Bite-Sized History: Modern Iran & US relations (1856-1979)

Billboard illustration of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Ayatollah Khomeini.

Welcome to the first installment of Bite-Sized History! I haven’t settled on a format yet, but I’m going to try this as a point-by-point timeline and see how that works. And if you’d like me to expand on something I touched on, drop a comment below! But for now, let’s get started with this portion of the history of American-Irani relations.

1856: Iran sends its first diplomat to Washington.

1883: The US sends its first envoy to Iran. (Ambassadorial relations don’t officially start until the 1940s, though.)

1908: An oil field is discovered in Iran, and Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) is formed. This company is renamed several times; the third incarnation becomes the root of the modern BP.

1914: British government purchases 51% of APOC shares.

1925: A new dynasty begins in Iran when Ahmad Shah Qajar is removed from power. Power structure in Iran at that time is of a king (or Shah) supported by a parliament. The new ruler is Reza Shah Pahlavi.

1941: Reza Shah Pahlavi is forced to abdicate. His son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi takes the throne as the new Shah.

1945: Iran seeks US aid post-WWII to restructure finances. Being in debt to the US likely gives the US later leverage for better oil deals, which would have become more important as the US became more car-centric during the 1950s. Additionally, it’s likely Iran sees the US as a peer, given that they’ve both fought to stay out from under the thumb of British rule.

1951: Mohammad Mosaddegh is elected as head of parliament. Islam factors into this to a degree–there is a sense that the Shah is too modern, too secular, and overlooks Islamic rules in the 1906 Constitution.

1952: Mosaddegh nationalizes the British-run oil industry; Churchill attempts to plan a coup, but Truman (D) wants none of it, and is (perhaps unsurprisingly) sympathetic to Mosaddegh’s desire for freedom*. Mosaddegh chases the Shah out of Iran.

1953: Eisenhower (R) becomes President. CIA and M16 engineer a coup (Operation Ajax) which begins August 15th. The plot is discovered, and Mosaddegh shuts it down. Numerous arrests are made. A cable is sent, saying to stop coup attempts; an insubordinate Kermit Roosevelt Jr. goes forward with it anyway. Mosaddegh is arrested, and held prisoner until his death in 1967. The Shah is then reinstalled with US support in the form of weapons, and CIA training for troops.

1963: The White Revolution begins; it is an attempt by the Shah to institute reforms, in the hopes of avoiding a bloody revolution. Opposition is led by Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, a Shia Islam cleric who is strongly against the secularization of Iran. 3 days of riots ensue, 15K are left dead.

[SIDEBAR: There are multiple sects of Islam; among them are Sunni (~88% of Muslims), and Shia (~12%). There are subsects among those, e.g. Wahhabi, which stems from Sunni. This split happened in 632AD after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, as a result of disagreement about who should succeed the Prophet. While Shia are an Islamic minority, they are an Iranian majority.]

1964: Khomeini is arrested in November, and sent into exile. He mostly lives in Iraq during his exile, but as a result of encouragement by the Shah for the Iraqi leaders to kick him out and ensure Khomeini gets less airtime in Iran, Khomeini ends up in France. This backfires spectacularly for the Shah, as Khomeini is interviewed heavily while living in France, including by the BBC. This raises Khomeini’s profile again, and begins a rising anti-Shah sentiment.

1977: Anti-Shah protests begin. In addition to Khomeini’s pro-Islam rhetoric, the economics of the time increase the pressure. Money is being made hand over fist on oil, but the money is all staying at the top. Regular people are struggling, and they are frustrated. In October, Khomeini’s eldest son Mostafa dies. The government says it’s a heart attack, but public suspicion is that Mostafa was murdered; this martyrdom puts Khomeini in the spotlight again. Students clash with police over Mostafa’s death. 40 days after his death (the prescribed amount of time before what is called khatam in Islamic tradition), there is another protest.

1978: A 40 day cycle of protests takes shape early in the new year. Some devolve into riots, typically targeting the destruction of Western symbols, such as theatres and bars. Some crowds have as many as 500K. Martial law is declared at the end of Ramadan (September 8th), but not everybody hears this news. 5k people are out to protest that night, and there is a terrible clash. 89 people die in what will later be known as Black Friday. On November 5, a protest in Tehran becomes a riot, and the British embassy is burned. On December 2nd, there are renewed protests in spite of protests being banned; 2M protesters are in attendance. Further protests within a week escalate to approximately 10% of the overall population, 6-9M people. Shah steps down, selects a new PM.

1979: The Shah leaves Iran January 16, never to return; the Ayatollah Khomeini returns from exile February 1st. From the moment of his return, the Ayatollah shifts the revolution from one that was pan-Islamic to one that relies heavily on his personal interpretation of Shia. Through this lens, he begins pushing the idea that Islam cannot coexist with a monarchy, and that the duty of a Muslim is to protect Islam above all else. Not all Shia clerics agree with his interpretation, but his popularity makes it hard to be heard, not to mention that by positioning things in this manner, Khomeini makes obedience to him not just a civic imperative–disobedience becomes a sin. April 1, a referendum is held on whether or not to be an Islamic state. It passes. The 1906 Constitution is junked and rewritten. In December, Khomeini officially takes power.

“What began as an authentic and anti-dictatorial popular revolution based on a broad coalition of all anti-Shah forces was soon transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist power grab.”*

This sets the stage for the American Hostage Crisis, which further deepens mistrust of America by Iranians. There are also connections through this to Saudi Arabia, and Osama Bin Laden, which I’ll explore in a future installment.

*Additional content quoted from Frontline, Feb 18 2018: “Bitter Rivals, pt. 1”.



  1. OMG this is great! Thank you!

    I have been trying to become better educated on this in the past few years and it’s so large and daunting it’s hard to know where to start. I really appreciate your breakdown. Like, I knew a lot of this but not the whole timeline, so some of the puzzle pieces just fit under “Middle East oil chaos stuff” in my mind, and I didn’t understand our real role in it.

  2. The Detroit area would be a landing spot for many Chaldeans after the Shah is exiled. I can’t imagine how that experience would feel being forced from your homeland but it never felt like they wanted to fit in.

    I really try not to be the ‘tinfoil hat’ type but I will have a hard time believing that Ronnie Ray-guns, Dick Cheney and their Cabal did not have their hands in the taking of the hostages in 79. I keep it to myself mostly but our need and desire for oil and the known history to get it makes it hard to disbelieve.

  3. Excellent synopsis, and I like the format. I’m fairly familiar with the history here, but one thing I didn’t know was that Mosaddegh had actually forced the Shah out of Iran back in ’52. So, while Mosaddegh was democratically elected (which is a huge part of the case that Iran has against the US for the ’53 coup), he wasn’t exactly innocent of doing the very thing of which he eventually wound up on the receiving end. It’s not like the Iranian government was stable and chugging along and then out of nowhere the US just tears it all apart. It was already destabilized, which may have created fertile ground for the ’53 coup in the first place.

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