Shervin Malekzadeh writes: The Salsabil neighbourhood of Tehran was still a middle-class enclave when the first coup against Mohammad Mossadegh failed in the summer of 1953. As news spread of the monarch’s escape, defiant residents poured out into the streets with cries of “Death to the Shah, death to the Shah!”.
Racing ahead of their neighbours and painting anti-Shah slogans on alley walls were two brothers, ages eight and ten, my father and uncle. Many years later in middle age my father remembered with awe how three days later the neighbourhood turned out again in response to the second, successful coup. The Shah was already on his way home from Rome as the residents of Salsibil chanted ‘Death to Mossadegh, death to Mossadegh!’.
Almost every family in Iran can tell a similar story. Together they constitute ghosts, the collective memory of loss and humiliation at the hands of others. The tragedy of Mossadegh, writes the historian Ali Ansari, is the narrative of fatalism it left in the national psyche, a history of being outmanoeuvred by stronger foes, always ending in betrayal. Children are taught the lessons of this history in clichés: never trust anyone outside the family, even your closest friends. We are all members of hezb-e ba’d (the ‘wind party’), blowing in the direction of the strong and away from the weak.
How countries remember their pasts, writes Jennifer Lind, a Dartmouth professor, conveys information about their future behavior. For America and Iran to move past the emerging détente to something resembling respect, if not friendship, it’s crucial that the US comes to terms with its own history in Iran, beginning with the coup d’état against Mossadegh. America does not need to forgive itself for what it did in 1953, though surely it must be forgiven: it needs to remember that Iranians did this to themselves in cooperation with the CIA.
More than any other event, perhaps even more than the seizure of the US embassy and hostage crisis in 1979-80, the overthrow of the Mossadegh government set the terms by which Washington frames and understands its relationship with Iran and its people, an official narrative of American culpability that, although well intentioned, renders ordinary Iranians irrelevant to any future reconciliation between the two countries.
Speaking to The New York Times last month, president Barack Obama acknowledged that the US “had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran” and so it ought not be surprising that Iranians “have their own security concerns, their own narrative”. Americans, he said, would do well to put themselves in Iran’s shoes.
The president’s comments were a version of the standard narrative used by progressive Americans to signal that they get it: they understand that in overthrowing the elected government of Mossadegh, the US planted the seeds of an anti-American backlash that produced the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the rise of radical Islam in the region. In his book All the Shah’s Men, Stephen Kinzer goes so far as to draw a direct line from the CIA’s actions “through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York”.
That the 1953 coup has become a type of shorthand for the unintended consequences of meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries demonstrates a growing sophistication on the part of US policymakers. But making the causal leap from coup to theocracy confuses a partial truth for the whole. The CIA played a necessary and critical role in orchestrating the coup, but its actions were successful only through the cooperation of thousands of Iranians, from street toughs and army generals to feckless clerics and ordinary citizens eager to prove their loyalty to whoever ended up the winner. [Continue reading…]