The bad guys, at whose hands Iran suffered most, were Russia and Great Britain. Those two nations – often at the invitation of Iran’s leaders – economically exploited Persia to further their own imperial ambitions, using sustained diplomatic, military and economic pressure.
After two ill-judged wars fought against Russia – the First (1804-1813) and Second Russo-Persian Wars (1826-1828) – Persia (the name Iran was officially adopted in 1935) lost large amounts of territory to the Czar.
So assured were Britain and Russia in their control of Persia that, in 1907, they signed the infamous Anglo-Russian Convention. That agreement divided the country – unbeknownst to its Parliament, let alone its inhabitants – into Russian, British and “neutral” spheres of influence. After it became public it provoked the outrage of ordinary Persians and the international community at large.
Cartoon from 1907 satirizing Russia and England dividing up Persia. Punch/Pushkin House
America the good
Iran’s relations with the United States were completely different.
But the presence in Iran of American missionaries and, later, invited government technocrats was of an entirely different quality. These were Americans offering aid, with no expectation of advantage to be gained officially for the United States government.
Despite Russian attempts to block the initiative, W. Morgan Shuster, a distinguished career civil servant, was appointed by Persia in February 1911. He arrived in Tehran in May, bringing with him four other Americans. The mission was a failure, lasting only eight months, and, unsurprisingly, was adroitly sabotaged by the combined efforts of British and Russian diplomats in Tehran.
American William Morgan Shuster, treasurer-general of Persia. Wikipedia
The country’s financial situation after the First World War was still precarious. With none of the colonialist baggage associated with the two European superpowers, America was turned to, almost as a last resort, to fix what ailed Iran. Riza Shah (father of the last shah) appointed an American, Arthur C. Millspaugh, as the administrator-general of the finances of Persia.
When Millspaugh arrived in Tehran in 1922, a newspaper editorial addressed him with these words: “You are the last doctor called to the death-bed of a sick person. If you fail, the patient will die. If you succeed, the patient will live.”
Despite his often testy relations with foreigners, Riza Shah acknowledged Millspaugh’s American Financial Mission was “the last hope of Persia.” The fact that the mission was far from an unqualified success does not detract from its importance. Nor did it diminish America’s image as an honest broker in Iranian eyes, in contrast to that of Russia and Great Britain.
Of course, not every Iranian-American interaction during this period was positive. Robert Imbrie, the American consul in Tehran, was brutally murdered in 1924, allegedly because a fanatical religious leader accused him of being a Baha’i and poisoning a well. Reza Shah used the episode to crack down on dissidents and impose strict controls on public gatherings.
Even though the overthrow of Mossadegh damaged Iranian trust in America, the years just prior to Iranian revolution in 1979 saw the number of Iranian students in the United States steadily rise.
Over one-third of the approximately 100,000 Iranian students pursuing university degrees abroad in 1977 were in the U.S. By the time of the Islamic revolution two years later, that number had climbed to 51,310, making Iran by far the biggest single source of foreign studentsin America, with 17 percent of the total foreign student population. The next-largest contributor of foreign students, Nigeria, accounted for only 6 percent.
“Iranian students have been here for nearly a century . . . there are deep and abiding connections that reveal themselves when you look at the historical record,” researcher Steven Ditto, who wrote a report on Iranian students in the U.S., told the Washington Post in 2017.
The legacy of American goodwill, personal friendship and doing the right thing by Iran has not been completely lost, although scenes of anti-American demonstrations against the Great Satan on the streets of Tehran – some organized by the government – may make it seem as though America’s good relationship with Iran has been lost irretrievably.
Deep friendships dating back well over a century can withstand a great deal. A reservoir of goodwill and affection may lie dormant while political storms rage. Iran and America were good friends in the past, and for good reason. I believe that Americans would do well to remember that.