The Eagle and the Lion

At the close of World War II, the United States was seen by many nations in the Third World as their champion and ally in the struggle against colonialism. Within three decades, perceptions had so changed that Americans were vilified as the arch-imperialists of the times. Nowhere was this shift more evident, or more dramatic, than in Iran.

Good American intentions were quickly undermined in the confusion of oil and geopolitics. Fear that the Iranian oil fields would be out-of-bounds for American companies and United States military needs caused an alignment with the British to force Iran into greater concessions to the West. The response--nationalization by Iran--prompted covert action to overthrow the government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, the start of prolonged American involvement with internal Iranian politics.

Preoccupation with the Soviet threat was an additional spur to American interests in Iran, especially because of the strategic Iranian-Soviet border. Seeking a strong, stable influence, American planners turned to the Pahlavi monarchy, providing the Shah with the latest in sophisticated military hardware and billions in foreign aid.

The Pahlavi family carefully cultivated its relationships with American power brokers; Bill’s study of this is especially revealing and disturbing, as it indicates the number of highly questionable activities undertaken for a foreign prince by American citizens.

The real tragedy of American-Iranian relations came as United States policy makers depended almost totally upon the Shah’s view of the situation and neglected obvious signs of popular dissatisfaction, unrest, and finally open revolt. Willfully self-blinded, many in the American foreign policy establishment were caught by surprise at the Khomeini revolution and the depth of hatred for the United States it unleashed.

Unfortunately, the misunderstandings still continue, as marked by the recent Iran-Contra fiasco. Can Americans learn about Iran to the point where intelligent, effective action is possible? If they wish to try, there is no better place to start than with James Bill’s thoughtful and sobering account.