Beyond  /  Q&A

There Will Be War

U.S.-Iranian relations, the interrelationship between Iranian development and the global oil market, and the future of economic warfare.

Greg Brew: The coup of 1953 is one of the most important events in Iran’s modern history, the history of the early Cold War, and the history of US covert interventions abroad. It’s a pretty heavily researched topic, and as you note there is already a lot we know about how Mosaddeq was overthrown. What remains disputed is why the United States decided to overthrow Mosaddeq, and how that decision was connected to US interest in controlling the flow of Iranian oil, as well as the oil of the Middle East more generally. This motivates the broader thrust of my project. The US-Iranian relationship is frequently defined by strategic concerns, personal relations between various presidential administrations and the Shah, or military affairs. Oil frequently appears on the periphery. My interest is bringing it back into the center.

MB: I wonder if you could elaborate on the history of economic development as it relates to Iran, and how oil contributed to the modernization of Iran and the growth of the Iranian state. More broadly, what is economic development in Iran—what was the conception of it—and what form did it take in the early Cold War? Given that there were many development or “modernization” efforts in the post-World War II period (in India, for instance), what made Iran’s stand out?

GB: During the 19th century, Iran was a relatively weak state buffeted by competing Great Powers. In 1921, a military coup vaulted the dictator Reza Khan—later crowned Reza Pahlavi I, shah of Iran—to power. The new Pahlavi dynasty self-consciously sought to strengthen Iran through centralized economic development, which took the form of large-scale modernization projects that often aimed to increase the productivity of Iran’s agricultural sector while encouraging industrialization and greater self-sufficiency. Oil played a crucial role in Pahlavi plans, as the sale of petroleum and petroleum products created profits which offered a steady stream of revenue to the central Iranian state. However, these profits were controlled and apportioned by Western oil corporations, which managed Iran’s oil industry from 1901 all the way to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. Oil was therefore a problematic element, as it represented both a source of wealth and strength for Iran, yet simultaneously reflected Iran’s entangled relationship with foreign powers and private capital. Of course, the raison d’etre of development in Iran, as with other states in the Global South during the Cold War, was the preservation of the existing pro-Western government. Despite the shah’s success at advancing Iran’s industrialization and building up a middle-class, the unevenness of Iran’s development, the shah’s close association with the United States, and the authoritarian nature of the Pahlavi government created intense anxieties and discontent within Iranian society, producing the revolutionary movement that eventually forced the shah out in 1979.