In the great square at Esfahan, I talked to a group of teenage girls about to graduate from high school—one strictly veiled, one less so, one whose scarf was subversively far back on her head. They all thought war was coming, all believed that the U.S. was not a truly free country and that Iranians and Muslims were persecuted and mistreated there. These opinions arose from state-sponsored ignorance and were fanned by our own militant hostility. The students were not in themselves hostile to the West—like almost all Iranians, they yearned to live there. They were personally friendly and open to me. But they warned that an attack on Iran would drive them closer to their government. And this was not just their view. I heard the same from many far more liberal-minded and skeptical. Before the Iraq War, many such people were all but wishing for an American invasion to free them from the ayatollahs. But having seen what American liberation has done for Iraq and Afghanistan, they have turned away from any such thoughts.
Before the Iraq War, many such people were all but wishing for an American invasion to free them from the ayatollahs.
What's so striking about the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was burned down after being conquered by Alexander the Great, is the absence of violent imagery on what's left of its stone walls. Among the carvings there are soldiers, but they're not fighting; there are weapons, but they're not drawn. Mainly you see emblems suggesting that something humane went on here instead—people of different nations gathering peacefully, bearing gifts, draping their hands amiably on one another's shoulders. In an era noted for its barbarity, Persepolis, it seems, was a relatively cosmopolitan place—and for many Iranians today its ruins are a breathtaking reminder of who their Persian ancestors were and what they did.
They don't really control us, because they can't control what's inside us."
That has never stopped Iran's leaders from trying, or foreign powers from interfering—particularly after the country was discovered, around the turn of the 20th century, to be sitting on what Iran claims is an estimated 135 billion barrels of proven conventional oil reserves, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. Adding to the drama is that the Persian Gulf is located along Iran's southern border. On the other side lies much of the rest of the world's crude, in the oil fields of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There's also a hairpin waterway in the gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil passes every day. So Iran is in a unique position to threaten the world's oil supply and delivery—or sell its own oil elsewhere than to the West.
Oil was at the root of a 1953 event that is still a sore subject for many Iranians: the CIA-backed overthrow, instigated and supported by the British government, of Iran's elected and popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had kicked out the British after the Iranian oil industry, controlled through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP), was nationalized, and the British had retaliated with an economic blockade. With the Cold War on and the Soviet bloc located just to the north, the U.S. feared that a Soviet-backed communism in Iran could shift the balance of world power and jeopardize Western interests in the region. The coup—Operation TP-Ajax—is believed to have been the CIA's first. (Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Teddy's grandson, ran the show, and H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Persian Gulf war commander, was enlisted to coax the shah into playing his part. Its base of operations was the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the future "nest of spies" to the Iranians, where 52 U.S. hostages were taken in 1979.) Afterward, the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was returned to power, commercial oil rights fell largely to British and U.S. oil companies, and Mossadegh was imprisoned and later placed under house arrest until he died in 1967.
To Iranians like Shabnam Rezaei, who has created the online magazine Persian Mirror to promote Iran's cultural identity, Operation TP-Ajax set the stage for later decades of oppression and Islamic fundamentalism. "I think if we had been allowed to have a democratic government," she said, "we could have been the New York of the Middle East—of all of Asia, frankly—a center for finance, industry, commerce, culture, and a modern way of thinking."