Like many human ills, the seeds for Iran’s problems were sown a long time in the past. In this case, by Reza Khan Pahlevi, the general who made himself shah in 1925. His seed and son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, lacked his father’s forcefulness and ability.
The father had instituted reforms opposed by the clergy, the ulama, but he failed to bring them under control; he attacked them and dominated them but never crushed them.
And the son fared even worse, since he failed even to dominate the ulama, thus earning their undying enmity, especially when he changed their ancient calendar three years before these events took place.
In 1951 the Iranian Nationalist Party, led by Muhammad Mussadegh, rose to power and soon marginalised the young shah, Mohammed, who had ruled under British auspices since 1941, when Tana Standish was four and living in Warsaw – indeed when all her family were still alive.
Tana’s adoptive mother, Vera, had given her plenty of history books to read – in several languages, so she didn’t just get the Anglo-centric version.
Vera Standish told me – a few days after her eighty-first birthday – that she believed history had lessons to teach, not least, to avoid the pitfalls of the past – “…though few British politicians seem willing to learn,” she argued over tea, “otherwise the Suez crisis wouldn’t have happened five years after Mussadegh took power.”
For decades, the British interests had been extensive in Iran, both to curb Russian expansion into the Gulf and the Indian Ocean and to protect the oil supplies, which happened to be managed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Founded after the turn of the century, the English company was given a sixty-year monopoly. At the outset of the First World War, the British government purchased a big share of the company as it had a contract to supply the Royal Navy.
Mussadegh expropriated the oil company and in response to the lack of any compensation, we blockaded Iranian oil supplies. America approached Iran, suggesting it wasn’t really on the side of the old imperial powers, Britain and France, and at the same time our government naively asked America for support to regain their monopoly, suggesting Mussadegh was pro-Soviet.
Then in 1953 there were reports of a Soviet-Iranian loan and alliance, so a clandestine US-British operation was set up – and OSS veteran Kermit Roosevelt, a charming and resourceful man from the CIA, was given the responsibility for Operation Ajax. MI6 chose the rather more mundane but quite appropriate name for the plan – Operation Boot. A coup d’état was financed and organised, based on the CIA and MI6 intelligence assessments to the effect that there were powerful sections of popular opinion backed up by the army which favoured booting out Mussadegh. The CIA operatives worked from the bunker underneath the US embassy.
Incited by CIA dollars, mobs ran riot through Tehran, trampling several hundred people to death; anyone liable to oppose the prime minister’s removal was disposed of quietly.
So Mussadegh fell and his replacement – a Nazi sympathiser who’d been interned in Palestine by the British, no less – nationalised the company, the National Iranian Oil Company, forty per cent each going to the British and the US oil companies. In effect, the Shah was restored by the army – aided by the CIA.
Those were great days for the CIA, the kingmakers.
The MI6 contribution was conveniently forgotten; ‘C’, the head of the British SIS was happy to keep it that way.
In the years that followed, the Americans fostered good relations with the Shah and sold him weapons for oil, while the British government did the same, though with more restraint. After all, they guaranteed his future.
But those who had eyes to see could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn’t the words of Omar Khayyam.
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More details about Tana Standish can be gleaned from my blog here
Considerable detail about her traumatic childhood is revealed in The Prague Papers, too.
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