The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978: Iran as a pawn of British and US self-interests

Carlton Meyer, “The American Occupation of Iran 1941 – 1978” (Tales of the American Empire, 13 March 2020)

So much history is covered in this short 8-minute documentary that it bears watching at least a couple of times – though a few questions might be raised at the end of the video. In 1941, broke and needing oil badly for its armed forces, Britain decided to invade Iran to seize the country’s oil rather than pay royalties to the Iranians on oil production. Claiming to be neutral, the US actually provided military aid to allow both Britain and the Soviet Union to invade the country and then partition it and seize Iranian assets. Although Iran put up a fight, its armed forces were overwhelmed. The ruling Shah (Reza Shah Pahlavi) at the time was deposed and his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi agreed to replace him as a puppet ruler of a virtual American colony.

Under the 1941 Lend Lease Act, the US government provided military assistance to the British and the Soviets while at the same time the US public had to accept rationing of food and fuel, wage freezes and increased income taxation. Housing construction was halted and automobile factories had to switch over to producing war materiel. 30,000 US troops were sent to occupy Iran and Iran’s government had to accept Americans in major positions. Even after World War II ended, when most US troops returned home, the Iranian government under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi still relied on US advisors. Most of the country’s oil profits went to British and US oil companies, and the Shah frittered much of whatever oil profits came to Iran on buying US weapons and equipment (and setting up a nascent nuclear manufacturing program) and on enriching himself and members of his family. The US helped Mohammed Reza Pahlavi establish SAVAK, a combined secret police / domestic security / intelligence agency, which later gained notoriety among the Iranian public for torturing and executing people who opposed the Pahlavi government.

There are a few errors in Meyer’s presentation: he refers to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as the Anglo-American Oil Company (they were actually two different companies, the former being the forerunner of BP and the latter the forerunner of Esso) and appears to insinuate that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 after the Soviets had done so (in fact Germany invaded Poland first, then the Soviets did so). Mention of Iran nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s assets in the early 1950s under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh might have a few viewers scratching their heads as to what Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his US advisors were doing that Mossadegh would dare to nationalise a British company, as it was after this nationalisation that the British and the Americans would work together to depose Mossadegh and install a new government that would not upset London and which would allow the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to continue keeping much of Iran’s oil wealth in its own coffers.

On the other hand, I do not have an issue with Meyer calling Iran’s current government a democracy as Iran does hold regular Presidential and parliamentary elections, however imperfect and corrupted the country’s government and political institutions may be. Indeed, Iran’s politics seems to be no more and no less “democratic” than those of Western nations where leaders are more likely to be hand-picked by their parties or other interested organisations, be they local or foreign, and presented to voters as the only choices rather than the voting electorate itself being allowed to put forward credible candidates for leadership positions.

In the last few minutes of the video, Meyer quickly updates viewers on the events that led to the downfall of the Shah in 1979. Meyer probably could have made much more of US arrogance and failure to read the mood of the Iranian general public and the widespread dissatisfaction at all levels of society with the Pahlavi royal family’s corruption and the increasing violence of SAVAK. Viewers will note the parallel between the US ignorance of the changing reality on the ground in Iran, as people joined protests and mass demonstrations against the Shah’s rule, and the current US bewilderment and panic at events in many parts of the world – in China (Hong Kong and Xinjiang), Russia, Syria and Venezuela among others – where US-supported grifters like Alexei Navalny (Russia) and Juan Guaido (Venezuela) have failed to rally public support behind them to lead a coup against governments the US desires to replace with puppet regimes. This parallel and similar parallels between the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – both coups involved violent mobs paid by US agencies to support overthrowing those leaders – surely make 20th-century Iranian history worth studying. A third parallel may be observed between the impoverishment of the US general public during World War II and the current impoverishment of Americans, the degradation of US national infrastructures and the evisceration of US culture, education, healthcare and other social services to feed an insatiable psychopathic appetite among US elites that celebrates violence, brutality and destruction in the service of empire.

The images used in the video are old and unfortunately the later part of the video uses photographic portraits of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi while Meyer does a general survey of that Shah’s rule – surely some old film footage of the Shah’s excesses might have been available. These are perhaps minor points in what is a general historical sketch of the vicious nature of both the US and British empires and their elites in a nation that has too much of a resource that both empires still need.