Iran and the U.S.: History and Memory at the Crossroads

For some, the interim deal signed by the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva on November 24 was on par with Munich (the much-maligned agreement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938). For others, it was ‘worse than Munich’. And for the cogent few, the mere invocation of Munich said more about its speaker than about the deal itself. But it was Munich – regardless of the value commentators attached to it – that proved to be the sole historical analogy in the West’s preserve capable of meeting the moment head-on.

And yet how far short it fell.

By comparing a small, insignificant deal – whose value lay not so much in its terms as in what it said about the renewed efforts of its parties to reaching a final agreement – to appeasement on the scale of a Hitler, U.S. commentators told us more about the limits of the West’s historical imagination (and the kind of conversation we’ve been having about Iran for 34 years) than anything else. The West’s penchant for curbing history at the borders of Europe and North America, it seemed, had once more limited the oeuvre from which it could grab appropriate historical parallels to our ever-troubled present. The shortcomings were clear.

But beyond the Atlantic, others carry historical memory just as well, often richer and offering greater insight than anything in the West’s reserve. That is certainly true in the case of Iran, whose own historical grievances serve up better, more telling analogues to our present than the Munich invocation. If we are honest about reaching a final deal and overcoming the hostility that has defined U.S.-Iran relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, we’d do well to consider these analogies for what they teach us about our policies and their unfortunate historical lineage.

Iran, Ripe with Memory

Just as we here in the States responded to the nuclear deal by searching within our recent past for appropriate historical parallels, so too did Iranians. For some, as Ali-Reza Eshraghi points out, the interim deal looked awfully like the infamous Treaty of Turkmenchay, a 19th-century agreement in which the Qajars ceded to imperial Russia the territories of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, amongst others. That treaty like the interim deal signed with the United States in Geneva, some argued, was also forced on Iran via the barrel of a gun.

However, there was arguably an even better historical analogy within the store of Iran’s consciousness. While the Treaty of Turkmenchay remains a source of shame for Iranians and its reference to the present highlights important features regarding the relative power of the parties to the ongoing nuclear talks, its invocation spoke more of internal struggles over the direction of Iran’s policy than it did about Iran’s relation with the West. But that relation is critical to understanding the mantra of ‘respect’ that Iran and its leaders continuously evoke, as well as the historical grievance Iran’s body politic carries within itself up to the present day. In this regard, the better, more significant historical parallel lay in one of the more notorious episodes in Iran’s history: Iran’s oil nationalization and the British response in 1951-1953.

Then as now, the question before Iran was one of ‘rights’ – the right to control its resources; the right to nuclear energy – and whether Iran’s ‘rights’ would be respected by the West. Then as now, the West’s response was to exact punishment on Iran so as to force its capitulation at the negotiating table or foment a change in regime. But most importantly, what was at stake, both then and now, was a kind of relationship between Iran and the West that risked being upset by Iran’s movement on an independent path. It was this relationship that the British in 1951 and the United States today so desperately tried (or continue to try) to maintain.

For those who have long suffered the whims of American power, this will be all-too-obvious. Just as the British demanded Iran bring to a close its insistence on its rights in 1951, so too has the United States done the same over the past decade. Each state’s policies, intended to coerce Iran into accepting such demands, bear an almost uncanny resemblance.

But what is obvious to some, who have lived and thus are familiar with the history, is obscure and completely unknown to others, whose ignorance is a prerequisite for the continuation of the West’s policies. That is why loosening the bounds and orienting Western audiences to the histories of others is so critical, and why I have chosen to draw out the analogy below.

This Isn’t Munich, It’s Abadan

In April 1951, Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq pushed through a nationalization law that ended the concession agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and restored Iran’s oil industry to Iranian hands. In doing so, Mossadeq rattled the heart of the British empire, which was intensely concerned not just with the oil consortium’s interests in Iran but also with the demonstrative effect Iran’s action might have throughout the world. For the British, Iran’s nationalization of the oil industry threatened “repercussions in other overseas countries” still living under the thumb of empire. This was intolerable.

For Mossadeq, however, nationalization meant extricating Iran from the ‘tutelage’ under which it long existed. As Ervand Abrahamian emphasizes in his recent book on the subject, Iran and Britain were fighting over control of Iran’s oil industry in all its aspects: the extraction, production, and distribution of oil resources. Perhaps the defining moment in the period of decolonization, Iran’s nationalization signaled a new kind of relationship between the West and its long-time subjects – one where the subject would throw off the yoke of domination and forge its own independent path.

The British response was thus ferocious.

Immediately following oil nationalization, Britain sent nine warships to the Persian Gulf, enacting a de facto blockade of Iran’s port facilities. It warned foreign tankers leaving Iran’s ports that their ships would be impounded: all the oil carried within to be regarded as ‘stolen property’ belonging to the oil consortium. Britain’s intent was clear: Iran could ‘control’ its oil resource as long as it liked, but would never be permitted to sell its oil on overseas markets so long as it defied British demands.

With the warships stationed off the coast, a British invasion of Abadan, the center of Iran’s oil industry, seemed imminent. The United Nations Charter, which had just a few years earlier enshrined into law the principle that the threat or use of force would no longer be a permissible means of statecraft, was stampeded upon by British actions. In fact, were it not for U.S. opposition to British plans, Britain might well have staged its planned invasion of Abadan, thereby taking back the oil fields. Either way, the threat of force hung over the whole affair from start to finish, intended to prod Mossadeq to give in on the oil issue.

Despite its acumen for law-breaking, Britain was undeterred in pushing forth its plans in international legal forums. For instance, the British attempted to pass a resolution in the Security Council, citing Iran’s oil nationalization as a ‘threat to the peace’ that warranted international concern. (The Soviets blocked the resolution from advancing far.) Just as well, the British filed suit at the International Court of Justice, alleging that Iran had failed to abide by international norms in expropriating the property of the AIOC without adequate compensation (which would have required full payments up to the end-term of the concession agreement – in 1993!). The Court dismissed the case at the preliminary stages, as the dispute was between Iran and a non-State actor, and the Court’s sole purview was to hear cases as between two States.

Failing this, the British placed ever-increasing pressure on Iran’s oil industry, forcing all UK nationals to resign from the newly-created National Iranian Oil Company (and stressing to other European states the need to do the same). The point was to deny to Iran the expertise the British believed necessary to adequately run an oil industry. (They were wrong.)

But British pressure soon sought to damage Iran’s economic well-being altogether. It first froze all Iran’s assets in London (about 25 million pounds), and then limited the export to Iran of such basic goods as iron, steel, lubricating oil, spare parts, and sugar. It warned companies to end their business in and with Iran, thereby cutting Iran off from European markets. It restricted the convertibility of Iran’s currency to the dollar. It barred the import of Iranian oil into the European continent.

These were coercive measures designed to ‘cripple’ Iran’s economy. They derived from an idea on how best to treat the subjects of empire. In British opinion, “toughness was the only way to deal with [the Iranians],” who, on the whole, proved to be ‘dishonest’, ‘crooked’, and ‘twisted’. Mossadeq himself was described in even more flattering terms, alternately called ‘irrational’, ‘unstable’, ‘obstinate’, ‘violent’, ‘hysterical’, ‘demagogic’, and ‘inflammatory’. (For a more thorough read-thru of the various descriptions of Mossadeq and his people, I urge readers to pick up Abrahamian’s ‘The Coup’. Some of these characterizations continue to be found in present histories of the oil crisis, as Abrahamian takes care to note.) If the Iranians proved implacable on the oil issue, then the British left open the hope that economic pressure would lead to a change in regime. In fact, opinion-makers in the UK regarded negotiations with Mossadeq as a terrible blunder by British diplomats, as the very act of talking to the Prime Minister only strengthened his position in Iran rather than allowing for his (widely-predicted) quick departure.

When all of these various policies, which went so far as to include the UK press attaché planting fabricated stories about Iran in the American press, failed to deliver control of Iran’s oil industry back to the AIOC, the British, acting in concert with the CIA, organized and staged a coup of Mossadeq that threw Iran into a quarter-century of dictatorship. The coup remains an event paramount in Iran’s consciousness. Even today, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regularly invokes Mossadeq’s memory to demonstrate the bad-faith intentions of the U.S. (and the West) towards Iran: If the West treated the Swiss-educated Mossadeq in such a way, how could Iran expect the West to treat the rest any better?

History Repeats Itself

For Iran, U.S. policies signal that the attitude of the West has not changed: the disregard with which the United States treats Iran is no different in 2013 than that of the British in 1951. Still, to this day, the expectation is that Iran will be either a faithful client or else suffer the infamy of being an international pariah, a perpetual outsider to key global and regional forums. For all intents and purposes, U.S. policies towards Iran today, which have accelerated in hostility since the 1979 revolution, bear an uncanny resemblance to the earlier period discussed above. We here in the States might miss that fact, but for Iranians, for whom the oil crisis constitutes a defining moment in their national history, the similarities can hardly go ignored.

Since the nuclear dispute began, U.S. policy has been to deny Iran its sovereign and treaty-based rights. Iran had been caught back in 2002 with a nascent nuclear program, with facilities for enrichment and reprocessing under construction. It then invited intensified inspections by the IAEA, which declared Iran ‘non-compliant’ with its safeguard obligations (Iran wasn’t alone in this. At the precise time, South Korea was caught having undertaken undeclared experiments with HEU. Curiously, the Iranian nuclear dispute lingers on and the South Korean one never quite existed.) Negotiations ensued: Iran demanded that its right to enrich be recognized, though under appropriate safeguards, while the U.S. and Europeans refused to grant such, insisting on a zero-enrichment line that Iran could hardly accept. Talks broke down; Iran’s nuclear program accelerated; and U.S. and European policy took an ever-hardening line meant to force Iran’s capitulation. Meanwhile, in Iran, a burgeoning nuclear nationalism could be seen, as poll after poll suggested that Iranians widely supported Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

Like the British in 1951, U.S. policy toward Iran became consumed with limiting both the development and continued functioning of Iran’s oil industry, a process that accelerated in pace since Obama’s election in 2008. In fact, just as the British had erected a virtual blockade of Iran’s oil exports in the earlier period, so too has the White House done the same over the past few years. This has included not just a prohibition on domestic and foreign investment in Iran’s oil sector, but also a global ban on the purchase of crude oil from Iran, at least without a waiver from the United States; sanctions on the provision of shipping services for Iranian oil overseas and the provision of insurance and reinsurance on Iranian oil tankers; and a bar to the sale of goods and services that could be used to aid Iran’s energy sector, amongst others. In 1951, nine British warships accomplished the job of blocking the overseas sale of Iranian oil; in 2013, the power of the U.S. Treasury Department does the same.

The U.S. Treasury Department could not perform this task alone, however. Instead, with President Obama at the helm winning the praises of the Europeans, the United States rallied Europe to its side and forced a draw with some of the bigger purchasers of Iranian oil – China, India, Japan, and South Korea. The European Union enacted a total oil embargo in July 2012, and the latter countries sharply cut their purchases of Iranian crude. Oil exports, whose sales account for as much as half of all Iranian government expenditures, declined precipitously, from an average of 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to 1.1 million barrels per day today. Intended to ‘cripple’ Iran’s economy, U.S. and European sanctions did their job.

Meanwhile, the White House adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Iran, as ‘all options on the table’ became the mantra. This was a not-so-subtle threat to use force should the Iranians refuse to relent in their nuclear program. Iranians could peer across the Gulf and see the impressive military build-up the Americans had accrued in case word was ever sent for attack. Just as the UK in 1951 resorted to unlawful threats of force to pressure Mossadeq into conceding on the oil issue, so the U.S. did (and continues to do) the same on the nuclear one.

Despite illegal threats, however, the U.S. still managed to capture the legal high-ground, setting the tone for the kind of conversation the world would have about Iran. Iran, it was said, had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had refused cooperation with inspectors from the IAEA, and remained in a state of non-compliance with its non-proliferation obligations. It mattered little that these were at best half-truths, at worse outright false. What mattered was that the U.S. had won the media war; had seen Iran’s nuclear file transferred from the IAEA to the Security Council; and had there set the law itself, requiring Iran suspend all its nuclear activities and imposing international sanctions. Few cared to note the fact that the Council had potentially acted beyond its powers by failing to make the kind of determination required of it – that is, that Iran’s nuclear program posed a ‘threat to the peace’ for which global action was required. Instead, a series of Council resolutions passed without comment.

With Iran still refusing to capitulate to U.S. demands, the White House dug deeper, this time cutting Iran off from the international financial system. The Obama Administration blocked the purchase of Iran’s sovereign debt and government bonds; erected a ban on trade in Iran’s rial, as well as on the keeping of accounts denominated in the currency; imposed sanctions on any foreign financial institution that processed transactions with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated Iranian entities; and declared Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern. Iran thus became a pariah unlike any before, as global financial institutions took care not to do business with Iran for fear of receiving the wrath of the U.S. Treasury Department. British actions, whose policies in some ways mirrored those of Washington, could have only dreamed of exacting such punishment on Iran.

Not satisfied with this, the United States went one step further, blocking the sale of refined petroleum products (i.e., gasoline) to Iran and barring the provision of goods and services to develop Iran’s own refineries. Like other major oil-producing countries, Iran lacked the ability to refine its crude oil to meet all its gasoline needs, and thus was heavily reliant on imports to fuel its economy. The U.S. measures barred such imports, forcing Iran to convert some of its petrochemical plants into petroleum refineries. Reports suggest that the effect has been to increase pollution problems in Tehran and other major cities, as Iran’s refineries produce more gasoline impurities than what it had previously imported. For those aware of the health risks caused by Iran’s pollution, this is no insignificant matter.

Like the British, the U.S. was able to advance such policies, at home and abroad, thanks to the rhetoric it used to describe Iran and its leadership. Just as the British believed that Iran would only respond to ‘toughness’, so too the U.S. declared that force was the one thing Iranians understand. (This sounds a familiar theme in the history of imperialism.) In U.S. folklore, Iran could not be trusted: Iranian society was, by its very nature, ‘secretive’, “suffering from national narcissism that made it ignorant, insensitive, [and] dismissive of others’ concerns.” Iran’s rulers were ‘dangerous ideologues’; its leader, Ali Khamenei, ‘conspiratorial’ and ‘suspicious…even to the point of paranoia.’ (All these quotes above are from just a few pages at the beginning of the center-liberal writer Kenneth Pollack’s latest book. Move right on the spectrum and the language becomes ever-more vulgar.)

Even worse, Iran’s leadership bordered the ‘irrational’. Apocalyptic scenes played wild in the West’s imagination: a messianic clerical regime in Tehran, armed with the bomb, might set Tel Aviv and itself alight in a nuclear firestorm. Little was done to interrogate Iran’s actual policies, nor understand the very real threats Iran faced from the world’s superpower, which, for significant periods over the past decade, surrounded Iran all of four sides (Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia). Instead, U.S. political commentators created a straw-man (often built on an edifice of poor translations) and proceeded to knock him down. It is a wonder that opposition to U.S. policies, minimal as it is, exists at all in the U.S., considering how Iran is portrayed from the newspaper to the television.

Reflection, however, might force upon us the question: How could a secular liberal government, with a Swiss-educated Prime Minister at the helm, have the precise same characteristics and motivations as the quasi-theocratic clerical regime ruling Iran today? If the tie that binds the two is not their Persian-ness, which the West’s liberalism is loath to admit, then perhaps it is a testament to our policies and the need to dress them in hostile justification. That might tell us a whole lot more about ourselves than we’d probably care to admit.

Once we see the parallel between U.S. and British policies, as well as their justifications, it is difficult to cast aside. Couched as the nuclear dispute is in Iran, as a question of ‘rights’, U.S. policies taken on the same tone as British ones in the post-war era. Iran has a right and stakes a claim to it; the West refuses to recognize the claim and the right; and once Iran resists, the West imposes an ever-increasing series of brutal sanctions, war threats, and the like. It is as if the parties are typecast, repeating the same role all over again with lessons unlearned.


But we should consider the parallel. For Iran, as I have noted, it is a clear one. From its vantage, the U.S. and the British intend to dominate Iran, and if Iran casts of the yoke, to punish Iran to no end until order is restored. That is the message the British sent Iran in 1951-1953, and that is the message the U.S. has sent Iran since the 1979 revolution. If we don’t think this is a theme that resonates in Iran’s consciousness, then we point the finger at our ignorance above all else.

So long as borders are drawn around our respective histories, and those in the United States remain in the dark about the West’s policies towards Iran since the turn of 20th century, we will lack the appropriate analogies with which to compare our present and with which to identify our historical lineage. Until and at such time as we in the States take care to both understand and address the historical grievances Iran holds towards us – from the 1953 coup, thru the Shah’s 26-year reign, to U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and now with the brutal U.S. sanctions – we will lack the ability to adopt sensible policies that bring us closer to and not farther from Iran and its people.



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4 responses to “Iran and the U.S.: History and Memory at the Crossroads

  1. The big smiles and soft talk nowadays, in stark contrast to their former premier Ahmadinejad, should never mislead negotiators and the public that these Iranian leaders are bad guys in the mode of Ghadaffi, Morsi, Mubarak dictators. Let no one lower their guard when facing an unexpected outreach, soft tone, big smile and contrite words of Iran. Deeds not words are needed.

  2. How is that at all responsive to this post and to the very real historical grievances, continuing up to the present, Iranians feel towards the U.S.? We can debate the posture of the Iranians, while also understanding it considering the history.

  3. This is such a great piece, Tyler. Linking things that I’m confident are very present in the minds of many Iranians regarding their history, but of which we in the West are typically ignorant (sometimes willfully). And I think your examination of both of these issues under the topic of the rights of states is insightful. Some colleagues and i are putting together a set of papers on the rights of states in international law right now. This is an under-explored topic that is of great importance and meaning, particularly to leaders in developing states.
    Dan Joyner

  4. Tyler Cullis

    Thanks Prof. Joyner.

    I’ve awaited with anticipation those papers, having had notice of them at the EJIL Talk blog. It is an almost forgotten concept that deserves resurrection, and I look forward to exploring it in your work.

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