Rewriting History So We Can Repeat It

It's been said that the Middle East suffers from too much history. This is especially true of Iran where people have very long historical memories. Mindful of this fact, the right is trying to rewrite history so we can repeat it.
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It's been said that the Middle East suffers from too much history. This is especially true of Iran where people have very long historical memories. Mindful of this fact, the Right is trying to rewrite history so we can repeat it.

The effort comes on the heels of Christopher de Bellaigue's newly released biography of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Patriot of Persia. The superbly researched book delves deep into the life of Iran's only democratically elected prime minister, a life that began 130 years ago this week.

Prime Minister Mossadegh was famously overthrown by an Anglo-American coup in 1953 for his attempted nationalization of Iranian oil. The disastrous legacy of this foreign intervention would be "profound and long-lasting." Following its perceived success, the United States went into the regime change business in dozens of countries, most of them democratic.

The coup reinstated the Shah whose unremitting despotism would continue for another quarter-century. Thus an all-too-brief democratic experiment was prematurely aborted by a dictatorship that would soon give rise to another.

This single act of intervention paved the way for an Islamist regime in Iran and the rise of political Islam across the Greater Middle East. The story of this coup--and its most famous victim--reminds us of the dangers of foreign intervention. Its potency at a time of growing tensions with Iran has made the history a prime target of contemporary interventionists.

One attempted distortion appeared in a Wall Street Journal review by Sohrab Ahmari. In researching this piece, I found that Ahmari's review is essentially a reprise of his February 2009 pseudonymous review of Gholam Reza Afkhami's biography of the Shah. Behind the anonymity of a fictitious name, Ahmari presents much of the same, but does so with the brazen language of an ideologue that expects no accountability. While a visceral contempt for Mossadegh shines through his writings, Ahmari gushes over the Shah and a paradise that never was. "Javid Shah!" is Ahmari's proclamation when his advocacy needn't be disguised as analysis.

Profiled recently as "the neocons' favorite Iranian," Ahmari has been caught twisting statistics to suit his agenda in the past. The biography of the Shah that Ahmari to construct his case was in fact written by a former minister of the Shah and criticized for, among other things, relying too heavily on the Shah's own autobiographies.

In attributing his own conclusion to a book that presents the opposite, Ahmari shamelessly distorts de Bellaigue's findings. His hitherto undisclosed monarchist leanings cast doubt on the veracity of his analysis. Seemingly everything is attributed to supposed psychological problems among Iranians. De Bellaigue's response to this sort of illegitimate revisionism is emphatic and unequivocal:

"Nothing that I've seen in the quite extensive readings that I've done, in whatever language, has corroborated that. The people who put forward this story tend to be those who feel a sentimental attachment to the monarchy or to the institution of the monarchy, or those who benefited from the events and would like to cast them in a more legitimate light. It was a military coup, sponsored organized by foreigners."

Ahmari's writings signify that somewhere, somehow, the monarchists' sense of entitlement to rule Iran has morphed into a hatred of Iran - and of themselves.

Since his argument is just a tantrum, there's little more that can be said.

This brings us to another colorful character who insists that Mossadegh was overthrown by a popular uprising--Amir Taheri. The 70-year-old Iranian was editor-in-chief of one of the Shah's primary propaganda arms until that regime's collapse in 1979. Taheri occupies a unique place in American political discourse. As Jonathan Schwarz of Mother Jones magazine observed in 2007, "There may not be anyone else who simply makes things up as regularly as he does, with so few consequences."

Among Taheri's greatest hits is a story he fabricated about Iranian Jews being forced to wear distinctly colored badges à la Nazi Germany. Iranian historian Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University detailed "case after case" of Taheri's use of nonexistent sources. Where sources did exist, Taheri "distorted the substance beyond recognition."

It gets better--or worse.

As with Ahmari, the content of Taheri's review of Patriot of Persia faintly resembled the book. His lazy review, "Myths of Mossadegh," is fraught with inaccuracies--too numerous to address here. In one case Taheri claims, "Even Mossadegh himself never challenged the shah's right to dismiss him as prime minister." Aside from the obvious absurdity of the statement to anyone familiar with the history, de Bellaigue quotes Mossadegh as saying, "I do not accept that in a constitutional country the Shah can sack the prime minister."

Taheri then writes, "According to de Bellaigue, Mossadegh liked to say that 'anyone forgetting Islam is base and dishonourable, and should be killed.'" The problem with this quote is that it simply doesn't exist. It's a falsified version of something different.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Still, it takes a special kind of moral idiocy to defend the colonial interests of Britain's dying empire against the "most democratic, enlightened government in Iranian history." Those who do so deny the disaster of past interventions while calling for new ones. Unmasking these efforts may make it a little less likely for war to occur, so defenders of democracy would do well to follow Mossadegh's famous dictum, "If I sit silently, I have sinned."


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