New Light on the CIA Coup in Iran on its 60th Anniversary: Why “Argo” Needs a Prequel (Sternfeld)

Lior Sternfeld writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

2013 marks the sixtieth anniversary to the most atrocious intervention of the US in the Middle East. On August 19, 1953 the CIA conspired with the British MI6 to overthrow the popular and democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, and to impose instead a brutal dictatorship led by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the past decade this story received great scholarly attention. Myriad of books and articles were published depicting and analyzing almost any possible aspect of the story (yet, there is much more to do in that subject); from internal political rivalries in Iran to global Cold War considerations, from personal relationships of the protagonists to relations between the rapidly sinking empire to the emerging one.

Recently, two new books dealing with Mosaddeq’s crisis came out and returned to the very foundations of the story, instead of focusing on yet another narrow angle deliberately zoomed out to see and show the greater picture. Their contribution to the understanding and perception of the going-ons in 1953 in Iran is invaluable. The first book is the newest biography of Mosaddeq: “Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup,” by Christopher De Bellaigue, and the second is: “The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations,” by Ervnad Abrahamian.

“Patriot of Persia” provides a comprehensive account of Mosaddeq, not only as the statesman that came to prominence in the late 1940s, but also his family background, his personal desires, tragedies, and how the national and private were so intertwined. It could not have been otherwise. He was born to a royal family; his mother was the shah’s cousin, and his father a high-ranking bureaucrat in the nineteenth century Iran. He got married into the royal family, thus strengthening the already firm connection to the country’s leadership. The contribution of this book to the scholarship of 1953 comes in the excellent presentation of Mosaddeq’s staunch belief that the West, namely the US, would not desert Iran. That he viewed Britain as a model for Constitutional Monarchy, and that he was dismayed by communism. Why is it important? Because previous scholarship, that was written not necessarily from a criticizing point of view was drawn to problematic reading of the events, based on existing, yet tricky, sources. Reading the reports in the British National Archive, one may think that at some point the Britons started believing the lies they told: that Mosaddeq was secretly communist waiting to dissolve the monarchy and establish a socialist republic. Christopher De Belllaigue eloquently shows that Mosaddeq would have approved none of the abovementioned ideas. He was loyal monarchist. He believed in the role of the monarchy in the Iranian culture. At the same time he rebuked communism, as vehemently as possible. He had, of course, relations with the Communist Tudeh Party, and joined them to his coalition, but so he did with the right-wing nationalist, Ayatollah Kashani.

Abrahamian’s “The Coup” challenges the common perception of the role the US had in this crisis. While it was widely believed that the US tried to stay out, or at least serve as an honest broker, Abrahamian shows that even during Truman’s administration the American oil companies, the popular media, and policy makers adamantly opposed the nationalization act, albeit agreed to pay lip service for a while. So far, Truman was viewed as the good fellow in the West. The one that stopped the evil British Empire from exercising its old-school imperialism, and only after Eisenhower administration was in place, did Britain succeed in dragging the US to this venture.

How is it all related to Ben Affleck? Well, although “Argo” was highly problematic for many reasons, it still had a ray of light. In the very first scenes of the movie the story of Operation AJAX is being told briefly. It may not be much, but it is more that I can recall any movie before attempted to do. It leads one to think that Affleck tried to provide a better-nuanced narrative, at least in the beginning of it.

But the big historical correction awaits another movie, about the 1953 coup itself. That film will be dark, and, in the classical sense, a tragedy. It won’t be able to present the West in a positive light without a profound historical distortion. It may also provide the American people, and people in the Western hemisphere in general, some important information on the role their countries had in the shaping of modern Iran, and by extension, the modern Middle East.

——-
Lior Sternfeld is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas, Austin.

16 Responses

  1. Are you saying Iran was a democracy?? Mossadegh was appointed by the Shah twice. And he was a staunch Constitutional monarchist.

    Nothing is new on this piece of self-hating distortion. What I don’t get is why the US scholars keep repeating the same distortion over and over?? The Shah is overthrown and dead…why the distortion??? why so much guilt over a distortion of history?

    link to thedailybeast.com

    • Have you even bothered reading the article? The author clearly states that Mossadegh “viewed Britain as a model for Constitutional Monarchy, and that he was dismayed by communism.” Self-hating distortion? The author is neither Eisenhower not Churchill, so he is not being “self-hating” in his denunciation of a U.S./U.K. crime.

  2. Your own words are proof that the US coup was based on a lie, that Mossadegh was a Soviet agent. Communism was the justification for our role in killing over a million Vietnamese, and for the killing of 600,000 ethnic Chinese by the US-backed Suharto regime, and the killing of 400,000 Indians by the US-backed government of Guatemala. So this is not an isolated incident. Now there are new lies about Iran being manufactured to justify what might well have to be a nuclear first-strike.

  3. And furthermore, Sedona, it was only 27 years between the coup and the hostage-taking. It’s been 34 years since the hostage-taking and today. Yet when you say the coup should be left in the past, you imply the Iranians of 1980 should have just forgiven that essential usurpation of their sovereignity, but we Americans are still justified in being mad about the hostage-taking.

  4. US policy makers and political elites are familiar with the outlines of the 1953 Coup. The goal of progressives should be to inform the US public of the following:
    1. The US and UK organized the overthrow of an elected Iranian prime minister because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry (i.e. he acted independently).
    2. The result of the coup was autocratic rule by the Shah and close US-Iran ties (because the Shah served US interests).
    3. The Shah’s brutal rule led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
    4. The US is not even against Islamic dictatorships (Saudi Arabia); it is against independent rule in general (post-1979 Iran, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.).

    Thomas Carothers, who was “director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment” published a book “reviewing the record of democracy promotion by the United States since the end of the Cold War. He finds ‘a strong line of continuity’ running through all administrations, including Bush II: democracy is promoted by the U.S. government if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests.” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

  5. The fact is that the Mullahs were much more heavily involved in the coup than the CIA or even the British. I know you don’t like facts but the reality is that the Mullahs 100% supported the coup as they preferred the Shah than Mossadeq. Therefore your whole false premise goes up in smoke. :)

    link to washingtonpost.com

      • Yes, as Prof. Juan Cole mentions, the clerics were divided and Ayatollah Kashani was in the Mossadeghi camp. But Kashani betrayed Mossadegh right at the time his support was much needed. Kashani’s betrayal of Mossadegh played a critical role in the success of the coup. Ayatollah Khomeini too hated Mossadegh and under his rule, he did not allow even a street be named after Mossadegh. Despite people’s attempt to re-name Pahlavi St. as Mossadegh St., Khomeini re-named it Valiasr (Imam Zaman). Most scholars have paid little attention to the negative role of the internal factors (clerics, Tudeh Party, and even some among nationalists supporters of Mossadegh) in the success of the CIA-M16 Coup as it is easier to blame everything on the foreign interventions.

    • Sassan:

      Your facts are vastly in contrast to history which maintains accounts of past events as they happened.

      Further;

      Anyone else after being rebuked and debunked and receiving such a humiliation in, link to walt.foreignpolicy.com,

      Would have run as fast as he could to find the nearest cesspool to take a dive in and never again to resurface.

      I admire your resiliency but definitely not your barren and demented mind.

      Faramarz Fathi

  6. No, what is decidedly NOT needed is non-Iranians rehashing Iran’s history.

    The sequel to Argo must be written and produced by Iranian filmmakers. It should take as its subject the revolution that was the birth point of the United States. And it should kidnap that neonate and frustrate its development for 50 years, tracing what the United States would have looked like if what had been done unto Iran had been done to America.

    What would the USA look like today if the American revolution had been hijacked?

    • In full agreement that the History of Mossadegh/Iran should be written by an unbiased Iranian who does not belong to Ghajar clan or Toodeh party. Mossadegh was a ghajar aristocrat…

      50 years. Iran’s was not paradise when the Pahlavi dynasty took over. Far from it. The pahlavi dynasty started on the ruins of Ghajar dynasty which Mossadagh was a part of.

      You need to go much further than Iran of 18th century and Ghajar should be part of any objective assessment of Mossadegh and the environment in which he rose to power…

  7. Ayatollah Kashani was certainly not in the Mossadeq camp at the end. Towards the end of the last Mossadeq cabinet, which saw Fatemi pushing liberalization policies the clerics opposed, he had a falling out with the National Front and Mossadeq. In fact it was he and his supporters who tipped the balance in favor of the royalists in August 1953.

  8. What should also be told to the American public is the complicity of US to facilitate the revolution of 1979.

    A century of war by William Engdhal.

  9. If Mossadegh was alive today, he would be arrested and executed the next day at Evin prison.

  10. The Shia Clergies have been vying for power over the last 1500 years. The first 1000 year, Iran was a Sunni nation.

    Listen to this aytollah: He says “After 1500 Years We took their Weapons, Land, and Baitol mal..” and if we give up our firmness, they will demolish us”.

    After 1500 Years We took their Weapons, Land, and Baitol mal..

    link to iranian.com

    Shah and Sheikh : The coming class wars:

    link to iranian.com

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