One of the problems with Americans (and a boon to American governments intent on international mayhem) has always been our people’s total lack of historical memory. Thus, in the current climate of blaming everything going wrong in the Middle East on the "interference" of Iran; or the equally phony accusations that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons; or the fallback accusation—that leaving Iraq now would pave the way for Iran to "take over" the southern half of Iraq; in this climate, Americans who remember anything remember only the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. They remember the humiliation that Iran imposed on the United States, its citizens paraded helpless before the world, its government helpless to rescue them. It is that memory that predisposes Americans to simply nod in agreement when any wild accusation is trotted out, for who could doubt that a nation controlled by fanatic "mullahs" would commit nefarious acts?
History, however, tells a different story. Iranian history, as recounted by Stephen Kinzer in his recent book Overthrow, points out that Iran in 1951 was a nation led by a democratically-elected and western-educated leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, who, as a fervent nationalist, aimed to bring his nation into the modern world. He would do this in the most open way—by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, which had been controlled for years by British Petroleum. Accordingly, in Spring 1951, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize its oil industry, even agreeing to compensate the British for the money they had spent constructing the oil infrastructure. But though the British had nationalized their own coal and steel industries, they considered a similar movement by a client state to be beyond the pale. It was a "breach of contractual obligations" which the former empire would do all in its power to prevent.
The first thing done, of course, was to assassinate the character of Mossadegh as "wild," "fanatical," and "gangster-like." The second was to enlist the aid of their American friends, now led by a new President, Dwight Eisenhower, with a new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. As Kinzer points out (p. 215), Dulles had a very firm view of the world and how it should be: "For us, there are two sorts of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others." Clearly, Mossadegh and Iran were "others." Kinzer provides chapter and verse of how Dulles and the CIA (headed by his brother, Allen) set about reversing the course set for Iran by Mossadegh. It was one of the most vicious, blatant and ultimately far-reaching examples of American imperial control of foreign nations on record, including the "blowback" effects we are still living with.
What the CIA under Kermit Roosevelt did was to set out to undermine and sabotage a legitimately-elected government, using every means at its disposal. First, they had to come up with a better reason to overthrow Mossadegh than nationalizing his own oil; they found it easily—he was "leading Iran toward Communism." For the US to overthrow him, therefore, was to stop the spread of Communism. Then the CIA set about the process of undermining Mossadegh’s government. As Kinzer puts it,
"Under their plan, the Americans would spend $150,000 to bribe journalists, editors, Islamic preachers, and other opinion leaders to ‘create, extend and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh and his government.’ Then they would hire thugs to carry out ‘staged attacks’ on religious figures and other respected Iranians, making it seem that Mossadegh had ordered them…The plan budgeted another $11,000 per week, a great sum at that time, to bribe members of the Iranian parliament. On ‘coup day’ thousands of paid demonstrators would converge on parliament to demand that it dismiss Mossadegh….If Mossadegh resisted, military units loyal to General Zahedi (also in the pay of the CIA) would arrest him." (p. 123)
Of course, not all went exactly according to plan. Mossadegh discovered the plan and the bribes in parliament. He called a national referendum on a plan to dissolve parliament, and won. But the CIA and Kermit Roosevelt persisted. First they got the Shah of Iran to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh, appointing General Zahedi as the new prime minister. But this plan, too, aborted when Mossadegh learned of the coup plot. When the shah heard this, he fled to Rome. Still, Kermit Roosevelt persisted in one last attempt. He muscled his Iranian agents into activating their plan to create chaos in Tehran. Gangs of paid thugs ran through the streets breaking windows, firing guns, beating strangers and shouting "Long live Mossadegh and Communism!" (p. 127.) Other thugs attacked the first ones, creating the image of civil war. Mossadegh refused to engage in street violence and sent his police simply to maintain order. Since many of his police were also in the pay of the CIA, the violence continued, and on August 19, Roosevelt sent thousands of demonstrators on a rampage, seizing Radio Tehran and setting fires. Bribed units of the army and police joined the mayhem, attacking government offices. Then, under Roosevelt’s guidance, General Zahedi drove to Radio Tehran and announced himself as the lawful prime minister under orders from the shah.
All that remained was to arrest Mohammad Mossadegh. Army tanks fired upon his house, his defenders fled, and he was arrested. Gen. Zahedi became prime minister, and the shah, still cowering in Rome, was persuaded to return and reclaim his peacock throne. The shah then tried Mossadegh for treason, imprisoned him for three years, and condemned him to permanent house arrest. He died in 1967 at the age of 85. The shah, meantime, became a staunch U.S. ally, protected for 30 years by a vicious, Mossad-trained secret police agency known as Savak.
All this was not without consequences. As Kinzer points out, "the role of the United States in overthrowing Mossadegh and its long, uncritical embrace of the shah" led not just to unprecedented anti-Americanism in the Middle East, but eventually to the Iranian revolution, the rule of the ayatollahs, and most of our current problems. One of Kinzer’s sources (Mostafa Zahrani, World Policy Journal, Summer 2002) puts it succinctly:
"…when the Shah finally departed in 1979, many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953, which was one of the motivations for the student seizure of the US embassy. The hostage crisis, in turn, precipitated the Iraqi invasion of Iran, while the [Islamic] revolution itself played a part in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan. A lot of history, in short, flowed from a single week in Tehran..."
The chain of consequences can be continued almost indefinitely, especially in Iraq—where the U.S., to counter Iran, supported Saddam Hussein—and in Afghanistan, where the U.S., to entrap the Soviets in "their Vietnam," supported the mujahedeen fighters and one of their rising leaders, Osama bin Laden.
Now, when we hear United States policy makers on all sides insisting that Iran is the chief villain in the Middle East, perhaps we can see our own reflection. Perhaps we can even remind ourselves that if democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh had been allowed to maintain the legitimate changes he had instituted more than 50 years ago, we wouldn’t be watching the same, and now more calamitous scenario, play out yet again.