Iran and America’s Memory Hole

By Dr. Arnold J. Oliver | (Informed Comment)

Although Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu in his speech to Congress painted Iran as a threat to peace, he left out important details concerning the relationship between Iran and the West. There is considerably more to the story.

The uncomfortable fact is that, by any fair measure, Iran has been more sinned against than sinning. To explain, we will need to dip into what George Orwell called the “Memory Hole” and review the momentous events of the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as their far-reaching consequences.

For several years after the Second World War, the U.S. had a positive image with many Iranians. After helping to convince occupying Soviet forces to leave the country, and attempting to mediate an agreement between Iran and Great Britain, the American government was generally well regarded. But these good relations were not to last.

During the summer of 1953 a major crisis developed between Tehran and Washington. At that time Iran was an emerging democracy with elected leaders. Led by the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, it was embroiled in a conflict with the British over oil. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was owned by British interests and supported by the British government. In a grossly unequal colonial-style arrangement, the Iranians were not even allowed to examine the ledgers.

As the dispute with the British intensified, the Iranians finally became determined to nationalize their country’s oil industry. The British responded by freezing Iranian assets, imposing a worldwide embargo on Iran’s oil, and pulling their technicians out of the country. Oil output slowed to a trickle, Iran’s economy went into a tailspin, and unrest grew. Britain’s destabilization efforts were working.

Although the Truman government had been sympathetic to Iran, in 1953 the new Eisenhower administration accepted the British view that the Iranian regime had to go. On July 11th President Eisenhower secretly signed an order to overthrow Iran’s young democracy. The die was cast.

On August 19th the U.S.-orchestrated military coup emerged triumphant, and the exiled monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was installed on the Peacock Throne. A secret history of this CIA operation, written in 1954 by agent and participant Donald Wilber and leaked to the press, leaves no doubt as to the central role played by the United States.

Had the Shah been a benevolent ruler, the image of the U.S. in Iran might not have become so tarnished, but benevolent he was not. And to make matters worse–much worse–American and Israeli intelligence agents organized SAVAK, the Shah’s personal secret security force. Before long, Iran developed into a full-blown police state complete with thousands of informers, censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and widespread torture and assassination. Of course, none of this was a secret to the Shah’s many U.S. advisers.

According to the Harvard Human Rights Journal, many of SAVAK’s 15,000 full-time agents were “trained in the United States and Israel where they learned ‘scientific’ methods to prevent unwanted deaths from ‘brute force’.” Electrified chairs fitted with metal masks were used “to muffle screams while amplifying them for the victim.” Another historian called the Shah’s methods of torture “horrendous,” and “equal to the worst ever devised.”

Aiming to terrorize an entire population, SAVAK repression was both extreme and widespread. Few Iranian families were spared, and among the victims were family members of the Shiite clerics who would later overthrow the Shah’s regime in 1979, and spark the seizure and hostage-taking crisis at the U.S. embassy.

An honest assessment of these events would lead to an understanding of why the United States government is loathed by so many Iranians. They are fully aware of American complicity with the Shah’s twenty-five year reign of terror. Although the Clinton administration did offer a partial apology, the admission never made it into the consciousness of the American people, nor into the perspective of the main stream media.

Its time for a new direction in US-Iranian relations. Whatever one may think about the government of Iran, tne Iranian people do not deserve to be subjected to the collective punishment of illegal economic sanctions. The U.S. trade embargo against Iran should be lifted. The issue of weapons of mass destruction can only be resolved in the context of recognizing that Iran has legitimate, real, and rational security concerns including Sunni extremism.

For its part, Iran also needs to make changes. Its government must show far more respect for the rights of dissidents and demonstrators. All political prisoners should be released, and press censorship end.

A judicious mix of honest atonement by both sides, along with other confidence-building measures, can lay the foundation for a new and mutually beneficial relationship between Iran and the West.

But above all, Americans need to acknowledge that the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 was a dark chapter in the history of the United States, and resolve that it not be repeated.

Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached at

Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks from Last Year: “1953 Iran Coup – CIA Finally Admits Role”

10 Responses

  1. This reminder of the US overthrow of democracy in Iran and substitution of dictatorship, and the greed motive of the politicians, is perennially needed. Nothing could be more false than the claim that the US government wishes to advance democracy, a claim that parallels the destruction of democracy by economic concentrations in the US.

    The control of US media and elections by the economic concentrations has eliminated democracy here. Economic force is now the equivalent of military force, and the economic concentrations that use it to control government make war upon the United States, the definition of Treason in our Constitution. It is they who must languish in Guantanamo without hope.

    Is this what you will fight for, Americans? Is this the honor you will claim for the military, the blood of millions of innocents, the destruction of democracy, the ruin of the most unfortunate of the world?

  2. Thanks for this important history. I lived through the Eisenhower years, yet I had no idea of the what was going on. I don’t know how much was known to the elites in the U.S., but the truth certainly wasn’t widely reported. When the U.S. embassy/CIA station in Iran was taken over, I still didn’t know the background. I think most Americans didn’t. And even today, though these events are more widely known, they are mostly ignored in public discourse. There is a fundamental dishonesty about much of that discourse from politicians and media pundits.

    • Empires are built on the back of weaker countries that generally have natural resources or even geopolitical locations that are really worth getting their grabby hands on. For that purpose they must be supported by their own information organizations and tell and repeat their fake but necessary stories, false flag ones, so they could get to their targets without their populations’ knowledge, resistance, opposition… If using “defence of democracy”, “promotion of freedom”, “dictators’ targeting”, “embargos on socialist/communist countries” are required for the job, so be it. All along the empires’ populations are under the patriotic impression that their countries are the greatest on earth. Strangely historians have declared the U.S.A. the most murderous country in human history a few months ago…

  3. Peter A. Shulman

    I heard Richard Bulliet once say Wilber’s account of the coup was puffery (not the support for the Shah part). Any truth to that?

  4. Hey Bob – I did not know it either for a long time. And one can see the nationalist double standard at work here. When our government engages in these sorts of outrages, to most of us it’s no huge deal; but were some country to do it to the U.S. we would turn their land into a parking lot at the first opportunity. In part, that is why I attempt to be an internationalist.

  5. The “History” being ignored is that Israel has Nuclear Weapons and the means to hit any target in Iran.
    Iran is not now or ever will be a threat to Israel because the Iranians do not want to die.
    This Bibi & Boehner show was stunt, but Obama is such a coward he will scuttle the Iran deal as ordered.

  6. The Israelis participated in the training of “torturists”? I’m shocked, shocked. Could that be one reason that the Iranians have negative feelings toward that Zionist regime continuing to exist? My, my, and here we thought the Zionists just wanted to assassinate diplomats and statesmen and blow up villages and hotels.

    My opinion of Eisenhower who was beloved by my parents just took a big hit.

  7. In case a reader has some lingering doubts concerning the Coup, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the following address on March 17, 2000: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
    (How can the U.S. repair some of the harm it has caused Iran? What about providing the opposite of harsh sanctions?) link to

  8. This is indeed an interesting factoid, a sketchy amount of which I knew. I am old enough to know about all of this, but for one simple fact. Our main stream media failed to tell us about this, and to this day fails to tell about this. I remember when Iran took and held 52 Americans as “hostages” for over a year. Every night, ABC had a program called NIghtline, wherein the crisis was talked about. I was riveted to Nightline as often as I could watch. Yet, I never was told about America’s involvement with SAVAK; nor about Israel’s involvement either. I don’t recall Bibi talking about SAVAK the other day—nor the pundits who analyzed Bibi’s extravaganza before congrees and broadcast to the American body politic.

  9. Dear Jay & Others –
    I was around 30 years old before I learned of these events, and recall being shocked to my core. I knew immediately that my life would never be the same.
    Lots of academics know about it, but pretend they don’t lest it interfere with their prospects of getting a grant and/or securing or keeping tenure.
    The result is that most Americans live in a fantasy world.

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