As U.S. sanctions strangle Iran’s economy, anti-government protests are spreading. This week on Intercepted: Iranian-American author and analyst Hooman Majd discusses a century of history marked by intervention and threats from major world powers. Beginning with Britain, Russia, and Germany battling for control of Iran’s oil, Majd and Jeremy Scahill discuss the CIA coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the Islamic revolution, and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and how Washington has repeatedly tried to bring down the government of the Islamic Republic. The Intercept’s investigative series The Iran Cables offers historical insight into Iran’s operations in neighboring Iraq, which are informed by the bloody history of the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. invasion, subsequent occupation, and the shattering of Iraqi society.
Donald J. Trump: I thought I’d bring it up while we’re here. I went for a physical on Saturday.
Chris Parnell as Dr. Leo Spaceman: Medically speaking, for your height, your weight puts you in what we call—
DJT: Perfect. I always say.
CP: Fortunately, there are solutions. For example, crystal meth has been shown to be very effective.
South Dakota Department of Social Services: I’m on meth.
DJT: So am I.
SDSS: I’m on meth.
DJT: So am I.
SDSS: I’m on it too.
SDSS: So am I.
SDSS: So am I.
DJT: So am I. That guy. Uh, what exactly do you think you’d impeach him for? You can’t let that happen to me.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 108 of Intercepted.
Amy Goodwin: Seven hundred pages of documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were leaked to The Intercept —
Newscaster: The New York Times and The Intercept suggests Iraqi intelligence itself and various other Iraqi institutions are being infiltrated by Iran.
Newscaster: The New York Times and in The Intercept. The leak essentially what it did is it exposed—
JS: The investigative series published this week by The Intercept provides an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of Iran’s intelligence services and their operations inside of Iraq. The series is called The Iran Cables and it’s based on more than 700 pages of secret Iranian intelligence files. They detail years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life.
What emerges from the reporting on these documents is a much more complicated and nuanced picture of Iran’s actions than the dominant narrative traditionally offered by U.S. policymakers and White House administrations.
In order to understand Iran’s motivations in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, it’s important to absorb the long arc of history that has created the Iran of 2019.
Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson: Dwight D. Eisenhower, do solemnly swear—
Dwight D. Eisenhower: I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, do solemnly swear.
JS: January 20, 1953. General Dwight D. Eisenhower is sworn in as the 34th president of the United States.
DDE: That I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.
JS: It was just eight years after the official end of World War II and the global order that would become known as the Cold War was starting to heat up. Inside the United States a secretive and powerful new entity was being formed and its founders viewed themselves as the unseen Praetorian Guard of the burgeoning American empire. It went by the bland moniker of Central Intelligence Agency.
Announcer: Signing the bill that will enable our national military establishment to do more coordinating and less pulling in opposite directions, President Truman uses a number of pens. These, in turn, are passed out as souvenirs to the witnesses, one of whom is the boss of the armed forces, Secretary of Defense Johnson.
JS: The men who oversaw the creation of the CIA were part of an elite class who obsessed about the growing power of their complicated ally in the war against the Nazis, the Soviet Union.
Dean Acheson: It is not only the threat of direct military attack which must be considered but also that of conquest by default, by pressure, by persuasion, by subversion, by neutralism, by all the paraphernalia of indirect aggression which the communist movement has used.
JS: The world war in Europe had wet the appetite in Washington D.C. for U.S. military conquest across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Central to the ambitious project of empire was control of natural resources, oil.
Announcer: Oil is found in only a few hills and valleys throughout the world, mainly in the United States, Canada and Mexico, in Peru and Venezuela, in the Balkans, along the Persian Gulf, and in the Dutch East Indies.
JS: Not just to ensure that the U.S. and its allies had unfettered access but also to keep the Soviets from controlling the countries which produced it.
The British, who had operated a massive colonial empire for centuries, were old hands at the game and Winston Churchill played an influential role in shaping Washington’s intensifying foray into the geopolitical game. Even before Eisenhower took office, Churchill warned that there was a growing threat in the Persian Gulf. The democratic institutions in Iran had allowed the ascent to power of a problematic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.
He offered bold visions for social programs, land reform and higher taxes for foreign nations and companies doing business in Iran. There were fears that, despite Mossadegh’s statements to the contrary, Iran could be effectively pulled into the grasp of its massive neighbor, the Soviet Union. But what was most alarming to Churchill was the oil. Mossadegh announced a policy of nationalization of the oil industry, which for forty years had been built up and run by the British.
Newscaster: Their mission fruitless, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Delegation led by Mr. Jackson returns to London as Persia gives the company’s employees one week to decide whether to stay and work for Persia.
Interviewee: The government is an extremist government and it not admit anything but a full surrender of all our rights.
Newscaster: Faced with such a position, the delegates realized there was nothing more they could do.
JS: On May 1, 1952, Mossadegh had ordered the seizure of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In explaining his policy to appropriate British oil interests in Iran, Mossadegh said: “With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people.” By eliminating the British oil company, Mossadegh argued that “We would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased,” Mossadegh said. “Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”
Newscaster: Serious trouble in Tehran, capital of oil-rich Iran, its pro-Western ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi has lost his throne, temporarily at least. When his army failed to oust the dictatorial minded Premier Mossadegh, the Shah himself was forced to flee for his life to neighboring Baghdad. Another king without a country.
JS: This sent shockwaves through the corridors of power in Britain. Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry S. Truman, was reluctant to directly involve the United States in regime change in Iran. But Eisenhower welcomed the pressure from Churchill. In March of 1953, Eisenhower authorized the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency to begin initiating the overthrow of Mossadegh’s government. His Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would work with his younger brother Allan Dulles, the head of the CIA, to accomplish this task. And thus Operation Ajax was born.
Newscaster: In Rome where he had fled, 33-year-old Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi hears astounding news, royalist forces have revolted, arrested Dr. Mossadegh and want their sovereign home. Army men are given principal credit for the sensational change. When the army turned against its Mossadegh-appointed officers, it assured the return of the king.
JS: The CIA worked with monarchists, the Shah and at times directed factions of the Iranian military. After propaganda operations and internal politicking among the Iranian elite, a rogue Iranian military contingent—operating on orders from a top CIA officer—rolled tanks into Tehran and shelled Mossadegh’s residence. The prime minister managed to escape, but his time in office was finished. Mossadegh was forced to resign. He was later imprisoned for three years in solitary confinement after a sham trial and he lived out the rest of his years in obscurity and under house arrest before dying in 1967.
It was the events of this coup and the overthrow of Mossadegh that would ultimately give rise to the Islamic revolution in Iran, the seizing of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the ensuing decades of American hegemony and war in and around Iran.
Today, Iran is rocked by growing street demonstrations. U.S. sanctions are strangling the country in an effort to foment a rebellion or revolution or regime change. Throughout these decades since Mossadegh’s overthrow and the rise of the Islamic revolution, Iran has been in a permanent state of siege.
Newscaster: This picture tells it all. This flag was apparently taken from someone’s office inside the United States embassy. It was burned Tuesday evening outside the embassy’s gates. To the Iranian demonstrators who set fire to it, this was a symbol of victory.
JS: The U.S. had hoped Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in the early stages of the revolution would put an end to the budding rule of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s. Despite the deaths of a million people in that war, despite the weapons shipments to Baghdad and support for Saddam Hussein, Iran remained an independent country that has fought off repeated attempts to bring down its government. Iran watched as the United States toppled the governments of two of its neighbors while facing the very public threat that it may be the next domino to fall in the post-9/11 Bush administration’s global war.
That threat still remains today, even as the country has engaged every U.S. administration on the issue of nuclear weapons. With Donald Trump in power and the scrapping of the Obama-era nuclear deal, the stakes have never been higher for Iran and the isolation imposed by the U.S. government greater. When Iran is discussed in the broader U.S. media, it’s overwhelmingly through the lens of the nuclear issue. The country is often portrayed as a state sponsor of terrorism, a threat to American interests and a rogue nation that is part of an Axis of Evil on the world stage.
Today we are going to travel through more than a century of Iran’s history with Hooman Majd. He is the author of three books on Iran: “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran,” as well as, “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy,” and “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.” Hooman, welcome back to Intercepted.
Hooman Majd: Thank you very much.
JS: How do you think the Iranian government perceives this reporting from the New York Times and The Intercept?
HM: They’ll probably find it okay for from their perspective in the sense that it shows them sort of in a positive light that they beat the United States in the intelligence game in Iraq. Not just the intelligence game, obviously, in terms of what kind of control they have over Iraq. But on the other hand, I think there’s going to be some hesitation among some people, because inside Iraq right now, it just happens that at this particular time, there are protests against the government which is viewed as being very close to Iran, obviously. And some of those protests have also included being against Iran and Iran’s influence in the country.
HM: So, having this overt influence shown in the way that it’s been shown by these documents probably makes them a little bit uncomfortable. But I think overall, in terms of their appeal as a powerful country, the way they’d like to be viewed as a powerful country in the Middle East, one that has essentially control over Iraq, I think that would probably give them a little bit of pride.
JS: We’re also seeing right now growing protest in Iran itself.
JS: You know, it’s not on the scale in terms of bodies in the streets that it was in 2009. It does seem as though the protests are much more violent in nature, at least in terms of attacking police and other government institutions. How do you read what’s happening?
HM: Yes, no, I mean, I think, look, there’s been a malaise, if you want to call it that—to use Jimmy Carter’s word—mainly because we withdrew from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal.
DJT: The United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime.
HM: Which brought a complete stop to Iran’s benefits from that deal, which were to be the lifting of the sanctions, reintegration into the world economy. All that changed. Not only did we leave the JCPOA, did the Trump administration leave the JCPOA, it also went on this maximum pressure campaign to basically cut Iran off from the rest of the world economically—cut its oil exports down to zero, which it relies on to feed its people basically and medicine imports, everything—I mean, really almost as close to an embargo, without actually calling it an embargo. And that’s made the Iranian rial, which is the currency go into freefall. They’ve stabilized it somewhat. Oil exports are way, way down. Basically, they’re having a hard time managing the country’s economy, and people are suffering. The average person is suffering.
I think now there’s a level of frustration with no end in sight. There’s no nuclear negotiations going on. People say, well, maybe hold on another couple years, things will get better. Trump could possibly win and there could never be any negotiations with the U.S., potentially there could be war. And I think sometimes people feel like they have nothing to lose. Now, that said, of course, there’s always going to be people who are rioters and people who want to cause trouble. This time around there, according to the Iranian government there have been policemen killed.
JS: Yeah, and police stations torched.
[Protesters whistling and chanting.]
JS: One of the factors in this that I think is very seldom mentioned in the broader corporate or mainstream media is the impact that the U.S. sanctions have had on this. It’s sort of in a vacuum: Iran raised gas prices. But isn’t it true that essentially what is happening is that the United States leading the sanctions regime is effectively trying to strangle the country?
HM: Secretary Pompeo said it.
Mike Pompeo: We put pressure on the Iranian regime, and we’re forcing them to make tough decisions about how they’re going to behave.
HM: The Iranian regime he called it has to make a decision, whether it wants its people to eat or whether it wants to make a new deal with the U.S., basically.
JS: This is a classic repeating episode in U.S. history. And they did it in Iraq with Saddam too particularly in the 90s when a Democrat Clinton was in office.
Bill Clinton: Sanctions have caused Saddam more than $120 billion, resources that would have been used to rebuild his military, the sanction system allows Iraq to sell oil, for food, for medicine, for other humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people. We have no quarrel with them. But without the sanctions, we would see the oil for food program become oil for tanks, resulting in a greater threat to Iraq’s neighbors and less food for its people.
JS: You have a problem with this regime, you view it as contrary to your interests. This is the imperial United States. And so rather than taking your beef directly to the regime, you literally try to starve, deprive, injure, in some cases, kill civilians in the hope that they rise up against the government.
HM: Yeah, I mean, the thing about the Iranian people is they have complained about the United States. Many, many Iranians understand that their economic problems are due to both the U.S. and their own government. So it’s not like they give their government a free pass. They don’t, absolutely not. And there’s mismanagement, there’s corruption and all these other factors there as well. But it’s not like they’re saying oh, thank god Secretary Pompeo is with us now.
MP: The Iranian people are great people. We stand with them. And I’m confident they will demand that their leadership behave in a way that reflects the great history of this place.
HM: What do you mean you stand with the Iranian people? You’re starving us here. You’ve caused our currency to, you know, devalue by 300%. On what basis are you standing with us? I mean, if Pompeo really wanted to stand with the Iranian people, figure out how to turn their internet back on. We can do things like that.
JS: We’re talking about what is driving the protests on just sort of a human level but who is organizing these protests? What do we know about the kind of opposition to the established government in Tehran right now? Is there a nexus of groups? Are there individuals or is this spontaneous?
HM: In this particular case, it’s mostly spontaneous, although exile groups have taken some credit and have sort of become the focal point of conversation about these protests.
JS: What kinds of exile groups?
HM: The monarchists and the MEK. The monarchists are claiming that people are shouting for Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son to come back. MEK are claiming that they have thousands and hundreds of thousands of supporters in Iran who are out on the streets. Not that they don’t have any supporters, I mean, that would be ridiculous. Of course, they have some support in Iran. And they have contacts and probably spies even inside the government. But to say that either one of these groups was able to instigate protests and riots and all kinds of vandalism in Iran in over 100 cities in the space of, you know, a day would mean that they’re much, much more powerful than we would think, and therefore, why haven’t they been able to overthrow the regime by now?
JS: Your analysis that you’re offering here is reminiscent of some of the conversation that we heard around Iraq in the 1990s where you had these totally discredited exile figures like Ahmed Chalabi getting a disproportionate amount of influence in Washington. You know, Iraqis I knew at the time used to say Ahmed Chalabi has much more of a constituency along the Potomac than he has along the Tigris, or Euphrates. And part of the plan early on in the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam that was a pretty popular concept in the CIA and elsewhere was to put Ahmed Chalabi in charge of the Iraqi government. This guy who was totally unknown to most Iraqis.
You’re talking about the MEK right now, which for a long time was a State Department designated terror organization and has had bipartisan political support in the United States from the likes of Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and others—
HM: Governor Richardson.
JS: Governor Richardson, right. I mean, but again, the United States government determined that this was a terror organization, you know, at one point and there was a huge lobbying campaign to lift it. Does it seem to you like the Trump administration policy seems to be a desire to place MEK people in charge of a new Iran? I mean, that was John Bolton’s position.
HM: I think that was John Bolton’s position, yes, but he’s gone. I also don’t—I find it very hard to believe that with all the—I mean, of course, with the Trump administration it’s hard to say. But with all the intelligence officers, all the analysts, all the think tanks that say that that’s not going to happen, that they will never be in charge of Iran, that we would think that that would still be OK. I mean—
JS: The Iranians of all political strifes would resist that.
HM: Including the monarchists who hate them, as well. And the monarchists do have a, you know, kind of presence in Washington as well. I mean, they may have been a useful tool for the United States and even in the delisting as a terrorist organization has been a useful tool in the toolbox that we have against regimes we don’t like. Let’s also remember the Iraqi people at the time that Chalabi was being groomed in Washington, were not, I mean, they didn’t have access to the internet. They weren’t very aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. As you say, they hardly even knew who Chalabi was.
Iranians inside Iran, until Sunday night, were very connected. They have 4G on their phones. I mean, yes, a lot of sites are blocked in Iran but they could read the New York Times; they could be on Instagram, which are not blocked. They could get VPNs, and you know, they’re on Twitter and everything else. They’re much more aware of the MEK than for example, Iraqis would have been of Chalabi. And I don’t think we, when I say we, the United States had very much intelligence inside Iraq prior to the invasion of Iraq. Whereas we do have a lot of intelligence inside Iran, mainly because there’s two million Iranians living in America who go back and forth all the time.
JS: I think it would be really helpful to take a walk through some of the multi-decade history of how Iran ended up the way it is now, the way its government functions and the way that Iran has acted in Iraq, as evidenced by these cables. Let’s begin sort of in the 1930s or 40s. What was Iran like during that period? How was it governed? What was its standing in the world?
HM: We should go back further than that: 1906 there was a constitutional revolution that created a parliament that was powerful and was going to be an equal branch with—it was going to be basically a constitutional monarchy. Well, none of the imperial powers of the time which were two imperial powers, Great Britain and Russia, really liked that idea. They liked the idea of being able to control Iran and they kind of had these spheres of influence. Northern part of Iran was the Russian influence, Southern part was Great Britain. There was a coup against the Shah of the Qajar dynasty the time by a Russian trained officer Reza Pahlavi, and he initially did not intend to become a king, but he was persuaded to become king rather than president.
In the 1930s, he became king, king of kings, as they say in Iran—absolute dictator, very strong willed, whipping Iran into shape bringing it out of the dark ages into the modern age. One of the ways he wanted to do that was to balance Russia and Great Britain, which had this tremendous amount of influence in Iran, to bring in Germany which was a growing power, especially once in the Third Reich before World War II. So he favored German engineers. There were Germans that came in and built railroads. Germans actually did many things that neither the British nor the Russians did. And so, they were viewed very favorably.
During World War II, Iran’s official position was that it was neutral, although Germans were there and so the Allies felt very uncomfortable with the German presence there and invaded. Russia, Great Britain, and the United States invaded Iran.
Newscaster: The Axis-poisoned country of the recently abdicated Shah was once a happy hunting ground for Nazi agents. The peaceful invasion is watched with interest by Iranian soldiers, as our forces pass in long columns through the towns to make contact with the Russians coming down from the north.
HM: They kicked him out, Reza Pahlavi,and put his son who was 21 years old at the time on the throne who was the Shah that we all know, deposed later. He originally was a very weak monarch and sort of a constitutional monarch, but taking orders very much from Great Britain and the U.S., who had put him in place.
JS: What was the primary interest of these major world powers in Iran at the time? You’re talking about Great Britain, Russia, and then Germany.
HM: Oil, oil, purely oil, and even the invasion of Iran, by the Allies was to never allow the Germans a Persian Gulf port, never allowed them the oil from the Persian Gulf. So it’s always been about oil more than anything else. It’s oil. I mean, since the discovery of oil in Iran, it’s been about oil.
JS: In this period prior to 1953, who was essentially controlling oil in Iran?
HM: Great Britain, they had made a deal with the Qajar kings before even Reza Pahlavi where they were paying the British Petroleum—what is now British Petroleum, what was called Anglo-Persian Oil Company—was paying more in taxes to the British government on oil than it was giving in royalties to Iran. So this populist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh came into power in the early 50s, late 40s, early 50s and wanted to nationalize oil, say this is ours. It’s ridiculous that they’re paying us pennies.
Newscaster: Abadan, the world’s largest oil refinery, which British enterprise and money built, may pass out of British control if Persia carries out the vote for nationalization passed by that parliament.
JS: How was his ascent viewed by the population of Iran? I mean, obviously, you can’t, you know, not every single person has the same view. But in general, what was—
HM: He was very popular no question, very, very popular.
JS: Why was he popular?
HM: Well, he was popular because he said to the Iranian people, basically, this foreign interference has been going on far too long. Not only do they interfere in our affairs and basically tell us how to run our country, they steal our resources. The reason you’re poor, the reason we have poor people, the reason we don’t have education, we don’t have this, we don’t have that is not because we’re unskilled or because Iranians are talentless. It’s because we have been co-opted by these imperial powers.
Newscaster: Here to argue his nation’s case in the British Iranian oil dispute before the United Nations Security Council, Mossadegh goes to Flushing Meadow to appear before a packed council session. He charges that the UN has no jurisdiction in the matter, but offers to resume direct talks with the British on a limited basis. Seeking to reopen full negotiations, Sir Gladwyn Jebb presents Britain’s side. Meanwhile, the free world hopes for some agreement that will start Iranian oil blowing once again to Britain and the West.
JS: And at this exact moment, as Mossadegh is coming to power you have in the United States across the ocean, the formation out of World War II of the Central Intelligence Agency and Allen Dulles and you have the formation of the Baghdad Pact, which was a kind of imperial British institution that the United States started getting involved with.
JS: You have a United States that is increasingly seeing itself as a potential empire in the world that is going to need the natural resources Iran has. So Mossadegh is viewed by these major powers, in what way?
HM: As a threat to all of that, but also, because Iran had a communist party at the time, the Tudeh party and because he was viewed as a left-wing socialist who might potentially be co-opted by the Russians who had always had influence in Iran because they share a border with Iran. He was a threat that regard too. In fact, when the British tried to make a big case that he has to be overthrown, and he was a threat to the security of the world, at the time, Truman was like, no, we can’t do that. This guy, he’s OK. Truman vetted him at the White House, Mossadegh.
Newscaster: President Truman’s luncheon guests for their first meeting, the premier is urged to try for peaceful agreement in the quarrel over Iran’s nationalization of British oil holdings and the world hopes that from this friendly get together, some solution will emerge.
HM: So the instinct of the United States was not to overthrow him. We weren’t benefiting from that oil anyway, the British were. So we were protecting our ally a little bit. But then once it was clear that Eisenhower was going to come in as president, the British planned to use the communist card more than anything else, because the oil card wasn’t working out. Truman believes well, the Iranians, they kind of do deserve some of this money themselves. Go make a deal with them, figure out a deal. The British just didn’t want to make a deal. They could have actually made a good deal with Mossadegh but they didn’t want to. They were like offended that this guy—this wog—was telling them that he wants his natural resources.
JS: So how does the plot to remove Mossadegh begin?
HM: Before there’s a plot to remove Mossadegh or before it goes into action, the Shah flees Iran because there are demonstrations against him because he tries to fire Mossadegh.
Newscaster: Forced to flee his palace in Tehran, the Shah and his queen arrive in Rome after an alleged attempt by the Imperial Guard to arrest Dr. Mossadegh and a refusal by the Shah to dissolve parliament at Mossadegh’s request.
HM: There’s popular uprising for Mossadegh. There’s riots on the street and the Shah is afraid that he’s going to get arrested, gets on his plane and goes to Baghdad and then on to Italy thinking that that’s it. And he was never really a powerful man. And you know, married to a beautiful woman, very wealthy, he’s going to live as a prince or king in exile.
JS: He doesn’t need this stuff.
HM: Doesn’t need this shit for the rest of his life. To his great surprise, there are allies of his back in Iran, like General Zahedi, a few of the generals, the armed forces who are close to the Americans and are very much involved in a plot to bring him back. Kermit Roosevelt related to President Roosevelt was a CIA officer assigned by the CIA to find out how there could be a coup against Mossadegh and to bring the Shah back. What it involved with was millions of dollars, a few million dollars was spent paying off people to come in the street and demonstrate for the Shah for his return.
Newscaster: In March 1953, with Britain’s agents fanning the flames, a hired mob called for Mossadegh’s blood.
HM: It was astonishing how easily they were able to do this, partly by bribing people more than anything else. So, the Shah did, in fact, was able to be brought back to Iran. And the generals who had been part of this coup were able to go and arrest Mossadegh and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. And the Shah came back and at that point, with the encouragement of the United States decided that it was going to be no more Mr. Nice Guy, basically, not a constitutional monarchy anymore. On the surface, a constitutional monarchy, but that all the power rests with the king.
JS: What was life like in Iran, then in the ensuing years?
HM: Iran did make progress technologically, in terms of literacy. In many, many ways, it made a lot of progress. A lot of it was bought with the oil revenues. There was social progress. There’s no question about it. You can’t take that away from that era. On the other hand, there was zero political freedom. There was a secret police that was set up with the help of the CIA and Mossad and MI6, torture techniques. There were a lot of social freedoms and zero political freedoms. People were executed. Communists were executed. Kids got thrown in jail.
In high school, if you said something against the regime, you’d have an informant, the secret police come and arrest you and take you away. It was a very scary atmosphere for people who wanted to be politically active. I’m not saying everybody did want to be, but a lot of people, especially young people in the universities and places like that wanted to be politically active. And the religious, the religious class—the mullahs, as we call them, the ayatollahs and the clerics—objected to this kind of rule and they objected to the westernization of Iran, very rapid westernization and the ignoring of cultural norms for a lot of people.
When they objected, they got arrested, thrown in jail. In Khomeini’s case, Ayatollah Khomeini’s case who people may have heard of, was sent into exile so that he couldn’t have influence on the people in Iran who were quite religious. Iran was a religious country at the time. And that then subsequently led to Khomeini starting a revolution—an Islamic revolution—against the Shah.
JS: How does that Islamic revolution begin?
HM: There starts to be protests against the rule of the Shah. They kind of gathered steam throughout the year 1978. By November of 1978, the Shah was forced to declare martial law because people are going out on the streets every day. Now, Khomeini, who had been in Iraq, who didn’t actually have a very easy way of communicating with his followers, or other ayatollahs in Iran was exiled, expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein as a favor to the Shah. So of course, where was he going to go? He went to Paris where all of a sudden the entire world media was there and Iranians could have complete access to Khomeini in Paris.
I mean, I have friends who went and saw him, you could just go to Paris and go see him and were captivated by him because what he said was so great. Oh, there’s going to be freedom, you know, everyone’s going to be equal. We’re all going to take care of everyone. You know, it’s going to be a democracy is basically what people said and he used to call it an Islamic democracy, meaning that, you know, Islam is going to be followed, but you know, everyone’s free. So it was very, it was enticing for a lot of people, young people, and he had this ability to reach Iranians.
In Paris, they were making cassette tapes of his speeches, and they’d be smuggled into Iran and be played in the mosques and handed around all over cities. And so demonstrations got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until finally the Prime Minister who had been appointed after the Shah left—again for the second time in his life—left the country. He was very sick at the time too with cancer. The Prime Minister who had been appointed by him had to eventually allow Khomeini to come because the demonstrations were just getting too big. And the biggest demonstration in the history of Iran happened the day that Khomeini arrived in Tehran.
JS: Khomeini lands at the airport, it was this epic moment.
HM: Yes, they couldn’t control the crowds. There were literally millions and millions and millions of people. And he just rejected the government altogether. He said, you know, you’re not the prime minister, that prime minister fled into exile, also to Paris as it happens. And then the history of the Islamic Republic is somewhat complicated from then on, there’s a lot that happens. But the main thing with respect to what your report’s about is that a year after that Islamic Revolution, Saddam Hussein, who had made a deal with the Shah—there has always been sort of enemies and disputed the Shatt al-Arab waterway—how to split the waterways, a river that is a boundary with Iran and Iraq. Saddam Hussein decided that there’s all this confusion in the Islamic Republic. The Shah’s gone. His military is decimated. Half the officers have left, have gone into exile. The generals are gone. This is a perfect time for me to take over Iran.
Newscaster: Deep in Iranian territory, Iraqi armor chalks up fresh successes on the battlefield.
JS: At this moment, Saddam had had a quite lengthy relationship with the United States and the Baath Party had worked in the 50s and 60s with the CIA. And the U.S. also participated in the overthrow of Abd al Karim Qasim in Iraq in 1963, who had a very similar political perspective on oil to Mossadegh. At this moment the U.S. is watching this, the embassy gets seized in Tehran, and you have this hostage crisis that ensues.
Newscaster: The Iranians burned the United States flag and denounced the U.S. government saying they would stay until the U.S. sense the deposed Shah back to Iran. Earlier today, the Ayatollah Khomeini publicly criticized the U.S. for providing refuge for the Shah. His speech was viewed as a signal by the Muslim students to attack the embassy.
JS: Iranians start going through all of these documents inside of the American embassy that detail all of the bloody dirty tricks that the CIA and other American entities have engaged in. So it wasn’t just that Saddam is viewing this from only his perspective, it’s that the United States also was viewing this as the Ayatollah and the Islamic Revolution need to go and Saddam is sort of our best hope. And hey, it coincides with his agenda.
HM: At that point, Iran had very few friends because never, I don’t think, since at least the Middle Ages, had an embassy been overtaken. I mean, the diplomatic, the conventions that we have are that, you know, even if you believe that there’s spying going on, you expel those diplomats. We’ve done that with the Russians. The Russians do it with us. You don’t take over and embassy and hold people hostage. The Iranians said we don’t care what international law? Khomeini was famous. He actually said were we part of international law? Did we have a say in international law? So he supported the embassy takeover. You’re right. There was a 444-day hostage crisis.
In the middle of that Saddam Hussein decides to invade Iran. He feels Iran is weak. No country is going to come to Iran’s help. There is an arms embargo against Iran. Now, because of the hostage crisis, every country is saying, well, you know, this is unacceptable. You got to behave. You got to do this. In the meantime, Iran is also cracking down on social liberties in Iran, is enforcing the hijab which wasn’t enforced when he first came, Khomeini first came. I think he was persuaded by some other ayatollahs told him hey, we should have hijabs.
If you look at some of the demonstrations when he first arrives, plenty of women without hijabs in Tehran in the photographs, and they demonstrated actually when he did say, mandatory hijab. It was a confusing time in Iran. For Saddam Hussein, who did have a well-trained army, he thought it was great and he did actually occupy part of Iran’s territory in the south.
JS: Also you have in the United States, Ronald Reagan comes into office and you have this sort of revitalization of the Nixon-era people that had been in government starting to influence American policy. And the Reagan administration actually lifts Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, so that it can begin heavily arming Saddam Hussein. I have talked to former U.S. Army colonels who were dispatched to Baghdad to help Saddam’s generals figure out targets to strike inside of Iran.
HM: We were giving, absolutely, intelligence because Saddam didn’t have the intelligence. I mean, he didn’t have satellite reconnaissance, which we had. We were giving it to them, absolutely. You also have to remember there’s one other factor here is that all the other Arab states, particularly ones which had a Shia population, a Shiite population—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, all the other Arab states—were somewhat afraid of Iran because they saw this quite powerful country suddenly turn Islamic and Shia Islamic and say that, well, this revolution against these despots is not going to end in Iran, we’re going to export the revolution. We think there should be a revolution everywhere else. And Saddam Hussein was wary of his own Shia.
So, when he attacks Iran, he gets support not just from the United States, from every other country in the world. Interestingly enough, the only country that gave support to Iran was Syria, which is why those ties have remained so close. It was the only Arab country. And then that war lasted eight years with full support of the Western countries for Iraq. Iran couldn’t get spare parts for its military equipment, couldn’t buy military equipment, started building its own. Iran went to all these other countries, went to the UN and said, just give us missiles, missiles that can only strike Baghdad so that he doesn’t strike us in Tehran because he was raining down scuds on Tehran, just as a deterrent. We’re not going to use them offensively.
They couldn’t get that from anyone which is why they argue today that we’re not ever going to give up our missile program because you guys never helped us there. Nobody helped us there. And Saddam used chemical warfare against Iran, used it against the Kurds—
JS: Including with attack helicopters that were sold because the Reagan administration approved the sales to the Iraqi government.
HM: Exactly, that history is something that the Iranians at least this Iranian government knows and knew the Iranian, we want to call it, the regime knows the system. It’s something that people who are in power today at the top levels of the Iranian government experienced firsthand. Some of them were young soldiers when they talk about Soleimani in this article, General Soleimani from the Quds Force. I mean, he was a commander, a young, very, very young commander because they didn’t have older commanders. They had all been, you know, purged from the military in Iran, fighting against Iraq. He proved himself in that war.
JS: This was akin to like World War I style—
HM: Trench warfare.
JS: Trench warfare where a million people died and tremendous targeting of civilians, both sides. I mean, Iran also did this but Iraq was the overwhelming military power with the backing as you point out of all the most powerful entities in the world.
HM: France, Germany, every country. An American statesman said, “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”
JS: Oh, that was Henry Kissinger: It’s a shame there can only be one loser.
HM: Yeah, but clearly the loser he wanted to be was going to be Iran. Iran was able to claw back its territory and have a ceasefire with Iraq. With that history in mind, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first Gulf War—
JS: In the ’91 Gulf War.
HM: In the ’91 Gulf War. Now, the war with Iran it was over by this time. Saddam Hussein sent his planes to Iran thinking the Iranians would by being against the Americans would support him. Of course, Iran kept the planes. Didn’t give them back to him after the war. And he then massacred Shiites who had a very strong connection, the Iraqi Shiites did have a strong connection to Iran.
JS: Because what happened was that when George H.W. Bush launches the Gulf War and builds his so-called coalition of the willing, yes, they massively degraded Iraq’s military and just pummeled the military infrastructure, but also wiped out much of the civilian infrastructure in large swathes of the country. And it was at the encouragement of the United States and other powers through agents on the ground, propaganda that the Shiites in the south of Iraq in particular, thought that if they rose up to take Saddam down that certainly the United States was going to back them.
JS: And you did have this kind of schizophrenia in the White House at that moment under George H.W. Bush where you had seasoned foreign policy hands like Brent Scowcroft and others who were saying, “Look, you know, this may be a problem for us, if we remove Saddam and you have these Shiites take over, we may have a greater Iran rather than a greater Iraq.” And so they send this message and then they make the decision we’re going to leave Saddam in place. But then they allow Saddam to fly attack aircrafts, helicopters, others, and just mercilessly massacre the Shiites—who the United States had encouraged to rise up in the first place.
HM: So then fast forward to the next Gulf War that the Bush son starts—
JS: Well, first 9/11 happens.
HM: First 9/11 happens, yes.
JS: And the United States deposes the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the Taliban government had a very hostile relationship with Iran.
HM: Extremely. They murdered eight Iranian diplomats in Mazari Sharif, in Afghanistan and Iran, almost and I heard this directly from a former president of Iran, Khatami, almost went to war with the Taliban way before we ever did, way before 9/11, but chose at the last minute to not repeat what the British and the Russians had done in Afghanistan. So, it just pulled back.
JS: So, the United States very quickly deposes the Taliban government, the Taliban, you know, talk about Iran’s military not really existing in any organized fashion. I mean, the Taliban did not have any kind of a military force or an air force. But you also then have Bush giving his famous speech at the United Nations and Mr. Resistance Hero David Frum wrote this speech identifying Iran as part of an Axis of Evil—
HM: —Throwing it in with Iraq and North Korea.
George W. Bush: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.
HM: And what had happened prior to that when we invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, Iran helped the United States. Iran actually actively helped, offered, not offered, guaranteed that if American airmen were to parachute over Iran, we would, you know, protect them and the U.S. at that point knew—certainly George Bush may not have known—but many people did know inside the administration that Iran was one of the biggest supporters of the Northern Alliance which was fighting the Taliban at the time in Iraq.
So, it came as a huge shock to Iran when the State of the Union address George Bush put Iran literally a couple of months after the invasion of Afghanistan into this axis of evil. And then subsequent to that, a year later decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. And the Iranians at that point, were a little nervous. They were nervous about the possibility of a U.S. puppet regime in Iraq. They were nervous about, you know, what’s happening in Afghanistan, they felt there was going to be the American military on either side of them squeezing Iran a little bit—
JS: Building military bases.
HM: Building military bases.
JS: The ability to position attack aircraft, very, very close, unprecedented level of proximity to Iran.
HM: And I think and not that I know this firsthand, but I believe once we overthrew Saddam Hussein and then fired his entire military in the de-Baathification of Iraq, I think the Iranians were like, what? Are you kidding me? What a great opportunity for us now because now the Shiites are in power. And guess where they were living all this time when they were fighting against them? They were living in Tehran.
JS: The way that this is portrayed in the broader media, if it’s even discussed, is ahistorical and often just riddled with inaccuracies. Iraq, we have to point out it’s a majority Shia country.
JS: Second, Iraq is the house to two of the absolute most important religious sites of Shia Islam in Najaf and Karbala. And even when I would travel in Iraq in the era of Saddam Hussein, you would have Iranian pilgrims coming into Iraq, and it was very difficult for them, they had to travel in Saddam’s Iraq, but also just on a purely religious level for Iran, the notion that there might be a way to facilitate pilgrimages without having to deal with Saddam Hussein, who was involved with the mass murder of their people was sort of, you know, just logically like, well, this could be a good thing. We can figure out safe routes for our pilgrims.
HM: Yeah, we’re talking about 2003 and I think it was very clear quite early on for the Iranians, certainly, and for many Americans that this invasion was not going well for America. It was not, you know, regardless of the Chalabis of the world, it just wasn’t going well. There was an insurgency that started pretty quickly. Iran definitely wanted to take advantage of two things: One is the ability to influence what’s happening on their flank, on their western flank and the ability to then, as you point out, have trade with Iraq. Trade with Iraq is very important to the Iranians because they get dollars now, and they can export a lot across the border.
The religious aspect is hugely important, hugely important to them. Iran has spent billions of dollars in Karbala and Najaf in infrastructure, in building hotels and the tourist business there is 90% reliant on Iranian pilgrims, who are by far the wealthiest of the Shiites, who come there. Sure, the Pakistani Shiites and there are other Shiites who go on pilgrimages there but Iranians are the wealthier ones. But mainly it was, we can prevent Iraq from ever attacking us again because there’s always this knowledge that sure that Shias are the majority. Well, if you put the Shias and the Kurds together, it’s 80% of the country. And by the way, the Kurds were also allied with Iran all those years of Saddam because Saddam killed the Kurds. And so the Kurds naturally found allies in Iran because they also were able to cross the border with Kurdistan, Iranian Kurdistan.
So there’s the Barzanis, I mean, these people have close, close relationships with the Islamic Republic. And so this was a way for the Iranians, their influence in Iraq, which began right at that moment, was to ensure that they would never be attacked by Iraq ever again. And to some degree, the same thing on the other side with the Afghan Taliban as well and with their support of the Afghan governments that we had put into place there. So the Iranians did a lot over the years and the period of the documents that The Intercept and the New York Times have published is actually much later.
But clearly it goes back all the way to 2003, 2004 when the Iranians really began their active, whatever you want to call it. I mean, you can call it interference, but it’s also, you know, protection of their interest. If Russia was to invade Mexico and impose a Russian dominated government in Mexico, would we just sit back and say nothing? Or would we send our CIA, our DIA, our 17 intelligence agencies into Mexico to try to influence the Mexican people that we know are actually more in favor of us than they are in favor of the infidel Russians?
JS: I’m going to go ahead and guess that we would do a little bit more even than just sending the CIA in, but in a way, it is a kind of perfect analogy, because—
HM: That’s exactly it.
JS: Right in their backyard.
HM: What we fear or at least some Republicans fear from Mexico and from Central America is immigration, or drugs or whatever. With the Iranians, they fear chemical weapons coming from that side of, you know, from their West, because they’ve experienced it. That’s what they’ve experienced.
JS: Or now this extraordinarily violent form of terrorism unleashed by first Al Qaeda but then ISIS as well.
HM: Absolutely and your documents certainly indicates that ISIS was an important thing. And you know, with the Iranian said this—
JS: Well, and that Iran appears to have some of the most sophisticated infiltration techniques of the upper echelons of the ISIS leadership.
HM: Correct, and they very openly told their population in Iran that they were fighting ISIS and they were sending, you know, people to die in this fight even. Their argument was, we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. And the Iranian people believe that because they’re literally on their border.
If ISIS had been able to have an actual caliphate, they never were able to have a caliphate because they were in the capital. But if Baghdad which was once the capital of a caliphate, fell to ISIS, then they’d have a caliphate on Iran’s border. I mean, that was unacceptable to the Iranians. So absolutely, they were heavily, heavily involved in the fight and I think it was acknowledged. I mean, even Donald Trump acknowledged, he said, they’re fighting ISIS. He said that.
JS: The way I sort of look at this is and these documents and these stories is that what’s fascinating about it is that we have so little information about how any nation-state functions in terms of its espionage, its intelligence, its operations in high stakes geographical territory. I actually come away from this with kind of an incredible understanding of the sophisticated nature of Iran’s geopolitical strategy, but also the necessity to conduct operations for its own stability and security.
You don’t come away with oh, there’s this nefarious secret operation going on with Iran, but rather, a kind of historically crucial understanding of how Iran has been impacted by the policies of one of its neighbors, Iraq, but also the intervention of foreign powers, primarily the United States, but not only the United States. And so as we wrap up your view of the way that this is talked about in some quarters that it shows the sort of inner workings of the secretive regime of Iran.
HM: No intelligence agency wants to be open. Of course, it’s secretive. Of course, they’re secretive when it comes to intelligence, but I don’t think Iran’s ever hidden the fact that they have influence in Iraq. Every time there’s a negotiation on who’s going to be prime minister, negotiation among the various groups, the Shiite groups, the militias, whatever, Iran’s right there on the front page of the New York Times. You got the foreign minister of Iran going to Iraq all the time. You got the Iraqi Prime Minister going to Iran, of course, they have this relationship.
What happens in secret, in secret correspondence between intelligence agency, Iranian intelligence agencies— First of all, I mean, I’m sure the CIA and our intelligence agencies knows full well that Iran has these agents in Iraq. And if we leave as we did, what do you think is going to happen? Of course, the Iranians are going to take over our assets there. Do you think the guy who worked for the CIA is not going to go to the Iranians and say, “Ok, well, that protector is now gone. Who’s the other protector? Oh, Iran is the protector because I can’t trust my own government to be my protector. My own government’s not going to pay me three grand a month. You know, my own government’s not going to buy me a car. Who do I sell this service to? I’m already compromised because I worked with the CIA. Let’s see if the Iranians would like to have some of that information.” Of course.
But in terms of secretive, actually, the Iranian regime is not that secretive. They’re very open about what they do, including even on their own protests. They said to the entire world, we’re threatening our people. You keep up these protests, we’re going to crackdown. There’s nothing secretive about it. They’re being very open about it. At least for the Iranian people, I think in this particular case regarding this particular issue of the Iraqi documents. I don’t think the Iranian people in any way view this as something, you know, negative. They’ll be like, well, thank God our intelligence services aren’t only cracking down on us. They’re actually doing some work to protect us from the Iraqis.
JS: Hooman, thank you very much for joining us.
HM: My pleasure. Thank you.
JS: Hooman Majd is the author of three books on Iran. The latest is called “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.” You can read the entire investigative series on The Iran Cables at theintercept.com. The lead article in that series was published in partnership with The New York Times and was on the front page of Tuesday’s newspaper.