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How a US coup in Iran led to 'Death to America'

How a US coup in Iran led to 'Death to America'
© Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Once again, the war drums are beating in the Middle East. Iran has vowed revenge for the death of a leading nuclear scientist, the second assassination of a high-ranking Iranian official this year.

As tensions flare, it is easy to get lost in the inflammatory rhetoric, violence and on-again, off-again diplomacy that define U.S.-Iran relations. As a result, many observers have lost sight of the driving forces behind the Iranian regime’s animosity towards the United States.

A long history of American and foreign meddling in Iran is seared into the Persian psyche. And yet, the Iranian public remains remarkably pro-American; a testament to a nuanced perspective that separates the American people from the actions of its government. Iran’s religious hardliners – the crowd that incites chants of “Death to America” – have also made this distinction.

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To most Iranians, “Death to America” means “death to American foreign policy.” Indeed, even Iran’s ultra-conservative Islamist leader has stated that “the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; [it] means death to the U.S.’s policies.”

Some perspective is in order. As the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan saw thousands of foreign troops surround Iran, rumblings of an impending American attack heightened deep-seated Iranian fears of invasion. Hobbled by a particularly weak conventional military, Iran viewed the invasions as an existential threat.

The George W. Bush administration’s unceremonious rejection of Iran’s offer of a diplomatic “Grand Bargain” only incensed Tehran further. Unknown to many Americans, Shia-majority Iran rounded up Sunni al Qaeda terrorists after the September 11, 2001 attacks and assisted the United States in Afghanistan. For its efforts, Iran was named to the “axis of evil.”

But the roots of Iranian anger at U.S. foreign policy run far deeper than 21st century invasions or the Trump administration’s ill-advised withdrawal from a landmark nuclear agreement.

Iranians will never forget the events of 1953, when an American coup toppled a pro-democracy Iranian leader and installed a brutally repressive monarch.

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In the early 1950s, a British oil company – known today as British Petroleum – enjoyed an enormously lucrative monopoly over oil production in Iran. Convinced that the British were exploiting Iran’s natural resources and not paying their fair share, the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh, sought to audit the British oil company’s books. When the British refused, Mosaddegh led a movement to nationalize Iran’s oil industry.

After decades of foreign meddling and interference in Iranian affairs, nationalization proved enormously popular, turning Mosaddegh into a national hero.

Beyond seeking an equitable share of oil profits, the “rabidly secular” Mosaddegh was deeply committed to democracy. He considered moves by the shah, Iran’s monarch, to assert control over Iranian affairs fundamentally undemocratic. To Mosaddegh, the shah should “reign, but not rule.”

After refusing to split oil profits evenly with Iran, the British convinced the United States to overthrow Mosaddegh and install the shah as Iran’s ruler. In making their case, the British exploited unrealistic and exaggerated American fears of a communist takeover of Iran’s vast petroleum reserves.

Following Mosaddegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, London mounted a fierce campaign of economic retaliation. In the ensuing political and economic turmoil, Mosaddegh’s popularity plummeted.

The CIA went to work. American spies paid off media outlets and disseminated propaganda falsely portraying Mosaddegh as a communist stooge. At the same time, bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party sought to stoke anti-communist sentiment – especially among Iran’s conservative religious community – to further undermine Mosaddegh.

CIA money also went to infiltrators who incited mobs to attack stores and shops in a faux communist “uprising.” Shortly thereafter, a different group of paid “ruffians” rallied the Iranian public, incensed by the first round of staged riots, to the streets.

Perhaps most consequentially, “large sums” of American money went to influential religious figures to turn Iran’s conservative Muslim population against Mosaddegh.

The CIA’s goal, in short, was to foment so much instability that the Iranian public would throw its support behind the shah, relegating Mosaddegh and his democratic, nationalist and secular policies to the ash heap of history. While the coup did not proceed as planned, Mosaddegh was ultimately overthrown and the shah seized control of Iran.

In the ensuing years, the U.S. remained a staunch ally of the shah as his government imprisoned and tortured thousands of Iranians. Unsurprisingly, America’s unflinching support for the shah’s repressive regime bred immense resentment among the Iranian public.

Decades of anger boiled over in 1979, when a mob attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The Islamic Revolution had begun.

In an ugly twist of history, there is a direct link between the ultra-conservative, anti-American Islamists who seized control of Iran in 1979 and the 1953 coup.

Beyond American success inciting Iran’s Muslim community, there is robust evidence that the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was inspired and mentored by the Islamist clerics that U.S. spies paid off to undermine Mosaddegh.

Not long after Khomeini assumed power, chants of “Death to America” echoed through the streets of Tehran.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.