-subtle push for regime change.
There is no doubt that the existing government in Tehran is oppressive, dictatorial, brutal and undemocratic. But the United States cannot engineer progress in Iran single-handedly — an idea that stems from lingering paternalism, missionary zeal and a sense of Iranian incapacity. Decades of trying to do so helped produce the authoritarian, anti-American regime in place today.
The United States can and should support the struggle for democracy in Iran, but it cannot “save” Iran through embargoes of oil and medicine, pushing for change through heavy-handed interventions.
On this traumatic anniversary, Americans who recall the fury of the hostage crisis can reflect on what 70 years of intervention actually yielded and apply such lessons to a new approach to the Middle East. Until then, the trauma will go unhealed — and the cycle will continue.