When envoys from Iran and the world’s six major powers gather in Vienna today for a third round of talks about Iran’s nuclear program, you can safely bet that no one will say publicly that, 40 years ago, it was the United States who provided major support for launching Iran’s nuclear industry.
Yet in my 10 trips to Iran over the past 20 years, I find that Iranians from every walk of life are acutely aware of this historical fact about U.S. policy. The average Iranian is also aware of this: In 1953, the CIA joined the British to support a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadeq. This led to U.S firms controlling 40 percent of Iran’s petroleum output.
We Americans need to know this history, too, in order to understand the gap likely to be visible between the U.S and Iranian negotiators at the talks.
On a microcosmic level, the faculty and staff at my place of employment, Eastern Mennonite University, need to understand this history in order to be gracious hosts to 10 Iranian-Muslim women scholars who are planning to attend our annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute, beginning in early May.
Across the ocean, U.S. negotiators will be seeking tight controls on Iran’s nuclear program, fearing that Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon.
Yet in the mid-1970s, then-U.S. President Gerald R. Ford — whose key advisers included Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz — endorsed Iran’s plans to build a huge nuclear energy program, supported the sale of U.S. nuclear reactors to Iran and even offered Iran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility capable of extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel (a key step in the capacity to build a nuclear weapon).
At the time, the United States had a warm relationship with Iran’s leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
That changed in 1979 with the Iranian revolution that sent Pahlavi into exile. Later that year, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 hostages for 444 days. It was traumatic and embarrassing for most Americans — certainly for the Carter administration. Diplomatic ties that were broken in early 1980 have yet to be restored.
In my travels to Iran on behalf of Mennonite peace-oriented and interfaith initiatives, I have found Iranians to be hospitable and engaging, eager to talk with Americans and intrigued with many Western ideas. But it quickly becomes clear that they have a decidedly different narrative — and a longer memory — about when U.S.-Iranian relations went sour.
The alleged U.S. reason for backing the 1953 coup was to contain communism and Soviet influence in Iran. But the fact that Mossadeq wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves can hardly be dismissed as a motivating factor.
In Mossadeq’s place the United States bolstered the leadership of Pahlavi, who grew increasingly repressive, detaining and torturing his opponents.
Part of the Iranian students’ motivation in 1979 was the fear that the United States was planning another coup after the hated shah was forced out of power.
At the EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding where I work, we have hosted Iranian students for the past 15 years.
Face-to-face conversations help build understanding that is missing from the media portrayals Americans and Iranians see of one another.
If visas are approved, 10 Iranian women scholars will be arriving in less than one month. The women are doctoral students at Jami’at al-Zahra, the largest Shiite Islam women’s seminary in the world.
Restoring diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran might yet take many years, and will require rebuilding the lost trust between our countries, one relationship at a time.
Both the negotiations in Vienna and these Iranian women, serving as ambassadors of friendship, are important steps toward a second chance for mutually respectful U.S.-Iranian relationships.
This op-ed originally appeared April 7, 2014, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is being re-published and circulated by EMU, with permission of the Times-Dispatch. If used further, just credit the Richmond-Times Dispatch.