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Story Publication logo June 14, 2003

U.S. Influence Changed the Course of Iranian History



The following article ran as part of a six-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 14-17, 2003.

Americans tend to think of Iran as a troublemaking sort of place - throwing its weight behind terrorists, seizing U.S. citizens as hostages and forever railing against American values and interests.

Iranians tend to view America, or at least the U.S. government, as a troublemaker, too.

The difference is that for America, Iran has been an irritant. For Iran, America has been a history-changer.

Consider the events of half a century ago, during what Iranians regard as the high mark of modern nationalism. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry and had the Shah on the run, in forced exile to Rome.

The U.S. and British intelligence services, fearing a possible tilt by Iran toward the Soviet Union, intervened, orchestrating street riots in Iran and engineering the Shah's return and Mossadegh's fall. The Americans in charge of the operation? Kermit Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt's grandson, and Norman H. Schwarzkopf Sr., father of the general who would lead U.S. forces in the first Iraq war a generation later.

To American policymakers, it was a successful exercise in regime change. To many Iranians, it was the prelude to 27 more years of the Shah's oppressive rule.

Flash forward to November 1964, and the Shah's decision to exile Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The action against the popular cleric set the stage, many believe, for the emergence 15 years later of the Islamic republic. What drove that decision? Khomeini's criticism of the Shah's directive giving immunity from prosecution to all American expatriates working in Tehran.

Flash forward again, to November 1979. Students seized the American embassy, on the anniversary of the date that the Shah had announced Khomeini's exile - and in protest against the U.S. decision to permit the Shah to receive medical treatment in America.

The U.S. decision, and the students' response, gave Khomeini the opening he needed to seize control of a revolution that at the time could have gone in either a nationalist or Islamist direction. Riding the wave of anti-American fervor, he rushed through a constitutional referendum that had democratic elements but gave clerics the final say.

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