In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama declared that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Obama clearly intended to convey that the United States shares some of the blame for its longstanding dispute with the current regime.
In conceding wrongdoing in connection with the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the restoration of the Shah, Obama was stating the conventional view of what happened in 1953. In fact, Bill Clinton had already apologized to the mullahs for the overthrow.
The conventional view also has the imprimatur of Hollywood. The introduction of the hit movie Argo suggests that Iran’s 1979 Revolution was a belated response to the unjust overthrow 26 years earlier. (Scott and I have criticized that introduction.)
And last year, it was reported that the CIA had finally admitted its primary role in overthrowing Mosaddeq. As best I can determine, all the CIA actually did was release old documents in which Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (grandson of TR) boasts about the CIA’s alleged role. The conventional account was reinforced nonetheless.
But Ray Takeyh of the Council of Foreign Affairs, an Iranian-American and a liberal, has powerfully attacked the conventional view of U.S. responsibility for the overthrow of Mosaddeq. Takeyh attacks it most recently in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. Previously, he had made his case in the Weekly Standard.
Takeyh argues that Mosaddeq was destined to fall due to the internal opposition produced by the British response to his oil nationalization policy, and that the U.S. played an inconsequential role in his demise. He makes the following points:
1. Mosaddeq, a popularly elected leader, antagonized the British by taking over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, whose majority shareholder was the British government.
2. Great Britain responded by, among other measures, discouraging European countries from buying Iran’s oil and interdicting Iranian ships that carried oil for export.
3. The U.S., under President Truman, tried to mediate the dispute and work out a compromise.
4. Mosaddeq wasn’t interested in compromising.
5. Britain’s retaliatory measures dealt a huge blow to the Iranian oil industry, and to Iran’s economy generally.
6. As a result, Mosaddeq became unpopular in Iran.
7. Among those who turned against him were the mullahs — the predecessors of those who excoriate the U.S. for alleging toppling Mosaddeq and restoring the Shah.
8. The Shah, fed up with Mosaddeq, announced he was leaving the country due to unspecified medical concerns.
9. Mass demonstrations broke out imploring the Shah to stay. (There is, according to Takeyh, no evidence that the CIA was behind these demonstrations).
10. Mosaddeq responded by dissolving the Iranian legislature and holding a national referendum on this action.
11. The election was rigged, as evidenced by the fact that 99 percent of vote went Mosaddeq’s way.
12. The U.S. government, now led by President Eisenhower, urged Mosaddeq to settle his dispute with Great Britian, but also began considering a British plan to further undermine Mosaddeq.
13. The CIA participated with Britain’s M16 in this plan which included paying journalists to write stories critical of the prime minister, charging that he was corrupt and power hungry, and alleging that he was of Jewish descent.
14. With U.S. encouragement, the Shah signed a royal decree dismissing Mosaddeq and appointing General Fazlollah Zahedi as the new prime minister.
15. The Shah sent an emissary to deliver the decree to Mosaddeq, who refused to accept it and promptly arrested the emissary.
16. The Eisenhower administration did not pursue the matter further. Indications are that it was prepared to change direction and “snuggle up” to Mosaddeq (in the words of Bedell Smith, a high level State Department official and the president’s close confidant).
17. General Zahedi, however, did not give up. He published the Shah’s decree.
18. This led to major demonstrations against Mosaddeq throughout the country.
19. The U.S. did not take these demonstrations seriously. The U.S. ambassador cabled Washington to say they would probably prove insignificant.
20. Mosaddeq commanded the military to restore order, but instead many soldiers joined in the demonstrations.
21. The army chief of staff told Mosaddeq he had lost control of many of his troops and of the capital city.
22. Mosaddeq went into hiding, but later turned himself in.
23. The Shah was restored.
If this scenario is accurate, the United States was a bit player in the overthrow of Mosaddeq. The prime minister authored his demise and the Iranians carried it out.
The U.S. did nothing that rose to the level of requiring an apology, much less an apology to brutal theocrats whose predecessors supported the overthrow of Mosaddeq.
Even under the popular version of the events of 1953, it would have been disgraceful for President Obama to come “hat in hand” to the mullahs out of guilt over Mosaddeq’s ouster. If Takeyh’s version is correct, it is doubly disgraceful for Obama to do so.
Not surprisingly, there has been push back against Takeyh’s inconvenient (from a leftist point of view) version. I find the push back less than persuasive, but I’m not an expert.
I will say, though, that the conventional version seems to rest largely on the self-aggrandizing account of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. As Takeyh shows, that account seems inconsistent with the contemporaneous statements of the U.S. ambassador to Iran and the CIA’s acting director.
As Washington and Tehran struggle to end their protracted enmity, it would help greatly if the United States no longer felt the need to keep implicitly apologizing for its role in Mosaddeq’s ouster.
As for the Islamic Republic, at a moment when it is dealing with internal divisions and uncertainties about its future, it would likewise help for it to abandon its outdated notions of victimhood and domination by foreigners and acknowledge that it was Iranians themselves who were the principal protagonists in one of the most important turning points in their country’s history.