An ironic chain of events directly links the 1953 CIA-sponsored overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran to the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001.
Follow the links on the chain of events that led to our own destruction.
1953: The United States helps overthrow Muhammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, thereby securing the reign of Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.
1979: The Iranian Revolution overthrows the Shah and establishes an anti-American Islamic fundamentalist government.
1979: Terrified that the Islamic fundamentalist movement that took over Iran will spread to their Central Asian republic states (the “Stans”), the Soviet Union invades the buffer nation of Afghanistan that switched from a Soviet-friendly government to an Islamic-based government in 1978 in order to maintain stability and halt the spread of radical Islam.
1979-1989: The Soviet-Afghan War is a military and financial disaster and a partial cause of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. To aid the Afghanis in their fight against the Soviets – our Cold War enemies – the United States supplies the Mujahideen with American-made weapons.
1989: When the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan, many of their weapons and all of our weapons are left behind. Soviet withdrawal also leaves behind a power vacuum; Afghanistan has no central government and lawlessness prevails.
1994: To establish order, a group of religious students who called themselves the Taliban take over and establish medieval-style theocracy.
1996: The Taliban invites like-minded fundamentalist Osama bin Laden to take up residence in Afghanistan and his international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda sets up training camps and plans the attack on America.
September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives fly suicide missions into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 Americans.
Conclusion: If we had not overthrown the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, there would not have been an Iranian Revolution in 1979 that held a grudge against the United States. Without the Iranian Revolution that installed an extreme fundamentalist Islamic government, the Soviets would have had no reason to invade Afghanistan in order to keep fundamentalist Islam from spreading to their Islamic republics, and there would have been no incentive for Islamic nations to channel their hatred toward the United States. As a nation, we have sadly been the architect of our own demise.
Breaking It Down
In the Beginning:
The nation of Iran is the modern incarnation of ancient Persia: one of the greatest empires in world history. During the 19th century, Britain and Russia sought influence over Central Asia (including Persia and Afghanistan) in what became known as the Great Game. British control over their empire in India and Russian control of Central Asia were of utmost importance. Both powers competed for concessions to build railroads throughout Persia. The Russo-Persian War from 1804-1813 was fought over Russian expansion into Persian territory. Persia’s humiliating defeat resulted in a significant loss of land. A few decades later the Persians were defeated again in the 1856-1857 Anglo-Persian War, which was fought over the historic city of Herat, Britain’s gateway to India. As the increasingly weak Qajar Dynasty in Persia struggled amidst foreign incursion, Britain stepped up, especially after oil was discovered in the early 1900s. During WWI, British, Russian, and Ottoman troops were occupying forces. After a 1921 coup, the Qajar Dynasty fell to military officer Reza Khan. Within four years, Reza Khan secured power for himself and adopted the name Pahlavi. In 1935, Persia officially became Iran. Reza Shah Pahlavi and his son Muhammad Reza Pahlavi presided over the family dynasty until its fall in 1979. All the while, Afghanistan was treated as a buffer zone between the two major powers. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars were fought to thwart Russian influence: 1838-1842, 1878-1880, and May 1919. Ultimately, the British lost control over Afghanistan and signed an armistice in August 1919. In 1921, Afghanistan was recognized as an independent, but struggling nation. By 1956, Afghanistan was securely allied to the Soviet Union under the patronage of Nikita Khrushchev, and until 1978 communist-leaning governments presided.
In 1953, the United States helped oust Muhammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. Elected by the Iranian people in 1951, Mossadegh was dismissed a year later by Shah Reza Pahlavi. It was the Cold War and Mossadegh was a socialist who intended to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. However, public protest forced the Shah to reinstate Mossadegh. In 1952, Mossadegh was named as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” British and American intelligence concluded that if left unchecked Mossadegh would push Iran into the Soviet sphere, so MI-6 and the CIA devised a plan for the overthrow of Mossadegh. Harry Truman rejected the conceived plan, but Eisenhower signed off on it. The Shah temporarily left Iran for medical reasons. Mossadegh became aware of a plot and encouraged his followers to protest on his behalf. Although MI-6 backed off, the CIA, under the direction of Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (grandson of Teddy Roosevelt), pushed ahead with Operation Ajax. The Iranian press was bribed to publish anti-Mossadegh propaganda, the clergy was convinced Mossadegh was a threat, and violent street riots were organized. About 300 civilians died in the melee. On August, 19, 1953, the CIA-led coup overthrew Mossadegh. He was arrested, imprisoned for three years, and died in 1967 while under house arrest. Afterward, the unpopular, but anti-communist Shah Reza Pahlavi was in total control. For their efforts, American corporations gained rights of over 40% of Iran’s oilfields. Over the next decades, the west promoted economic modernization and brought cultural influence, which was not appreciated by all. Throughout the Middle East, the 1970s was a time of reform with calls to return to the Sharia, the law code based on the Quran. The Quran and Sharia were to provide guidance on all aspects of life. Islamic fundamentalists blamed social and economic ills on blind imitation of western models. Islamic reformers – called fundamentalists by Westerners – rejected Westernization (but not modernization) and urged renewed commitment to Islam. Although the Shah had support from the western-oriented and secular urban middle class, religious leaders and the rural poor hated him. The Shah’s repressive government is said to have tortured and executed thousands of political prisoners under the direction of SAVAK, the secret police. By 1978, martial law was imposed to combat riots, strikes, and mass demonstrations against the Shah’s authoritarian rule.
Amidst ever-increasing protest, the Shah fled Iran in January 1979. In April, the Islamic nationalist leader and radical cleric Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from his 14-year exile in Iraq and France to lead an Islamic fundamentalist movement and establish a theocracy. In November, a group of radical students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 hostages. They demanded the extradition of the Shah from the United States – where he had been undergoing medical treatment for cancer – to face trial for his crimes. Knowing the Shah’s abysmal human rights record, President Carter declined to come to the Shah’s defense when his opposition mounted, but for humanitarian reasons allowed him to come to the U.S. for medical treatment. (The Shah died of cancer in April 1980 in Egypt). The students soon released 13 individuals – women, African Americans, and non-Americans – keeping only white men as hostages. Later, a man who had become ill was also released, bringing the total number of captives to 52. They were held for 444 days. Every evening, the nightly news addressed the issue, “Today is Day 113 of the hostage crisis.” To his credit, President Carter did his best to secure release of the hostages, including diplomacy, economic sanctions such as the seizure of Iranian assets, and a failed military rescue known as Operation Eagle Claw, wherein helicopters that were sent to rescue the hostages succumbed to a severe desert sandstorm that killed eight servicemen in April 1980. In the end, the hostage crisis was a major factor in Carter’s failure to secure reelection. Interestingly, the hostages were released on January 31, 1981, within hours of Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. The Iranian captors were allegedly fearful of Reagan’s potential actions towards them, some believing he may drop a nuclear bomb on Tehran. There are also rumors (denied by Reagan) that his team had negotiated with the Iranians to not release the hostages until after the election. Although the hostages were never physically harmed, they lived in constant fear of torture or death, paraded in front of angry crowds and TV cameras, and not allowed to speak, read, or regularly change their clothes. The Iranian Revolution severely altered the culture of Iran. Western influence was purged, and women suffered an extreme loss of rights and were subjected to a severe dress code that mandated the wearing of hijab to fully cover their hair in public.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a Marxist government against an Islamic-based rebellion that began the year before. The Ayatollah Khomeini was committed to spreading his revolution through the Islamic world, and the Soviets could not allow any upheaval in their southern Islamic republics. According to the essay by Ali Ansari and Kasra Aarabi, entitled “Ideology and Iran’s Revolution: How 1979 Changed the World,” published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, posted on February 11, 2019, “the Soviets sought to contain Islamism on their doorstep – and prevent any contagion to Central Asia.” The United States quickly criticized the invasion, and in protest refused to send our athletes to the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow. (To retaliate, the Soviet Bloc boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.) Outraged by the David vs. Goliath situation being played out in Afghanistan between our Russian Goliath nemesis and a bunch of warlords seeking to defend their homeland from the evil communists, conservative lawmakers and oligarchs pressured Congress to support the Mujahideen in Afghanistan: an assemblage of freedom fighters, guerrilla groups, and holy warriors. By 1986, military equipment began arriving in mass, along with a host of trainers. The book and movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, is a highly entertaining documentation of U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War. The conflict proved to be exceedingly costly for the Soviets. In addition to the financial drain of their Afghan War, the human cost proved to be too much. Historically, the Russian populace is conditioned for deprivation, but Russian mothers who had lost their fathers and grandfathers in the Great Patriotic War (WWII) were unwilling to sacrifice their sons in what they saw as a pointless conflict. This was Russia’s Vietnam.
In 1989, the Soviets retreated. The Afghans may have won the war, but after ten years of bloody conflict their territory was in ruins and political chaos resulted. Afghanistan cannot be properly called a nation or a state, as it has never been a united region. The population is multiethnic and multilingual, consisting of 14 main ethnic groups. Outside of the few urban areas, tribal leaders traditionally maintained political control in the patriarchal, village-based society. The terrain is rugged, desolate, and destitute. In 1994, ultraconservative religious students calling themselves the Taliban took control of the city of Kandahar promising to bring order and security, and by 1996, they took over the capital city of Kabul. That same year, Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was invited into the country after being expelled from Sudan. The Taliban’s staunchly anti-western “government” ushered in a religious fundamentalism that made Iran appear moderate. Extreme restrictions were placed on women, who were now denied all access to education and employment and were forced to cover themselves from head to toe in burkas. Bin Laden established training camps utilizing the weapon stores left behind by the Soviets and Americans and began planning the attack on the United States that culminated in the tragedy of 9/11. The rest of the story is well-known.
History is the story of events: actions and reactions. American actions to destabilize the Iranian government in 1953 culminated in the worst bombings on American soil in our history followed by the longest war in American history that cost us dearly with regards to financial and human resources. The region known as Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. The British failed to take in the 19th century, the Russians failed to take it in the 1980s, and while America merely attempted to tame it, like our predecessors, we also failed at the cost of 2,461 lives of U.S. service members, and according to the BBC, 1,200 lives of coalition forces, 64,100 lives of Afghani military and police, and 111,000 Afghani civilians killed or wounded. Along with the human tragedy, the Afghan War cost close to $1 Trillion. Finally, the U.S. has suffered a shameful loss of global respect due to our failure to accurately assess the stability of the Ashrah Ghani government we supported that dissolved in eleven days, our negligence to keep our NATO and coalition allies accurately apprised of our actions and intentions concerning U.S. military withdrawal, and our failure to rescue all the Afghanis who supported our efforts to stabilize and transform their country.