Whatever Iran’s motives for seizing British military personnel, it’s not difficult to fathom out why Teheran is so jumpy. There is the UK-US occupation of neighbouring Iraq, where American forces recently seized – and still hold - Iranian officials, barely-disguised plans to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, the presence of a massive hostile naval force in the Persian Gulf - plus plenty of alarming history. In 1951, the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq defied Britain and nationalised Iran’s oil resources. When the British, who had previously exercised effective control over both the country’s oil and revenue, objected, Mossadeq (pictured) went to the United Nations and told the General Assembly: "My countrymen lack the bare necessities of existence. Their standard of living is probably one of the lowest in the world. Our greatest natural asset is oil. This should be the source of work and food for the population of Iran. Its exploitation should properly be our national industry, and the revenue from it should go to improve our conditions of life. As now organised, however, the petroleum industry has contributed practically nothing to the well-being of the people or to the technical progress or industrial development of my country." British appeals to reverse the decision fell on deaf ears.
When the Tories were returned to power later in 1951, Prime Minister Churchill decided that a coup should be organised to effect a regime change in Iran. He won the support of the Americans and from November 1952, the CIA and MI6 began a systematic campaign to destabilise Iran. In the crisis of 1953, the Shah of Persia fled the country after his troops opened fire on protestors. But by August, a faction in the army in the pay of the Americans staged the coup which led to Mossadeq’s arrest and the restoration of the Shah. A CIA file detailing how the coup was planned and carried through, written in 1954, was published by the New York Times in 2000. Mossadeq was jailed and such was his popularity that when he died, he was allowed no funeral, and was buried underneath the floorboards of a room in his house. With the Shah back in control and parliamentary elections abandoned, Western oil companies were free to exploit Iran’s oil once more. The brutality of the Shah’s regime eventually produced a build-up of opposition that led to the Islamic revolution of 1979. When the masses took to the streets, many carried posters with the picture of Mossadeq as a symbol of national sovereignty and independence from colonial powers. On the 12th anniversary of Mossadeq's death, in 1979, an estimated 1 million political pilgrims filed to his home in Ahmad Abad, to pay homage. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic, oil was nationalised once more. Now the wheel of history is turning again. Iran’s oil is crucial to the global capitalist economy but a lack of foreign investment is apparently taking its toll. The country possesses facilities to process only 60% of its own fuel needs and UN-imposed sanctions will make matters worse. The British and American fleets are in the Persian Gulf to protect the West’s oil supplies and are part of yet another plot to destablise Iran. As for Britain’s presence in the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq, it is simply another provocation that Teheran has responded to in kind.
Paul Feldman, communications editor