Michael N. Escobar


PS 198 - Revolutionary Iran De-Cal



The world of foreign policy is like a multi-sided game of chess. Moves are made with varying degrees of calculation and skill, and nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything that happens affects the other players'  sets of options and levels of risk. In analyzing historical events in international relations, it is incumbent upon the analyst to take into consideration the historical and regional context to what happened.

At the time of the coup that overthrew Premier Mosaddeq, several world events had just happened: key were the 1949 Chinese Revolution and Iran's 1951 nationalization of its oil industry. The Korean War was ending, and the Viet Minh guerrillas were harassing the French colonial regime in Vietnam. Five days before the coup in Iran, the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb (Encyclopaedia Britannica). According to Daniel Ellsberg in his book Papers on the War (1972), after 1949, no U.S. president could politically afford to be in power while another major country "went Communist" (dictating that they take actions to forestall Communist revolutions at least until after they were out of office). In this context, the nationalization of the oil industry must have seemed to the West as a dangerous flirtation with socialism, in a country which bordered the USSR. It should be remembered that India was governed by Premier Nehru, and moving into the Soviet sphere of influence; as a result, the US sought to bring Pakistan into its fold. A socialist Iran would make Pakistan's position exceedingly precarious. The stated policy of the Eisenhower Administration was "stopping communism wherever it encroached, and rolling it back wherever possible" (Daalder). In 1954, the CIA would organize a coup d'état in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratically-elected socialist Jacobo Arbenz

Besides the imperative to fight communism, the prospect of anti-Western nationalism must have also appeared to the US and Great Britain as a problem to be eliminated. Syria had experienced a succession of coups between 1949 and 1951 that left the country under the control of Ba'ath (socialist and nationalist) and SSNP (conservative and nationalist) Army officers (Britannica 2). Col. Gemal Abdel Nasser and other officers overthrew the monarchy in Egypt in 1952 (Britannica 3). In the background, anti-colonial agitation in Algeria had been actively repressed by the French since the 1940s; and Israel was founded in 1948, at the expense of 750,000 expelled Palestinians, which further catalyzed anti-Westernism in the Middle East. At the same time, Britain's Prime Minister was colonial stalwart Winston Churchill, who had fought in South Africa's Boer War of 1900, and was quite used to viewing the Middle East as an assortment of Western protectorates. This was the man who had called Gandhi a "half-naked fakir"; the prospect of anti-Westernism in the Middle East must have seemed as repugnant to him as Communism was to Eisenhower.

In light of the overall strategic picture, the direct threat to American capital invested in Iran seems less important. As with the occupation of Hawaii, the building of the Panama canal, and the invasion of Iraq, pecuniary considerations go hand in hand with larger, more-compelling motivations of geopolitics. American and Soviet troops were staring each other down in Berlin; American and Korean troops were fighting in the icy mountains of Korea; and given the absolute essentiality of oil to industrial economies, Mosaddeq's nationalization of oil must have seemed to Washington and London to be an unforgivable mistake.


Works Cited:

Daalder, Ivo H. "Why 1953 coup resonates 50 years later." The Mercury-News. August 3, 2003.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Papers on the War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

"Thermonuclear Bomb."  Encyclopaedia Britannica . 2003.  Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 21 Oct, 2003  < http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=73964 >.

"Syria."  Encyclopaedia Britannica . 2003.  Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

21 Oct, 2003  < http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=115300 >

"Egypt."  Encyclopaedia Britannica . 2003.  Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

21 Oct, 2003  < http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=108480 >.