American acceptance of Iran's decision to nationalize its oil industry in 1951, coupled with its successful resistance to Great Britain's plans to seize Iranian oil fields by force, was followed by U.S. assistance to modernize these facilities. Our assistance enabled Iran to raise its oil production and prices, which, in turn, gave the country the necessary revenues to modernize its economy, armed forces, and physical and social infrastructure.
During the height of the Cold War, the United States and its allies, as well as the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners, made a number of miscalculations and errors. Both camps were so obsessed with one another's seemingly monolithic doctrines and zero-sum policies that they misjudged the nature of such potent historic and cultural forces as religion and nationalism. After the departure of Soviet troops from Iran, the United States remained deeply concerned about possible Communist infiltration of the Iranian government, especially during the premiership of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh. Some of Dr. Mossadegh's own lieutenants were similarly alarmed by this threat. Although Dr. Mossadegh was hosted at the White House by President Truman, who compared him to American patriots Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and was hailed by Time magazine as its "Man of the Year" in 1951, by the time a new American presidential administration took office in 1952, Cold War imperatives and mistrust were ascendant.
In 1953, the United States, assisted by local elements opposed to the Mossadegh government, including religious leaders such as Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, military officers, monarchists, and others, precipitated its demise. We did not recognize that a nationalist, secular, and democratic Iran would have been a great counterforce against Communism. Neither did we appreciate the sagacity of the Iranian national leadership and the power of nationalism. We were wrong. On the other hand, we were right in assisting with the modernization of the Iranian armed forces, which became one of the major factors that helped Iran defend itself against well-armed Iraqi aggression in 1979. This aggression resulted in a tragic, 10-year war costing hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. During this protracted warfare, America had a choice: to side with Iraq, which had no diplomatic relations with the U.S., or with Iran, though we, in turn, had no diplomatic relations with Iran because of the hostage crisis. It must be noted that, had the U.S. sided with Iran, such action would have alienated us from the majority of Arab countries. Another choice was neutrality, which was our professed policy, though we did not try to block some $3 billion in arms sales from Israel to Iran. Not to mention the notorious Iran-contra affair, which resulted in substantial transfer of arms and other materiel to Iran.
Contrary to Iran's official propaganda, the United States did not break diplomatic relations in response to the Iranian Revolution. On the contrary, we accepted this development and endeavored to establish a working relationship with your new leadership. We broke our diplomatic ties only in 1979 when, in violation of international law, Iranians occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized 56 American diplomats and held them hostage for 444 days. Prior to their release, we engaged in a failed attempt to rescue them. (Given the history of this painful period, it is continually surprising that, when abroad, Iranian officials never mention the hostage crisis that triggered the breakup of our diplomatic relations.)
No country, certainly no country in possession of the vast power of the United States, would have failed to act under such circumstances. But we restrained our response, because the powerful have the option not to exercise their power. With hopes that common sense would eventually prevail, the United States reluctantly tolerated the situation, not out of weakness but out of a sense of responsibility. We distinguished between the Iranian government and its people, and between our short- and long-term interests.
Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.