Iran: History Behind Embassy Seizures


While the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked yesterday by an angry mob, this was not the first time this kind of thing has happened. We all remember the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by armed Iranian students in 1979. To understand why Iranians distrust the U.S., Britain, and the West, a review of history is needed.

Iran (historically Persia) is a relatively large country of 66 million. It is in the Persian Gulf, and borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the east. The people are predominately Shiite Muslim. Ethnically, they are Persian, but some are Kurd. Their economy is fueled by the Khuzestan oil fields, in the northwest.

After colonial Britain severed Afghanistan from Iran in the Anglo-Persian War (1856-57), a British Protectorate was attempted, but the Persians resisted. England did however create an Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (1909), and started taking the resource. The English Army subsequently occupied the Iranian oil fields at Khuzistan in WWI, and again in WWII (1941). This is also when Muhammad Reza Pahlavi became Shah of Iran (1941).

Upon the election of Mohammad Mossadeq as Prime Minister (1950), Iran nationalized their oil, and gave British and U.S. firms one month to get out of the country (1951). The UK sued on behalf of Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., but the case was dismissed, on a jurisdictional issue. UK v Iran (1951).

When the Shah of Iran subsequently lost a fight against Mossadeq, he fled, but soon returned, when CIA and British intelligence executed the Prime Minister (1953). The Shah allowed Anglo and American oil companies to resume their businesses (1954). These events were never lost on the collective memory of the Iranian people.

Under the Shah’s brutal dictatorship, the country joined the Central Treaty Organization, and helped to encircle the Soviet Union (1954). To Shiite Muslims, the Shah added insult to injury, as he launched a White Revolution to westernize Iran, by allowing women to vote (1963). Islamic resistance to the Shah’s puppet regime grew, as hundreds were executed, and political opposition was banned. Following riots against the Shah, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and other important Shiites, were exiled (1963).

The Iranian dictator became a U.S. ally. During the Arab-Israeli War (1967), Iran thwarted a brief Arab oil boycott by increasing oil production by 20%. President Nixon supported the Shah during a visit, as Iran purchased U.S. Phantom jets and SAM missiles (1972).

Opposition to the Shah grew, as protests swept through the country (1978). Iran fell under military rule, when Shiites threatened civil war. Fundamentalist uprisings finally forced the Shah to flee, allowing the Ayatollah Khomeini to return from exile (1979). Scores who had backed the Shah were lined up and shot. The Ayatollah said: “Our final victory will come when all foreigners are out of the country.” He ordered women, who ventured in public, to wear veils and robes, and if they refused, they were to be called whores, and stoned. Alcohol was removed from the hotels.

A major international incident occurred when armed students took 62 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy (1979). They demanded a return the Shah, so he could be put on trial. Although four women and six blacks were freed promptly, the other 52 were held for 444 days. The UN reminded Iran of their treaty obligations to diplomatic and consular staff, and warned that international law made the taking of hostages illegal.

After a failed rescue attempt by U.S. forces, the Shah died in exile (1980), and the Iranians finally freed the hostages, one day after President Carter left office, in consideration for a release of frozen assets (1981). The International Court of Justice ruled Iran had an obligation to protect the U.S. Embassy, and they violated that duty by failing to stop the students. U.S. v Iran (1980). An Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal was convened at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Holland, where financial claims for the hostages, as well as 683 others adversely affected, were settled (1981).

The U.S. then enlisted Saddam Hussein to invade Iran on the pretext the oil-rich Iranian Khuzestan Province was actually in Iraqi territory. Even though Hussein started the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), the U.S. supported Iraq, and opposed fundamentalist Iran. Meanwhile, President Reagan simultaneously sold more than one billion in military equipment to Iran, during the so-called Iran-Contra Scandal. He did this even though Persia was labeled a terrorist state, and the sales were illegal under U.S. law.

In the war, the U.S. helped Iraq by attacking three Iranian Persian Gulf offshore oil production complexes, acts the International Court of Justice found were not justified by self-defense. Iran v U.S. (1987). The U.S. also shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, while in flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 defenseless passengers, including 65 infants and children. President Reagan apologized for the conduct of the USS Vincennes, and agreed to pay wrongful death damages. Iran v U.S. (1988).

The U.S. subsequently accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism, and imposed trade sanctions (1995). The Congress passed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (1996). President George W. Bush named Iran a part of an axis of evil (2002). The International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, triggering UN sanctions (2006). Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad defended Iran’s right to make nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes (2007).

Over the years, the Iranians have not forgotten Britain was a 19th Century colonial power that severed Afghanistan from them, and tried to conquer them. They know Britain took their oil from 1909 onward, and occupied their lands in WWI and WWII to guard it. When Iran seized their own natural resources in 1950, to keep the profits for themselves, they have not forgotten the 1953 CIA intervention that took out their elected leader, and made them give their oil to Western corporations, while they were forced to live under a brutal dictatorship for the next 26 years. The Iranians have not forgotten the U.S. prompted Saddam Hussein to invade their country in 1980, in an 8-year war that caused many thousands to die. They remember the attacks by the U.S. military against their facilities in the Persian Gulf, and particularly the killing of 290 defenseless civilians, when the U.S. shot down one of their passenger airliners. They are aware of Israel’s paranoia regarding nuclear weapons, and they know the U.S. will foolishly and blindly follow.

One could ask: Why would any Iranian like the U.S. or Britain? Iranians lash out against U.S. and British embassies, because they are not a superpower, and that is all they can do to vent their anger. We should all pause, and think about why the Iranians get angry at us, before we do something really foolish, like bomb or invade Iran.

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