In the centre of Tehran lies a huge compound commonly known to locals as ‘the den of spies’ or ‘nest of espionage’. It was here in the basement of this building, back in 1953, that Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of the former US president, started plotting the overthrowing of the Iranian president Mossadegh.
Decades before Kermit Roosevelt arrived in the basement of that building, the British arrived in Iran. In 1908 they discovered Iran’s lush oil fields and struck a deal with the Shah (king) of Iran to start drilling it up. In return, Iran got a lousy 16% of the profits of the newly founded Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and known today as British Petroleum or BP. The conditions for the Iranian workers were bad and from the 40 million pounds of profit made in 1947, Iran only received 7 million. As the years passed, Iran began to realize what a bad deal they had struck. In 1950, Iran learned that the Arab-American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia worked on a 50-50% basis and made a similar proposal to the British, but the UK foreign office refused to sign any such deal.
Their demands falling on deaf ears, the Iranians decided to take control of their own national resources and voted to nationalize their oil fields in the early 1950s. The British didn’t like it and wanted to take back control of what they considered ‘their’ oil. They approached the US administration, led by Truman, and tried to convince him to help overthrow the then prime minister Mossadegh so they could install a new one with the help of the Iranian Shah. Truman wasn’t interested. Fortunately for the British, Eisenhower soon took office and after playing on the US fear of a communist controlled Middle East, he agreed to help the British overthrow the government of Iran so they could control Iran’s oil fields once more. It was one of the first times the United States’ CIA got involved in overthrowing another country’s government, but certainly not the last.
Kermit Roosevelt, from the basement of the US embassy, masterminded the coup that got rid of Mossadegh, made the Iranian Shah appoint a new prime minister that the UK and US had selected and hired thugs and gangsters to squelch any resistance on the streets. The Shah, heavily backed by the US used the money from a new oil deal and lifted sanctions to try to Westernize Iran rapidly. Opponents viewed him as a puppet of the West and conservatives didn’t approve of the new Western ways he tried to make people live by. The less popular the royal family became, the more he turned into a brutal and violent dictator which eventually led to the 1979 revolution, joining both secularists and religious conservatives in their struggle to get rid of the tyrant. The secularists were not amused when Khomeini returned and simply took control of the country as its new divine leader. The idea of democracy was too Western for his liking, and that was just one of the first disappointments for the secular and leftist activists that had helped getting rid of the Shah.
Meanwhile during the revolution, the Shah, dying of cancer, had fled to the US to seek treatment. The Iranians demanded him back, wanting him to face trial and execution in Iran and stormed the U.S. embassy where they took 52 American diplomats as hostages for 444 days. The memories of how 26 years earlier the Shah had fled and the CIA and MI6 had staged a coup still fresh in their minds, they feared history might repeat itself and saw something happen that seemed all too familiar.
Although the embassy building still stands, the US and Iran haven’t had embassies since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It now houses the revolutionary guard, the American seal near the entrance is defaced and the walls around the compound are covered in murals depicting the Statue of Liberty with a skull as a face and showing the flag of Israel flying on top of the White House. When going up the stairs from the subway station, the wall that greets you simply states “Down with USA”. Learning about the history between the two countries, it isn’t hard to see where the sentiment comes from.