1953 Revisited

I read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men years ago and, like many people, I enjoyed it. The book is often recommended because it reads like a spy novel. According to some, that might be its greatest fault, however, because it tells a great story but lacks the kind of depth and sources that satisfy academics. If you aren’t familiar (but somehow found your way to this blog), in the opening act of the Cold War, leaders in Washington and London feared that Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossedegh, was too weak to deny Soviet intrigue or would one day side with Moscow, thus giving the Soviets access to the Gulf and key oil assets.

Under Mossadegh, Iran nationalized the oil industry in 1951 and jettisoned British interests and colonial holdings, including the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA entered Iran with a daring mission two years later: initiate a coup that would end Mossadegh’s premiership, enhance the Shah’s power, and place Iran firmly in the pro-Western camp (see the Wiki entry for a decent overview). British and American agents relied mostly on money in order to agitate unrest in the country. They employed sympathetic Iranian military officers to depose the prime minister. Gangsters and thugs were hired to stir unrest in the streets.

The 1953 coup still poisons US-Iranian relations. The British, for their part, are still subject to anti-colonial diatribes and official sermons that lambaste them for being wicked conspirators. We saw the latest example of this in November last year, when Iranian-British relations imploded after London adopted new sanctions in the wake of an IAEA report earlier that month. Clerics attacked London for once again intervening in Iran’s affairs.

Years ago, when reading Kinzer, I couldn’t help but wonder: could it be this simple? Certainly outside forces played a major part in the 1953 coup but were they as competent, cunning, and decisive as some accounts suggest? Could money, concentrated in the hands of a few influential Iranians, explain why so many took to the streets in August 1953? Could the opinions of newspaper publishers, radio broadcasters, and average folk on the street be so easily manipulated without any grounding in legitimate grievances? A recent book review in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye because it tackled these questions.

On May 11, Sohrab Ahmari reviewed a new biography of Mossadegh, titled Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup and written by Christopher de Bellaigue, a veteran Tehran correspondent for the Economist. In his review, Ahmari criticized Kinzer’s account precisely because it gave so much credit to foreign agents. He argued instead that, while British and U.S. probably accelerated Mossadegh’s downfall, the prime minister alienated many, mismanaged the economy in the name of “principle,” and failed to represent vital constituencies, which combined to challenge his hold on power at the same time foreigners conspired against him.

I love a good contrarian argument so I thought I’d pass this along. Even if you don’t agree with his take it’s worth reading because it challenges both the conventional wisdom in the West and the state-approved narrative in Tehran.

Ahmari writes:

Eventually, the fragile national consensus that had characterized the early years of the shah’s reign fractured under Mossadegh’s obstinacy. Anti-Mossadegh rumblings began to reverberate through the bazaar and the seminaries.

Mossadegh responded by yielding to his “demagogic gene,” bullying the Majlis into granting him plenary powers for a six-month duration in 1952, then seeking a yearlong extension. “He accused anyone doubting him of lacking patriotism,” Mr. de Bellaigue writes. “He had arrogated to himself the authority to judge when and how the constitution should be applied.”

By the time the CIA and MI6 moved to depose him, the secularist Mossadegh had lost the support of leading Islamists, with whom he had likely colluded to assassinate a pro-concession predecessor. Meanwhile, having once used Mossadegh’s movement as a moral sword to advance Soviet interests, the Tudeh Party now sought to displace him as Iran’s true secular opposition.

Finally, Mossadegh’s unwillingness to compromise with the court had cost him the shah’s backing. Mossadegh had dissolved the Senate, canceled elections, and was governing by decree. Increasingly, the premier thought of himself as indispensable, and, Mr. de Bellaigue notes, “there is no reason to assume that this sense would have diminished had he not been toppled.”

The review closes with this paragraph:

The dispute [about who is most responsible for Mossadegh’s demise] may never be settled. Yet the preponderance of evidence gathered in Mr. de Bellaigue’s own book makes one thing clear: The balance of social forces had turned against Mossadegh well before any coup. It’s unfortunate, then, that Mr. de Bellaigue succumbs to some of the same Kinzerian clichés, concluding his text with trite ruminations about the “progressive” and “democratic” Iran that could have been had the West allowed Mossadegh to remain in power. In fact, if there is a lesson to be drawn from this otherwise compelling biography, it is that to find freedom, Iranians must begin taking credit for having authored their own tragedy.

Perhaps an aside is in order. I have my doubts about American power. It’s probably a consequence of growing up in the post-9/11 era–a period defined by huge investments and modest returns–but I believe we often overstate America’s influence, whether we’re talking about the Cold War, the unipolar moment that immediately followed it, or today’s multipolar world. And so Kinzer’s account struck me as curious because it suggested the U.S. could do so much with so little, even if the plan didn’t go perfectly. (The Shah actually fled Iran in the early hours of the plot because he thought it had failed. He was later surprised  in a European hotel by reporters who told him Mossadegh had been ousted.)

The question of “Who lost China?” has always struck me as bizarre. We saw that question echo last year when long-time American allies faced popular uprisings in the Middle East. Some asked, “Who lost Egypt?” as if Washington could have forestalled the will of millions. Iran in 1953 and Egypt in 2011 are not appropriate comparisons. But American politicians are the first to suggest the U.S. can do more. Look no further than the 2009 protests which shook the Islamic Republic. Even now, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney insists that Obama should have done more to help the Green Movement. The question is: How much more? The U.S. did “more” in 1953 but historians are still debating the impact and value of bold intervention.

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