Written by Darius Wainwright
The United States is the ‘Great Satan’. Iranian government officials have uttered this remark on numerous occasions since the 1979 Revolution, where the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic Republic. Since the Revolution there have been a series of unsavoury incidents involving the US and Iran. November 1979 saw figures close to the Ayatollah storm the American Embassy in Tehran and take 52 hostages. In 2004, relations between both countries deteriorated further when the Middle Eastern country defied international demands to halt its nuclear programme.
At the same time, however, it is important not to see such remarks as a cornerstone of Iran-US relations. In fact, policymakers from both countries place great importance on bilateral ties. In April 2015, Iran pledged to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. While both sides still disagreed on the existence and nature of this nuclear programme, they realised they needed to unite together in the fight against Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East.
US-Iran collaboration is nothing new. During the 1950s, American policymakers placed considerable geopolitical importance on ties with the Middle Eastern country. Vehemently opposed to communism, the Shah was a crucial buffer against growing Soviet involvement in the region. Moreover, as it was not an Arab country, it was unlikely that the anti-western ideals of Arab Nationalism would manifest themselves in Iranian politics. In 1952, the prominent Arab Nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected Egyptian Prime Minister, rising to President in 1956. In 1954, the Syrian electorate also opted for an Arab Nationalist government.
However, events within Iran appeared to damage popular Iranian perceptions of the US. In April 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected as the Iranian prime minister. His first act in the role was to nationalise Iran’s oil industry. The failure to resolve this dispute by August 1953 led to the CIA and MI6 instigating a coup against the Iranian premier. They paid supporters of the Shah to demonstrate against the Iranian premier, eventually resulting in his removal. US involvement here angered many Iranians. Many were now suspicious of the US, deeming the country an imperialist power.
Officials in the White House and State Department became increasingly concerned about these negative perceptions of the United States in Iran. They feared that many Iranians would turn towards Soviet-inspired communism, de-stabilising the Shah’s pro-western regime. With this in mind, US policymakers advocated the greater use of cultural diplomacy in Iran. By promoting American lifestyles, cultures and values to Iranians, US officials hoped to create a more positive perception of the United States in Iran. To engage with the Iranian public, US policymakers employed diplomacy from the ‘bottom-up’.
Key to this were two organisations operating in Iran that were affiliated to the State Department, the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Iran-America Society. The former assisted with the promotion and the dubbing into Farsi of Hollywood films that extolled the virtues of the American way of life. Cowboy and western movies proved particularly popular with viewers in Iran. Many of these productions had strong male leads that played up to popular Iranian perceptions of masculinity. The Iran-America Society, on the other hand, focused particularly on the educating of Iranians. Courses were offered on American English to those wishing to learn the language. At the same time, the organisation used its contacts in the State Department to invite leading professors from Ivy League universities to conferences and lectures in Iran. Not only would those academics talk about their research, but also discuss the benefits of studying in the US.
The promotion of American culture and values in Iran to achieve wider foreign policy goals can be attributed to the Eisenhower administration’s enthusiasm for cultural diplomacy. During his command of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, Eisenhower came to see its merits. Cultural diplomacy was cheaper than tanks and guns, and was less costly in terms of lives. After achieving office, Eisenhower immediately established the Jackson Committee. Its initial reports called for an organisation under the auspices of the US State Department to oversee all American cultural and propaganda campaigns. By August 1953, the USIA was established. Moreover, the Eisenhower presidency dovetailed with a period in which technological developments had made information and media more accessible and where audiences at home and abroad had become more politically aware and active. It was with these changes in mind that US policymakers started to take a greater interest in influencing and shaping popular perceptions of America overseas.
US cultural diplomacy in Iran doubtless yielded results. According to the annual reports of British Council officials in the Middle Eastern country, many middle and upper class Iranians displayed more pro-US tendencies. They were not only more supportive of the American approach towards the Middle East, but they had also embraced American cars, fashions and white household goods. The impact of US cultural diplomacy was so profound that, by 1958, the US had become the dominant western cultural power in Iran. In doing so, it had overtaken Britain, who had enjoyed considerable cultural and political influence over Iran’s affairs since the 1790s.
Darius Wainwright is a graduate of the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations. In 2014, he enrolled in the Department of History at the University of Reading to pursue postgraduate study. His MA dissertation analysed British foreign policy towards Iran in the 1970s. He tweets @HistoryDarius. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons