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NPR Podcast Examines The Animosity Between The U.S. and Iran


Next, we have the story behind some of the latest news. The United States confrontation with Iran is the latest chapter in a 40-year-old story - 40 years old this year. February is the anniversary of the 1979 revolution when an Islamist, anti-American government took power. But, really, the story is even older than that because that anti-Americanism in Iran goes back to an event in 1953, which we're about to discuss with the hosts of NPR's new history podcast. It's called Throughline. And the hosts are Ramtin Arablouei - welcome.


INSKEEP: And Rund Abdelfatah, good morning to you.


INSKEEP: OK. So what was happening in Iran in 1953?

ARABLOUEI: Well, up until 1953, the U.S. and Iran didn't have much of a relationship. But then there was the issue of oil, specifically Great Britain's interest in Iran in terms of oil. Steve, for a very long time, for decades, Great Britain controlled most of Iran's oil resources. British Petroleum - BP - they were originally called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.


ARABLOUEI: And the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had a deal with the Iranian government around oil that really favored British interests. Iran didn't take much money away from the oil revenues. Anyway, there was an Iranian politician named Mohammed Mossadegh, who had been railing against this deal for a very long time. Eventually, he was able to convince the Iranian parliament to nationalize their oil industry. And then he became prime minister. And then he shut down the British embassy because he was afraid that they were going to use the embassy to stage some kind of...


ARABLOUEI: ...Coup against his government.

ABDELFATAH: The British lost their foothold there. And so they saw it as a real threat. They sought help from their closest ally.

INSKEEP: Their big brother, their big friend...


INSKEEP: ...Across the Atlantic - the United States.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, the United States. Right.

INSKEEP: What did the Americans do?

ABDELFATAH: Because they were their closest ally and because this is all happening during the Cold War and Iran happened to share a border with the Soviet Union, they eventually agreed.

INSKEEP: And one of the greatest names in American history gets involved in the story at this point, right?

ARABLOUEI: That's right. Kermit Roosevelt, related to FDR...

INSKEEP: From the famous...

ABDELFATAH: Teddy, yeah (laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Family, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, exactly. He was a CIA agent who was tasked with going to Iran and overthrowing the Mossadegh government and reinstating the shah or Iran's king.

INSKEEP: Who had been kind of shoved away from power at that moment - right?



ARABLOUEI: They wanted to, basically, consolidate power in his hands because he was friendly to the west. So we spoke to Stephen Kinzer, an author who wrote a definitive book on this topic called "All The Shah's Men." Like, how exactly do you overthrow a government? So he took us through it step by step.


ABDELFATAH: Step one...

STEPHEN KINZER: Seize control of the Iranian press.

ARABLOUEI: Basically, buy them off with bribes.

KINZER: Turned out that the press was quite corrupt.

ABDELFATAH: Step two - recruit allies on the ground - most importantly, the Islamic clergy or mullahs.

KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt made strategic payments to a number of important mullahs in exchange for them delivering sermons denouncing Mossadegh from the pulpit as against God and irreligious.

ARABLOUEI: Step three - get Iran's king, the shah, onboard. Roosevelt took matters into his own hands and began meeting with the shah almost every day - at midnight, in a taxicab - always in a different location. Roosevelt managed to convince the shah that Mossadegh was a threat. And so the shah agreed to the coup.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, step four - go to Mossadegh's house in the middle of the night, arrest him and put a puppet ruler in his place.


ABDELFATAH: But this whole first attempt fails. Roosevelt's bosses back in Washington tell him he can come home. Instead, Roosevelt doubles down and decides to try again - this time, taking it to a whole new level.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Attention is focused once again on the Middle East, where events in Iran have taken a dramatic double twist.

ABDELFATAH: On August 19, it began.


ARABLOUEI: Roosevelt set out to make the Mossadegh government look like it was losing control of the country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three-hundred killed and hundreds wounded is a conservative estimate.

KINZER: And his plan was this. First of all, hire gangs of Iranians through people who controlled criminal protection rackets. And pay them to go out on the street and cause chaos.

ABDELFATAH: So Roosevelt actually paid criminals and gang members to storm into the city.

ARABLOUEI: Beat up people in the streets.

ABDELFATAH: Break shop windows.

KINZER: Shoot your guns into mosques.

ARABLOUEI: And then...

KINZER: He hired a second mob to attack the first mob.

ARABLOUEI: Which led to bloody, violent clashes between the two mobs.

ABDELFATAH: And the really trippy thing was that everybody involved...

KINZER: Everybody involved in the battles was being paid to be there. But what they didn't know was they were being paid by the same source.

ARABLOUEI: The CIA - and it worked. Mossadegh looked weak.

KINZER: Mossadegh refused to send the police out because he said, well, they're peaceful demonstrators. People should be allowed to say what they want. He truly was too naive to grasp what was happening.

ABDELFATAH: And this brings us to the final part of Roosevelt's plan - to get rid of Mossadegh once and for all. Roosevelt ordered both mobs to head to Mossadegh's house.

KINZER: Then who should show up but several police and military commanders, including a couple with tanks, people who Kermit Roosevelt had bribed to participate.

ABDELFATAH: Those officers began opening fire on Mossadegh's house, while inside, Mossadegh and a few of his closest advisers huddled together.

KINZER: Tells them, I want to die here in the house.


KINZER: But somehow, they managed to drag him out a back window. They got him over a fence. He fled. The house was looted.

ABDELFATAH: And one of Roosevelt's paid generals goes on the radio and announces that the shah is returning to power.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: And just like that, with a couple of chess moves, Kermit Roosevelt's plan ushered Iran into a new era.

ABDELFATAH: Which would last for another 25 years until the 1979 revolution.

INSKEEP: So now we're beginning this 40 years of conflict with the United States. How has this history you found influenced those 40 years?

ARABLOUEI: Well, for Americans, probably not that much because this was a secret coup. And the CIA didn't admit to it until 2013.

INSKEEP: It's only gradually become better known here.

ABDELFATAH: Right, right.

ARABLOUEI: Exactly. But for many Iranians, they understood that something had happened. And many of the intellectuals, actually, had a real - lot of knowledge about this. So for them, the coup was, basically, the original sin of the U.S.-Iran relationship.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. And, in fact, during the 1979 revolution, a lot of the students in the political class actually invoked the 1953 coup. This gap and how the two countries remember or don't remember their shared history, it continues to play out to this day.

INSKEEP: A way the present is influenced by the past.


INSKEEP: Rund Abdelfatah, thanks for coming by.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: She is with Ramtin Arablouei. And they are the hosts of NPR's new history podcast Throughline. Thanks to you.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And the first episode of the podcast Throughline is out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.