Barack Obama: Hope. Audacity.
The First President to Acknowledge 1953 Coup in Iran
After Decades of Hostility, A Historic Nuclear Deal
In June 2009, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to acknowledge the 1953 coup in Iran. The succint reference to the U.S. intervention, made during a major speech in Egypt addressing the ‘Muslim world’, maddened many conservative figures and pundits at the time.
Obama had actually mentioned the subject at least once before. One Pulitzer-winning writer reported witnessing a mention during a 2008 campaign speech.
Yet Obama’s first public reference is most likely the one in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, a totally overlooked footnote — and ironic counterpoint — to his historic moment in Cairo. In the book, outlining his vision for the country, Obama briefly critiqued America’s imperial overreach and alliances with useful dictators. Only two months before his Cairo speech, however, Obama bowed submissively to a stalwart U.S. ally, Saudi King Abdullah (again outraging conservatives, who were far less concerned when President George W. Bush kissed and held hands with Abdullah).
Cozy relationships with repressive and autocratic regimes like the Saudi monarchy has long been bipartisan policy in the United States. In some ways, Obama has extended and even furthered some of the Bush administration policies he once distanced himself from. It was after all Obama, not Bush, who signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allowing the U.S. military to indefinitely detain people—at home or abroad—without due process. And like his predecessor, Obama has vowed to keep “all options on the table” with regard to war with Iran, despite his frequent criticism of the war in Iraq.
From secret “kill lists” to drone attacks that have resulted in far more civilian deaths by drone than ever ocurred under Bush; Barack Obama, promiser of Hope and Change, has proven to be an exceedingly talented status quo politician.
What is undeniable, however, is that the diplomatic achievements of the Obama administration with regard to the Iranian regime, after 36 decades of mutual hostility, and Cuba, an implacable foe of over 54 years, will be consequential and reverberating. How those consequences manifest themselves will have enormous gravity when historians begin to assess Obama’s legacy.
Iran Deal Interview at the White House
July 14, 2015
Hours after the historic Iran nuclear deal was brokered in Vienna, Obama spoke to Tom Friedman about the meaning, effectiveness of and justification for the agreement. Asked what he had learned about negotiating with Iran, Obama said while he doesn’t trust them, they have been responsive to pressure, and there is a broad political spectrum within the country. Then he addded:
“And then I think the last thing that — this is not maybe something I’ve learned but has been confirmed — even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes. And if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran.
We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq. And so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.
In the same way that, when Ronald Reagan and others negotiated arms agreements with the Soviet Union, you had to recognize, yes, this is an evil, terrible system, but within it are people with specific historic ideas and memories, and we have to be able to understand those things and potentially try to make some connection. And the same was true with respect to Nixon and Kissinger going to China, which ended up being a very important strategic benefit to the United States.”
White House Interview
April 4, 2015
Shortly after the groundbreaking U.S.-Iran nuclear deal in Lausanne, Obama was interviewed in the Oval Office by New York Times Op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman:
“Clearly part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first, their democracy, and then in supporting the Shah, and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war.
And so part of what I’ve told my team is, we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven offensive Iran, and the defensive Iran that, it feels vulnerable and sometimes is maybe reacting because they perceive that is the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.”
United Nations General Assembly Speech
September 24, 2013
“The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and of America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly—or through proxies—taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.
I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight—the suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Cairo Speech to the Muslim World
June 4, 2009
[Full transcript and video here]
“For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”
The Audacity of Hope:
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
Excerpt from Obama’s 2006 New York Times bestseller, when he was an Illinois Senator:
Sixty years later, we can see the results of this massive postwar undertaking: a successful outcome to the Cold War, an avoidance of nuclear catastrophe, the effective end of conflict between the world’s great military powers, and an era of unprecedented economic growth at home and abroad.
It’s a remarkable achievement, perhaps the Greatest Generation’s greatest gift to us after the victory over fascism. But like any system built by man, it had its flaws and contradictions; it could fall victim to the distortions of politics, the sins of hubris, the corrupting effects of fear. Because of the enormity of the Soviet threat, and the shock of communist takeovers in China and North Korea, American policy makers came to view nationalist movements, ethnic struggles, reform eforts, or left-leaning policies anywhere in the world through the lens of the Cold War—potential threats they felt outweighed our professed commitment to freedom and democracy. For decades we would tolerate and even aid thieves like Mobutu, thugs like Noriega, so long as they opposed communism. Occasionally U.S. covert operations would engineer the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day.
ORIGINAL SIN: The 1953 Coup in Iran Clarified | by Arash Norouzi
Barack Obama on Iran:
Speech to Muslim World in Cairo — June 4, 2009 (VIDEO)
Obama Condemns Iran Violence on Ashura Day — December 28, 2009
Obama’s Interview with BBC Persian — September 24, 2010 (Transcript)
President Obama and Shimon Peres’ Norouz Messages to Iranians — March 20, 2012 (VIDEO)
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Admits the U.S. Regrets the 1953 Coup in Iran
The White House Responds To Question of Apology For 1953 Coup in Iran
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Iran, U.S. Foreign Policy
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”