In a world where the war in Ukraine and economic sanctions dominate foreign policy discussions relations with Iran could have been pushed to the back burner instead they are now coming to the fore. As the Russian army continues its bloody war against Ukrainian civilians, the need to sanction Moscow’s energy industry which finances its genocide is paramount. The Biden administration is focusing on increasing the world’s supply of energy and to this end has reengaged with Iran after the Trump administration abrogated the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration. The odds of coming to a quick agreement with Iran is very low, in part because Russia was a signatory of the original agreement and Iran’s contorted history with the United States since the 1950s. To understand the background to the American relationship with Iran which emphasizes the viewpoints from Washington and Tehran John Ghazvinian, a former journalist, and currently the Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania has filled this major gap with his new book, AMERICA AND IRAN: A HISTORY 1720 TO THE PRESENT. Written in a clear and concise style Ghazvinian provides insightful analysis, a deep understanding of the issues between Iran and the United States, and with a degree of subjectivity focuses on the motivations and actions of the major historical figures involved.
In tackling the American-Iranian conundrum one comes across many watershed moments and dates be it the competition between England and Russia during the 19th century through World War II better known as “the Great Game,” the emergence of the United States filling the vacuum created by London’s withdrawal from the region, the American “love affair” with Reza Pahlavi Shah beginning with the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism spear headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the 1979 hostage situation, the Iran-Iraq War, and the overt and covert war between the two countries that continues to this day. For scholars and the general public these issues are quite familiar, however, Ghazvinian brings a deft pen and immense knowledge in presenting a fresh approach to this historical relationship.
Ghazvinian goal was objectivity, hoping to avoid casting dispersions on either side, and dispensing with the ideological baggage that has encumbered past writings on the subject. Despite this goal, periodically he falls into the trap of bias. Having been born in Iran he conducted ten years of research and was allowed access to Iranian sources that were not available to most western scholars. One of Ghazvinian’s major themes is that the United States and Iran, at least in the 18th and 19th centuries through the end of World War I could have been natural allies. Decade after decade Iranian governments looked to the United States as a “third force” that could counteract the pressures of Britain and Russia. Presenting the early American thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Iran perceived the United States as an anti-colonial power so there seemed to be a community of fate between the two countries that Ghazvinian successfully investigated.
Ghazvinian explores America’s romanticized version of “Persophilia” and Washington’s impact on Iran through missionary work that provided hospitals, schools, and trade with Tehran. It is clear that the United States, despite its interest in Iran was hindered by an amateurish group of “diplomats” who were sent to Tehran during the late 19th century to promote American interests. Most had little or no foreign experience and they did little to foster a new relationship. With the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement, Iran could no longer play off the two competing powers against each other so Tehran invited the United States to assume the role of counterbalancing the “new” allies to the point of inviting and allowing an American citizen who would become a hero to the Iranian people, W. Morgan Shuster to take control of Iran’s convoluted finances. The author goes on to trace Iranian attitudes and hopes that were fostered by Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and the concept of self-determination.
A second dominant theme that Ghazvinian introduces is Iran’s battle to achieve modernity and not being viewed as a backward desert kingdom that was more than a source of oil. To that end it seemed that no matter who was the Shah this issue had to be dealt with which resulted in policies that provided wealth and a lifestyle for the Pahlavi Dynasty but poverty and ignorance for the masses.
The concept that historian J.C. Hurewitz developed dealing with the Middle East that regional actors “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” applies to Iranian-American relations after World War II. Ghazvinian skillfully explores the leadership of Mohammad Mosaddeq and his removal from power in 1953 by the CIA and as he does in a number of instances sets straight the historical record. The issue for the United States was its fear of communism as is evidenced by the Russian refusal to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946. Supposedly the stalemate was settled when Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to Moscow, which Ghazvinian points out that there was no record of such an ultimatum. However, the fear of Russian expansion in the Persian Gulf drove American policy. In addition to this fear of the Soviet Union, Washington had to deal with British arrogance and stupidity (repeatedly referring to Tehran as Persian pip-squeaks) in trying to establish a sound relationship with the Mosaddeq government.
Mosaddeq was not a communist, he was an Iranian nationalist, but in the American diplomatic lexicon nationalist meant communist. The result was that the Eisenhower administration ignored reports that Mosaddeq was “a Western educated aristocrat with no reason to be attracted to socialism or communism.” Rather than listen to the advice of his own spies and bureaucrats, Eisenhower supported a policy designed to undermine Mosaddeq’s government which would lead to his overthrow and assist the return of the Shah to Tehran where despite his autocratic and megalomaniac tendencies the US would support at various levels until his overthrow in 1979.
Another major theme put forth by Ghazvinian is the role played by the 1953 coup in Iranian ideology. From the end of World War II to the arrival of the Ayatollah Khomeini the Shah was faced with three domestic enemies that wanted to curb his power or overthrow his monarchy – the Iranian left made up of a diverse group of Marxists that leaned toward the Soviet Union, the religious establishment, and a coalition of secular liberals, democrats, and progressive nationalists. Despite the diverse nature of the opposition, they all believed that the 1953 coup could be repeated at any time should the Shah’s reign end. This belief forms the background to any American-Iranian negotiation, particularly the 1979 hostage situation.
Ghazvinian cleverly compares the attitudes of the different presidents towards the Shah. For Eisenhower, named the “coup president” by historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, his policy was driven by the anti-communism of the Dulles brothers to provide the Shah with loans and military hardware. Once John F. Kennedy assumed the oval office he put pressure on the Shah to reform his reign, but once he was assassinated the Shah was relieved since Lyndon Johnson was too busy with Vietnam and appreciated an anti-communist ally who would help control rising Arab nationalism and the Persian Gulf. The key was Richard M. Nixon who developed a friendship with the Shah during the Eisenhower administration and with pressure from the likes of Henry Kissinger to honor any military requests that the Shah asked for resulted in billions for the American military-industrial complex and advanced weaponry for the Iranian army. The result was a man who believed he had card blanche from the United States resulting in violent domestic opposition against the Shah in Iran. Finally, Jimmy Carter’s human rights rhetoric scared the Shah, but he too would give in to the Shah’s demands until his overthrow.
Ghazvinian’s discussion of the rise of Khomeini and American ignorance concerning the proliferation of his ideas and support in Iran is well thought out. From exile in Iraq and later Paris the United States made no attempt to understand the reasons behind Khomeini’s rise and the conditions of poverty and oppression that existed among the Iranian masses. Washington’s blindness and tone deafness is highlighted by the appointment of former CIA Director Richard Helms as US Ambassador to Iran in 1973.
Once the Shah is overthrown Ghazvinian explains the different factions that existed in Iran and that it was not a foregone conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism would be victorious. American intelligence underestimated Khomeini’s skill as a politician, not just a religious leader. The reader is exposed to intricate details about the creation of the Islamic Republic, the hostage situation, and the Iran-Iraq War which found the US playing a double game of supporting both sides. This would lead to the Iran-Contra scandal that showed the duplicitous nature of the Reagan administration that should have ended the Reagan presidency.
Though Ghazvinian breezy history is immensely readable it becomes biased as he delves into the post 1988 Iranian-American relations. The author discusses efforts by George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama to reset the relationship between Teheran and Washington ultimately to be thwarted by disinterest after the Soviet Union collapsed and the role of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu whose bombast was designed to block any Iranian-American rapprochement. At times slipping into partiality, Ghazvinian downplays the bombast of the Iranian government and its avoidance of the nuclear issue, its role in Lebanon with its ally Hezbollah, and arming Hamas in the West Bank. I realize the many flaws and general stupidity of Bush’s neocon gang, but the soft presentation of Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinjad also leaves a lot to be desired.
Despite some areas that could be developed further, Ghazvinian has produced a needed reappraisal of his subject and the quality of the writing makes the book an easy read for the general public which makes it a valuable contribution despite some shortcomings.