On May Day 1946, the British consul in the southwestern Iranian city of Khorramshahr noted a troubling development. An Iranian woman had taken to a local podium and proclaimed that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was exploiting the "jewel of Iran" and spending more on dog food than salaries for its Iranian workers. She demanded equal pay for equal work and the nationalization of Iran's oil industry.
AIOC—now known as BP—gained total control of Iranian oil after the 1901 D'Arcy Concession, which in 1933 was extended for sixty years by the country's monarch Reza Pahlavi. By the early 1950s, AIOC had in Iran the world's largest oil refinery and second largest exporter of oil, which provided the British navy with 85 percent of its fuel supply.
Needless to say, the Iranian woman's call was not heeded by the British, who went on to sanction Iran, blockade its oil exports, and together with the United States, topple the popular prime minister who nationalized the country's oil industry in 1953. Yet her voice is emblematic of countless Iranians in the country's modern history who have struggled for self-determination in the face of encroaching foreign powers and against autocracy at home.
The Trump administration's aggressive Iran policy evokes past destructive foreign interventions against Iran. It has been exemplified by reneging on the July 2015 nuclear deal despite complete Iranian compliance, banning Iranians from the United States, and seeking to bring maximum pressure in the form of " crippling" economic sanctions and regional " rollback" of Iranian influence. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has even declared an unprecedented aim to reduce Iranian oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy—to zero.
Trump's frenzied saber-rattling was also on full display in a late-night July 22 Tweet in all-caps:
NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.
Such rhetoric and actions have been coupled by what CIA veteran Paul Pillar has described as a "list of a dozen inflexible demands" of Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These demands in fact foreclose avenues for diplomacy and reflect an expectation that Iran will crumble.
However, Trump's overtly hostile Iran policy has not prevented him from feigning concern for the same Iranian people he is helping to impoverish. In leaving the nuclear deal, he hailed the "long-suffering people of Iran" and declared that "the future of Iran belongs to its people."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's address to a select group of Iranian expats on Sunday saw him proclaim to “the people of Iran: The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you." Pompeo asserted the administration's goal is to "see Iranians in Iran enjoying the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy," while in the same breath outlining the "campaign" to sanction "Iran's banking and energy sectors" and "get [Iranian oil] imports as close to zero as possible."
Pompeo's statement to the mostly like-minded audience of Iranian Americans rekindles memories of Iraqi exiles in the form of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress—who fooled the Bush White House into believing the Iraqi invasion would be a cakewalk. Bush officials failed to recognize the nonsense they were peddled chiefly because they lacked a nuanced understanding of Iraq, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe and a major strategic setback for the United States. Today, the Trump White House is following a similar path regarding Iran.
Trump is mistaken if he believes his policy will usher in pliant leaders in Tehran or force Iran to change. This is for a simple fact: most Iranians oppose U.S. meddling in their affairs irrespective of their views on their government. This derives from an entrenched view among Iranians, going back over 100 years, of Western powers as a source of foreign control. Such distrust persists today, as opinion polls show , even as many Iranians are fond of U.S. culture and want better relations with the West.
Iranian school children have been taught for decades of their country’s encounter with European colonialism. One instructive period for U.S. policymakers is early twentieth-century Iran, which serves to demonstrate the detrimental nature of foreign intervention not only for the cause of positive change in Iran, but for the interests of the outside power and its local allies.
At the turn of the century, Iran was a feudalistic peasant society with a large nomadic population and a heavily decentralized state in the Qajar dynasty, still reeling from the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties that conceded significant territory to Imperial Russia. However, a small but dedicated intelligentsia had formed by the early twentieth century, who helped lead public uproar to major concessions to the British in the late 1800s and later, the country's landmark Constitutional Revolution in 1906—a democratic movement ahead of its time in the region and globally.