In late December 1977, President Carter travelled to Tehran to strengthen US‐Iranian relations. On New Year’s Eve, he made a speech in Tehran’s Niavaran Complex, during which he said that "Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” He called Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) a staunch ally of the USA and “a popular king of the Iranians.” Within days of Carter’s visit millions of Iranians poured into the streets to protest against the Shah and the Western powers. The Iranian revolution was now underway. On 11 February 1979, the Shah regime was overthrown.
Through their hold on the Shah regime and Iran’s petroleum industry, the Americans had a bird’s eye view of Iran but they didn’t have the worm’s eye view—they didn’t have an insider’s perspective. They had no knowledge of the contempt and anger that the Iranian masses felt for their government and the West (America and Britain). The Iranian revolution did not arise out of thin air in the aftermath of Carter’s visit. The idea of overthrowing the Shah regime, and driving the West out of Iran, had been shimmering beneath the surface of the Iranian society for decades, waiting for the opportune moment to get unleashed in the form of a revolution.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the British company Anglo‐Persian Oil (AIOC—which later became British Petroleum, BP) managed to coerce the Iranian government to give it the exclusive right to Iran’s oil. By the 1950s, the strategists of the British government were regarding Iranian oil as a property of Britain, not of the Iranians. In their documents, the British foreign office was declaring that Iranian oil was “the major asset which Britain holds in the field of raw materials.” Iran received less in royalty for its oil than the AIOC paid as taxes to Britain.
In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh, a nationalist leader who was the descendent of the former Persian monarchy, became Iran’s prime minister. In May 1951, he nationalized Iran’s oil. He wanted a better deal for Iran’s oil. He was right in demanding a better deal, because at that time Venezuela was having a 50-50 deal, and Mexico had nationalized its oil industry. The British responded by blockading Iran, making it impossible for the country to export its oil. This led to a financial crisis in Iran. But Mosaddegh managed to stay in power.
In 1953, the Americans (with British help) decided to orchestrate a coup to overthrow his government. The American intelligence operative in Iran at that time was Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (the grandson of the former American president Teddy Roosevelt). He played a key role in the coup which was codenamed Operation Ajax. In 2000, The New York Times published some excerpts from a leaked CIA document titled “Clandestine Service History – Overthrow of Premier Mosaddegh of Iran – November 1952 – August 1953.”
The NYT story shows that Kermit Roosevelt Jr. had informed Washington that under Mosaddegh a communist takeover of Iran was imminent. Though he did not provide any proof of a communist takeover, Operation Ajax was put into play. Mosaddegh was arrested in August 1953, and placed under house arrest. Many of Mosaddegh’s supporters were tortured and executed. The Shah was brought back and installed in power.
The machinations of the American intelligence operatives in the 1953 coup embittered most Iranians—they became convinced that there would be no peace in their country till the West was driven out. In 1962, when Ayatollah Khomeini began to speak against the West and the Shah regime, the Iranians flocked to listen to him. When Khomeini was arrested on the Shah’s orders in 1963, there were protests all over Iran. Due to the intensity of the protests, the Shah was forced to release Khomeini.
In 1964, the Shah passed a law which infuriated the Iranians: this law gave the American military advisors immunity from Iranian law. Khomeini decried the Shah’s policy. In a famous speech, he said that, under the Shah’s rule, the Iranians had a status lower than that of an American dog. The Iranian government exiled Khomeini in November 1964. They were hoping that while he was out of the country, his popularity would wane. But Khomeini started communicating with his followers through recorded speeches. The audio cassettes of his speeches became very popular.
By the 1970s, Khomeini had gained enough influence to thwart the Shah. His supporters routinely disobeyed curfew orders and participated in demonstrations. When Khomeini arrived in Tehran in February 1979, millions of Iranians were out in the streets to welcome him. His arrival in Tehran marked the end of not only the Shah regime but also of the Western influence in Iran’s affairs. In a speech on 5 November, 1979, Khomeini described the USA as the “Great Satan” and the root of all evil—the break between Iran and the West was now total.