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50 Years in the Making

Iranian Distrust of America

by BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN

Twenty-six years ago this month, an Islamic government replaced a pro-U.S. dynasty in Iran. In the process, Iran declared America its No. 1 enemy.

At the time, I was a graduate student at Fordham University in New York. The students were enraged by the developments in Iran. For one, they were appalled by the cries of "Death to America" that echoed in the streets of Tehran. They often directed their anger at me, an outspoken Iranian on campus.

The recent revelation of secret U.S. reconnaissance missions inside Iran and President Bush’s inaugural speech, which included his promise to end tyranny around the world, brought back memories for me and many Iranians. Those recollections include a coup d’état in 1953 that led to a distrust of America that lingers today.

I was born a few days after America helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalled the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Afterward, my birth was never mentioned without some reference to Mossadegh and America. As a child, I remember being afraid of America.

Later, though, in high school, I became a fan of America, especially its music and movies. I loved Westerns and saved pictures of movie stars. Yet, like many Iranians, I could not shake my misgivings.

As I grew older, these conflicting feelings of admiration and distrust became stronger. For example, I grew fond of U.S. political and social values. But I also realized that America had stolen from me the possibility of growing up in a free and democratic Iran. As a result of the CIA-planned coup d’état, I grew up in a corrupt dictatorship.

When I finished college in 1976, I left Iran for graduate studies in the United States. Unlike today, America had an open-door policy toward Iranians. Visas were easily obtained once a student was accepted to a college. I was among the scores of young Iranians who took the opportunity to further my studies.

Three years later, in 1979, the Shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic of Iran was created. Though Iranians rejoiced the Shah’s downfall, they soon faced the horrors of life under a theocratic state.

When my studies in the United States were complete, I did not return home. Like many Iranians, I became an immigrant in America, upset that it had rerouted my life. Living in de facto exile, I wondered whether an Islamic republic would have come to life had America not meddled in my country’s affairs.

It wasn’t until the late ’90s that I visited Tehran and lived there during the peak of student protests against the Islamic Republic in 1999. The young people intrigued me. They defied the Islamic Republic and its social and cultural codes of conduct. And, even more than my generation, they longed for American culture: Hollywood films, MTV and Western fashions.

But, like my generation, they were keenly aware of what America had done to their country. They, too, were distrustful of America.

In the students’ frequent protests against their government, the youth carried pictures of Mossadegh. Student organizations held memorials for Mossadegh on the anniversary of his death on March 5, 1967. Newspapers and magazines carried long articles about his legacy. Long after his death, the man who was removed from power by the Americans was, once again, a hero and a national symbol of patriotism and resistance against foreign domination. Many foreign observers and journalists have overlooked this important detail.

A half-century has passed since Mossadegh’s ouster and the revolution that toppled the Shah’s government. In 1953, America intervened in Iran as a part of its global fight against totalitarian communism and to preserve democracy in the world. The threat of communism is all but gone, but the plan for intervention in Iran in the name of democracy is still very much alive.

Sadly for U.S. policymakers who think Americans would be welcomed, Iranians can just read today’s headlines to find ample reason for distrust.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Muslim Migrant by Bantam Dell/Random House (forthcoming, 2005). He is a professor of economics at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He can be reached at Behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.