It is impossible to explain the present policy of the Obama administration toward Iran without an understanding of how a large part of the American foreign policy establishment actually believes that America shares the blame for the deterioration of relations between the two countries since 1979, when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown and the Islamic Republic was founded. The key historical event that adherents to this school of thought repeatedly stress is the alleged role of the CIA in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Resurrecting the story of what the U.S. supposedly did in Iran in 1953, levels the moral playing field for Tehran. When Americans charge Iran with supporting terrorism or intervening in the affairs of its neighbors, Tehran can respond by saying that the U.S. is no better considering what it did in Iran back in 1953. The problem begins when some U.S. policymakers behave as though the Iranians have a point.
Last summer, one of the U.S.’s foremost Iran scholars, Ray Takeyh, defied the conventional wisdom by asserting in the quarterly Foreign Affairs that the idea that it was the CIA that overthrew Mosaddegh was a complete myth promoted by certain circles within the U.S. Takeyh, who served in the Obama administration under Dennis Ross, was extremely brave to take such a position. He writes that this notion has become not only a widely held belief, but it has also entered popular American culture as evidenced by the movie “Argo,” starring and directed by Ben Affleck, which won the Academy Award for the Best Picture in 2013. The movie suggested that the violence of the Islamic Revolution was a response to the what the U.S. did to Iran twenty-five years earlier.
Takeyh does not deny that Western powers sought to get rid of Mosaddegh because of efforts to nationalize Iranian oil, which had been owned by Western oil companies. But he also shows that the British and American plots against the Iranian prime minister were ineffective, and ultimately failed. What really led to the fall of Mosaddegh were the widespread demonstrations on the streets against him by Iranian civilians that both the clerics and the military joined. Iran could not export its oil and its economy deteriorated sharply. The Iranian public was weary of the confrontation with the West and did not like Mosaddegh’s refusal to compromise.
The Eisenhower administration appeared to have been surprised by the fall of Mosaddegh, according to Takeyh, because it was hardly in control of events on the ground. Considering the rage in the Iranian street at the time, Mosaddegh would probably have fallen from power without American or British meddling. Apparently, what helped spread the idea that America was pulling the strings behind the fall of Mosaddegh were the memoirs of Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who in 1953 worked for the CIA in Iran and inflated his own role in the Mosaddegh epic.
Despite these facts, the myth persisted nonetheless that it was the West that overthrew Mosaddegh and brought back the Shah from exile. The Iranians seized upon this version of history because they could use the Western guilt over the fall of Mosaddegh as a negotiating tool to extract concessions from the U.S. “in situations that have nothing to do with 1953 … such as the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.” Indeed, the Iranians have been known to charge Western negotiators with trying to take control of Iran’s natural resources; the discussion today may be about Iranian uranium mines, but the clear reference is to the struggle over Iranian oil sixty years ago.
Takeyh writes that the theory of “American culpability has become so entrenched … that it influences how American leaders think about Iran.” The best proof of this has been the fact that American leaders keep apologizing for the overthrow of Mosaddegh despite all the years that have passed. Thus on March 17, 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared in a speech in Washington: “In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh.” She quoted then-President Bill Clinton as saying that the United States must bear “its fair share of responsibility” for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Did Albright’s speech change anything in Tehran? Was the overthrow of Mosaddegh the single cause of all U.S.-Iranain problems so that an apology would get Iran alter its behavior in the Middle East? Robert Baer, who was involved in CIA operations across the Middle East, checked the impact of what Albright said: “It landed in Tehran with not so much as a ripple.” Baer wrote that Albright “could have been reading her grocery list for all the Iranians cared.” Baer, who spoke with Iranians who came out of the religious and military elites, was convinced that the Mosaddegh coup of 1953 no longer mattered, but it was useful for making some American officials defensive about their policy to Iran.
In the Cairo speech he gave on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama also sought to take responsibility for the overthrow of Mosaddegh. He declared: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” To his credit, Obama did not issue an apology, but his admission of an American role in the events of 1953 did place the U.S. in a position of somehow owing something to Iran. For Takyeh, adopting this narrative made Washington into a “sinner” seeking to atone for its previous acts.
In order to fully understand the present American approach to Iran, it is a mistake to personalize the U.S. policy as the thinking of Obama alone. There has been a whole school of thought in Washington that firmly believed that the U.S. was the main source of Middle Eastern tensions and not Iran. The fall of Mosaddegh was only one incident to which this group refers. It believes, for example, that Iran sought a rapprochement with the U.S. after 9/11 but was rebuffed. It also believes that in 2003, Iran was prepared for a “grand bargain” with the U.S. but could not persuade the Washington elite of the sincerity of its outreach. In both cases, Tehran’s hints that it sought a modus vivendi with the West were used to hide its true regional ambitions.
Thus the Iran issue is not just about centrifuges and inspections. It involves much broader questions that need to be answered about the real sources of Iranian behavior: are they a reaction to Western provocations or a product of an expansionist ideology of the Iranian leadership? Ultimately, the Iranian question is part of a deeper debate about historical truth that has been simmering below the surface in Washington for more than a decade but now is having a decisive impact on the most important issue on the global agenda today: the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.