Opinion: According to a report by the Washington Free Beacon, the Donald Trump administration has quietly released a previously-classified document detailing for the first time CIA involvement in the 1953 plot to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The Obama administration, the article notes, was intent on hiding the document, lest it trouble the Iranian government during negotiations over the Iran Nuclear Agreement in 2015.
The document’s release may go down as more historically interesting than politically devastating, but it does mark a certain point in evolving U.S.-Iranian relations.
The period surrounding Mossadegh’s removal from office holds great ramifications for modern Iran, which, it can be argued, derived much of the cri de coeur which led to the 1979 religious revolution from the role the U.S. and U.K. played in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadegh. Much has been made of the events that spiralled out of control after the 1953 coup d'état, dubbed Operation Ajax, and many scholars have tried to paint the event as a classic case against U.S. interference in the domestic politics of foreign states. They cast Mossadegh as a classical hero bearing the oil-dripping sword of Damocles against the fascist Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and his sinister American ally. It’s a Left-wing truism: America plays the short game, the argument goes, but in the long run creates more enemies than it vanquishes.
That’s a pretty fable, but it largely ignores the greater impact of Iran’s history and society on that country’s contemporary politics. It also misses the boat on relevant foreign affairs entirely, tending to downplay the role of the Soviet-backed communist Tudeh party in Iranian domestic affairs.
For one thing, a scholar would be hard-pressed to draw a straight line from the coup to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution 26 years later. Mossadegh was a secular reformist; his main religious ally in the Majlis, or Persian parliament, withdrew his support for Mossadegh when the prime minister sought to secularize Iran instead of turning it into an Islamic State.
Mossadegh was primarily a nationalist. His goals involved freeing his country from foreign yokes – a longstanding Persian desire and one the Eisenhower administration was deeply sympathetic to. For this reason, he continues to enjoy widespread popularity in Iran. It was Mossadegh’s attempt to liberate Iranian oil production from British imperialism that cost him his power; but it was his neglect of the geopolitical situation that all but guaranteed his fall. He succeeded in nationalizing the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (today’s British Petroleum Company) in order to fund his reforms program, but failed to import competent engineers to run the operation. As a result, oil production plummeted 96 percent, and with it, his money and popularity. Those who would regale the world with tales of the great democratic messiah of the 1950s should remember that Mossadegh suspended the 1951 election after his popularity dried up. They should also recall that it was the Shah who nevertheless reinstated Mossadegh’s government, until the prime minister used his emergency powers to confiscate Pahlavi land and organize anti-Shah demonstrations.
This should paint a picture of Iran prior to the 1953 coup.
It is easy to forget how dangerous communism was to the West in the 1950s. Leftists in Europe and America tend to downplay what they sneeringly call the “Red Scare,” accusing conservatives of seeking authoritarian power in the name of patriotism. We must not forget, however, the sense of communist ascendancy at play in the 1950s, and the very real threat it posed to our security. The Soviet Union was at its most aggressive stage, ready to devour whole countries. In Iran, the pro-Soviet Tudeh party had attempted to assassinate the nationalist, reformist, and pro-Western Shah in 1949. During the uprisings leading up to the coup, Tudeh agents infiltrated the Shah’s military and agitated mob riots – not because they supported Mossadegh, who was not a communist, but because maintaining his regime offered the USSR the best opportunity to dissolve all non-communist rivals in Iran. Mossadegh’s shortsighted, unofficial alliance with the Tudeh only further damned him in London and Washington.
In attempting to play a lethal game, Mossadegh miscalculated. He could not play off the outside powers seeking to control Tehran against each other, as had Persian monarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries. His position was too weak to stand against these powers, each of whom believed Iran was part of a zero-sum game to control the region and the world. In seeking a temporary alliance with the Soviets in order to buttress his power against the United States, he failed to grasp how quickly Soviet agents would liquidate his regime and replace it with a communist one. The U.S. and U.K. did not. Mossadegh tried to balance Iranian independence on the tightrope between two competing empires – one based in Moscow, the other in Washington – and he lost control.
In short, Mossadegh was a puppet tragically seeking the very liberty he could not hope to obtain. His ambition exceeded his country’s means, and he was too incompetent to see his agenda through. That is not to say the United States and Great Britain did not make serious errors in deposing the Iranian prime minister. Certainly the downfall of one of Iran’s most popular politicians proved a catalyst to an anti-Western, anti-foreign revolutionary 26 years later. But that revolutionary was a conservative, religious mullah; not a reformist, secularist politico.
It is lazy history to ascribe Iran’s complicated, savage, and deeply tragic revolution in 1979 to Anglo-American plotting or blunder. Rather, we Westerners should recall our youth, for these are forces far older than our own infant civilization. There is a woeful soul present in the very soil of the great Iranian plateau; one which recalls the sandaled feet of the conqueror Alexander himself. Across centuries of foreign slavery, that soul persisted in defiant near-death – and it came back to life in 1979.
Mohammad Mossadegh’s downfall should serve as a lesson in hubris to the West, lest our leaders and scholars believe they can cast ancient peoples in a mold of their own device. But it should also remind us of our place in the world, for we are still quite new, quite human, and desperately in need of a good history book.
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