ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 9-22-22):
NEWS REPORT: The death of a 22-year-old woman in Iran who was arrested by the morality police has now sparked extraordinary scenes that we’re seeing.

ARCHIVAL (BBC, 9-21-22):
NEWS REPORT: They said she wasn’t wearing the mandatory hijab, or headscarf, properly. Women cry “death to the dictator” and wave their headscarves at her funeral.

STEPHEN KINZER: Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world and it has one of the deepest and most magnificent civilizations. So when I first got to Iran, I started asking people: With all this tremendous culture and history that you have, why is it Iran was never able to develop a democracy? Finally, I had a gentleman say, well, you know actually we did have democracy here once, but you took it away from us.

NEWS REEL: Beneath these mountains lie fabulous oil fields that supply four continents.

NEWS REEL: More than 10 percent of the whole world’s known reserves.

NARRATION: At the dawn of the 20th century, the first major oil field in the Middle East was found near Abadan, an island at the southwest tip of Iran. But the discovery had not been made by Iranians themselves.


NEWS REEL: The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in which the British government owns a controlling interest.

LILLY FALLAH LAWRENCE: They set up a near-colony without using the word colony.

NARRATION: Britain’s control of Iranian oil fueled its position as a world power, while many Iranian refinery workers lived in slums. By 1951, Iranians began to rally behind an upstart prime minister to demand their full share.

NEWS REEL: Premier Mohammad Mossadegh arrives in New York to plead his nation’s case.

STEPHEN KINZER (FORMER NEW YORK TIMES CORRESPONDENT): Mossadegh was a fascinating figure. He had had a political career as a young man, but because he refused to go along with the dictatorship, he was essentially exiled, and as prime minister he railed against this gross fact of Iranian life: that Iran was immensely rich in one natural resource, but Iranians didn’t get to profit off this resource.

NEWS REEL: Mossadegh, whose single purpose is oil nationalization.

LILLY FALLAH LAWRENCE: Everyone wanted that oil-rich piece of land. My father was the dean of the Abadan Institute of Technology. Dr. Mossadegh called him and said listen, you’re going to run the refinery.


NEWS REEL: The Iranian flag is hoisted over the world’s largest oil refinery, signifying its seizure by the government. Signs over British offices are torn down. The last planeloads of wives and children of British workers are hurried away.

LILLY FALLAH LAWRENCE: The moment the British left, they destroyed all the details of the refinery. My father and his band of engineers had to start from scratch.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI (AUTHOR, “THEY SAID THEY WANTED REVOLUTION”): Almost immediately, Britain started a major boycott of Iranian oil. Everyday Iranians really felt the pressure. The American government was very concerned about: What will happen if the strength of the country crumbles?

NEWS REEL: This is the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States government, a depot for subversion and a kind of clandestine university.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: The U.S. was right at the point of the Cold War where it was looking around the world and trying to figure out how to stop communism from spreading. One of the ways they decided was to get into countries they felt were particularly vulnerable.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT III (PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA): I teach Constitutional law, and we’re in the courtroom where we train our law students to present cases and to respond to the other side’s case because in some ways, I feel like history has put my grandfather on trial.

NEWS REPORT: Kermit Roosevelt, the C.I.A. man who plotted the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister.

STEPHEN KINZER: In his personal life, he was a complete klutz. He couldn’t change a lightbulb. So maybe he had a particular skill that the job of being a Middle East chief of the C.I.A. in the 1950s lent itself to.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT III: My grandfather’s grandfather was President Theodore Roosevelt, and I do think there was a sort of ideal of adventure and heroism and accomplishment handed down from generation to generation.

STEPHEN KINZER: I think both of them believed the United States knew how to run the world. We knew the way countries should function.

NARRATION: Though Iran’s parliament had elected Mossadegh prime minister on a wave of public support, the country was still ruled by a centuries-old monarchy.

NEWS REEL: The rarely filmed royal family of Iran.

NARRATION: As Mossadegh’s hold on power began to erode, leading him to dissolve the very parliament that elected him, the C.I.A., hand in hand with British intelligence, looked to the young shah to take control — a project called Operation Ajax.

STEPHEN KINZER: The original plan for overthrowing Mossadegh was quite simple. The idea was the shah, the king, would sign royal decrees firing Mossadegh and naming another officer who the C.I.A. had selected as the new prime minister. But Mossadegh had caught wind of this plot.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT III: At this point, my grandfather is in some safe house in Iran, hanging out with his C.I.A. friends and the locals that they’ve recruited.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT: If they had realized that this was an American-supported movement, we could have been in quite a lot of trouble.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT III: They need this to look as though the people support the shah.

STEPHEN KINZER: He hired a giant street gang to run through the streets, break store windows, fire their guns into mosques and yell, “We love Mossadegh and communism.”

NEWS REEL: Mobs supporting Premier Mossadegh spelling out their fury against a statue of Reza Shah.

STEPHEN KINZER: But then he thought of something that I would not have thought of, which is even better than that.

NEWS REEL: Then, 48 hours later, came the reversal.

STEPHEN KINZER: He hired a second mob to attack this first mob. Tehran was caught up in violent street fighting for days, and nobody on either side realized they were both being paid by the C.I.A.

NEWS REEL: Mossadegh’s palatial residence was stormed. Hundreds died.

ARCHIVAL (1953):
NEWS REEL: Bloody rioting culminating in a military coup. Iranian oil may again flow westward.

REPORTER: You had a million dollars in cash to run the coup, right?
KERMIT ROOSEVELT: That’s right, and we used about $60,000 of it. That was all.
REPORTER: Are you saying that $60,000 was all it took?
KERMIT ROOSEVELT: Yeah. All they asked me was, how the dickens did you get away with spending so little?

KERMIT ROOSEVELT III: Thinking about the way that my grandfather presented himself and the way that I knew him, I think his role is probably exaggerated, and he bears some responsibility for that. His idea was, provoke a conflict, and then you’ll see which side the people take.

ARCHIVAL (1953): NEWS REEL: The shah is welcomed home.
NEWS REEL: Met at the plane by his new premier, the slightly confused monarch returned to the throne of Iran.

NARRATION: The United States’ support of the oil-rich shah quickly became a key economic partnership for both sides, and brought Western influences to Iranian culture. But underneath was deep skepticism, especially among young Iranian expats at American universities.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: My parents did not particularly like the shah. They thought he was corrupt, connected to the U.S.

TEXT ON SCREEN: 2,500-year celebration of the Persian empire

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: In 1971, the shah spent millions and millions of dollars on this crazy sort of anniversary event. In California, there was a demonstration, and my mom ended up on TV.

ARCHIVAL (KQED,10-15-71):
NEDA’S MOTHER: The celebrations are costing $100 million and this money is coming from the people in Iran, a people whose average worker earns less than a dollar a day.

STEPHEN KINZER: The shah’s dictatorship became increasingly repressive.

MIKE WALLACE: If torture is necessary, you torture.
THE SHAH OF IRAN: Not the torture in the old sense of torturing people, twisting their arm and doing this and that. But there are intelligent ways of questioning now.

STEPHEN KINZER: And it was that repression that led to the explosion of the late 1970s, what we call the Islamic revolution.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2-10-79):
NEWS REPORT: Good evening. Iran may be on the brink of civil war tonight.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2-23-79):
NEWS REPORT: Iran, the scene of an Islamic revolution that shocked the world.

NARRATION: As the inequities of Iran’s oil wealth roiled the country’s lower classes, the message of a savvy Muslim cleric had taken hold.

WILLIAM DAUGHERTY (U.S. EMBASSY IN IRAN, 1979-81): The Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile and smuggling out cassettes with sermons on them. He began educating people on the 1953 coup, and it was the first, you know, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of Iranians had ever heard of it. He just said basically the shah should go. The shah was evil.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 2-1-79):
NEWS REPORT: The homecoming of Ayatollah Khomeini. His followers line the streets by the hundreds of thousands.

STEPHEN KINZER: At the beginning of 1979, the shah finally gave up and fled.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-23-79):
NEWS REPORT: From Tehran, the shah flew to Egypt. Then it was on to Morocco, where he told ABC’s Barbara Walters that his fate was in God’s hands.

STEPHEN KINZER: American diplomats in Iran wrote cables back to Washington warning President Carter not to take the shah into the United States.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-23-79):
NEWS REPORT: The deposed shah of Iran is apparently suffering from cancer. He’s now being treated at a New York City hospital.

WILLIAM DAUGHERTY: The streets in Iran were never particularly friendly. But immediately after this, they were hostile. You could just really feel the daggers from their eyes going right through you. You know, every day we were just waiting for it.

NEWS REPORT: From ABC in New York, this is World News Tonight. NEWS ANCHOR: Good evening. The U.S. embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students.

NARRATION: In late 1979, Americans watched as 52 hostages were taken in Iran, a saga that would dominate U.S. politics before their release well over a year later.

WILLIAM DAUGHERTY: Interrogations would begin after sunset and go on until sunrise. I would stick to my cover story, until this night they spring this cable on me that identified by name the members of the C.I.A. station, including me. As they say, the jig was up.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-3-79):
NEWS REPORT: Eight of them have now been singled out for intensive interrogation. The students claim they are C.I.A. agents.

WILLIAM DAUGHERTY: The interrogations became a lot more serious and a lot – a lot more physical. Since Kermit Roosevelt and the C.I.A. officers who were there in 1953 and the 60s and 70s were all dead or retired or whatever, we were the ones they had their hands on. So therefore we were going to pay for everything that our agency had done, or they thought our agency had done. 

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 11-6-79):
NEWS REPORT: Anti-American demonstrations in several Iranian cities. Protesters demanded the United States return the deposed shah to Iran.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-8-79):
NEWS ANCHOR: American workers are beginning to take their own action against the Iranian government. REPORTER: In downtown Houston they burned the Iranian flag. Children hung out of cars, telling the Iranians to go home.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: The hostage crisis is when anti-Iranianism really took off in the States.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-8-79):
PROTESTERS: Americans against Iran!

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: Before that, they might have been considered foreign or whatever, but Iran was a friend of the U.S.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-8-79):
PROTESTERS: Don’t mess with Americans, boy.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: It went to being America’s nemesis.

ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN,7-27-19):
REPRESENTATIVE VAN TAYLOR: Iran has become the enemy of freedom and democracy.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Looming over all our efforts in this region is the shadow cast by Iran, home of a great civilization and proud people who suffer from a leadership that flouts the will of the world.

MATEAO MOHAMMAD FARZANEH (PRINCIPAL, THE MOSSADEGH INITIATIVE): We are at Northeastern Illinois University in the city of Chicago. It might seem odd to name a hall after a person the Americans basically overthrew. That actually demonstrates the amount of freedom that we have in the United States to talk about the good, bad and the ugly. Since the Islamic Republic establishment in 1979 and the massive amount of injustice the Iranians have to deal with, it’s interesting Americans want to support Iranians to reach that democratic society, but Americans are at the heart of taking away the hope of Iranians in 1953.

NARRATION: Today, as America tries to support pro-democracy movements in Iran, its role in the coup 70 years ago is hotly contested. While many scholars see it as hidden history in American-Iranian relations, some policy experts argue Mossadegh would have been toppled regardless of American involvement, and are concerned dredging up the past gives the current Iranian regime leverage to crush dissent.

STEPHEN KINZER: By carrying out that coup, we sent a message that the United States does not want democracy in the Middle East. What the United States wants is a supply of cheap oil to the West. Iran and the United States see history in completely different ways. It’s a little bit like two rail lines. They run parallel but they never come together. And until somehow that logjam can be broken, these two countries are going to remain lamentably separated.