It’s Hardcore History.
The guest we’re gonna have on today
is talking about a subject that is near and dear to my heart.
I first fell in love with what I would’ve called
Persian civilization as a teenager,
um, by studying ancient history.
And the Persians are in one of their…
You know, perhaps their greatest period,
it depends on how you define greatest,
but perhaps the greatest period in their history.
But they’ve had many.
And of course, the, um, long-time antagonist
in the ancient world of the Greeks,
and so you get caught up in the romance
and the fascinating involvement
the Persians had in the region.
Then you start studying how often
they have that involvement, and you begin to understand
that this is a traditional regional superpower.
And then, right when I’m really getting
heavily into my interest in Persia,
uh, the situation with the modern nation of Iran
takes a 180-degree turn.
When I was a kid, Iran was a nation friendly
to the United States, in fact, one of our best friends.
The shift to a fundamentalist, religion-backed revolution,
where the United States was the great Satan,
was an unbelievable turn of events.
Not just for the United States,
but for the entire world stage,
in terms of what it did to things.
And many people have been born since
without any memory of a friendly Iran at all.
John Gosvinian is going to talk to us today,
well, basically about anything I ask him about.
So, the deficiencies in the conversation
are yours truly not asking more questions
about more things. I remember looking at the clock
and thinking, wow, I’ve kept this historian here
a long time. I don’t want to keep him all day,
but boy, I never even got to X, Y, and Z,
so that’s my fault.
And I do owe, uh, John Gosvinian and you
all an apology for the way this sounds.
Um, you know, we have several methods
for doing interviews, remote interviews.
They all sound great some of the time,
and then let you down other times,
so, uh, we’ll try something different next time.
So, my apologies to everyone involved.
Uh, any mistakes are purely my own,
or, you know, imaginary creatures
who shall be unnamed. I’ll share the, um,
the blame, maybe.
In any case, without further ado,
the fabulously interesting John Gosvinian
talking about the American and Iranian relationship,
and, you know, some history. And, um,
if you don’t know Iranian history, by the way,
or you want to understand better
the traditional place of Iran in the region,
well, this is the tinny-sounding interview
you’ve been waiting for.
-♪ BELL RINGS ♪
Hello, Dr. Gosvinian, it’s Dan. Can you hear me?
Let’s start off with perceptions here,
because I grew up in an era, um, where,
I mean, I was 15 in 1980, and I was politically aware.
And so, growing up, Iran was a country
that the United States was really friendly with.
And so, unlike a lot of Americans born after that time period
who’ve only seen Iran in sort of an adversarial sort of sense,
I remember the country as one of our greatest friends
in the world, maybe our greatest friend,
arguably our greatest friend
in that important region of the world.
When you go out there today and you want to talk to people
about a book that talks about Iran,
what kind of sort of feedback are you getting
from the countries, um, that were on the opposite side
of things like, you know, the hostage-taking in 1980
and all that? Have attitudes sort of changed or evolved,
or, I mean, what are you hearing back from, uh,
from feedback, I guess, is what I want to know.
Yes, that’s very interesting.
You know, I mean, you’re absolutely right
when you say that the 1970s, in many ways,
were a sort of heyday of U.S.-Iran relations.
Uh, you know, the United States, or rather, excuse me,
Iran was portrayed very positively in the United States.
It was a time when Iran was seen as this kind of,
uh, glamorous, uh, uh, kingdom to the east
of everything that was threatening.
Uh, you know, this was a time when,
when the Americans thought of the Middle East,
they thought of, you know, the Arab-Israeli conflict,
the Arab oil embargo, uh, socialist governments
in various Arab states, the Cold War.
It was not a very positive impression,
but when they looked at Iran, they saw a country
that was just slightly to the east of all of that,
that it was, um, you know, had a friendly,
pro-American king, uh, who, you know,
had this, uh, sort of beautiful, glamorous wife,
and had this very, uh, uh, fancy coronation ceremony
in 1971 that was broadcast live by satellite
into American television, you know.
So it was a, it was a very positive impression,
and it’s very easy to forget that now,
because not that many people of these days
do remember, uh, that period anymore.
Um, you know, at the same time, though,
that, you know, that was a state-to-state relationship
that was very positive, uh, but there was a, a, a huge current
of, uh, underground resentment that was building
against the Shah, the king of Iran, uh, and, you know,
he was so closely associated with the United States
and the minds of his people, and he had become
extremely unpopular, uh, so, of course,
that backlash, uh, reflected on the United States, uh, as well.
But to answer your question about the kind of reception
and feedback I’m getting from the book,
I mean, I think people are, uh, surprised to learn
that our history with Iran goes back as far as it does.
You know, there’s a tendency to look at the last 40 years
of antagonism, uh, to focus on kind of where it all went wrong,
whose fault it is, uh, and I was trying to do something
different with the book, which is to say that, you know,
history is not about laying blame or looking for who started it.
It’s not a courtroom. Uh, it’s about understanding
kind of how we got to where we are,
and the overwhelming majority of Iran in America’s 200,
300-year history has been one of mutual admiration,
mutual fascination, mutual idealization,
and a very friendly history for a lot of its, uh,
a lot of its time.
I would argue that it’s actually the timing on the book
seems fortuitous to me, because I think that, um,
it seems to me ripe for, in the near future,
some sort of breakthrough, I would say.
And one of the things that’s so different,
and I’m sure you can speak to this,
but I’d like to go back in some sort of linear order
at a certain point, but now you’ve got me talking about,
uh, Iranian, um, sometimes they refer to themselves
as Persian expatriate communities in the United States
that played a similar role in terms of coming to this country
after the revolution, that the Vietnamese,
who were our friends in South Vietnam,
who fled South Vietnam and became a part of communities
that have grown up since then in the United States.
I knew quite a bit of Persians who were fleeing
the revolution growing up, Iranians.
Um, and it was one of those things where I remember thinking,
God, in so many ways, they have a lot of similarities
with Americans. They’re a fun-loving people,
they like to dance, they’re a mercantile people.
I mean, there’s all these little stereotypical adjectives
you could use to describe the Iranians,
which, when you think about it and you realize,
well, they’re kind of natural friends in a way.
And the period of time that we’re in right now
seems like 15, 20 years from now,
we could look back on as a weird anomaly.
Let’s talk about that history, though, that you refer to.
I mean, in Western eyes, Iran was Persia, right?
All the way back to Herodotus and all that.
And then, as you point out, the real early history
of Iran with Western countries is like the great game stuff
with Russia and Great Britain.
Can you talk about that a little bit?
Because by the time the U.S. arrives on the scene,
Britain and Russia have been active in the region
for some time.
Sure. This is, in fact, what gets Iran
and the Iranian government interested in the United States
in the first place.
The Iran, or, you know, the Persian Empire,
or whatever you want to call it, historically,
of sort of hundreds of years,
had reached a point by the early 19th century,
where it was declining, like other Asian powers of its day,
and the Middle Eastern powers, the Ottoman Empire and others.
It was much less powerful than it had been,
and was very, was bitterly aware of the fact
that European powers were surpassing it,
both economically, militarily, politically, diplomatically.
And it was, you know, Iran, it’s important to remember,
was not, it was one of very, very few countries
that has never been colonized formally
by a European power.
It was a sovereign state, a kingdom that stretched back,
you know, millennia, but had become so weak
by the early, you know, by sort of 1810s, 1820s,
that, you know, its territory had been reduced
significantly in wars, very important war with Russia
that trimmed even more of its territory.
And, you know, it was being pressured heavily
by Russia from the north, and by Britain,
the British Empire from the south,
from the Persian Gulf,
and Britain’s positions in India.
And, you know, both of those two very, very large,
powerful empires were really beginning
to interfere significantly with any Iranian affairs,
and really pulled the strings in many ways
in the background.
It was a source of great resentment for the Iranians,
and they wanted to have what was called a third force.
This was a new sort of policy that was adopted
from around the 1850s, this idea that the country
needed to adopt a third kind of friend
that they could, you know, sort of friendship
that they could wave in the eyes of the British
and the Russians and say, you know, back off,
you know, we don’t need you, we have other allies.
And the United States seemed like a very obvious choice,
because the United States in the 1850s, 1860s,
was a country that Iranians didn’t know that much about,
but what they knew, they really liked.
What they knew was that this was a country
that had come into existence just less than a century
earlier on the back of a revolution
against the British Empire, and that it seemed
to not be interested in interfering
in the affairs of other countries.
The only Americans they knew were the Protestant
Presbyterian missionaries who had come to Iran
and built schools and clinics,
but there was no American embassy,
there was no, you know, there was no political,
diplomatic presence on the part of the U.S. government,
and that kind of made the U.S. this kind of alluring
blank slate that seemed to have a very hands-off
and even in some ways anti-imperialist kind of viewpoint.
And so they began to cultivate an American friendship,
and every single Iranian government from the 1850s
to about the 1940s made American friendship
a key part of its foreign policy to cultivate
a sort of third force against the British and the Russians.
The anecdote I love to tell is that the very first
disagreement that Iran and the United States ever had
was in the 1850s when they were signing
their first treaty of friendship.
And it took five years to negotiate that,
longer than it took to negotiate the nuclear deal in 2015.
And you think, why?
And it turns out one of their main sticking points
was that the Iranians wanted to purchase American warships
manned by American sailors flying the Stars and Stripes
in the Persian Gulf to send a message to the British.
And the Americans said, no, no,
we don’t want to interfere in your affairs.
It’s incredible to think that was the first disagreement,
if you know Iranian-American politics today.
But, you know, it was the Iranian saying to the U.S.,
we want you more involved in our business.
The U.S. saying, no, no, we don’t want to get involved.
So that’s kind of how far we’ve come in 170 years.
Now, in this early period of connection
between the two countries, how would you describe
the governing system of Iran or Persia at this time?
Is this an absolute monarchy, or what do we have involved?
There’s a parliament of sorts.
How would you describe the system in modern
sort of political science terms?
Yeah, in the 19th century, it was an absolute monarchy,
like many, many governments in the world at the time.
But it was a weak monarchy.
It did not have, it did not exercise,
there was not a strong central state that exercised
complete power over all aspects of people’s lives
throughout the territory that it covered.
A lot of tribal areas and such, right?
It was tribal areas, various entrenched landowning interests,
very feudal in many ways, to use a kind of European terminology.
So there was, you know, the court, the royal court
and the king, you know, the Shah governed largely
through alliances and politics and, you know,
that sort of thing.
But interestingly, you know, you mentioned the parliament.
Iran had a constitutional revolution in 1906
and became the first Muslim country with a parliament,
the Majlis, the first country in Asia to have a parliament.
And that was a revolution that was largely instigated
by actually conservative interests, oddly.
This is one of those things that Iran has always had
revolutions, two revolutions in the 20th century
in modern times, and both of those have been quirky.
They’ve been sort of unconventional revolutions
that don’t follow the standard playbook that we’re used to.
The constitutional revolution of 1906
was led largely by clerics, by ayatollahs,
and by bazaar merchants, you know, traditional traders
who felt that the Shah, the Shah’s government
was giving away too much to foreign powers,
that there was, you know, that they needed
to be consulted more for various reasons.
And also a smaller group of kind of liberalizing intellectuals
And those were the forces that led that revolution.
And in many ways, those were the same kinds of forces
that came together in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
They’re forces of conservatism in many ways,
but they also are forces of radicalism.
There’s a theme, though, and it runs through the book
and it runs through this Iranian history,
and the theme is this public dissatisfaction
with the Iranian government’s giving away too much
to foreign governments, whether it’s too much of the oil
rights or the tax revenues or the decision-making power
or whatever it might be.
It’s weird to find so many similarities
between the public attitudes of, say, 1906 and 1979,
but I see, you know, you would see that same theme
and even the criticisms against the Shah and whatnot.
There’s a, it seems like there’s a, you know,
this is a weird thing to say because every nation has this,
but Iran seems to have this sense of national pride
that can get a government overturned pretty easily
if it’s seen to be giving away too much to,
especially the traditional enemies,
the British and the Russians.
But as soon as the United States steps in
and plays a similar role,
then we become just as much of a target for the,
for, as you said, the artisans, the bizarre people.
Would you say maybe those are almost a kind
of a middle-class representation
and the clerics, the religious folks?
And then you have a third force you mentioned
that comes in in the 20th century
where you have a sort of a Marxist leftist side, too,
and the three of them, all of them, though,
seem to share this antipathy toward the idea
that you’re giving away too much of the country’s sovereignty
or resources to other countries.
You’re absolutely putting your finger on it correctly,
I think, and in fact, this is the core of, to me,
you know, the history of U.S.-Iran relations.
You know, there is this common thread
that runs through modern Iranian history.
You’re absolutely right.
It is a unique country in a lot of ways,
of course, every country is unique,
but its history, I guess the uniqueness of Iran’s history
is that this is a once, I mean, this was,
look, this is a country that has been,
at many points in history,
one of the great powers of history.
I mean, it’s, you know, the Persian Empire,
the first ancient Persian Empire of the Achaemenids,
you know, 6th century BC,
once ruled over almost half of the population of the world.
I mean, it was a country
that had a very strong sense of itself,
and yet also was a declining power,
you know, in the 1800s and the 1900s.
But also, not only was it a kind of declining
post-imperial power, but it was one that was not
invaded or colonized formally by other powers,
which gave Iranians, in many ways, a certain,
you know, it was a perfect storm, right?
It created this country, I think, as modern state
that has a lot of pride and sense of itself
in its history, yes, has a, you know,
a little bit of a chip on its shoulder
about kind of its, you know, its fated glory,
but also is extremely touchy about
what appeared to be kind of, you know,
violations of its sovereignty, its national integrity,
being kind of pushed around or told what to do,
or have people pulling the strings in the background.
Now, all of this plays out at numerous points
in its history, but also in numerous points
in its history with the United States.
You know, this is, those forces you mentioned,
you know, the first time we really see this
in terms of U.S.-Iran relations is in the 1953,
when Iran tries to nationalize its oil industry.
And, you know, the British, who,
the British oil company, Anglo-Iranian oil company,
which at the time has a monopoly over the oil production
and profits in Iran, you know,
precipitates a long-running feud with the Iranian government
and eventually convinces the United States
to overthrow Iran’s very popular prime minister,
the prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953.
That, you know, Mossadegh, what we forget about him
is that he was a, the reason he was so popular
is that he put his finger very much on the zeitgeist
of Iranian nationalism of the 1950s,
the modern rising nationalism,
which was not unrelated to the nationalism
that you’re talking about in the 19th or early 20th century.
It was, it was, the reason he was popular
was because he came along and he said,
we need to give more of a voice to the people,
but also more of a voice to ourselves as a country.
And those two things go hand in hand.
That, you know, the Shah’s powers need to be limited.
There needs to be more representation
through parliament and democracy.
But that when you do that,
people will also be demanding an end to British
or other kinds of foreign interference
in the oil industry and vice versa.
You know, that sovereign, that true sovereignty,
true national self-determination
and democratic representation are two sides of the same coin.
That has been the common thread
through so much of 20th century Iranian history.
Well, now you got to 1953 before I was going to get there.
That’s such a key year, but let’s get to a little bit
about why something like that might matter
to a lot of the other great outside powers, right?
So in the great game era, you know, as you pointed out,
Britain’s concerned with the strategic location
of a place like Iran, right?
This is a bridgeway to their empire in India.
For Russia, this is part and parcel of their whole,
they’ve got a lot of provinces in that region.
But it’s oil that changes things
and puts them in a different dimension.
I mean, otherwise, you know, somebody said that
about the Middle East once.
I mean, what is the Middle East without oil?
Can you imagine? We wouldn’t have been involved
like we’ve been involved all these years.
And by the time 53 rolls around,
the reason anybody cares to the degree that they do
is because of the oil company that you just mentioned,
that Britain partners with Iran with.
But let’s talk about that first.
Let’s get backwards a little bit and get to the oil,
since the oil is so much a part of everything.
You know, oil and money might as well just make them
interchangeable in this case.
The United States is a big oil-producing country
in the early 20th century.
Iran’s not even on the map.
The Middle East is not even on the map
because nobody needs oil in the Middle East yet
because nobody’s got a shortage anywhere.
Talk to me, though, about this,
because isn’t Iran one of the early Middle Eastern oil fields?
Iran is the very first major, big, big, large-scale
oil discovery that takes place in the Middle East
here in 1907 at Masjid al-Sulayman in southern Iran.
You know, but you’re right.
It’s interesting, when that takes place,
you know, it’s a huge discovery,
and it’s very profitable for William Darcy,
the Anglo-Persian oil company.
And he got away. We should stop here
because one of the things that you said
that just blew my mind is he got the rights
to drill all of, like, all of Iran’s oil
for years and years and years for, like,
20,000 British pounds or something like that?
That’s right. It was an incredible deal.
It was one of the best deals I think anyone’s ever got.
I mean, I think, you know, because at the time,
no one knew how much oil there was in Iran
and, you know, or how valuable it would be.
And Iran’s government was extremely cash-strapped
at the time and gave away this concession,
the rights to drill over, you know,
a huge portion of the country
and to take the lion’s share of the profits.
And, you know, Bashar’s government at the time
needed the money,
had no idea what potentially lay underground.
And what’s interesting, of course, as you point out
correctly, the early 20th century, you know,
oil, you know, it’s a valuable commodity,
but nothing like what it became later.
You know, and, you know, as late as 1910,
the United States was exporting oil to Iran, right?
The United States was the big oil exporter,
a big oil producer of the late 19th, early 20th century.
I mean, the oil fields of Pennsylvania and Texas
and so on.
So it’s, you know, when oil is discovered,
of course, it’s, you know,
I think we have to be a little bit careful
because I’m not one of these people
that will sort of,
will claim that, you know, everything’s all about oil.
You know, I think that, you know,
it’s there and it’s important.
And money, of course, as you correctly point out,
you know, but in the early 20th century,
nobody cares that much about oil.
It’s what starts to change in the 1920s
after the first world war
and after the great powers begin to see
for the first time the potential
that the internal combustion engine and oil
have for powering their navies, their fleets,
as well as, of course, motor cars and other things,
that it becomes seen as a much more valuable commodity
and there is a bit more of a race or a scramble
for Middle Eastern oil among the British,
the Russians, Soviet Union, as it becomes,
and also the United States,
which is incredibly actually amateurish and naive
when it comes to Middle Eastern oil in the 1920s.
I mean, they, below opportunity after opportunity
to get into Iranian oil in the 1920s,
Sinclair and the Standard Oil companies
are both trying to get concessions in Iran.
And it’s just an absolute,
you know, sort of boondoggle.
It doesn’t go anywhere.
The British completely outsmart them
and they continue to maintain their monopoly
over Iranian oil until the 1950s.
Well, and if we remember the difference
between the Russians, the Americans, and the British
when it comes to oil in this time period
is the Russians and the Americans
have a generous supply within their own borders
and the British don’t.
So, then, you point out a wonderful thing
and that’s that it’s not all about oil
and it’s not all about money.
There are other elements that are very important
and one of the ones you bring up
and that we in the West don’t pay enough attention to
is the religious side of this
and very specifically the fact that the people in Iran
are, for the most part, their version of Islam,
for the most part, is the Shia version.
And they’re probably, would you correct me on this
if I’m wrong, the most populous Shia state in the world?
I mean, Iran is really sort of the nerve center of Shia Islam.
And, you know, for those who are maybe not particularly
versed with these things, I mean,
the Shia are and remain a minority.
The Sunni are, of course, much more populous.
You mean in Islam as a whole?
Sorry, go on.
You mean in Islam as a whole, not in Iran?
Yes. Yes, yes, that’s correct.
I’m sorry. Yes, I guess.
There are far more Sunni Muslims
than Shia Muslims in the world.
So, and so, but Iran is one of the very few countries
that is overwhelmingly majority Shia,
around 90% are Shia.
And, you know, there are other countries
that have Shia majorities
or significant pluralities,
but nothing quite like Iran.
And, yeah, I mean, I think it’s significant.
I think if anything, actually, weirdly,
I would say that in some ways,
I think sometimes we overemphasize religion
when in the West when we’re talking
about Middle Eastern states.
I mean, you know, the religious aspects
are of course important, but they don’t define everything.
I mean, it’s really not until the 1970s
that religion becomes a serious force in politics.
And we see that, of course,
in the Iranian revolution of 1979.
But for most of Iran’s modern history,
the clergy are very much sort of small C conservative.
They’re quietest, sometimes described there.
They support the state.
They play roughly the same role that the clergy
have often played in kind of European traditional societies
before the 20th century.
So in some ways, it’s not that different
from the history that we know.
I mean, if you’re in Iran in 1900 versus in Russia in 1900,
or in Prussia in 1900, or Italy in 1900,
you’re gonna see a very similar kind of state in many ways.
I mean, there are differences, of course,
but you’re gonna see monarchies,
you’re gonna see clergy playing a significant role
in rural communities, as well as, you know,
at the very nerve center of the state
and at the royal court.
But in a way that’s not radical,
in a way that’s not revolutionary,
in a way that’s actually about maintaining
the traditional order.
Well, and worth pointing out that the religion in the West
was more important in those days, too.
So a comparison in 1900 is more apples and apples.
So let’s, so then let’s ask then the obvious question.
Before we get to the pivotal year of 1953,
seems to me the Second World War
is a pretty important time on the Iranian timeline
because once again, their particular location
makes them extra valuable.
And the fact that a country like Germany,
who one of their main deficiencies in the world
is the fact that they don’t have access to oil.
Talk to us a little about how Iran becomes this focal point
in the Second World War, when it would seem to be
a long way from most of the major battlefronts.
Yeah, it’s fascinating, actually.
I think that Iran’s history in the Second World War
is very interesting, and it’s also, by the way,
the first time that large numbers of Iranians
and Americans, ordinary, ordinary Iranians and Americans
come into contact with each other.
But I’ll sort of come back to that.
I mean, you know, Iran’s role in the Second World War
is interesting because it’s a neutral country.
It has been neutral, you know, dating back to the 1820s.
It hasn’t, you know, it’s tried and it maintained
its neutrality, or it had tried to in the First World War,
unsuccessfully, it had been invaded.
But in the Second World War,
it really tries to insist on its neutrality.
You know, the feeling is this is,
this war doesn’t have anything to do with us.
Why, you know, it’s a European war,
and they try to stay out of it as long as they can.
But unfortunately, you know,
so there is, of course, the oil issue.
All of the major belligerents of the Second World War
very much want oil to empower their armies
and babies and fleets and so on.
But also the Allies are very concerned
because there are large numbers of Germans living in Iran.
The Iran’s government in the 1930s
had begun to draw closer to Germany’s.
It was certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination,
a sort of Nazi sympathizer, but there was a feeling,
it was a historic, lingering resentment
against Russia and Britain.
And of course, when the Soviet Union and Britain
joined forces in the Second World War,
it was natural that Iran would be more sympathetic
to both Germany and, you know, its allies.
So, of course, the Allies didn’t like that.
They tolerated it for a bit,
and then they moved in and invaded Iran in 1941
and overthrew the king at the time, Reza Shah,
in September of 1941.
It took three weeks to depose him.
They replaced him with his very, very young son,
22-year-old Mohammad Reza Shah,
who became the last king of Iran, the last Shah of Iran.
Once the Allies invaded and occupied Iran,
they agreed that they would leave when the war ended,
but they divided it up into northern and southern sectors,
a sort of Soviet sector and a British sector.
And the United States played the key role
of connecting these two sectors,
because Iran had just finished completing
a trans-Iranian railway that connected
the Persian Gulf in the south
up to the Caspian Sea in the north.
And that railway had been partly built by Americans, actually,
but the U.S. military sent over
what was called the Persian Gulf Command at the time,
30,000 American GIs.
It was one of the least known operations
of the Second World War,
but it was actually a very critical one,
because after Hitler had opened up
the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union,
the Soviet Moscow was completely cut off
from Western supplies,
and there were not a lot of good ways
to get material into Russia.
There was the northern route, which was very cold
and very difficult,
but one of the best routes was across Iran.
So the Allies occupied, they invaded,
they then started shipping huge quantities
of American lead leased supplies
along the trans-Iranian railway up to the Soviet Union,
and it was American troops that did that.
So, and then they were stationed there for a couple of years,
so you had, you know, thousands of Americans
for the first time stationed in Iran.
And so then you get the post-war period,
where we get to the Cold War worries about communism.
We get to the oil becoming even more important.
We get to the British post-war situation,
which is difficult to say the least.
I mean, it’s trying to find a soft landing from empire.
And so talk to me a little bit about
the Anglo-Iranian oil company
and the kind of deal that Iran had to put up with.
And in other words, I’m trying to put Iran
into a situation here where anyone from any country
could kind of understand
how a deal like that graded against them,
how it was almost a deal from pre-colonial
sort of expectation eras.
And now we were in an era where it just looked like
a really bad deal by modern standards.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
That’s exactly right.
I mean, the British were absolutely bankrupted
by the Second World War.
And as you say, yes, looking for a soft landing
is a good way to put it.
I mean, they were trying to adjust this new
post-imperial reality, which took some time.
And they desperately needed money.
And the Anglo-Iranian oil company
had been and continue to be the source of great profits
for the United Kingdom.
Of course, after the war, Britain creates
this massive welfare state under the Labour government
of Pundit Atli, but needs to fund it.
And oil from Iran, I mean, one of the things
that’s often not appreciated in Britain, actually,
is just how much of the British welfare state
that people kind of cherish and take for granted,
things like the National Health Service and so on,
was really funded, not entirely,
but in very, very large measure
by the profits from Iranian oil.
And of course, in Iran, this was seen,
this was an increasingly source of resentment
because it’s the 1950s now, people are,
it’s different, it’s not the 1910s,
it’s not the 1850s, you know,
the sort of imperial colonial era
seems to be drawing to a close
and people don’t appreciate this very large
foreign company that has a monopoly
over the country’s oil, that employs 30,000 people,
but treats Iranian manual labourers
very differently from British workers
who come in and have these beautiful suburban homes
with lawns and air conditioning and so on,
and houses Iranians in these kind of slums
and has kind of separate water fountains
and all those kinds of things, you know,
in their own country, you know,
and then, you know, one of the things I love
is that, you know, the British compound in Abadan,
you know, had a Persian club, you know,
that was called, where you would go for cocktails
and so on, but it was, you know,
very conspicuously labelled, you know,
not for Persians, you know, British only.
And this is the stuff where they started
to grate on people, on top of which,
this oil company is taking 80 to 90% of the profits
and, you know, is not opening up its books
to the Iranian government, not sharing the wealth,
refusing to adapt to modern times,
and it really starts to, and you have this now,
but also this rising generation in the 1950s
of increasingly educated, modern, middle-class Iranians
who see what’s going on, read newspapers,
you know, hear the stories,
and are very resentful of this.
And they coalesce around their hero,
Mohammad Mossadegh, who was initially a parliamentarian,
a member of the Manchester Parliament,
who becomes a chair of the Petroleum Committee
and really is an uncompromising figure,
a very charismatic figure, an elderly man,
an aristocrat from an earlier era,
but one who was very sort of liberal and democratizing
and also believes very strongly that the time has come
for the Anglo-Iranian oil company to leave,
to hand over oil to the Iranian people
and to the Iranian government,
to nationalize the oil company,
and he tries to do that.
The British declared this an illegal act.
They refused to have anything to do with it,
and it was a two-year kind of battle that goes on.
They drag it into the Hague, into the United Nations,
World Corps, all these kinds of things.
They impose sanctions and they threaten the war.
A lot of the stuff that we see today
around nuclear issue in some ways,
but this time it’s the British, right?
And initially, the Truman administration in the US
is, if not sympathetic to the Iranian position,
they’re trying to play the neutral,
kind of neutral broker, saying to the British,
look, we understand where you’re coming from,
but times are changing.
Do a deal with these guys.
Hand over the oil company.
They’ll still let you take some profits,
but symbolically, you need to give more than you’re giving,
and the British, and particularly the oil company,
is very unwilling to adapt.
It still is very much trapped
in a sort of colonial mindset.
The controversy continues until you get
conservative governments coming to power
in both Britain and in the US.
Churchill and the conservatives come back to power in 1952,
and Eisenhower and the Republicans
come to take the White House for the first time in 20 years,
at the beginning of 1953, and they ride to power
in a wave of kind of anti-communist rhetoric,
and the British see an opportunity.
They see that this is a very strongly kind of cold warrior,
anti-Soviet, anti-communist kind of new administration
in the US, and they play up that angle.
They don’t go to the US and say, help us out
with our oil company, but they say, listen,
Iran is not ready for democracy.
For someone like Mossadegh, the Russians
are going to take advantage.
They’re going to foment a communist revolution.
Look, he’s already relying on Marxists
to remain in power and so on, and they increasingly
destabilize the country, and they run
a lot of propaganda and false news stories in newspapers
and things like that, and eventually
peel away some of his allies and convince the US, the CIA,
that they should help to overthrow
the government in a coup, and they do that in August of 1953.
OK, this is a big, your whole book deals with this
in such a way as to really, I mean,
that was too quick of a rundown, is what I would say.
I consider 1953 to be the worst example of the concept
of blowback that the United States has ever encountered.
And one can say that, you know, when I was growing up
in the 1970s, we had this blowback by the end.
Vietnam was considered a blowback situation.
Watergate was a domestic political blowback situation.
I mean, we felt like we were being whipsawed
by reaping the whirlwind of a bunch of decisions
that had been made two, three, four decades previously.
And 1953 is a perfect example, because by the time
Iranians are taking Americans hostage in 1979, 1980,
the advantages, right, the plus side of the blowback maneuver
has been paying off for decades.
But the bill comes due later, and when it did,
most Americans did not, I can say 98% of Americans
made no connection between 1979 and 1980,
and the fact that the fuse on that explosive
had been lit back in 1953.
So let’s talk a little bit about that.
Most Americans still know nothing about Operation AJAX
and that whole thing.
Yeah, it’s funny you say that.
I mean, Jimmy Carter was asked during the American Revolution,
during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis,
he was asked by a reporter about 1953.
The question was phrased exactly along the lines
that you just did.
And he said, you know, that’s ancient history.
Oh, I would have thought he would have known, too.
He was a pretty intelligent guy.
Oh, he was, and I’m sure he knew the history.
But I mean, you know, he didn’t entertain
the premise of the question.
And of course, for Iranians, it was very much not ancient.
It had been 25 years, and that generation
that led the revolution in Iran in 1979
was younger, angrier, more radical,
and less compromising with the United States
than the generation of 1953.
The young, idealistic, modern middle class
of the early 1950s in Iran was very liberal and Western.
And Mossadegh was a very pro-Western figure.
He believed in constitutional government and parliamentary.
I mean, he was just obsessed with the idea
of parliamentary procedure and the importance
of parliamentary sovereignty and popular representation.
He had been educated in Switzerland and France
and constitutional law.
You know, he inspired that generation of Iranians
to believe in liberal, parliamentary,
constitutional democracy as a way to get your needs met
and to be heard and to liberate your country
from foreign powers and so on.
But the lesson that Iranians had drawn from that
was that the moment you tried to do that,
the world’s greatest democracy, the United States,
had come in and overthrown the government
because it was not seen as aligned with their interests.
So 25 years later, it was very difficult
for that aging generation of pro-Mossadegh activists
of the 1950s to say to young radicals,
well, you know, you have to publish newspapers
and run petitions and run for parliament.
You know, they weren’t having that.
They said, we’re not doing that again.
You guys did that, and you got screwed.
And they turned more to religion,
or they turned more to Marxism.
And those forces fused in the Iranian revolution in 1979
to overthrow the Shah.
So we haven’t really explained, though, what 1953 was.
So in 1953, so Mohamed Mossadegh is the prime minister, right?
He’s elected the head of the government.
He wants to renegotiate the deal with the Anglo-Iranian oil
The British don’t like this.
If the way you frame it, which I don’t consider to be incorrect,
is sort of that the British are able to, in a way,
poke Eisenhower in places where he’s sensitive.
Because you quoted him a couple of times in a way that
made it sound like an eye.
I generally like Eisenhower’s anti- he
has a kind of an anti-imperial, Middle America
sort of Norman Rockwell side to him that comes out sometimes.
And you had a quote or two which sort of represented
that in the book.
But then I remember thinking to myself, yes,
but then the British come back and find those sensitive spots
on Eisenhower, the communism stuff and all the other.
Can you explain a little bit this dynamic
between the British who are still
trying to piece together little bits of colonial things
where they can, a guy like Eisenhower
who’s not real sensitive to that, but both of them
in probably, I’d say, 53, we’re talking
about the depths of the anti-communist red scares,
the second red scare is what we call it in the US, era.
How were the British able to sort of manipulate Eisenhower
into doing something that they wanted
but that Eisenhower could not be counted on to do it
for the reasons the British wanted it done?
Yes, and it’s important to say, I don’t know
that it was Eisenhower that they really kind of convinced,
you know, members of his administration,
in particular, the Dulles brothers.
The Dulles brothers were always up for that, though.
I always get, I get the feeling they never
met a coup they didn’t like.
Well, but this was the first one, right?
This is the first one.
Right, this set the model for all the other.
This is the big CIA’s first one, right?
We should tell that there was no CIA.
There was an OSS in the Second World War.
After the Second World War of 47, 48,
the creation of the National Security State,
which included the CIA.
So it’s this fledgling group of people
that have grown out of the OSS.
And this is their first attempt at a covert overthrowing
of a government.
Did I get that correct?
Yes, and it goes, you know, in their minds,
very, very successfully, you know, kind of in quotes.
It becomes a model.
It becomes a model of the next year in 54 in Guatemala
and Chile in the 70s.
Again and again, it’s kind of a so-called dirty tricks
operation, but by the 70s, it had become kind of fallen out
of favor in many ways.
But this was a watershed moment for the CIA
and for American intelligence operations.
Yeah, they were able to, the British
were able to make their case on a number of levels.
They had been, you know, they had
been bribing newspaper editors and so on to write
negative stories about Mossad.
They had been bribing politicians
to withdraw their support from him.
They had been imposing very severe sanctions
on the Iranian economy that had really
been making it very difficult for Mossad to govern.
And they’d been working on the Shah as well, the king.
So forget about him.
He’s a young king at this point.
You know, Iran is not a true constitutional democracy
at this point.
It’s a sort of hybrid, where the Shah still
has control over, you know, the defense ministry and the army
and so on.
And isn’t a huge fan of his prime minister, actually.
He feels a little bit threatened by him.
And they’re able to take advantage of that.
But the case they make to the Americans, the CIA and the State
Department, and the new incoming administration,
again, is a Cold War case.
And they’re able to do that by already having destabilized
and weakened the Iranian government so much in all
the ways that I just described.
So it’s very, it becomes easy for them to say, look,
we have this ready-made kind of plan for, like,
how we can get rid of Mossadegh.
You know, he’s not, you know, you can’t, you know,
he’s not a communist himself.
But I mean, there’s a risk that Iran
is going to open up to communism because of its instability
and its inability to govern and so on and so on.
And it’s important to remember that, you know,
the Democrats and the Republicans in the 1940s,
50s, 60s had very different visions
for how to deal with communism in the third world,
as they called it at the time.
The Democrats under Truman, and later under JFK as well,
very much took the attitude that people like Mossadegh
were exactly what you wanted.
They were social Democrats.
They were liberals.
You know, they were building welfare states
in their countries.
But they were very anti-Soviet, because they were.
I mean, they were Western.
They were, you know, Democrats.
They were not communists by any stretch of the imagination.
What they were doing and what the Democrats liked
was that they felt that leaders like that,
by building welfare states, by funding education and literacy
and health care and all these kinds of things,
and labor unions, would actually take away
the appeal of communism in impoverished countries,
give people less of a reason to turn to communism.
The Republicans saw it very differently.
They said, no, it’s a slippery slope.
You know, anything that looks or smells like communism
is going to, might as well be a communist.
You know, it’s, in a developing country,
people don’t have a democratic tradition.
They’re not ready for democracy.
And there’s too much of a risk of destabilization.
And the Soviets will just take advantage,
and they’ll foment a coup, and they’ll, you know,
have a communist revolution.
Now, both of these were reasonable attitudes
in their own way.
I mean, they sort of made sense.
But as long as Truman had been in power,
you know, the British hadn’t really
felt that they had a friend in the US
when it came to Iran.
They were very frustrated by the Americans.
They felt that the Truman administration just
didn’t understand what they were dealing with,
you know, that they were sort of American, naive neophytes,
you know, who were idealistic.
And there were a lot of, you know,
kind of communications back and forth
between the British and American governments,
you know, the British sort of saying,
you know, you don’t understand.
We’ve been dealing with these devious persons
for, you know, for decades, you know,
for much longer than you have.
I mean, you just, you have to take a tough line.
And they were frustrated because they weren’t getting
cooperation from the Truman administration.
Truman was trying to take kind of an even-handed approach.
But when Eisenhower came in, and he came in,
you know, the 52 election was very much
fought on the idea that, you know,
that there were, you know, pinkos and closet
reds in the State Department.
And, you know, the Truman administration
didn’t really want to win the Korean War
because the State Department was-
Well, this is the McCarthy era blooming, absolutely.
And that kind of fire-breathing anti-communism,
you know, was a-
For Britain, they sensed that this was their opportunity.
This was their moment.
That’s how they could make their case.
Not by talking about oil and profits and things like that,
but by saying this is dangerous.
Like, you can’t-
Iran is getting destabilized.
You need to do something.
And you had mentioned, you know, today we would call it
fake news would be the 21st century term for it.
But you had talked about the news coverage.
And back then, of course, in the West,
we had many fewer outlets.
So it would have been almost the same message
across multiple different media type platforms back then,
broadcast networks, newspapers, radio.
But when you had run down sort of the list
of how it was being covered, well, you can see-
I mean, the funny thing is, is we think about that
as the good old days of journalism.
I like to say that the good old days of journalism
were between like 1968 and 1988.
And this was before the era.
This was post-yellow journalism, pre-modern journalism.
But it was a-
Fake news is not a bad way to describe the way
the Western public was receiving their information
about this 1953 situation, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it’s striking, right?
Journalism was done very differently back then.
It was a sort of gentleman’s pursuit.
It wasn’t quite the same level of rigor
and fact-checking and so on.
And you look at the newspapers at the time,
it’s extraordinary the way they reported.
You look at the New York Times in August of 1953,
the day after the coup.
And, you know, the report is, I’m paraphrasing,
I don’t remember the exact words of the headline,
but it’s something along the lines of, you know,
a coup attempt is thwarted in Iran,
that Mossadegh had tried to overthrow the Shah.
And that, you know, that he had been thwarted,
which is the literal opposite of what happened, right?
It’s this idea that the prime minister
was trying to overthrow the king and, you know,
that the popular, this popular king
had actually managed to, you know,
maintain himself in power.
And, you know, the graceful public
was cheered and relieved by this.
I think it’s the precise opposite
of what actually happened.
But over time, you know, the truth, I mean, in Iran,
people, I think many people, you know,
already kind of suspected the CIA hand.
And over time, it became more and more of an open secret
until 20 years later in 1978 or 80,
I think it was 81, Kermit Roosevelt,
who was one of the kind of the real masterminds of the coup,
published his memoir about it
and was very open about his role
and the sacks of cash that were being handed out in Tehran
and the various dirty tricks that were being undertaken.
And then finally, in 2000, the New York Times published,
oh, sorry, the State Department released some documents
and they were published in the New York Times
at length, you know, in great length.
These sort of the CIA’s own internal report on the coup.
They still censored and redacted some of the language,
but most of it was there.
And this was literally a 70-page document,
internal report written by the CIA
describing in detail there how they did it.
So there was no disputing it by that point.
So in 53, the democratically elected Mosaddegh
He’s replaced by the absolute monarch,
who, you know, the feel you get for this guy,
he’s got an almost Kaiser Wilhelm kind of vibe,
you know, fascinated by the military stuff, but not exactly.
I mean, maybe go into a little depth
because this guy is going to be the one
who determines the feel of this relationship for decades.
Tell us a little bit about the last Shah of Iran.
He’s an incredible figure.
I mean, you know, like so many major leaders
in world history, I mean, you know, who really knows the Shah?
Who really knows who he was and what made him tick?
You know, but there is an impression that we have of him.
You know, he was in many ways in his father’s shadow.
His father had come out of nowhere
to overthrow the previous dynasty.
You know, he’d been a rough, crude, illiterate
Cossack soldier in the 1920s.
But the son, the younger Shah, you know,
had been sent off to boarding school in Switzerland.
To Le Rosier, one of the most elite private boarding schools
in the world, was a very cosmopolitan, refined,
well-mannered young man, very good-looking,
sort of a ladies’ man, but not a tough guy like his father.
You know, and there’s always a sense,
and he writes about it in his own memoirs that you could,
you know, he talks about how his father’s eyes
could make him sort of shrivel up inside.
I mean, he was terrified of his father.
He said it was a relationship of awe and fear,
but not always of love, you know?
And I don’t want to put someone on the couch, you know,
who died, you know, when I was seven years old.
I mean, it’s not, you know, I mean, I have no right
to sort of psychoanalyze the Shah.
But there is a sense that there was often a chip
on his shoulder when it came to military affairs.
From the very beginning, he was being quizzed
and drilled by his father about, you know,
kind of military questions.
You know, his whole reign, he was obsessed
with buying really big, fancy, expensive military hardware,
you know, the latest fighter jets and the latest tanks
and helicopters and everything,
and much of it from the United States.
By the 1970s, the Nixon administration,
who loved the Shah, gave him a blank check
to buy all the American military hardware he wanted.
But before that, you know, there’d been some resistance,
especially from the Kennedy administration,
you know, who told him, look, no, you need to invest
in your country and literacy and political reform
and rights and things like that, healthcare and so on,
land reform, and he did a lot of that.
But it wasn’t always done as well
as it could have been done, and it was never accompanied
by political reform or real political participation.
Genuine avenues for people to participate
in the parliamentary elections were largely a joke
in the 1950s and 60s and 70s, if you will.
But he really cared about the military,
and he was a strong man, he was a tough guy,
he was sort of a right-wing leader,
he was a believer in strength and militarism
as a way to protect the country against communism
or against any other kind of external threat.
Give us an idea.
I was gonna say, give us an idea of the amount,
because you blew my mind with some of the,
if you just asked a trivia question,
who was the United States’ biggest arms customer
in certain years in the 1970s, I would never have said Iran,
but weren’t they one of the top US customers for arms?
You said that they practically saved several of the,
of some of our aerospace companies, I believe.
Absolutely, a lot of, I mean, Grumman and Westinghouse,
so many of these companies, Boeing.
We were struggling in the 1970s.
It was economically a difficult time,
lots of job layoffs and so on, unemployment.
But yeah, I mean, Iran, so there was that angle as well.
I mean, the Nixon administration was quite happy
to help save some of these companies,
you know, the gigantic Iranian contract.
But it was more than that.
It was part of the so-called Nixon doctrine.
Nixon had come to power in the years of the Vietnam War
when there was a real attempt to try to exit
some of these quad buyers in the third world.
And, you know, he really liked the idea that American,
for American foreign policy,
it was important to find loyal, helpful regional powers
that could protect and advance American interests
in their respective regions
and could be rewarded with arms sales.
And the Shah of Iran was probably
the ultimate epitome of that.
The sort of policeman of the Persian Gulf
for the United States, you know, the famous, you know,
moment when Nixon goes to Tehran with Henry Kissinger,
you know, he comes across the table and says to him,
you know, protect me.
That’s what I need here.
You know, I’ll give you all the weapons you want,
but, you know, protect us here
because the US is not in a position
to be able to police the Persian Gulf, you know, in the 1970s.
Now, it’s not a one way street.
Of course, the Shah is also very good
at manipulating the US
and kind of getting what he wants out of the US.
He is, by the 1970s, a seasoned, experienced, smart leader
who knows and understands
kind of global geopolitics very well.
And the relationship between him and Richard Nixon
is very good by the 1970s.
They’re big admirers of each other.
But of course, they both go down in some kind of ignominy.
Well, let’s talk about that because from a geo,
if we look at this just from a geo-strategic standpoint,
forget human rights, forget religion,
forget all these other things,
and let’s just talk, you know,
the old risk board game, right?
The difference between having a friendly Iran in our camp
and what the Middle East and that whole region looks like
to not having a, to having an adversarial Iran
is so different that this is where you really see
the damage from the blowback from 1953.
I mean, if you play the what if game today and say,
if you have a friendly Iran today,
how different is the entire region?
I mean, I would struggle to even begin to examine
the ramifications of something like that.
Can you give us an idea though about how important,
at least in the, you know, without fantasizing
about what it might be like today,
how important was it in the mid 1970s
for the United States and its allies?
Look, the Iranian revolution,
I forget now because it was kind of a long time ago,
but the Iranian revolution in 1979
was a devastating blow for American foreign policy.
No one saw it coming.
And it was one of the cataclysmic failures
of the Carter administration,
or rather it was seen that way.
I think Carter sometimes gets too much blame
for the Iranian revolution.
And he was raked across the coal by his political enemies,
by Kissinger, by the Republicans,
who constantly hopped on the idea
that he was the man who lost Iran, quote unquote.
Iran was a very, very important American ally in the 1970s.
It was routinely described by American president.
LBJ described it, you know, he said what was happening in Iran
was just about the best thing going, you know.
Routinely American officials and presidents
would describe Iran as an island of stability
in an otherwise troubled region,
like it’s just critical to American foreign policy.
There was no other ally that fought that level of weaponry,
that advanced American interests so broadly in the region,
and not just its own, you know, interests,
but American interests in various parts of the Middle East.
You know, Iran was, and always is,
and continues to be a very important country in the region.
There’s a reason why we’re so obsessed
with kind of this hostility towards Iran these days,
because, look, it’s a big country.
It’s a country of, you know, today 80 million people,
at the time about 35 million people,
but one of the largest in the region,
both in terms of population and geography,
and of course, one of the world’s largest oil producers,
and, you know, occupies a key strategic position
between the Soviet Union and the present Gulf,
and all these kinds of things.
And we lost it.
You know, I don’t want to put it in these kinds of American,
foreign, purely kind of American foreign policy terms,
but if you do, it’s like we lost Iran.
And that was a huge blow.
And not just that, you know,
compounded by the fact the way we lost Iran,
which was that it was, you know,
it was lost on the back of a religious revolution
that rejected all of the basic premises of the Cold War.
You know, every, you know, the concern had been at the time
that if there’s a revolution in a third world country,
it’s going to be a communist revolution.
No one saw a religious revolution coming.
It was the world’s, it was the first great
religious revolution of the modern era.
And, you know, it was just completely outside the playbook,
and it inspired other types of movements like it,
in Afghanistan, in Lebanon,
and other parts of the Middle East.
You know, it’s something that helped to fuel a lot of the kind
of, you know, because the lesson,
the big lesson that was drawn, actually,
by so many people throughout the region,
was here you had a king who had the world’s,
I forget, fourth or fifth largest army, 400,000 men,
one of the world’s largest
and most brutal secret police operators.
The support of the United States,
and to some extent the Soviet Union,
all the world’s great powers, he had everything.
He’d been in power for 38 years,
and yet it was all blown away,
brushed away by a religious revolution
led by an 80-year-old cleric.
You know, how would you not draw the conclusion,
you’re a devout Muslim,
how would you not draw the conclusion
that God was on their side in some way,
that there’s something to be said for religion
as a motivating force for radicalism and revolution?
For all of those reasons, the Iranian revolution
is such a watershed and such a loss,
such a blow to America.
So let me go back.
So one of the biggest, most interesting
revelatory parts of the book for me
were what you just described,
because when we think about revolutions
that are touting the plight of the poor,
or the people who have needs in society,
or the downtrodden, or the ones who need education,
and all these kinds of things against, you know,
the corrupt powers that be, in the 1970s especially,
you think about that as a sort of a Marxist platform.
That’s the area where they’re usually able to make some hay,
as we say here in the States.
But this is a different thing,
because this is, as you point out in the book,
this is not a radical left-wing sort of revolution.
This is a conservative religious one,
but that’s pushing the same sort of thing,
offering hope and help to the poor, to the downtrodden.
Can you, I mean, you’ve introduced it a little bit,
but can you talk a little about that?
Because you can see how something like that
in a region with so much poverty,
especially outside the major cities,
how something like this would not just be popular,
but that that could be a base of support
that keeps it in power for a long time.
It’s an interesting movement.
It is. I mean, it’s a fascinating revolution,
just for me as a historian.
It’s a fascinating revolution.
You know, you’re absolutely right.
I mean, in many ways, the Islamic Revolution of 1979
adopts a lot of the language of the left and of the Marxists.
They talk about, you know, where, you know,
when the Marxists talk about, you know,
the workers of the world uniting and so on,
you know, it’s a lot of that kind of language,
but they don’t put it as much in the language
of kind of workers and trade unions and labor and so on,
but they talk about the oppressed of the earth.
And to this day, the Islamic Republic
plays up a lot of that language.
They have a foundation called the, you know,
the Bonyad al-Mustasafi, you know,
the foundation of the oppressed,
which was funded by seized assets
and money taken from the Shah’s regime.
You know, they really play up that kind of stuff,
that anti-imperialist, anti, you know,
sort of materialist rhetoric.
But what’s striking is that, about the revolution,
is that, you know, again, in 1979,
the world is divided heavily between communism,
the kind of the Soviet bloc and the American bloc,
the capitalist democratic bloc.
And what really is extraordinary about the Iranian revolution
is that it’s the first movement,
the first revolution that says, you know,
both of these political, you know,
after I said, the third world, as it was known,
was constantly being asked to choose
between these two blocs, right?
And of course, there was a non-aligned movement
and so on, but-
Yeah, Nehru and all those people, right.
Right, there was this feeling of, you know,
you’re with us, you’re with the Soviets,
or you’re with, you know.
And the Iranian revolutionaries said, you know,
both of these political philosophies
are fundamentally materialist.
You know, whether you’re a communist or a capitalist,
you’re making your arguments to the people
based on what is gonna improve their material welfare, right?
What’s gonna improve their bottom line.
And no one’s attending to people’s spiritual welfare,
that there is a different path.
There was a sort of third way
between Marxism and capitalism, which is God.
And, you know, you had a lot of revolutionary leaders
who would talk about, you know,
Mohammed and, you know, the first socialist,
and, you know, this kind of idyllic seventh century world,
and, you know, in seventh century Arabia
around the prophet and his family,
where everyone was equal,
and there was no poverty and wealth was shared and so on.
Because, of course, Islam, as many of your listeners
will know, is a religion that does emphasize a lot
the alleviation of poverty and giving to the poor
and all those kinds of things.
So it was easy for people who were very leftist
in the 1970s to find ways to kind of fuse
that kind of language with Islam
and say, hey, you know what?
Both, you know, communism and capitalism,
these are foreign imports.
They have no place here.
Like, you know, let’s draw on some of our own traditions.
You know, instead of letting the Russians
and the Americans fight and squabble over us,
why don’t we tap into our own traditions?
And that’s a very intoxicating message, right?
For, you know, in a closed society
where people don’t have a lot of avenues
for political participation,
you could be able to turn to authentic traditions.
And, yeah, I mean, so, yeah, you had this revolution
that was very radical in its way.
You know, but it’s difficult to know how to place it
on the sort of left-right spectrum
because it kind of rejected that whole spectrum, right?
What if we compare it then to outcomes?
So I think one could make a case
that those other two systems of government
that you mentioned, whether we’re talking about communism
as practiced in reality as opposed to a classroom version
or capitalism as practiced in reality
as opposed to a classroom version,
I would argue that neither one of those sides
necessarily lived up to the marketing hype very well.
How would you grade the Islamic Republic’s revolution
and how well they were able to manage
to live up to the marketing?
No, I mean, also, like most revolutions, about the same.
I mean, you know, there were some genuine changes
and genuine achievements.
I mean, look, when you look over the last 40 years,
you know, if you want to talk about what has the Iranian
revolution achieved, I mean, it did achieve some.
Look, one of its biggest achievements
was genuine foreign policy independence.
Whatever criticisms people might have
of the Islamic Republic today, no one will ever accuse it
of being a lackey or a puppet of anyone,
of the West, of the United States.
You know, the Soviet Union or even Russia.
I know sometimes there is a bit of a rhetoric
about Russia these days, but I mean, you know,
Iran is not, you know, Russia is not a propping up
the Islamic Republic.
I mean, Russia is a fair-weather friend
to the Islamic Republic.
So it’s achieved that.
It did achieve some genuine income
and wealth redistribution, and, you know,
a lot of impoverished people were genuinely lifted
out of poverty in the 1980s and 90s and so on.
Now, on the other hand, of course,
you know, you can talk about the lack of social freedoms
and the more repressive religious aspects
of the Iranian revolution.
Of course, it never promised freedom.
It never claimed to be a liberal revolution in that sense.
It was never meant as a revolution
about people’s individual freedoms, you know.
Khomeini was very clear about that.
It was about, you know, freeing Iran
from the yoke of this dictatorial leader
and freeing Iran from the yoke of this dictatorial regime.
Who had, you know, in the rhetoric of the revolution
at the time, sold the country, you know, to foreigners.
Okay, so then you go from…
I’m gonna skip over, because I think it’s…
When we talk about the American hostages, for example,
or Reagan taking over and the freeing…
To me, this stuff is not as important
as something like the 1979, 1980 Iraq War, for example,
and something that Americans don’t know
anywhere near enough about.
As a military history-interested person,
growing up in that era, the Iran-Iraq War
was the largest thing we’d seen in a long time.
Can you talk about it a little bit?
Yeah, this was… You know, again, you’re right.
We forget about this now.
It’s not a war that is very deep in the consciousness of America.
No, poison gas was used, everything.
Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, this was…
But this was a generation-shaping,
formative experience for Iranians of the 1980s.
I mean, Iran had never…
I mean, Iran had not, with the exception of…
Look, obviously, Iran had been invaded
and got sucked into the Second World War,
but with relatively few casualties.
In the First World War, there had been a lot of casualties,
but mostly from hunger and famine.
But you have to go back to the 1820s to find a war
that Iran was deeply involved with,
a lot of casualties, and even men.
You know, Iran had simply never experienced something like this,
where you had hundreds of thousands of people,
you know, boys, soldiers, child soldiers,
sent to the trenches, poison gas.
It was a First World War-style war
that killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides,
both in Iraq and Iran.
And it was the first time that chemical weapons had been used
since the First World War, and it was devastating.
And it is something that stays very much with Iranians to this day.
You go to Iran, people are always, in the U.S.,
very fixated on Iran’s relationship with the United States
and its antagonism to the U.S.
But its war with Iraq in the 1980s
shaped what Iran is today much more than its antagonism to the U.S.
And it continues to do that in many, many ways.
And you see it when you go to Iran.
The murals, yeah, there are a number of anti-American murals,
anti-Israeli murals, and so on.
But the vast majority of the murals painted on the walls
are commemorating martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War.
That’s the really powerful experience.
And I think it continues to motivate Iran’s thinking to this day
when it comes to issues like the nuclear program
that I write about at length in the book.
You know, I argue that actually the degree to which Iran
has sort of messed around with nuclear technology
has largely been out of its fear of Saddam Hussein up until 2000.
Well, and I don’t think you can understand as an American
all of our involvement in the region in the 1990s
with Saddam Hussein without understanding the 1980s.
And I mean, Saddam Hussein was exactly the kind of guy
that normal U.S. foreign policy would have been in opposition of in the 1980s, right?
So we would have called it a Soviet client state.
And yet because of the problems we had in the late 70s, early 80s with Iran,
we’d rather back Saddam either openly or clandestinely
rather than the Islamic Republic.
It’s interesting how that turned out.
So let me ask then the next thing, which is we look at relatively recent times
with Iran and words like terrorism come up, Israel comes up,
the protests within Iran amongst a lot of times Iranian youth
and how those can get crushed.
So talk to me now a little bit about sort of, let’s say,
post-Iran-Iraq war aspects of Iran here.
So in other words, I want to find out how Iran’s doing from you in a second.
But since the focus has shifted away from the Islamic Revolution
and Khomeini and hostages and all that, Iran, I just wrote down terrorism, Israel,
because when you look at it now, the unrest in the street, I mean, who was it?
It was the female martyr not that long ago who was shot.
I mean, it would seem to be that once again, now the Islamic Republic’s
in the position that the Shah was in in the late 1970s.
But that may be a reaction to Western news coverage
that doesn’t really reflect attitudes on the ground.
So maybe you could tell me a little bit about Israel, terrorism,
internal unrest in Iran.
And maybe, you know, we’ve talked recently a lot about where,
in my other programs, where things are going in the 21st century
as opposed to the 20th.
How could we apply that to Iran?
How do you see this over the next couple of decades, maybe?
Yeah, I mean, those are all good questions.
That’s a lot of stuff.
Sure, no, no, no, no, no, it’s fine.
I mean, look, I think of them as interrelated, if that makes sense.
Right, no, absolutely.
Look, as a historian, I’m always a little uncomfortable
with kind of making predictions and thinking about the future,
because I tend to think much more about the past.
But, you know, I think if we look at Iran today,
there’s no question the Islamic Republic is less popular
than it has been at any point in its history.
And there are many different reasons for that.
I mean, of course, the large,
I mean, it’s come under exceptional degrees
of kind of American-led pressure,
maximum pressure campaigns, sanctions,
I mean, the kinds of sanctions that have never been placed
on a country in peacetime.
I mean, the Iranian economy has been strained.
Right, it’s an Axis of Evil country, right?
Right, but of course, that’s not the only reason.
I mean, you know, there are many reasons
why people dislike the system and the government,
you know, on its own terms.
And there are plenty of issues with corruption
and mismanagement, you know, and of course, repressiveness.
You know, so, you know,
it’s a really tough time in Iran today.
It’s a tough time to be Iranian and to live in Iran.
So the economy is in desperate straits in many ways.
Inflation is very bad.
People are really struggling.
You know, and yet we have to be careful.
There is a fantasy narrative in the U.S.,
which is that, you know, when is this going to all collapse?
When is it all going to come crumbling down?
And it’s not, I mean, it’s just the Islamic Republic
is not a house of cards.
I mean, is it wildly popular among Iranian people?
No, not necessarily.
I mean, you know, the Iranian public,
like publics everywhere, you know,
has a wide range of opinions on a lot of things, you know,
and you go to Iran, you’ll hear all kinds of different things.
People are angry with the government,
all kinds of different things.
You’re not going to hear a huge appetite for revolution
and regime change,
and certainly not kind of foreign-backed regime change.
Iranians are smart enough to realize that, you know,
the U.S. isn’t pressuring the Iranian government
of trying to bring about regime change
because, you know, it’s hard, you know,
the American government’s, you know,
kind of heart is bleeding for the Iranian people
or, you know, trying to, you know,
concerned about their human rights.
They know that.
They know that, you know, this is about geopolitics
and, you know, the fact that Iran, you know,
and American political interests are very much,
you know, do not align.
So they are going to be skeptical
of any kind of American-backed attempts
to kind of, you know, foment regime change
because they’ve seen how that’s gone in Syria,
in Libya, and other places in the region.
Nor is there an obvious opposition leader
that has any real kind of large-scale credibility.
And then, you know, as unpopular as it may be to say,
the Islamic Republic does have its supporters,
and they’re not small in number.
You know, people who have grown up
with this system of government
and who have been rewarded well from it
and have jobs and careers and, you know,
people who have been lifted out of poverty.
Now, as I say, all of that is true.
It’s also true that it’s, you know,
at the lowest point of its popularity by far,
I think, of any point in the last 40 years.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s, you know,
any minute now it’s all going to come crashing down.
This is a fantasy that’s constantly been peddled
since the very beginning of the Iranian revolution,
you know, this idea that, you know,
the Islamic Republic won’t last.
But it has lasted,
and without a lot of friends or allies around the world,
and under a lot of pressure in the U.S.
And I just think, you know,
people who are focused on bringing down the system
have to exist.
You have to accept the world as it is,
not as you want it to be.
You know, I’m no fan of the Islamic Republic,
but, you know, I’m not going to sit here
and try to cheerlead regime change
because that doesn’t seem like a very realistic
kind of scenario.
You know, I’m curious about the intrusion
of the outside world into some of these systems.
I was talking to somebody the other day
about whether or not the old Soviet Union
could have existed in a world
with the kind of communication we have now,
because, I mean, they used to freak out
over one radio signal from Radio Free Europe.
What would they do, you know, with Facebook
or something like that?
Um, how is Iran adjusting?
Because I know the Iranians tend to be,
on an individual level, very tech-interested.
How are they coping with the fact that, you know,
the outside world…
You had mentioned something in your book
that stuck with me, you had been talking about…
You mentioned disco, so it was like the 1970s,
and this was something that the Ayatollahs
were not thrilled about, as one might imagine
no conservative society would have been.
And I’m thinking to myself, forget about disco today.
I mean, what do the Iranian Ayatollahs
think about pornography online
that their people might be looking at?
I mean, how much does the fact that the outside world
can’t really be kept out anymore
impact a revolution that’s trying to maintain
a certain, let’s just say, moral standard for their people?
It’s a great question. It’s a tough question.
Uh, you know…
Are they developing one of their own?
I mean, are they one of those countries
that are developing sort of an internal,
you know, internet of their own, kind of?
I vaguely remember something like that.
Yeah, they were doing…
You know, I think…
Again, I’m not a tech expert.
I wonder how well that’s ever going to work.
But, you know, look, the morality side of things,
morality police, things like the Ministry
of Islamic Education and Guidance,
these kinds of Orwellian things
sound very Orwellian to us.
They exist. They’re reality.
There are things, you know, there are, you know,
morality police that go around and, you know,
cash their shot, as they’re called,
and kind of check on the way people are dressed
and things like that.
And, you know, there are things you’re not allowed
to do in Iran.
You can’t just, like, be out there dancing
in the streets and so on,
going to discos and alcohol and whatever.
But the reality is that all of that stuff
goes on very much behind closed doors in Iran,
and the government is well aware of that
and, frankly, doesn’t really care that much.
And that’s not to say that a lot of these,
you know, religious clerics who run the show like it,
but they’re not motivated by that
in the way that the revolutionaries
were in the 1970s.
What they’re motivated by is realpolitik
and staying in power and survival
and strengthening the system, you know,
avoiding these kind of, you know,
kind of these foreign-backed regime change plots
and so on and, you know, staying in power
and doing what they’re doing just enough
to make sure people feel like they can live the life
that they want to live and participate
just a little bit in politics
while also preserving, you know, control
and their own kind of survival as a system.
The fact is that, you know,
they know that people are out there having,
you know, alcohol-fueled parties
and dances in North Tehran and so on.
You know, they’re not going to barge into people’s houses.
You know, they feel like, you know,
as long as people feel like they can do that kind of stuff,
they’re less likely to cause problems.
They’re not really worried about these, you know,
these kinds of very westernized elites in North Tehran
because, you know, what they’re more worried about right now
is the fact that these sanctions have made life
very difficult for their traditional support base,
which is the poor, both rural and urban poor,
and who are really suffering a lot under these sanctions,
much more than the wealthy and the westernized elites.
That’s more scary for them.
You know, I can’t help but think that we would give
our right arm now in the West
to have a viable Mohamed Mozadek
that we could support as an alternative
to the current leadership.
Is something like that ever possible,
the way that the system’s been constructed there
in terms of outsiders or non-religiously approved
candidates getting a chance to participate?
Is there a chance to have a Mohamed Mozadek,
somebody who we would call, you would call it
a liberal, democratic, moderate, reformer type,
or is that something that’s been sort of sealed off
by the design of the system?
I don’t think that’s in the cards now.
I think that the closest we came to that
in the period between 1997 and 2005
during the reformist presidency of Mohamed Khatami,
who was seen in many ways as a liberal,
reform-minded, constitutionalist kind of president,
but who operated within, he was a cleric himself,
who operated within the religious system.
And there was a lot of excitement about that
and what that might hold,
what kind of promise that might hold for the future of Iran.
But it didn’t work out,
both for internal and external reasons.
I think in recent years, but there have been more attempts.
There have been, the last president was more kind of
centrist and reform-minded in some ways,
and there have been, the movement wasn’t snuffed out
completely after 2005.
But I have to say, recently,
since the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA,
from the nuclear deal in 2018,
and the maximum pressure campaign
of the Trump administration,
that has had a pretty powerful impact.
It’s really helped entrench hard-line elements of Iran
in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time,
because that just made it very easy
for hard-line elements to say to,
you see, you can’t trust the United States,
and you can’t trust these guys,
because it was a more centrist, reformist government
that negotiated that deal.
And they were embarrassed, they were humiliated
by the withdrawal of the United States.
They brought sanctions relief,
and there’s this feeling that there’s a whole new era now,
and everything looks different,
and you see you can’t do a deal with the US.
But it only lasted three years,
and when the Trump administration withdrew,
it just handed a huge political victory
to conservative hard-line elements.
They said, look, forget about it.
These guys were duped.
They were the fools of the West,
and of the United States.
One of the disadvantages dealing with democratic systems
is that one president could have a different attitude
from the previous one.
So, let me ask you, was there anything
that I didn’t ask you about in this conversation
that I should have, or that’s relevant here
that we should be talking about?
I mean, I could talk for hours,
but I think you hit on some great highlights,
and those are some great questions.
So, I really enjoyed the conversation.
I’ve done what you’re doing,
and you get so tired of the same questions.
So, if I could have asked you a few different things,
we’ll call it a minor victory,
and hopefully we didn’t bore you.
This was wonderful.
The subject matter is fascinating,
and I hope we sell you a few books.
So, we will send you a link when the show is out,
and anything, I mean, listen, man,
if I can do any favors for you in the future,
or help you out in any way, please let me know.
I really appreciate that.
You’re helping me out quite a bit by helping
to spread the word about the book.
I really appreciate that.
That means a lot, and I appreciate your questions,
because, I mean, honestly, it’s obvious
that you’ve read the book, and you have some great,
you know, you kind of really engage with it,
and it has some great questions, so I really appreciate it.
I love the topic. Thank you so much for coming on
and taking the time. I appreciate it.
Thank you, Dan.
My thanks to John Guzvinian for coming on the program.
His new book, America and Iran,
a history 1720 to the present, is presently available.
Pick up your copy and find out all the answers
to all the questions that in a nearly hour
and 20-minute interview, I didn’t manage to get to somehow.
Anyway, he was a wonderful guy to talk to,
and the subject is fascinating.
For those who wonder where the next Hardcore History Show
is, the big one, we are working on it,
and like the famous, you know, multiple stages of grief,
there is the multiple stages
of Hardcore History Show production.
We are currently at the stage where we have hours of it
in the can, and you look at it and go,
now, what the heck do we have here?
Is any of this any good?
And so, we’ll, you know, get through the subsequent stages
and get it to you as soon as possible.
What I always tell people is, all of the carrots and sticks
in this business are lined up towards releasing more content.
So, we have every incentive.
You know, we just fail miserably.
Thanks for your patience, everybody.
I’m looking forward to talking with you more soon.
For Hardcore History t-shirts or other merchandise,
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Hey, everyone, back for one quick second
to talk again about Battle Guide Virtual Tours.
You may have heard me bring them up before.
Um, I hooked up with these guys during the first bit of COVID
when they were doing live tours of places like battlefields
in France and everything, and all of a sudden,
we’re shut down.
And this is the way they figured out how to pivot
from that, as so many other business owners
have had to figure out what to do in the same circumstances.
And I love the way these guys did it.
They converted the battlefield tours into virtual things,
and it allowed them to utilize a bunch of different
elements that obviously wouldn’t have been available
in a live situation.
And I’m not saying this is superior to a live situation.
They both have their strengths and weaknesses.
What I am saying is if you save up all the money
as an American to go to northern France
and walk these battlefields, first of all,
there will be things missing that you won’t understand
and you’ll have to come home and read about later,
which you get as part of these Battle Guide Virtual Tours
when you do those, but how likely are you next week
after you get home from what would be an expensive
and long trip to France to do this,
to want to go to Russia and visit Stalingrad, right?
But you do that in a virtual sense.
You can go on a different, you know,
battlefield tour every day.
There’s different ways to access them, by the way.
There’s a live version, which you can be a part of it online
when they’re doing it live and the historian is there
and you can ask questions and all kinds of things like that.
So that’s a real-time thing, but then that goes,
you know, into the archives and is available for you
to download anytime, anywhere, right?
As a sort of a hard copy version.
And you can buy those individually,
you can sign up for a subscription service
and access all of them and they have new ones all the time.
I just think if you’re a military history fan,
this is a gimme kind of thing,
and especially for a gift for people that you may know
who are also military history fans.
This is a fun thing and it’s worth trying
and if you’d like to just try it and get 50% off,
you can go to battleguide.co.uk forward slash Dan hyphen Carlin.
That’s battleguide.co.uk forward slash Dan hyphen Carlin
and you’ll get 50% off any one of the currently up
on the archive tours. See what it’s all about.
But we’re talking about something that combines,
you know, technology like drone images, 360 and satellite imagery,
on the ground video, veteran accounts,
period footage, photographs.
It’s an interesting mix of things that if you are interested
in this kind of stuff, manages to illuminate
the complexity of these battlefields in ways
that is difficult to conceptualize in any other situation.
Those of you out there who’ve read books,
who’ve looked at maps, who’ve seen movies,
you try to get a mental image of things.
This is one of the best ways I’ve ever discovered to do it.
I hope you’ll check it out.
Go to battleguide.co.uk forward slash Dan hyphen Carlin.
Get 50% off and see what I’m talking about.