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60 Years of Middle-East Meddling

The whole Arab Spring movement has woken America up to the fact that we've been propping up some pretty brutal leaders for a long, long time. Which leads us to the uncomfortable position of not having a clear ideological position.
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Sixty years ago today, the democratically-elected government of Iran was overthrown by a coup d'état. This "revolution" was in fact paid for and created by America's Central Intelligence Agency. It installed the Shah of Iran, who would rule with his people clamped in an iron fist for over a quarter-century. The Shah, of course, was overthrown in 1979. The anniversary of the 1953 coup is remarkable this year not only because 60 years have passed, but because for the first time official CIA documents have been declassified which fully admit:

[T]he military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government. It was not an aggressively simplistic solution, clandestinely arrived at, but was instead an official admission [...redacted...] that normal, rational methods of international communication and commerce had failed.

There were two reasons the duly elected government of Iran was overthrown by the CIA. The first was cheap oil. The second was the Cold War. Both put the United States in the position of worshiping "stability" at all costs, not just in Iran but in the entire oil-rich Middle East region. This has led America into supporting dictators and thugs more than once, and in viewing the backlash today against tyrannical regimes across the region -- from Egypt to Libya to Syria to Iraq -- it bears remembering that meddling in the region even under the most noble of intentions sometimes leads to devastating consequences.

America didn't even really have a direct problem with Iran, back in the early 1950s. Britain did, however. When the newly-elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq entered office, his parliament immediately nationalized the oil industry. This meant kicking the Brits out, who had been there since oil was first extracted back in the 1900s and 1910s. In language that reeks of imperialism, the same recently-declassified CIA document explains the problem:

The target of this policy of desperation [i.e., the coup attempt], Mohammad Mosadeq, was neither a madman nor an emotional bundle of senility as he was so often pictured in the foreign press; however, he had become so committed to the ideals of nationalism that he did things that could not have conceivably helped his people even in the best and most altruistic of worlds. In refusing to bargain -- except on his own uncompromising terms -- with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, he was in fact defying the professional politicians of the British government. These leaders believed, with good reason, that cheap oil for Britain and high profits for the company were vital to their national interests. There had been little in their experience to make them respect Iranians, whom company managers and Foreign Office representatives saw as inefficient, corrupt, and self-serving.

You just have to love calling the Iranians as "corrupt, and self-serving" right after pointing out that British "professional politicians" all agreed ("with good reason") that "cheap oil for Britain and high profits for the company" were enough of a reason to justify overthrowing another country's government. Corrupt is arguable, but that certainly sounds pretty self-serving to me.

Of course, being in the depths of the Cold War in 1951-53, fears of a Soviet takeover were also used as justification for America and the CIA to get involved. America, at the time, was heavily involved in the Korean War, remember. The document spells out, in truly apocalyptic language (for context, such language was actually pretty common in such anti-commie times as the early 1950s) what would happen if the Soviets grabbed Iran's oil:

Then not only would Iran's oil have been irretrievably lost to the West, but the defense chain around the Soviet Union which was part of U.S. foreign policy would have been breached. The Soviets would have had the opportunity to achieve the ancient Russian dream of a port on the Persian Gulf and to drive a wedge between Turkey and India. Under such circumstances, the danger of a third world war seemed very real.

The dominoes, to put it another way, would fall. Which, again, justified a little covert CIA coup, which would magically fix the whole problem.

The CIA tried to put together their coup by a massive infusion of money -- to pay for propaganda, intimidation, bribing politicians, and roaming gangs of thugs to create an uproar in the streets of Tehran. Their first attempt was a spectacular failure. The general recruited to take over as prime minister saw his support evaporate, and had to hide out in a CIA safe house. The Shah was even more terrified at the idea of the coup, and had fled the country after signing documents which would effectively give him power over the country as a monarch. This led to an amusing footnote, as after fleeing to Baghdad, the Shah had his plane fly to Rome -- where, while checking in to his luxury hotel, he bumped into the vacationing Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. Whoops!

The CIA then made their own brand of lemonade from the spectacular failure of their coup attempt. They sent their paid thugs out into the streets to create rioting and mayhem. Except their message -- fed through the propaganda outlets they had purchased -- was that the Shah had fled due to a failed communist uprising. So the gangs were instructed to create as much damage and chaos as they could, while shouting pro-communist slogans. After a single day of this, even larger paid crowds were sent out to the streets, this time shouting anti-Mossadeq, pro-Shah messages.

Incredibly, this time it actually worked. The Shah of Iran was given complete power (once he returned from his Italian hideout). He then used it to create his own secret police ("SAVAK") to keep his people under firm control. The American military and CIA helped create and train this force.

Understanding all of this history is important, but the sad fact is that most Americans aren't even aware of what happened in Iran 60 years ago. It's certainly not a big part of the average American schoolchild's history book, that's for sure. But understanding the history -- especially now that it is being declassified -- is important for understanding how meddling in the Middle East can spectacularly backfire on America, as it did in the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 1979.

Part of the problem of today's Middle East is that the Cold War ended. Back then, things were simply divided along the East/West line. You were either for us, or you were a victim of "Soviet aggression" (a phrase from the declassified document which is used without any realization of the irony -- the threat of Soviet aggression being the justification for what was essentially American aggression). The lines were clearly drawn, and the choice was binary.

This led America into supporting some brutally tyrannic regimes. If brutal tyranny and an utter disregard of human rights (especially for women) were the prices to be paid for stability and a pro-American regime, then so be it. On the scale of freedom/tyranny, we've supported both lenient and incredibly harsh rulers, as long as they bought American military hardware and not Russian. One of the most repressive and Islamic governments in the entire world has, in fact, been one of our staunchest friends in the region -- even though women in Saudi Arabia aren't even allowed to drive. Hey, as long as the oil keeps flowing smoothly, we'll look the other way. Even traditional "right/left" political niceties were ignored -- America has supported right-wing dictators and left-wing dictators, as the situation demanded. We've even supported rulers only to later wage war against them, the most famous example being Saddam Hussein.

But with the Cold War's dichotomy fading (although Russia and America still vie for influence in the region), things become less obvious. The whole Arab Spring movement has woken America up to the fact that we've been propping up some pretty brutal leaders for a long, long time. Which leads us to the uncomfortable position of not having a clear ideological position. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are cohesively agreed on what should be done in places like Egypt and Syria these days. Continue propping up strongmen, in exchange for relative stability? Or promote democracy and freedom -- even if it leads to the "wrong people" being elected? Is the criteria for changing governments the largest crowd that can be raised in the streets, or will it come from the barrel of a gun?

The questions aren't easy. The answers are elusive, if they even exist. But what would help is if America actually took into consideration our own history in the region, warts and all. How can people understand the anti-American feelings in Iran, to use just this one example, when most of us aren't even aware that we overthrew their democratic government -- 60 years ago, today -- solely to give Britain cheap oil? History, to most Americans, is a dead subject of the dusty past, to be read about in books. History to much of the rest of the world is still unfolding at a frantic pace. There are people in Iran alive today who remember full well what happened 60 years ago. That's a different perspective than reading about some remote event in a textbook or declassified document, to put it mildly.

[Source Notes: The story of the declassified documents on the Iran coup were reported in Foreign Policy. At the end of the article is a three-page document which contains all the quotes used in my article, above, and is well worth reading in full. There is a trove of almost three dozen documents which were released under the Freedom Of Information Act available at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, if you'd really like to dig into the source material. The plot was hatched under the Truman administration, put into motion in the Eisenhower administration, and was led at the CIA by Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's grandson and F.D.R.'s cousin, making the whole affair about as bipartisan as you can get. Further details on the story of the coup can be found in Chapter 9 of the amazingly-well-researched book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tim Weiner]

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