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Editor: Spencer C. Tucker
Date: 2008
Cold War: A Student Encyclopedia
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 998


Middle Eastern nation of 636,293 square miles, slightly larger than the U.S. state of Alaska. Iran is bordered by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south; Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Armenia to the north; Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east; and Iraq to the west. Iran, with a 1945 population of some 15.6 million, has long been important because of its strategic location at the geographic nexus of the Middle East, Europe, and Southwest Asia. Iran's location captured the attention of both Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century, each of which sought to control the area and its access to the Persian Gulf. Rivalry over Iran continued in the early years of the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for control of the country's valuable resources (the most important of which was oil) and geostrategic location.

Reza Shah, the founder of the modern Iranian state, resisted Allied influence at the beginning of World War II. Because of this, Iran was invaded and occupied by British and Soviet forces. Iran subsequently became a chief conduit for U.S. Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union. Reza Shah abdicated and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became the new shah.

In 1943 the three principal Allied leaders—U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin—met in the Iranian capital of Tehran to discuss military strategy. In addition, they issued the Tehran Declaration, by which they committed their three governments to restore full sovereignty and territorial integrity to Iran after the war. Nonetheless, with the end of the war, both Britain and the Soviet Union were reluctant to withdraw. The Soviet Union established two nominally independent communist states in areas that it occupied. These were the People's Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kurdish People's Republic. Iran, backed by the United States, protested to the United Nations (UN) Security Council, citing the Tehran Declaration.

In May 1946 the Soviet Union withdrew its troops, following a pledge by the Iranian government to consider oil concessions. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Iranian Army reestablished full Iranian central government control over the northern provinces, and the Iranian parliament rejected oil concessions to the Soviets. This confrontation with the Soviet Union was the catalyst for the strong U.S.-Iranian relationship that lasted until 1979.

Following the war, Iranian nationalism asserted itself, and two rival factions challenged the supremacy of the shah, who was pro-Western. The first was the Thul Party, which was procommunist and backed by the Soviets. The second was the National Front Party (NFP), based on a nationalist-democratic platform and relatively independent of foreign influence. The NFP, led by its eccentric but popular leader Mohammed Mossadegh, dominated Iranian politics through the early 1950s.

When Mossadegh became prime minister in 1951, he nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain responded by imposing an embargo on Iranian oil and blocking the export of products from the formerly British properties. Because Britain was Iran's primary oil consumer, the Page 999  |  Top of ArticleBritish blockade made Iran's already weak economy even weaker. As one consequence of the crisis, Mossadegh asked the shah to grant him emergency powers that included direct control of the military. The shah resisted the request, which precipitated a domestic political crisis.

Mossadegh, however, well understood the power of his popularity. He promptly resigned his position in 1952, causing widespread protests and demands that he be returned to power. Now unnerved, the shah reappointed Mossadegh, who then took steps to consolidate his power. This included the implementation of land reform and other measures that to the West seemed socialist. Although Mossadegh had not had any direct contact with the Soviets, the events in Iran were nevertheless of great concern to the United States, which feared a Soviet move on Iran.

As the Anglo-Iran Oil Crisis deepened and Mossadegh implemented more internal reforms while pushing the shah to the sidelines, the United States and Britain decided to take action. The result was the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) Operation AJAX. This covert operation employed propaganda, protests, and disinformation to discredit Mossadegh, who responded by seeking greater personal power as prime minister. When the shah attempted to fire Mossadegh in 1953 and he refused to step down, the shah fled abroad.

Riots soon broke out in Iran's major urban centers as pro- and anti-monarchy forces mobilized popular support. The communists as well as the religious leadership chose to oppose Mossadegh. With both the CIA and British intelligence funding and advising promonarchy leaders of all stripes, the Iranian Army took control of Tehran in August 1953 and arrested Mossadegh. The shah returned to Iran and appointed a loyalist army officer as prime minister. Some maintain that the CIA's role in the coup was inappropriate and illegal and that U.S. involvement alienated large segments of Iranian society, ultimately fueling virulent anti-Americanism that pervaded Iran by the mid-1970s. The end result, these observers assert, was the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Other analysts, however, have viewed the U.S. effort as an effective means by which to keep Soviet influence out of Iran, which was of vital importance to Western interests. Following the events of 1953, the shah became the staunchest U.S. ally in the Middle East, apart from Israel. Indeed, until 1979 the shah acted as a powerful stabilizing force in the Persian Gulf region and a solid bulwark against Soviet influence extending south out of the Caucasus.

While the return of the shah may have been beneficial to Western Cold War interests, his rule alienated many Iranians. His pro-Western foreign policy irked Iranian nationalists, who were fed up with domination by the great powers. His lavish lifestyle and Westernized dress and manner were also an affront to many Iranian clerics, particularly the more conservative. His autocratic rule and limp efforts to improve the lot of Iranians economically and socially won him few new adherents. By the early 1970s, many Iranians remained poor and underemployed, despite the fact that the country sat atop one of the richest oil and gas fields in the world.

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The roots of the 1979 Iranian Revolution lay in domestic unrest and violence that began in 1963. At the time, the leader of the most powerful antimonarchy movement was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a fundamentalist Muslim cleric. The shah responded to the opposition with arrests and sometimes brutal interrogations by the secret police. The army was often used to crush protests by force. Khomeini fled to Iraq in 1964, and government forces crushed public protests, resulting in thousands of deaths. Khomeini continued to agitate against the shah from Iraq and later from France as the symbolic leader of the growing opposition to the shah's religious and economic policies.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter's administration put pressure on the shah to ease his repressive policies, but as the shah loosened his grip, a broad spectrum of Iranian society began to protest against a variety of grievances. At the core of the antishah forces were the religious student community and its clerical leadership. When the shah declared martial law in September 1978, resistance to his regime culminated in a general strike in October 1978. Under great pressure at home and abroad and in failing health, the shah fled Iran in January 1979.

The departure of the shah precipitated a power struggle that was quickly won by Khomeini and his Islamic fundamentalist followers. Their new government consolidated its power through intimidation and violence. Khomeini was not only an ardent opponent of the shah but was also extremely anti-American, and his youthful followers reflected that. On 4 November 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took seventy Americans hostage. Over the next fourteen months, the United States applied sanctions against Iran, froze Iranian assets, and attempted a military rescue, all to secure the hostages. All these efforts failed.

In July 1980, the shah died of cancer in Egypt, opening a diplomatic opportunity to resolve the hostage crisis. The hostages were finally released on 21 January 1981. In the meantime, war had begun between Iran and Iraq.

Neighboring Iraq saw in the 1979 Iranian Revolution a chance to rekindle a long-standing border dispute with Iran over the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway providing Iraq access to the Persian Gulf. On 22 September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, beginning an eight-year-long war, one of the bloodiest struggles of modern history. Initially, the Iraqi Army had great success against the disorganized, surprised, and poorly led Iranians. However, Iranian zeal led to counteroffensives in 1982 that pushed the Iraqis back. The war then settled into a bloody stalemate during which the Iraqis for the most part fought from prepared defensive positions in the fashion of World War I and the Iranians endured huge casualties while attempting unsophisticated human wave attacks against prepared enemy positions. Khomeini viewed the war as a jihad, or holy war, and rejected any end to the fighting before the destruction of Saddam Hussein's secular government.

In 1987, with the Cold War winding down, both the Soviet Union and the United States became more involved in brokering an end to the conflict, even as both favored Iraq. The Soviets focused on building up Iraq's conventional military capabilities. The United States provided diplomatic support Page 1001  |  Top of Articleand satellite intelligence. It also protected Persian Gulf shipping. In 1988, Iraqi military successes and increasing diplomatic isolation finally convinced Khomeini to agree to a cease-fire.

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the death of Khomeini in 1989, more moderate forces in Iran have attempted to assert influence on the clerical regime. In general, however, Khomeini's Islamic Religious Party continues to dominate the government bureaucracy and the major institutions of state control. In addition, Iran's sponsorship of terrorist activities in Lebanon and against Israel ensured its continued diplomatic isolation.



Ansari, Ali. A History of Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and After. Boston: Longman, 2003.

Karsh, Ifraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2002.

Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2400700489

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