After the outbreak of the Cold War, the United States recognized the vital importance of Iran within the Gulf region. We helped build Iran's armed forces by providing training as well as over a billion dollars of modern armaments, and supported Iran's leadership of the Baghdad Pact and Central Treaty Organization. Between 1953 and 1978, we provided Iran with the most advanced weapons systems on a par with those available to our NATO allies. We were eager to help Iran become a modern economic and political force and thus provided Iran with a broad range of economic assistance, as well, including support for the diversification of its energy resources. During this period, it is a fact that the United States supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who succeeded his father as Iran's ruler. As a pro-Western, secular nationalist, America viewed the Shah as an important bulwark against Communism. The United States promoted the Shah's ambitions to make Iran a regional superpower and also considered it, as we do today, a key to regional stability. America welcomed Iran's efforts to promote economic ties among Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other powers in an effort to avert conflict, which would only impede Iran's and the region's prospects.
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.
Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.