Letter from the US: Why Washington hates Iran

December 1, 2013
A huge demonstration during Iran's 1979 revolution.

Of the six nations that reached a preliminary deal with Iran concerning its nuclear program, five ― the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China ― have nuclear arsenals.

Atomic weapons were first developed by the US, the only country to have used them against large urban populations twice, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those two war crimes killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The hypocrisy is compounded by the fact that the strongest opponent of Iran in the Middle East is Israel, which has hundreds of fission and hydrogen bombs.

The context of the preliminary deal is the crippling economic sanctions spearheaded by Washington against Iran.

Lost in the propaganda barrage against Iran is a simple truth. It is preposterous to believe that Iran, a Third World country, would pose a threat to the US or Israel, even if it had a few nuclear weapons, which it doesn’t have and has repeatedly said it doesn't want.

Imperialism and resistance

To understand why Washington hates Iran, it is important to recall the history of imperialist domination of the country and resistance to it. For much of the 20th century, Iran was a client state of Britain.

Given the importance of oil to Iran's economy, this was highlighted by the domination of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum. Resistance to imperialist domination was expressed in many upsurges during this period.

Not an outright British colony like India, Iran was governed by a pliant monarchy under the Shah (king), in a constitutional monarchy system.

In the aftermath of World War II, nationalist sentiment grew against imperialist domination of the oil industry. In 1947, Dr Mohammed Mossadegh set up the National Front, which reflected this sentiment.

A National Front government was elected in 1951, and Mossadegh nationalised the oil industry. The international oil companies responded with a boycott of Iranian oil.

In August 1953, the Shah’s Royal Guards launched a failed coup. Mass demonstrations demanded an end to the monarchy. Mossadegh, a moderate nationalist, feared the aroused workers and other popular sectors, and ordered the army to quell the protests.

With the very forces that might have saved him demobilised, within days the CIA and British intelligence organised a second coup that overthrew Mossadegh. The coup established a vicious military dictatorship under the Shah in the next years.

The oil companies moved back in, but the British oil monopoly was broken. Other countries, especially the US, joined in to reap the spoils.

Pro-West dictatorship

The CIA, with the help of Israeli intelligence, set up the notorious SAVAK Iranian political police. The regime ruled with an iron fist, with widespread torture and murder.

Workers were severely repressed, with only government-controlled unions allowed. SAVAK had offices in most large companies.

I was in Tehran during the February 1979 uprising that overthrew the Shah. I witnessed TV broadcasts of the uncovering of SAVAK’s secret torture chambers by the insurgent masses. Some were truly grotesque.

In one, the walls could be heated. There were still pieces of burnt skin stuck to them.

In another, there were bloody women’s underwear that the torturers didn’t have time to remove before the room was discovered.

An underground prison connected to a steel mill was found, where workers were punished.

A student who spoke English showed me his crooked arm, caused by SAVAK breaking it multiple times.

Throughout the period of the post-1953 dictatorship, there were protests by students, workers and others. All were met with suppression by the armed forces. In June 1963, there were several days of street fighting in Tehran, when the Shah ordered his troops to “shoot to kill”. Thousands died.

Eventually, guerrilla groups formed and tried to wage armed struggle against the regime. They were severely repressed.

The footprint of the US was everywhere. The US Embassy, the final seat of authority, was huge. It occupied a square city block. Tens of thousands of US soldiers were in the country to train the army and the Shah’s elite Royal Guard.

Iran was a bastion for Washington in the Middle East, along with the garrison state of Israel. The Shah maintained close ties with the Zionist regime.

The CIA set up its main Middle East base in Iran. Bordering the Soviet Union, Iran became a high-tech listening post monitoring the USSR.


In 1978, demonstrations against the Shah swept the country in ever more powerful waves. These drew in not only the dominant Persians, but also the many oppressed nationalities, who made up one third of the population.

As in all countries going through capitalist development, there had been a huge displacement of millions of poor peasants, driven off the land by the Shah’s agricultural policies. They poured into the slums of Tehran and other cities, eking out a precarious existence of intermittent employment. These masses joined in, too.

By September, the demonstrations had reached the point where the Shah declared martial law, unleashing murderous repression. Hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down in Tehran alone. But the repression not only did not crush the movement, it spurred millions more to join in.

On October 3, employees of the National Bank walked out. In a matter of hours, all bank workers were on a political strike against the regime. They were followed by teachers, journalists, postal workers and then virtually all sectors.

One of the greatest general strikes in history had begun. The industrial workers stepped forward, led by the key sector of the oil workers, to spearhead the nationwide revolt.

In the face of the Shah’s brutal repression, the demonstrations continued to grow. Some demonstrators would wear white clothes, the Muslim burial dress, to signify they were willing to die as they faced the regime’s tanks and heavy machine guns.

Throughout the year, Washington relentlessly and publicly backed the Shah and threatened the mass movement. Moscow and Beijing also continued to support the Shah.

Finally, the Shah left the country, appointing a caretaker government, which continued the repression. In this situation, two groups of Iranian revolutionary socialists returned to Iran.

I went to Iran, along with a British comrade, for the Trotskyist group the Fourth International, to work with them in setting up the Iranian Socialist Workers Party. That is how I came to be in Tehran when the insurrection occurred.

The working class at the head of the broad masses was the motor force of the revolution. But there was a key weakness, in that the workers were not organised in their own mass party. Socialist forces of various stripes were small.

Into this leadership vacuum stepped a section of the clergy led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He had earned the respect of the masses because of his intransigent opposition to the Shah, the police murders of nearly all of Khomeni’s family members, and the regime’s US backers in his years of exile.

After the insurrection, Khomeini made an alliance with some forces of the old National Front, and established a new capitalist government, retaining much of the Shah’s state apparatus.

Workers, oppressed nationalities, peasants, students and women continued to press for their rights. Workers’ councils were established in many places, for example. The new government also faced an armed population.

Without going into the details, it took three years for the new government to completely bring the revolution to heel. It did this through repression, co-option of mass organisations, and concessions to the masses. One example was the nationalisation of important industries, demanded by workers.

The country then faced a long and bloody war initiated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq at Washington’s behest. The regime utilised this to carry out further repression.

The left was destroyed. Thousands were executed. Others were jailed or forced into exile.

Anti-imperialist legacy

The revolution was broken, but a key element of mass consciousness remains. That is a deep anti-imperialism, rooted in the decades of imperialist domination before WWII, the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh, the US-imposed military dictatorship that followed, US hostility to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, the US-backed Iraqi invasion, and constant US anti-Iran actions up to the current economic sanctions.

Washington does not hate Iran because of its repressive theocratic government. After all, it is quite palsy-walsy with the Wahabi theocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which is far more repressive than Iran.

Washington hates the deep anti-imperialist consciousness of the Iranian people, an obstacle to US interests once again taking over the oil-rich country.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. It contains a chapter on the Iranian Revolution, which Sheppard saw up close. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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