Hardly a week after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush asked a question shared by millions of his compatriots:“Why do they hate us?”To so many Americans, the violence inflicted upon the United States was unfathomable, a cruel and unjustifiable act inflicted upon an undeserving people. What could possibly invoke such enmity in people from halfway around the world?
Bush’s answer was this:
“They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
The president’s solution resonated with what most Americans wanted to hear, but it wasn’t the solution they needed. Our self-perceived exceptionalism is at the core of the American mythos, serving as a convenient catch-all to explain away the distaste so much of the world bears towards this country. In the real world, however, “they hate us cause they ain’t us” doesn’t go very far towards unpacking a question rooted in decades of history and conflict.
A History of American Intervention
There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why people around the world dislike the United States, rational and irrational alike; such is the nature of being a global superpower for nearly a century. However, this disdain expressed in many countries is a particular phenomenon, borne out of a pattern of American interventions and activities overseas. That phenomenon is justified by observing countries that were left worse off after American involvement. It’s perhaps clearest in Iran, where a history of American intervention over the past century turned the country’s trajectory on its head.
Today’s Iranian government is of the authoritarian, hardline Islamist variety, with a tight grip over its people and a notorious dislike of the United States. That feeling seems to be mutual; Americans are equally critical of Iran’s system of governance, habits of repression, and aggressive foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. Iran is commonly maligned as one of America’s most notable “enemies” abroad, once described by President Bush in another post-9/11 speech as part of an “Axis of Evil,” threatening freedom across the world.
Relations between the two nations continued souring over the past 20 years, influencing Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Although the Obama administration and the administration of former Iranian president Hasan Rouhani negotiated a deal to cease Iranian nuclear weapons programs (known as the JCPOA), Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Instead, he opted for a hostile “maximum pressure” strategy towards Iran. Since then, Iran has restarted its nuclear program, creating even testier relations with the U.S.
The “Corruption and Intrigue” of British Power
While the Biden administration seeks to re-enter the JCPOA, negotiations with Tehran’s new government have been contentious and slow. That enmity and vitriol permeating the U.S.-Iranian relations for decades have caused many Americans to believe that this is simply the way things have always been.
However, it isn’t. What we see today is a direct result of American foreign policy decisions made more than half a century ago. Into the 1950s, Iran was under the rule of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah possessed great wealth and ruled the country with an authoritarian grip, but Iran remained mostly a poor country, mired in corruption and run by a small circle of elites. The widespread poverty persisted despite the potential for massive natural wealth from the country’s rich oil fields. Instead, the oil extraction and subsequent profits were handled exclusively by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, a British institution designed to maintain a cheap supply of oil for the United Kingdom. Under the agreement maintained between the British and the Shah, Britain received over 80% of the profits from the company.
The Iranian people’s distaste for the colonial extraction of their resources led to the election of Mohammad Mossaddegh as Prime Minister in 1953. Mossadegh, a steadfast believer in secular democracy, imagined a self-determinant Iran devoid of foreign domination. He was enormously popular and quickly overtook the Shah’s influence and authority over the Iranian people. Though he made a number of significant social and political reforms, none of Mossaddegh’s choices reverberated across the world quite like his decision to nationalize Iranian oil did. He described his thinking in a 1951 speech:
“With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, 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, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”
The Iranian Revolution of 1979
The British were apoplectic at the prospect of losing unfettered, cheap access to Iranian oil, and immediately set out to plan for Mossaddegh’s removal from power. Things moved quickly from there: Britain recruited the United States to assist in the endeavor, an offer to which President Eisenhower acquiesced after his predecessor Truman’s refusal a year before. The United States classified Mossadegh as a “potential communist threat” and coordinated his removal with the MI6. In 1953, the CIA set their plan for a coup in motion — buying off and recruiting members of the Iranian press, Islamic clergy, and political opposition to openly smear and protest against Mossadegh’s administration. Ultimately, the coup was successful, and Iran’s most influential, democratically elected leader was deposed as the Shah was reinstated to the throne. The oil deals were renegotiated of course; this time, to the benefit of Anglo- Iranian Oil (you know them now as BP), as well as eight other European and American oil companies.
The arc of history only gets increasingly messier from that point onward. Iran’s economy improved in the following two decades, but unrest continued to foment, especially as the repressive and authoritarian tactics of the Shah grew more aggressive and violent. The Iranian people chose self-determination in 1951 when they elected Mossadegh to office; they had chosen a secular, democratic system in the hopes that Iran’s future mutually benefited its people. The United States and Britain denied Iranians of a choice, and re-instituted a dictator for the maintenance of their own geopolitical goals. That offense would never be forgotten.
Hatred of the Americans, the British, and their perceived puppet of a leader grew until the discontent towards the Shah came to a head in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iranians of varying ideologies came together to overthrow the government, but it was an Islamist faction under the direction of Ayatollah Khomeini leading the charge. They succeeded, ejecting the Western influence in the country and eventually established a theocratic Islamic government that persists in Iran today.
The Modern Iranian-American Disconnect
This history, especially pre-1979, is largely forgotten by the United States, unknown to an alarming portion of the country. It isn’t taught widely in schools, American oral tradition hardly accounts for it, and the media makes little effort to revisit it. The American people, and frequently their government, see Iran as an alien adversary, made up of individuals who reject our way of life and our view of the world.
When you see a people as diametrically opposed to your own ideals and goals, it is hard to find room for reconciliation. That’s whycontext is vital; one can’t begin to properly approach a solution to the modern Iranian-American disconnect until you understand the reasons for why things are the way they are. The uncomfortable truth of our nation’s past (and present, for that matter) abroad is essential in understanding why so much of the world sees the United States through an adversarial lens.
Theodore Roosevelt once sagely advised that one “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Since the end of WWII, the United States has continually been swinging its oversized bat like a blindfolded child whaling at a pinata. Throughout the Cold War era, America gladly took on every opportunity to “fighting communism,” overthrowing governments, conducting wars, and sowing dissent. The “War on Terror” era of U.S. foreign policy has manifested in similarly cavalier escapades, including the ill-conceived invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Cambodia — the list of countries who can point to American intervention at the heart of their national discontent is long and painful to parse through.
Long-Term Consequences of Foreign Policy Strategies
These cycles of intervention may have been justified in Washington, but in the regions where they actually played out, they’ve consistently left behind animosity and a distrust of the United States. The long term implications of aggressive action abroad are notoriously hard to predict, but the American foreign policy establishment is prone to an undue level of faith in its own ability to map out the future. That faith is too often misplaced, as it was in 1953.
Though the Iranian coup played out favorably for the U.S. for the short term, it has proven disastrous — not only for the Iranian people but for America’s interests in the Middle East — in the long run.History matters. None of the foreign policy situations we are striving to resolve were created in a vacuum. The next generation of American decision-makers faces a world shaped heavily by their predecessors. It’s imperative that future leaders understand the implications of the past and learn from them.
Without properly accounting for the long-term negative consequences of foreign policy strategies, the United States will repeat the same self-sabotaging processes again and again. More of the world will continue to despise us, as the children of Iraq and Afghanistan will 15 years from now, and Americans will continue to wonder why. Writer John Powers put it best the week after George Bush asked, “Why do they hate us?”
“They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us.”