If you say “Iran” to an American his mind goes back to 1979 and the Iran Hostage Crisis. If you say “United States” to an Iranian, his mind may go to 1953, the year of the American-British-led coup that overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government. No wonder we see each other in a distorted fashion.
Americans often like to divide up countries into “good guys” and “bad guys”.
This kind of Manichean thinking makes life simpler for many of us. During the Cold War, the Communists were bad and we were good. This made it easier to fight wars in such far-flung places as Vietnam and Granada. All we needed to do was say that we were fighting to stop the spread of Communism and a ready-made raison d’etre for war against people who had never harmed us was provided.
Iran, which was “good” while the Shah was in power, soon became “bad’ after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, especially after Iranian students, later supported by their government, held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days. Quoting Wikipedia:
Following his overthrow in 1979, the Shah was admitted into the U.S. for medical treatment for cancer. The Iranians demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution for crimes he was accused of committing during his reign. Specifically, they accused the Shah of crimes against Iranian citizens with the help of his secret police, the SAVAK. Iranians saw the asylum granted by the U.S. as American complicity in the atrocities the Shah had committed. In the United States, the hostage-taking was seen as an egregious violation of the principles of international law which granted diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds’ inviolability
Where did this animosity against the American diplomats come from? Did the Iranians take the hostages simply because they were “bad” and anti-American? Were they crazed radical third-world students who just hated Americans? Or was there perhaps a background to the story, one that could not excuse the hostage-taking but might make it more comprehensible? And, let’s not be misunderstood here – taking the hostages and holding them for well over a year was a bad and stupid thing to do, something that should never have happened. We are not trying to condone it. We are only trying to put forth the notion that like most things in history, this unfortunate incident did not occur in a vacuum, out of nowhere.
To better understand the hostage crisis we must go back to the events of 1953. For a full and clear exposition of those events leading up to, including and following the 1953 coup we recommend the book “All the Shah’s Men” by Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter, academic and author.
In simple language, what happened in 1953 is that the American. CIA, with the aid of the British secret service, engineered a coup that resulted in the overthrow of the legally elected government of Iran under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and the establishment of the Shah as leader of an absolute monarchy. The story of the 1953 is a long one, way too long to put into this blog space. But the main thing to know about is that it HAPPENED. How many Americans alive today know anything about it?
And why did it happen? You may not be surprised to learn that it had to do with oil, although the American government of Dwight Eisenhower explained the coup as a way to inhibit the power of the Iranian Communist Tudeh Party. Communism always seemed to come in handy at times like those.
We can only tell the story in abbreviated terms, but the fact is that for decades, since the early 1900s, the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later, British Petroleum or BP) had been taking oil out if Iran without paying the Iranians a fair share of the proceeds. The Iranians could not even get a straightforward accounting of how much oil was being shipped out. British and other foreign workers lived in air-conditioned housing while the Iranian workers lived under terrible conditions in one of the hottest parts of the world. Not surprisingly, many Iranians were unhappy about this. Prime Minister Mossadegh kept asking for a valid accounting of oil being pumped as well as for better working conditions for Iranian workers, all to no avail. He threatened to nationalize the oil industry, something the British wanted to avoid at all costs. While the Labor government in the U.K. was happy to nationalize their own industries at home, doing the same thing in Iran was not an option. It would cost them a large portion of their foreign earnings.
The British government approached the Truman administration about engineering a joint overthrow of the Mossadegh government, but Truman firmly resisted the idea. However, when Eisenhower became President in 1952, with John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and his brother Allan as head of the CIA, all bets were off. During the Second World War the CIA was an espionage agency and was not in the business of overthrowing foreign regimes. This policy changed with the Dulles brothers. (The next year, 1954, they would overthrow the government of Guatemala, bringing misery to that poor country for many decades to come).
Flash forward now to1979. Following his overthrow in 1979, the Shah was admitted into the U.S. for medical treatment for cancer. The Iranians demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution for crimes he was accused of committing during his reign. Specifically, they accused the Shah of crimes against Iranian citizens with the help of his secret police, the SAVAK. The Savak, by the way, was the police/intelligence organization set up by the Shah, with the aid of the United States, after the 1953 coup. The Savak’s name was synonymous with repression and torture. Iranians saw the asylum granted by the U.S. as American complicity in the atrocities the Shah had committed. In the United States, the hostage-taking was seen as an egregious violation of the principles of international law which granted diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds’ inviolability.
Given all this background, in 1979, after their Islamic revolution it may now appear more understandable that many Iranians feared the United States was plotting another coup, again directed out of the U.S. Embassy, as it had been in 1953. Again, this does not justify the taking of the hostages, but it may render the motivations behind it more comprehensible.
All this background may be lost in the mists of history to most Americans. After all, the 1953 coup happened before most Americans were born or were politically aware. But in 1988 there was another event, one never forgotten by most Iranians but hardly known or remembered today by most Americans.
That was the Vincennes Incident. For the sake of clarity, let me quote the Wikipedia article on the subject here:
Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air civilian passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai. On 3 July 1988, the aircraft operating this route was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. The incident took place in Iranian airspace, over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, and on the flight’s usual flight path. The aircraft, an Airbus A300 B2-203, was destroyed by SM-2MR surface-to-air missilesfired from Vincennes.
All 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew, died. This event ranks eighth among the deadliest disasters in aviation history, 11th if including the 9/11 attacks, which include ground casualties; the incident retains the highest death toll of any aviation incident in the Persian Gulf. The cruiser Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.
According to the Iranian government, Vincennes negligently shot down the civilian aircraft: the airliner was making IFF squawks in Mode III (not Mode II used by Iranian military planes), a signal that identified it as a civilian craft (although all military aircraft IFF transponders are capable of generating Mode III replies as well).
The United States government did not formally apologize to Iran. In 1996, the United States and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement “…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…”.
Inside Iran, this shoot-down was perceived as a purposeful attack by United States, signalling that US was about to enter direct war against Iran on the side of Iraq. In August 1988, a month after the shoot down, the Iranian government released a postage stamp illustrating the event, where the ship shooting the missile is painted with the colors of the American flag, and the map of Iran is burning on the background.
The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives, but never apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing.. George H. W. Bush, the vice president of the United States at the time commented on the incident during a presidential campaign function (2 Aug 1988): “I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” Bush used the phrase frequently during the 1988 campaign and promised to “never apologize for the United States” months prior to the July 1988 shoot-down and as early as January 1988.
The incident overshadowed Iran–United States relations for many years. The former CIA analyst Kenneth M. Pollack wrote: “The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran.”[ Following the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 five months later, the British and American governments initially blamed the PFLP-GC, a Palestinian militant group backed by Syria, with assumptions of assistance from Iran in retaliation for Iran Air Flight 655.
Despite the mistakes made in the downing of the plane, the men of the Vincennes were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for completion of their tours in a combat zone. Lustig, the air-warfare coordinator, received the Navy Commendation Medal. In 1990, The Washington Post listed Lustig’s awards as one being for his entire tour from 1984 to 1988 and the other for his actions relating to the surface engagement with Iranian gunboats. In 1990, Rogers was awarded the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer … from April 1987 to May 1989.” The award was given for his service as the commanding officer of the Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989. The citation made no mention of the downing of Iran Air 655.
Here again is an important incident, largely forgotten by most Americans but remembered by most Iranians. None of this means that the Iranian government is a benign one and that it has not engaged in repressive and subversive practices both at home and abroad. It only means that many historical events can be looked at in different ways, depending on from which direction you are looking.
The amazing thing, after recounting all this, is that Americans are personally extremely popular in Iran today. On our 3-week tour of Iran last April/May we were often surrounded by everyday Iranians who wanted to talk to us, take our picture with them or invite us to eat or drink tea with them.
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