A History of US-Iran Relations – Part 1: Origins

The US and Iran have started to normalise relations.

As Iran and the US nor­malise rela­tions, Idrees Devries of Revolution Observer traces the evo­lu­tion of this rela­tion­ship in a four-part series. In part one, the historical ori­gins of this rela­tion­ship is assessed.

Per­sia, as Iran was known at the start of the 20th cen­tury, was occu­pied mil­i­tar­ily by the British Empire in 1918. In 1921 the British appointed the head of the Cos­sack Brigade of the Iran­ian army, Reza Khan, as ruler of the coun­try. In 1925 he crowned him­self as “Shah Reza Pahlavi of Per­sia” and he gave the British every­thing they wanted in Iran, includ­ing total con­trol over Iran­ian oil pro­duc­tion, refin­ing and mar­ket­ing. This is one of the rea­sons why Iran was the most impor­tant source of fuel for the British army before the start of World War II.

World War II

After Nazi Germany’s inva­sion of Rus­sia in 1941, Iran grew in geopo­lit­i­cal impor­tance. In the face of a com­mon enemy the British Empire and the Soviet Union quickly part­nered up and Iran became part of their mutual sup­ply line. On the 25th of August 1941 Britain and Rus­sia sent armies into Iran, to bring the coun­try under their direct con­trol and ensure a sta­ble and secure Iran that could fully sup­port the allied war effort.

Shah Reza Pahlavi was seen as an obsta­cle to achiev­ing this aim, since he was deeply despised by his peo­ple because of the tyranny of his rule. The British there­fore removed him from his posi­tion and replaced him with his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Britain wanted to keep Iran­ian rule in the Pahlavi fam­ily as they feared that the British hand behind the tyranny of Pahlavi the elder might be exposed.

The US

In 1942 Amer­ica joined the allied camp. As one of the main sup­pli­ers of Rus­sia it too sent troops into Iran. The Americans deeply despised the Pahlavi fam­ily because they had kept Amer­i­can oil com­pa­nies out of Iran for decades despite immense Amer­i­can pres­sure on them to open up the Iran­ian oil indus­try to “inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion”.

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Nev­er­the­less, because the war effort required it, Amer­ica entered into var­i­ous agree­ments with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to orga­nise US involve­ment in Iran. The Amer­i­cans were hope­ful, also, that long term these agree­ments would be assist in remov­ing the Shah from power, or at least weaken his influ­ence in the coun­try. These treaties put the Iran­ian army, police, inter­nal secu­rity ser­vice and pub­lic finances under con­trol of Amer­i­can advi­sors. In a let­ter addressed to the then Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, Wal­lace Mur­ray, advi­sor to the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent for inter­na­tional rela­tions, wrote: “The obvi­ous fact is that we shall soon be in the posi­tion of actu­ally “run­ning” Iran through an impressive body of Amer­i­can advis­ors”.

The Amer­i­can mis­sion with the respon­si­bil­ity of orga­nis­ing Iran’s inter­nal secu­rity orga­ni­sa­tion the Royal Gen­darmerie oper­ated under the code-name GENMISH. It was headed by Colonel Nor­man H. Schwarzkopf whose main objec­tive was to build an insti­tu­tion that could ensure sta­bil­ity and secu­rity in Iran, such that the coun­try would no longer need allied sol­diers for these pur­poses.

The Amer­i­cans there­fore turned the Royal Gen­darmerie into a mil­i­tary orga­ni­sa­tion. After World War II the rela­tion­ship between Amer­ica and the Royal Gen­darmerie was main­tained and in 1950 it was even fur­ther expanded through the sign­ing of the United Secu­rity Pact by Iran and Amer­ica. Fol­low­ing this Treaty the Royal Gen­darmerie grew in size, from approx­i­mately 35,000 men to over 70,000, and offi­cers were sent to Amer­ica for train­ing. The Gen­darmerie then took respon­si­bil­ity for sta­bil­ity and secu­rity over 80% of Iran, mostly the rural areas out­side of the cities.

All this made Colonel Schwarzkopf a pow­er­ful and influ­en­tial man in Iran, espe­cially amongst the tra­di­tional tribal elders. In a telegram to the Amer­i­can ambas­sador in Iran, John C. Wiley, Schwarzkopf claimed that 88 mem­bers of the Iran­ian par­lia­ment (Majlis) obeyed his com­mands.

Part 2 will cover US rela­tions with the Mossadeq, the Shah and Aya­tol­lah Khome­ini.

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