For over 100 years, the domination of
Iran has been deeply woven into the fabric of global imperialism,
enforced through covert intrigues, economic bullying, military
assaults, and invasions. This history provides the backdrop for U.S.
hostility toward Iran today--including the real threat of war. Part
1 of this series explored the rivalry between European imperialists
up through World War 1 over which one would control Iran and its
oil. Part 2 exposed the U.S.’s 1953 overthrow of Mohammed
Mossadegh’s secular, nationalist government and its restoration of
its brutal client the Shah. Parts 3 and 4 examined what 25 years of
U.S. domination under the Shah’s reign meant for Iran and how it
paved the way for the 1979 revolution. Part 5 examines how both the
1979 revolution and the U.S. response fueled the rise of Islamic
In December 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter
toasted the Shah, calling Iran an “island of stability” in a sea of
turmoil. A few weeks later, a small anti-Shah demonstration of
religious students took place in Qum. It was violently repressed by
the regime’s forces. This wasn’t unusual, but what ensued was. A
cycle began, unleashing deep wells of dissatisfaction and anger. The
Shah’s repression spurred more protests. When those were repressed,
even more protests followed. Within a year of Carter’s toast, a wave
of revolution was sweeping Iran. On one day alone more than 10
million people--one of every three Iranians--took to the streets
demanding the end of the monarchy. In January 1979, the hated Shah
was forced to flee, and in February Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and
his followers took power.
Iran’s revolution, the consolidation of an Islamic
theocracy, and the actions the U.S. imperialists took in response
would have a profound impact. They would help undermine the U.S.
grip on the Middle East and fuel the rise of anti-U.S. Islamic
fundamentalism. The revolution and its aftermath turned Iran from a
pillar of U.S. dominance to one of its main obstacles in the region.
Over these decades, imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism ended up
reinforcing each other--even as they clashed.
The U.S.--Dazed & Confused
Iran’s revolution blind-sided the U.S. rulers. Even
in August 1978, when the tidal wave of upheaval was about to crest,
a CIA report concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even
a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation.”
In fall 1978, after the Shah’s “bloody Friday”
massacre of thousands of demonstrators failed to stem the tide, the
imperialists were forced to confront the magnitude of Iran’s
upheaval. Yet they remained paralyzed by infighting over how to
respond. Some in the U.S. ruling class argued for a last-ditch
military coup. Others worried that this would provoke an even more
profoundly revolutionary upheaval, and possibly push the masses
toward Iran’s secular revolutionary left.
At the time, contention with Soviet imperialism was
the U.S.’s chief driving necessity, and many ruling class
strategists felt that Khomeini and the clergy in Iran could be a
force against the left and the Soviets. They also assumed that the
clerics would cede power to their pro-U.S., technocratic allies. One
senior U.S. official wrote in February 1979, Khomeini’s movement “is
far better organized, enlightened, able to resist communism than its
detractors would lead us to believe.”
Neither option was a good one for the U.S. ruling
class, and its freedom to impact events in Iran dwindled quickly as
the revolution surged. In the end, the Carter administration decided
to try to deal with the new Islamic Republic. The U.S. maintained
diplomatic relations with Iran, and attempted to build ties with
forces in the new government.
Khomeini had long advocated a rule of Islamic "jurists"
(scholars and clerics), which would reimpose Islamic ideology and
social relations within the confines of Iran’s existing social and
economic structures. This represented the interests of sections of
Iran’s feudal and bourgeois strata and entailed reconfiguring Iran’s
role in the region and its relationship to U.S. imperialism. But it
did not entail rupturing from imperialism’s overall domination of
Iran, much less uprooting feudalism. Khomeini and his followers
viewed their new state as a model for the entire Islamic world.
Meanwhile, the U.S.’s huge CIA presence in Iran was focused on the
Soviet Union -- one former official told author Robert Dreyfuss that
"virtually no one in the Carter administration had any idea of who
Khomeini was until it was too late."
The Seizure of the U.S. Embassy
On November 4, 1979, the U.S. received another rude
awakening. Islamic students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran with
Khomeini’s blessing, took its personnel hostage, and demanded the
exiled Shah be returned to face trial.
The triggers for the takeover were, first, the U.S.
decision to admit the Shah (then dying of cancer) into the U.S. for
medical care. And second, a meeting in Algiers between Carter’s
National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iran’s Prime
Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister, all of whom were
allied with Khomeini but were pro-U.S. and basically secular in
The Khomeini forces, who organized and led the
takeover, seized on popular anger at the Shah and the widespread
fear that the U.S. might be conspiring to return him to power as it
had in 1953. However, Khomeini and the clerics’ primary objective
was to discredit and oust secular forces, consolidate a monopoly of
power in their hands, and establish an Islamic theocracy.
The Middle East “Arc of Crisis”
Shortly after the embassy takeover, in December
1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
The Soviet invasion gave Moscow control of a key
buffer state between Iran and Pakistan and put its forces closer to
the Persian Gulf. It came in the wake of what one former Reagan
official called stepped-up “competition for influence with the
United States throughout the Middle East, Indian Ocean, Horn of
Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia regions.” U.S.
officials also worried that their client regimes in the Persian Gulf
were vulnerable to Iranian-inspired Islamist agitation. In sum, they
felt the U.S. was facing an “arc of crisis” stretching from
Afghanistan through Iran to Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. Counters--Arming and Organizing
The U.S. imperialists launched a multi-dimensioned
and aggressive response focused on buttressing pro-U.S. oil
sheikdoms in the Gulf and defeating the Soviets’ moves. They were
framed by Carter’s January 23, 1980 State of the Union declaration
that “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the
Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital
interests of the United States and such an assault will be repelled
by any means necessary, including military force.” Zbigniew
Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, called this “Carter
Doctrine” a “strategic revolution in America’s global position.”
Controlling the Gulf was now as important to the empire as its
alliances with Europe and Japan. It was backed by a major expansion
of the U.S. military presence in the region.
One key component of this strategy, which would come
back to haunt the U.S., was mobilizing Islamic forces against the
Soviets, particularly in Afghanistan (something done previously in
Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel). “The theory was, there
was an arc of crisis, and so an arc of Islam could be mobilized to
contain the Soviets,” one former Carter official explained.
Ironically, this was now taking place after the
region’s first Islamist seizure of state power.
In July 1979, some five months before the Soviet
invasion, the U.S. had begun a covert campaign to destabilize
Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government by arming and funding the
Islamist opposition. The goal, according to Brzezinski, was “to
induce a Soviet military intervention.” After the Soviets invaded,
Brzezinski wrote Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to
the USSR its Vietnam War.” Over the next decade, the U.S. government
funneled more than $3 billion in arms and aid to the Islamic
mujahadeen, helping create a global network of Islamist fighters,
some of whom would form the core of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
Giving the Green Light to Iraq’s 1980
Invasion of Iran
Another major prong of the U.S. counter-attack was
punishing Iran in order to force it to release the U.S. embassy
personnel and curb its Islamist agitation in the region. The
strategy here was to try and put pressure on and contain the Islamic
Republic--not overthrow it. Khomeini’s government was brutally
clamping down on Iranian leftists, keeping its distance from the
Soviet Union, and maintaining the flow of Iranian oil to the
West--all of which coincided with key U.S. interests. The U.S.’s
overarching concern, as Brzezinski put it, was forging “an
anti-Soviet Islamic coalition.”
The U.S. had limited military resources in the
region and feared that any major military move against Iran could
provoke a U.S.-Soviet confrontation that could slide into nuclear
conflagration. During the Iranian revolution and in its immediate
aftermath, the U.S. and the Soviets engaged in a series of veiled
high-stakes threats backed by military maneuvers and nuclear alerts,
as each warned the other to stay out of Iran.
Given these constraints, the U.S. opted to work
through Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whose secular nationalist regime was
ideologically and politically threatened by Iran’s Islamic
revolution (including because 60 percent of Iraq’s population were
Shi’ites who were oppressed under Saddam's rule). In the spring and
summer of 1980, the U.S. encouraged an Iraqi attack on Iran
(possibly including via a direct meeting between Hussein and either
Brzezinski or high-level CIA agents in Jordan). On September 22,
1980 Iraq invaded southwest Iran.
Reagan’s “October Surprise”
The Carter administration viewed Iraq’s invasion as
useful to U.S. interests, but when Iraqi forces drove deep into
southern Iran it became apparent that Hussein had greater ambitions.
So the U.S. declared that it was against “any dismemberment of
Iran,” and promised to airlift $300-$500 million worth of arms to
Iran if the hostages were released.
Nothing came of this offer because of a secret
behind-the-scenes conspiracy between Iran’s clerics and powerful
right-wing forces in the U.S.
The U.S. rulers viewed the seizure and holding of
the Tehran embassy and 52 of its personnel for 444 days as a global
humiliation. The media labeled it “America held hostage,” and
establishment commentators complained that the U.S. had been turned
into a “pitiful giant,” incapable of imposing its will even on a
Third World country. The utter failure of Carter’s April 24, 1980
attempt at a helicopter rescue of the hostages added insult to
injury. Ronald Reagan’s backers were deeply frustrated by the
constraints on U.S. power generally and felt a Reagan victory in the
1980 presidential election was crucial to strengthening U.S.
imperialism’s global dominance and aggressively taking on their
These Reagan backers (including many who would be
leading neocon hawks in George W. Bush’s administration) feared that
if Carter won the hostages’ release he would win re-election. So
they worked to make sure this didn’t happen. Over the summer of
1980, Reagan’s top advisors made a secret agreement with the Islamic
Republic: if Iran continued to hold the hostages through November’s
election and Reagan won, he would lift the economic sanctions
imposed by Carter and allow Israel to ship arms to Iran. Former
Carter official Gary Sick called it “nothing less than a political
Iran’s Ayatollahs agreed because they wished to
prolong the Embassy crisis and the Iran-Iraq war in order to pose as
anti-imperialist fighters, outflank and crush their opponents, and
firmly consolidate their theocracy. Reagan did win, and on January
21, 1981, the day he was inaugurated, Iran sent the U.S. embassy
Gulf Stalemate, Soviet Defeat, and the Rise
of Islamic Fundamentalism
In the short run, this U.S. offensive worked. The
Iran-Iraq war dragged on for 8 years with neither side winning a
clear victory. The Islamic Republic’s energies were absorbed in the
war and domestic political struggles, and the U.S.’s regional
clients survived. In Afghanistan, the Soviets were forced to
withdraw their forces in 1989, suffering a major defeat which
contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. victory
in the “Cold War.”
Yet in many ways, these U.S. measures--indeed even
its victory over the Soviets--unleashed new contradictions and sowed
the seeds of the enormous difficulties the U.S. is now facing in the
Middle East-Central Asian region.
For one, the U.S.-backed proxy wars in the Persian
Gulf and Afghanistan exacted an enormous toll. Conservative
estimates place the death toll in the Iran-Iraq War at
367,000--262,000 Iranians and 105,000 Iraqis. An estimated 700,000
were injured or wounded on both sides, bringing the total casualty
figure to over one million. The 1979-1989 Afghan war took the lives
of more than a million Afghans (along with 15,000 Soviet soldiers)
and a third of the population was driven into refugee camps. This
contributed greatly to the overall suffering and dislocation in the
region, which became a primary source of anti-U.S. Islamism.
The Iran-Iraq war helped the Khomeini regime firmly
consolidate power, and it would use that power to promote Islamist
movements across the region. Dreyfuss points out, “The religious
revolution in Iran did more than kick the props out from underneath
America’s most important outpost in the region. It crystallized a
fundamental change in the character of the Islamic right, one that
had been taking shape since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
decades earlier. As it gained strength in the ’70s the Islamic right
grew more assertive, and parts of it were radicalized…..and took on
a more pronounced political character.”
Arming and training of the Afghan and Islamic
Mujahadeen created a fighting force that would soon turn on its U.S.
and Saudi sponsors and become a huge problem for them. The
U.S.-Mujahadeen victory over the Soviets emboldened the
Islamists--believing they’d defeated one superpower, they now felt
they could defeat the other. The collapse of the Soviet Union also
strengthened Islamic fundamentalism ideologically (secularism and
Marxism had supposedly failed) and politically (a major backer of
secular and nationalist forces had fallen).
Over the course of the 1990s and into the new
millennium, the Islamist trend became a bigger and bigger problem
for the U.S. empire.
Bob Avakian, “Why We're in the
Situation We're in Today…And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly
Rotten System and the Need for Revolution,” available at
Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game--How
the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, pp.
Larry Everest, Oil, Power &
Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, Chapter 4--“Arming
Iraq, Double-Dealing Death in the Gulf”
Larry Everest, “Islamic Revivalism and
the Experience of Iran,” Revolution magazine, Fall/Winter