Christopher Hitchens on Iran

Mossadegh — a “Modernizer” ... 1953 Coup — an “Atrocity”

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | July 11, 2006                   
[Updated December 16, 2011]

Christopher Hitchens on Iran

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a British, U.S. based author, journalist, political and social commentator, columnist, literary critic, speaker, debater and committed proponent of ultra-orthodox atheism.

The Middle East was always a focal point for Hitchens, where his famously contradictory ways surfaced frequently.

He described the 1953 coup carried out by America and England against Mossadegh as an “atrocity”, condemned Henry Kissinger as a “war criminal” and found water-boarding to be torture after personally experiencing it, yet unapologetically defended George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (which has killed or maimed an estimated million Iraqis). Operation Desert Storm, the 1990 invasion of Iraq by Bush’s father, however, was, according to Hitchens, “mad”. At least, he thought so at the time.

Like him or not, Hitchens will be remembered as one of the most provocative and enigmatic intellectuals of his era.

Review of Strange Times, My Dear: The Pen Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature
The Atlantic, July/August 2006

Mention of Napoleon brings me to the work of Iraj Pezeshkzad [author of "My Uncle Napoleon", about a man who blamed everything on the British]. How is one to convey the extraordinary charm and power of this author? A little preface is needed. Iranian intellectuals are nostalgic (I do not think this use of the term is improper) for two moments in their nation’s agonized history. The first is the 1906 constitutional revolution, when the liberal and cosmopolitan elements of the society, though eventually suppressed by Russian imperial gunnery, managed to establish a precedent for a modern and outward-looking system.

The second is the atrocity of August 19, 1953, when the elected nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh was forcibly removed by an Anglo-American intrigue that instated the shah as a dictator and returned the country’s main natural resource to foreign control. These two external interventions gravely stultified Iran’s development and had a retarding effect on the national psyche. It became almost customary and automatic, in a land that is so naturally internationalist, to attribute literally everything to the machinations of designing outsiders. (The Khomeinist regime, needless to add, exploits this plebeian tendency to this day. It also avails itself of the antique Shia concept of taqqiya, or the religious permission to dissemble in dealings with infidels. One might call this the top-down version of ketman.). [ketman is farsi for concealment] As an Englishman I found it almost flattering to encounter the number of people in Tehran who -- culturally rather despising Americans [an utterly false claim] -- believed that the British government determined absolutely all matters. Why, had they not even installed the mullahs in 1979 as a revenge for the way that the United States had taken the lion’s share of oil after 1953? The British ambassador, whose official dominion includes two especially nice walled garden estates in upper and lower Tehran, confessed to me that he sometimes found this paranoia useful, since it meant that nobody would decline to meet him.

Blood, class, and empire: the enduring Anglo-American relationship (2004)

Hitchens covered the British and American effort to unseat Mossadegh in some detail in seven pages of this 2004 book. Excerpt:

Christopher Hitchens The Anglo-American candidate for the Iranian presidency [correction: premiership] was, it was agreed in Washington, Fazlullah Zahedi. [sic—Fazlollah Zahedi] Woodhouse describes this selection as “ironic”, which from one point of view it most certainly was. [Monty Woodhouse, former British MI6 agent] During the Second World War, Zahedi had been a leading Nazi agent and had been arrested by the British and interned in Palestine. “Now we were all turning to him as the potential savior of Iran from the Soviet bloc.” The CIA’s director of operations, Frank Wisner, was a staunch proponent of the James Burnham view of the world and had already enlisted a substantial number of ex-Nazis for the purposes of “rolling back” the Iron Curtain. He was an early enthusiast for Operation Boot and for the Zahedi option.

11 September 1973 (2002)
London Review of Books — July 11, 2002

Review of Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History by Andy Beckett

London Review of Books In one way, this strangulation of Chilean democracy was a jewel in the crown of those successful Washington-inspired military coups and counter-revolutions that featured Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, went on through Indonesia in 1965 and Greece in 1967, and extended as far as Cyprus in 1974. (The slogan of the extreme Right in Chile during the Allende years was the single ominous word ‘Jakarta’: intuitive proof in itself that the poisoned apple did not fall far from the tree.) But, as a Chilean comrade of mine ruefully commented recently, he never expected that Pinochet could produce a revolution as well as a counter-revolution. The new model ‘free economy’ created in Chile became an inspiration for the British and the American Right, even as its police state provided a rallying point for the international Left.

For the Sake of Argument (1993)

Christopher Hitchens Persia, for example, was a semi-colony of the British until 1953, when it chose a reformist and nationalist regime under Mossadeq. [Mossadegh was elected in 1951, not 1953]. The British enlisted American help in the forcible removal of this modernizer and in his replacement by the Shah. At that time, there was a coincidence of interest between the oil companies and the ayatollahs, because the religious leadership also detested Mossadeq for his secularism.

The Middle East and American Democracy
Presentation at the Middle East Institute, Washington DC — October 4, 1991

Now, it’s been argued by some people that the “original sin” of American policy in the region was its attempt to enter the region as, if you like, the successor to British imperialism — in other words — to enter the region not as an honest broker or a disinterested superpower, but as the successor to a discredited colonialism.

And, it’s been argued that the hinge moment was the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 with the collusion of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Anglo-American oil corporation.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I began with the suggestion that there was an original sin in 1953 in Iran, and I’ll wind down by alluding to the suggestion that there was another sin in 1980, that in 1980, an American election was held hostage to an overseas policy, that the exploitation of American hostages allowed a political campaign, partisan campaign in this country, in concert with the agents of at least two other foreign powers — Iran and Israel — to intervene — actually to negate — to distort, the results of an American Presidential election. This must still be regarded, Congress is sitting on it now, I say sitting on it in the sense of convening on it, I hope, an inquiry, and which members of the panels were nominated this week. And what looks to be a very devastating book [October Surprise] is about to fall from the press, written by a man known to some of you, Capt. Gary Sick, then of the National Security Council. [Hitchens had appeared on a panel on the subject with Mr. Sick the previous June]

If it were to turn out to be true that the revenge for intervention in Iranian internal affairs in 1953, was an Iranian intervention in American internal affairs in 1980, I could, I think, claim to have encapsulated the point I wanted to make.

C-SPAN Debate with Morton Kondracke
Washington, DC — February 4, 1991

“Look, the other thing is, about the Middle East, you must have noticed by now, the interest of the imperial power is not in stability at all, the interest is in instability, it is in keeping people off-balance, of ensuring weak regimes, and of making sure that there’s no regional winners so that you can play them off one against the other. If you can’t see that’s been the pattern of the policy since at least 1953 when the United States overthrew the government of Iran...then you haven’t been looking”.

60 Minutes interview with Christopher Hitchens, March 2011


Related links:

Fred Halliday on Khomeini and His Antipathy Towards Mossadegh

Howard Zinn: "A People’s History of American Empire"

Chalmers Johnson Explores "The Sorrows of Empire"

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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