This week, November 4 to be specific, marks the 40th anniversary of when the American Embassy in Tehran was forcefully taken over by Iranian students, inadvertently leading to the 444-day hostage crisis, consequently to the hostile relations between both the United States and Iran that persist to this day. At the time, what led to the 1979 takeover remained obscure to Americans who for months could only watch in horror as TV newscasts showed Iranian protests at the embassy. Popular anger against the America was rooted in the 1953 CIA-engineered coup that toppled Iran’s elected prime minister and cemented the power of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
For those of us who are old enough remember when the the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted in 1979 what was not clear back then as is more transparent today is how deeply involved the Central Intelligence Agency had been involved for years in creating political instability in Iran. Pahlavi’s ousting was a déjà-vu of when the CIA deposed Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh from power in 1953 after he tried to nationalize his nation’s oil. That was the year that the CIA, which was called into existence in 1947 when the US government was being converted to a national-security state, targeted Iran with its first regime-change operation. The CIA had asked President Harry Truman for permission to initiate a coup to help the British oil companies, which the CIA knew would destroy the Iranian people’s experiment with democracy. To his everlasting credit, Truman said no. That did not stop the CIA, however. As soon as President Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, the CIA renewed its request for a coup, arguing that Mossadegh was a “communist.”
Mossadegh’s removal restored the young Shah Pahlavi to power, thereby giving the élite someone they could manipulate in order to exploit Iran’s oil commerce. Nevertheless, by the 1970s the Shah, notwithstanding the abuses of the SAVAK, was able to restructure Iran into a highly developed society through educational, land, and juridical reforms; the suffrage of women; and the creation of efficient hospitals, as well as legislating religious freedom. He also made his country one of the main global competitors of petroleum. When he tried to nationalize his country’s oil, which would have meant that countries the United Kingdom and America would no longer dictate policy in Iran, he was ousted. After this, in November 1979 President Jimmy Carter gave Pahlavi asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons — the students who sacked the embassy were hoping to pressure Carter to send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial on corruption charge — while simultaneously helping Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile in France, gain control of Iran and institute the same Islamic theocracy.
This does not excuse, of course, the Ayatollah’s continual brutal and inhumane policies that have not only sponsored terrorism but have oppressed their own people, nor does it absolve what their followers, specifically the Iranian student leaders of the 1979 US Embassy takeover. There is, in fact, regret by many of them for blindly following the mentality of the time that ousted the Shah. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the student leaders, recently acknowldged that the repercussions of the crisis still reverberate as tensions remain high between the America and Iran over Tehran’s collapsing nuclear deal with world powers.
Asgharzadeh cautioned others against following in his footsteps, despite the takeover becoming enshrined in hard-line mythology. He also disputed a revisionist history now being offered by supporters of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that they directed the attack, insisting all the blame rested with the Islamist students who let the crisis spin out of control. Asgharzadeh even said: “Like Jesus Christ, I bear all the sins on my shoulders.”
What is to be expected? The CIA, and other US intelligence services continue to assure that Iranian regime will eventually falter after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposed the most severest of economic sanctions. Can this, as Trump insists, occur? Will the unilateral sanctions work?
If we were to rely on such “intelligent sources” as we did forty-years ago, I am afraid we will be waiting for the end that will never transpire. For those of us who also recall, a direct line can be drawn back to the American miscalculations before, during and after the Islamic Revolution. “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation,” a CIA analysis on the country circulated in the White House declared in August 1978. “There is dissatisfaction with the shah’s tight control of the political process, but this does not at all at present threaten the government.” By January 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would flee Iran while suffering from a fatal illness the US knew nothing about. The Ayatollah flew back to Tehran and the rest was history — pro-Khomeini revolutionary guerrilla and rebel soldiers gained the upper hand in street fighting forcing the military to announced its neutrality and the official end of the 2,500 year-old Persian monarchy.
Many heavily criticize President Barak Obama for facilitating Iran with nuclear technology. Yet as Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iran, says: “The Iranian nuclear program has deep roots. In fact, it is four years older than President Obama. It [in fact] started in 1957 and ironically, it is a creation of the United States. The US provided Iran with its first research reactor — a nuclear reactor, a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that is still functioning and still operational in Tehran.” The Americans also built that nuclear reactor in 1967 on the campus of Tehran University. It also provided Iran with fuel for that reactor — weapons-grade enriched uranium. It seemed like a good idea until the draconian Shi’ite Ayatollahs took over.
It is going to take more than sanctions to have a regime change and install stability. It can only happen, as Shah Pahlavi did, if the country is secularized without having foreign interference like the United States had done — the focus should be on human rights and not just oil if the West wishes to help — which helped create this mess in the first place. Until then, it seems as if we have not learned much.