Ever since the fraudulent Iranian elections of June 2009, the increasingly desperate Islamic regime has blamed America for the ensuing protests and turmoil. As human rights conditions in Iran have worsened considerably, many are looking to the United States to speak out more forcefully on the crisis, while others caution against that move.
According to one view, condemning Iran’s human rights abuses would be counterproductive for it would be seen as interfering; feeding the mullahs’ bogus portrayal of the unrest as U.S.-instigated. Others argue that U.S. silence is more damaging, and that the Obama administration should speak out in order to take a moral stand, apply pressure and show solidarity with the Iranian people.
History plays a key role here: ghosts of past U.S. intervention remain, and are conveniently exploited by the Islamic regime to distract from its own brutal behavior.
"Now, it’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling—the U.S. President meddling in Iranian elections", said Barack Obama on June 16, 2009, acknowledging past U.S. transgressions. "What I will repeat and what I said yesterday is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people."
The next day, Senator John Kerry cautioned, "[W]e have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us to strengthen the clerical establishment, distract Iranians from a failing economy and rally a fiercely independent populace against outside interference. . . . The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet."
Dr. Abbas Milani, a leading Iranian-American scholar, lecturer and author, addressed the enduring credibility gap in a December 2009 article in The New Republic. Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, urges Obama to condemn Iran’s human rights abuses more explicitly and not succumb to timidity and liberal guilt.
The paradox here is self-evident: a cruel, fundamentalist Islamic regime lamenting the destruction of a secular, humane, democratic government 56 years ago; whose fall some of their own contributed to (as we have detailed in our article, Mossadegh, Islam and Ayatollahs). Simply put, part of the blame for the Shah’s ascension to absolute dictator of Iran rests on the shoulders of their radical Islamic cleric predecessors.
Milani could have easily exposed the blatant hypocrisy of the Iranian regime when it conjures up that history, while offering his advice for Obama. Yet unnecessarily, Milani has chosen to counter the Islamic Republic’s disingenuous, hypocritical narrative with his own equally deceptive, revisionist narrative. It’s a logically bankrupt essay permeated with misleading, feel-good innuendo, signifying much but saying nothing. Repeatedly, Milani tampers with facts, contradicts his own conclusions, and even betrays his own recent statements.
The title of his article promises big things: The Great Satan Myth — Everything you know about U.S. involvement in Iran is wrong. In it, Milani goes to great lengths to paint an extraordinarily sympathetic picture of poor old America, whom, he fantasizes, was basically well-meaning and always supported the Iranian people’s quest for freedom despite all appearances.
The problem is, even if we accept every claim he makes at face value, his conclusion about America still doesn’t square. In fact, if we pay careful attention to the substance of what he is saying, America comes off looking even more ignorant, clumsy and dishonorable, not less.
I have responded point by point to key portions in order, beginning with the opening paragraph:
A promising introduction—there must be a caveat around the corner...
Ah, yes, "the story goes..."
Believing the credibility factor to be significantly inhibiting the United States, Milani resolves this quandary by formulating a rosy, alternate scenario telling Americans what they want to hear, knowing many will blindly eat it up.
Milani assigns ownership of this "theory" to "the mullahs" as a means of delegitimization, but this game contains an additional irony lost on Milani. The mullahs in Iran employ the same logic to invalidate the current wave of protests, which they claim are merely "pleasing" America. The message: 'Stop protesting our evil ways, because that just plays into the West’s narrative that we’re evil'.
So Milani and the Islamic regime share a skewed perspective: anything that serves the enemy’s propaganda must be deeply flawed, if not altogether false. He took a similar line before, but with one crucial difference—the culprit was Russia! In 2003, Milani, who, according to his own memoir, is a reformed Communist, wrote, "During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda succeeded in inculcating in the minds of much of the Muslim world an image of America as a war-mongering imperialist, hungry for cheap oil and greedy to sell arms to any of the oriental despots that were strewn across the Middle Eastern landscape. In the case of Iran, what helped Soviet propaganda was the role the U.S. government had played in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh and restoring the Shah to his throne."
Milani also introduces his own theory—that the US-Shah partnership, spanning 26 years and six presidents, was not as cozy as it seems. In fact, he offers vaguely, it was "fraught". In distancing America from the Shah, Milani is necessarily conceding that the Shah was a despot (otherwise there would be no need to rationalize the relationship, as he spends so much effort doing).
Ironically, the U.S. government itself has never felt compelled to disavow their longstanding support for the Shah, even in hindsight. In 1984, for example, President Ronald Reagan praised the late Shah as a "stalwart ally" who had "done our bidding and carried our load in the Middle East for quite some time."
And it was Milani, after all, who, referencing the Shah in 2003, wrote, "Despots—albeit staunchly anticommunist or willing to accommodate the West on, say, the question of oil—are not the most reliable strategic allies of the United States."
Milani is careful not to label U.S. acknowledgements of the coup as apologies, as many others incorrectly have, yet he contradicts this later, chiding "each apology by an American politician". Since the thrust of his article is to defend the reputation of America, it’s worth questioning why in the world American officials would 'apologize' for something that Milani claims they have little responsibility for.
Most Americans are still unfamiliar with the 1953 coup, but those that know have never relied on the confessions of Roosevelt. Scores of CIA and government officials have offered their accounts of the coup in their own memoirs and interviews, and the event has been explored in numerous books (notably, Stephen Kinzer’s bestseller All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, articles (like the New York Times’ extensive report by Pulitzer winner James Risen, Secrets of History: The CIA in Iran) and documentaries (for example, The History Channel’s Anatomy of a Coup).
In March 1954, the CIA requested that Donald Wilber, a key CIA operative in Operation AJAX, issue a full report on the coup for internal use. That report, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, is a detailed account of the operation, including planning, financing, execution, propaganda and more. It has since been released publicly, published in book form, and has been easily available on the internet for anyone to read for nearly a decade.
The 1979 memoir by Kermit Roosevelt that Milani refers to is Countercoup, an extremely obscure title that’s been out of print since 1981 (I own the first printing in hardcover). The book never got much traction when released, and was especially unwelcome at the time, coinciding with the Iranian revolution which overtook the same US embassy from which Kermit Roosevelt once schemed in 1953. Consequently, its publication was delayed in America because of concerns over the safety of the 52 American hostages, and frowned upon by the Shah, who strongly objected to the revelation that he 'owed his throne' to the CIA.
Countercoup could not have possibly been very influential to "the American understanding of the event" because few Americans have ever read it. Judging from his understanding of the book and it contents, this might apply to Milani himself.
It is true, however, that Kermit Roosevelt’s account is self-serving and error-ridden, and it would be foolish to take anything he wrote as gospel (the entire premise of the book is based on the lie that Mossadegh was a dictator beholden to the Communists who had illegally overthrown the Shah, hence the title).
It’s largely speculative to judge what Roosevelt, who headed the Middle East Department for the CIA, knew about Iran. Of all their operatives, the CIA must have stationed him in Iran to implement the coup plot for a reason.
Roosevelt devotes fourteen pages in Countercoup to describing his trips to Iran in early 1944 and the summer of 1947. These travels helped inform his 1949 book, Arabs, Oil and History: The Story of the Middle East; and he covered Iran’s history, politics, regional significance, and role during World War II (plus impudent inserts of Persian poetry by Saadi and Rumi) in Countercoup. None of this automatically make him an expert, but he was apparently qualified for the job—the coup succeeded, after all.
Nor was it necessary for Roosevelt to speak Persian. The Shah himself spoke fluent English and French, as did many other Iranian figures (failing that, there was such a thing as translators).
In particular, Roosevelt writes of a significant contact living in Iran named "Roger Black", whom he had previously met in Iran in 1944. Professor Black, a Yale man and former OSS colleague who spoke fluent farsi, filled Roosevelt in on all sorts of aspects of Persian culture and "knew far more of Iran and of the people than any of us actually in the Agency did—or probably ever would." It was Roger Black, according to Roosevelt, who forwarded him the initial plans that would eventually become Operation AJAX. "Another Persian expert", writes Roosevelt, "participated in a key role during preparation of much of the plan".
The Eisenhower "dime novels" reference—a completely misleading, dishonest non-sequitur—derives from his 1963 memoirs, Mandate For Change (which I also own). President Eisenhower never admitted to the reality of any foreign inspired coup in Iran, much less one in which America was involved. That was the whole idea—Operation AJAX was a covert CIA operation.
In his memoir, Eisenhower feigned ignorance and pretended that the coup was a purely Iranian coup, just as the media had reported. Summarizing his account of the exciting events that led to Mossadegh’s overthrow and arrest, Eisenhower commented that the reports he was getting from Tehran were so fantastical in the coup’s critical days that they "sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact".
Hence, the "dime novel" phrase which Milani incorrectly pluralizes was not an expression of disbelief, nor was it referring to the CIA as he implies, because that would have meant admitting to the secret US involvement in the coup.
All of this is inconsequential, however, because although the details were still classified, the coup itself was an open secret years before Roosevelt’s book ever debuted, and was legendary within the Central Intelligence Agency and other echelons of the U.S. government.
Mossadegh did view America positively and hoped to strengthen US-Iran relations, but this is a significant exaggeration of Mossadegh’s brief relationship with the Harry Truman administration. Though Truman’s envoys, such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Ambassador Henry Grady, got along well with Mossadegh personally, the oil dispute troubled them. Harry Truman was concerned that countries such as Venezuela, which supplied vital oil to the U.S., might follow Iran’s lead. In 1951, Truman’s diplomat Averell Harriman told the young Shah while visiting Iran that Mossadegh might have to be removed, for he was making it impossible to resolve the oil dispute with Britain.
Regardless of the temperature of the relationship, this doesn’t support Milani’s 'America wasn’t so bad' argument either way. If America hated Mossadegh, it contradicts his thesis; if they loved him, it contradicts his thesis. The warmer the relationship was, the greater the betrayal by America. Perhaps Milani is implying that Mossadegh’s faith in America was his biggest mistake...but that wouldn’t support his thesis.
Throughout the article, Milani hinges most of his case on an undue emphasis on various minor, behind-the-scenes nuances in the US-Shah alliance under successive Presidential administrations (mainly Kennedy’s and Carter’s). Yet when discussing the two Presidents who served during Mossadegh’s time, Milani looks to Truman’s apparent unwillingness to overthrow Mossadegh as proof of America’s good nature, disregarding Eisenhower’s obstinate opposition which resulted in the actual overthrow which he ordered.
It’s really not that complicated.
Milani’s summary of the Islamic clerics’ role in opposing Mossadegh is one of the few worthy moments in his entire piece—yet his conclusions are counter-intuitive. The fact that Dr. Mossadegh refused to bend to the corrupt mullahs and consent to their illegal demands ought to be proof of his democratic virtue. Yet Milani puts forth these "missteps" as if to somehow belittle him.
What Milani intentionally neglects to disclose is that Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was selected as Man of the Year not to honor him, but to highlight him as a dangerous threat, who, as the cover accuses, "oiled the wheels of chaos". The cover article itself had no byline and was likely written in coordination with the CIA (the official 1954 CIA report by Donald Wilber admits to having articles "planted" in American newspapers and magazines to help bring down Mossadegh).
Time is actually a classic example of the CIA consorting with mass media. Its publisher, Henry Luce, was a good friend and confidante of none other than CIA director Allen Dulles, another key figure in the 1953 coup. Luce communicated with his Republican compatriot often, and "readily allowed certain members of his staff to work for the Agency and agreed to provide jobs and credentials for other CIA operatives who lacked journalistic experience", writes Pulitzer winning reporter Carl Bernstein in his extensive 1977 article The CIA and the Media.
Time’s hostile, openly contemptuous cover article described Mossadegh variously as a fanatic, a "menace", "dizzy old wizard", and an "appalling caricature of a statesman" whose "grotesque antics" and "suicidal policy" were leading Iran to Soviet takeover. It closes somberly, bemoaning the "fundamental moral challenge posed by the strange old wizard who lives in a mountainous land and who is, sad to relate, the Man of 1951."
Time has always selected individuals who have "done the most to change the news, for better or for worse"; this also explains how Time "felt comfortable" giving that distinction to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980. (Their cover article on Khomeini, by the way, makes mention of the "CIA-inspired coup that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh", twenty years before the incriminating CIA records were made public).
Milani has read the Time article and knows its true nature—he quoted extensively from it on the first page of the Mossadegh chapter in his 2008 book Eminent Persians.
And again, if Mossadegh looked so good, why did the U.S. oppose him? Evidently, Milani deems this crucial component insignificant.
As a true believer in democracy and free expression, Mossadegh did not suppress any political groups in the country, even those that overtly opposed him. Milani implies some sort of non-passive consent to the Tudeh’s influence in Iran—yet paradoxically, Milani tells us that despite this, Mossadegh 'abhorred' communism, as if that makes any sense.
Milani then argues that Mossadegh sealed his fate when he "squandered the allegiance of the clergy"; a strange choice of words, as to 'squander' is to waste something of value, not something detestable. Despite his supposed eye for nuance, Milani also isn’t telling you that not all of the clerics opposed Mossadegh.
Finally, Milani employs another ruse popular among coup apologists: that Mossadegh was done for anyway and would have been deposed with or without American assistance.
If this were true, there would have been no need for the two greatest empires on Earth, England and America, to devote all that time and all those resources over a two year period undermining Iran in preparation for the illegal coup d’etat (blockading Iran’s oil in the Persian Gulf with Naval gunboats, imposing an international boycott, spreading extensive black propaganda, buying street mobs, battling (and losing) in international court, plotting to assassinate Mossadegh, threatening war, and so on...).
America’s role was not the only factor, but it was the most critical one. The coup was conceived, funded, and implemented by America and Britain; the "Anglo-American coup" being the most apt description.
Milani’s version of history betrays the prevailing record confirmed by the mainstream media, the academic community at large and America’s own self-assessment. Literally hundreds of respected world figures, conservative and liberal, including members of Congress, Generals, academics, journalists, Nobel prize winners, U.S. Presidents and many others agree that the coup was foreign inspired. Of these, most also view it as an international crime.
Even if America’s role in the coup were as insignificant as Abbas Milani would like to make it seem, it hardly excuses their role in the atrocity. His warm and fuzzy retelling of the crime is akin to the acquittal of a defendant in a case of violent gang rape because he did less actual raping than the rest of the fellas; then insulting the victim further with, "None of this is to excuse his involvement..."
Read the sentence above very mindfully, it’s an instant classic.
What does the fact that the U.S. meddled on the side of fanatic, corrupt Islamists say about America?
Whatever attempts were made to curb the Shah’s authoritarianism obviously failed. If we are really to believe that the U.S. wasted all this effort to tame its initimate ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it’s hard to imagine its admonishments shaming the current Islamic regime, with which it has had no formal relations for over 30 years.
Abbas Milani actually made this argument just a few months prior. In a June 2009 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Milani and his colleague Larry Diamond concluded that the U.S. is pretty much helpless to act against the regime’s brutality:
"Obama has gotten it right by signaling America’s support for peaceful protest, human rights and the rule of law. More explicit language, not to mention action, would only play into the hands of the most cynical and vicious conservative elements in Iran. Moreover, with no diplomatic ties and all but no trade with Iran, there is little more the U.S. could do right now to pressure the regime."
In 1979, Time described SAVAK as "Iran’s most hated and feared institution", with "virtually unlimited powers to arrest and interrogate" which had "tortured and murdered thousands of the Shah’s opponents". Replace the word "SAVAK" with the "Basij", and replace "Shah" with "Ahmadinejad". Now imagine that the United States had not only created the dreaded Basiji militia group (which is now clubbing, terrorizing and murdering innocent Iranians in the streets), but had been a strong ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran for decades, and try to argue with a straight face that this would not be "contradictory".
Victims of the Shah’s U.S.-created SAVAK (don’t worry, it’s not contradictory)
If the Eisenhower administration was already regretting their installation of the Shah just five years after the fact, that speaks volumes about the stupidity of the coup. Why would the U.S. depose a democratically elected government, replace it with an unaccountable monarch, and then shortly after wink at a coup plot to topple that very leader?
How do these statements give credence to Milani’s notion that the United States favored democracy in Iran?
During the early 1960’s, the Shah’s rising dictatorial tendencies were causing social and political upheaval in Iran. Concerned that the discontent might mean the Shah was losing his grip, the Kennedy administration advised him to implement controlled social and political reforms. JFK also pressured the Shah to appoint a new pro-U.S. prime minister whom Kennedy was friendly with, Dr. Ali Amini (even though the Shah did not favor him, and had him replaced just a year later).
If these reforms failed to pacify the population, the U.S. recommended using police security forces (like SAVAK) to do whatever it took to ensure the regime’s survival. In other words: loosen up, and if that doesn’t work, crack down even harder.
The Shah, Kennedy and Robert McNamara confer at the White House.
Yes, the United States continued to push its luck with Iran, forcing through the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which reversed the anti-capitulation measures that had once been championed by Dr. Mossadegh. What this meant was that American military personnel and their families stationed in Iran could potentially get away with any crime there, even murder. So unpopular was this action that Khomeini was able to use the issue to make a significant speech castigating the Shah. The Shah’s response—arresting Khomeini and exiling him (to Turkey, and later Najaf, Iraq)—backfired, elevating Khomeini’s prominence and laying the groundwork for his rise as the de facto leader of the Islamic revolution later on.
In 1965, soon after Khomeini’s exile, the State Department stated internally that Khomeini’s significance was "symptomatic of widespread popular opposition to Government policies", and that he held "widespread support". "Khomeini’s political stand is not an isolated one", they determined, "it is a view shared by a significant mass of Iranians."
The State Department also clearly recognized the trouble it had wrought: "What is now clear is that Khomeini’s exile has aroused dormant nationalist feelings. The Shah and the United States have been branded as both anti-nationalist and anti-religious. This new attitude has tarnished our formerly favorable image, poses a threat to our interests in Iran, and will certainly make our task there far more difficult." Resentment from such grievances echoed into the future, even amongst the most moderate voices. In 1998, President Mohammad Khatami called the Shah’s capitulation "the worst humiliation for our people".
The Shah’s government, too, paid dearly for their treachery. An enraged royal soldier attempted to assassinate the Shah, but only killed two of his sergeants. Yet the Shah’s Prime Minister, Hassan-Ali Mansur, was shot in the stomach and throat on the steps of the Majlis where the SOFA bill had passed three months earlier. The location of his murder, plotted by armed Islamists loyal to Khomeini, was not an accidental irony.
America’s insistence on cramming "SOFA" through Parliament against the wishes of Iranians not only makes a mockery of its professed ideals of freedom and justice; it also played into the hands of the very regime that came to power on a tidal wave of anti-American discontent. 'Inadvertent'? Try arrogant, shortsighted and extremely foolish.
All Milani has offered are a few examples of periods of tension with the Shah, when the United States feared that his authoritarian rule would result in revolution (which, of course is exactly what happened).
This hardly proves good faith on the part of America. It merely demonstrates their awareness that without a certain level of freedom, the Shah’s dictatorial rule would backfire and he, along with they, would lose control of Iran. That’s a strategic imperative, not a moral one.
Though his article purports to express concern about the Iranian people, Milani’s thesis ultimately frames the issue in terms of American interests, reconfirming the hubris he is disclaiming. Obviously, even the superficially noble act of the U.S. government showing solidarity with Iranians is calculated to bring about the fall of what America considers to be its greatest enemy.
Abbas Milani’s convoluted narrative does little to explain why the United States would help remove a popular leader which he himself has described as "democratically elected", then "push hard" to reform an insecure, arrogant megalomaniac who Milani repeatedly emphasizes had no true faith in democracy, believing it to be the way of "the blue-eyed people".
His article also wrongly assumes U.S. crimes were limited to 1953-1979. In the 1980’s, America aided Saddam Hussein in an aggressive war that took hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing all 290 innocent souls on board, after which the ship’s commander was awarded a medal for "heroic achievement". And Milani conveniently ignores America’s other foreign coups and interventions in Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, the Philippines...
None of these "subtleties" are news to Abbas Milani. According to a 2006 report from Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s office, Milani lambasted America’s "shameful record" in a March 2006 interview with Voice of America after misunderstanding the question posed to him:
Even Abbas Milani’s own biography runs counter to his arguments. In the 1970’s, Milani’s Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics and anti-Shah activism led to a year’s incarceration in the Shah’s jails, including one month in solitary confinement. At the time, he seriously believed he might "disappear" like so many others, and be killed.
It is not necessary to rewrite history in order to poke the Islamic Republic in the eye, nor does it serve the cause of democracy and freedom for the people of Iran today.
America did not display solidarity with the Iranian people in 1953, when they helped destroy the most democratic, enlightened government in Iranian history, or in 1979, after their friend the Shah had brutalized them to the breaking point. That’s historical fact, not a myth.
In 2007, while launching his Presidential campaign, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel told me that overthrowing Mossadegh was “the stupidest fucking thing our country has ever done”. Nothing that has transpired in the last 56 years would suggest anything different.
Arash Norouzi is an artist and co-founder of The Mossadegh Project.
The “Dime Novel” Hoax – How Eisenhower’s Words Were Deliberately Twisted
Maziar Bahari’s Negligent BBC Documentary An Iranian Odyssey — Our Response
“The Things We Did Were Covert” – Eisenhower’s Diary Confession of CIA Coup in Iran
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”