Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency’s first major coup d’etat abroad. In August of 1953, agents ousted Iran’s then-democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. At that the time, Iran was a secular monarchy that had been under the thumb of foreign powers for centuries, taken there mostly by feckless ruling dynasties more concerned with their personal wealth than the country’s long-term interests. Mossadegh ran for election by promising to do away with the power imbalances that were crippling Iran’s economy and depriving its poor of the proceeds of its natural resources.
After his election, he moved to carry through on the promise and buck the British influence over his country — albeit not the equally disruptive Russian presence — by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor to today’s British Petroleum. By taking the “Anglo” out of AIOC, Mossadegh would have undone the extremely generous terms of the 1901 oil concession in which the Iranian government was entitled to just 16 percent of oil profits.
United Kingdom officials convinced Dwight D. Eisenhower, then president of the United States, to authorize a Central Intelligence Agency mission to overthrow Mossadegh. Through bribery, an aggressive propaganda campaign and eventually a chaotic mob led by Soviet-made tanks, the nationalist prime minister was driven from his office and his home.
The fallout hasn’t been pretty. The shah’s return to absolute rule, backed by American weapons and dollars, eventually engendered the uprisings that took him from power once more and put in his place the authoritarian theocracy that governs the Islamic Republic of Iran today.
“It is an object lesson in the long-term effects of intervention,” Stephen Kinzer, who wrote a definitive account of the coup and its historical context in All the Shah’s Men, told Doublethink.
There are ancillary effects from the events of 1953 through 1979 in Iran, as well. Since then, Mossadegh has become an unquestioned hero for many Iranians — in part because no one knows what else he might have done as prime minister. Not having served a full term, he is judged more by fantasy than history. For instance, Mossadegh canceled scheduled elections in 1952 when he got wind of a foreign-sponsored coup attempt. It was a wholly undemocratic move on its face, but it’s possible that he did it for very democratic reasons, such as protecting his fairly-won office against unfair competition that he knew did not have Iran’s best interests in mind. His subsequent actions as prime minister during a full-length term might have provided more evidence as to the depth and weight of his dedication to democratic principles, but as it stands we’re left largely in the realm of speculation.
Though Mossadegh likely would have been an imperfect champion of liberty, most Iranians believe he demonstrated a genuine selflessness in attempting to free his country’s economy from foreign manipulation. As a result, they regard Mossadegh as a martyr, and themselves the same by extension.
There are valid reasons to think, as Kinzer does, that Iran would be a happier place today if its progression toward representative government had not been interrupted, but focusing on the truncated tenure of a prime minister — something that can’t be changed now — rather than looking for opportunities to grow today is clearly a waste of time.
Indeed, it would be as bad to worship Mossadegh as it would be to vilify the CIA, however tempting. Both attitudes are equally counterproductive; much better, instead, to stick to the facts. But unfortunately, the facts here are that one state violated another’s sovereignty 60 years ago, and neither has recovered from the transgression since. Recently, unlike other heads of state around the world, President Obama was not invited to Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony, to take place this weekend. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives may vote on yet more sanctions against Iran this week, before Rouhani has taken even one action as president.
Without diplomatic relations between the countries, there is scant means by which to resolve their differences. Mossadegh’s story is only a portion of the trouble between Iran and the United States, but because of its legacy, it is a glaring one.
Julie Ershadi is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire