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.