Iran and the resonance of the past

Sixty years ago this week, the elected government of Iran, headed by prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, was deposed in a military coup. Government of the country was returned to the shah, Reza Pahlavi, who governed in an increasingly authoritarian fashion until he was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by an Islamic theocracy that rules the country to this day.

The fundamental cause of Mosaddegh’s fall was the hostility of the British and American governments produced by his nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry two years earlier. A British embargo and subversive activity led to instability and ultimately a constitutional crisis, whereupon British and American intelligence agencies masterminded the coup.

Sixty years is a long time, but the events of 1953 are anything but ancient history in the Middle East. The coup continues to poison the relationship between Iran and the west – particularly the United States – and serves more generally as a warning to nations everywhere against putting too much faith in western professions of support for democracy.

Perhaps that’s not entirely fair; American policy is no longer quite what it was in the 1950s. But there has never been any reckoning for the coup; Barack Obama acknowledged US responsibility in his 2009 Cairo speech, but avoided an apology. And much more recent coup leaders have also enjoyed American support, notably those who tried to overthrow Hugo Chávez in 2002.

Now, to mark the anniversary, the CIA has released documents that confirm and elaborate on its role in overthrowing Mosaddegh. The National Security Archive (a private site, despite its name) has links to all the documents, with extensive commentary. It’s well worth reading.

In terms of its immediate aims, the 1953 coup was a great success: the oil industry nationalisation was reversed and Iran was kept safely in the western camp. A few hundred people were killed (Mosaddegh himself was not among them, but he spent the rest of his life in detention), but as coups go it proceeded fairly smoothly. In terms of its longer-term impacts, however, it was a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

Certainly Mosaddegh was no saint; he alienated many of his own supporters in Iran and his stubbornness on the nationalisation issue prevented the emergence of a possible compromise. But his rule was a huge improvement on anything that Iran has enjoyed since.

Now Iran has a new reformist leader in the shape of Hassan Rouhani, the surprising winner of June’s presidential election. He has to navigate rocky relationships on two fronts: with his own country’s clerical establishment, and with a hopeful but suspicious west. The 1953 coup is one of many things to cast a long shadow over the latter task.

None of us can escape the past. It is permanent, unchangeable; while it is gone, it is also still with us. Neither Iran nor the US can undo the sins of their shared history. The most they can do is try to come to terms with it.

Rouhani’s outreach to the west is one step forward on that score. The CIA’s very belated openness about 1953 may be another one.

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