History at a Distance: Fouad Ajami

Middle East Analyst on Iran, Mossadegh, 1953 Coup

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | November 17, 2006                   
[Updated June 22, 2014]

Middle East expert Fouad Ajami

Arab-American professor, author and commentator Fouad Ajami (1945-2014) was a noted authority on the Middle East.

Ajami was born in Aroun, Lebanon to Shi’ia parents originating from Iran, and later moved to America just prior to turning eighteen. A diehard proponent of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, he termed it a “noble war” and a “gift” to the Iraqi people (as he expounded upon in his book The Foreigner’s Gift).

The eloquent scholar advised Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives in the Bush White House, (he once called George W. Bush his “hero”), and was a contributor to numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal for 27 years. He also appeared regularly on CBS News, PBS and CNN to analyze trends in the Muslim world.

Fouad Ajami succumbed to cancer on June 22, 2014 at age 68, ironically the same month several Iraqi cities fell to militant Islamic group ISIS, rapidly undoing in days much of what the United States had sacrificed at least a trillion dollars and thousands of lives to achieve in a decade long battle. Ajami may have been a pro-intervention ‘hawk’ (a word he used to describe himself), but at least he owned it. There is little doubt that had he the opportunity, Dr. Ajami would still be stoically defending his Iraq position just as ardently as ever.

Contrary to expectations, and despite his pro-U.S. interventionist ethos and Orientalist leanings, Ajami never maligned Prime Minister Mossadegh, nor did he indulge in coup revisionism or apologia. It can safely be inferred from his writings that the professor viewed the foreign role in the 1953 coup as the critical component in Iran’s degeneracy from a burgeoning democratic society to an endless cycle of tyranny.

The Wall Street Journal — June 22, 2009

In an editorial during the 2009 post-election chaos in Iran, "Obama’s Persian Tutorial", Ajami argued, “The president has to choose between the regime and the people in the streets.”

But in truth Iran had never wanted an opening to the U.S. For the length of three decades, the custodians of the theocracy have had precisely the level of enmity toward the U.S. they have wanted -- just enough to be an ideological glue for the regime but not enough to be a threat to their power. Iran’s rulers have made their way in the world with relative ease. No White Army gathered to restore the dominion of the Pahlavis. The Cold War and oil bailed them out. So did the false hope that the revolution would mellow and make its peace with the world.

Mr. Obama may believe that his offer to Iran is a break with a hard-line American policy. But nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, in his inaugural, George H.W. Bush extended an offer to Iran: "Good will begets good will," he said. A decade later, in a typically Clintonian spirit of penance and contrition, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came forth with a full apology for America’s role in the 1953 coup that ousted nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

Iran’s rulers scoffed. They had inherited a world, and they were in no need of opening it to outsiders. They were able to fly under the radar. Selective, targeted deeds of terror, and oil income, enabled them to hold their regime intact.

The Wall Street Journal — May 5, 2008

In a column for The Wall Street Journal, "Iran Must Finally Pay A Price", a frustrated Fouad Ajami struggled to pin the blame for U.S. failures in Middle East on the so-called “Persian menace”. He argued that U.S. policy toward Iran has been too soft, and consequently the Islamic Republic has been playing America for suckers all these years.

The “outright apology” Ajami refers to was of course, nothing of the sort—Secretary of State Albright merely acknowledged the U.S. role in the coup, but never used the word “sorry” or any other words to that effect. Note that in 2000, the phrase he used for Albright’s speech was “an apology of sorts”.

Many thought that the Iranian moderates would turn up in the fullness of time. In his inaugural speech, George H.W. Bush offered an olive branch to Iran’s rulers: “Goodwill begets goodwill,” he said. A decade later, in the typical Clintonian spirit of contrition and penance, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave Iran’s rulers an outright apology for America’s role in the coup that overthrew the nationalist leader Mohammad Mussadiq in 1953. The coup “was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development,” she said, part of a flawed American diplomacy that aided the Shah’s government as it “brutally repressed political dissent.

U.S. News & World Report — May 2000

Fouad Ajami referenced the Clinton administration’s recent overture to Iran in an article written for U.S. News & World Report in May 2000:

In mid-March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright launched “pistachio diplomacy,” offering an olive branch to the would-be reformers mobilized around President Mohammad Khatami. The sanctions on investments in Iranian oil would remain, she announced, but they were lifted on Iranian pistachios, caviar, and carpets. More accommodation was promised if Iran, in Albright’s words, indicated “a desire and a commitment” to improve relations.

In an administration and a cultural climate of confessions and apologies, an apology of sorts was given to the Iranians for Operation Ajax, the covert Anglo-American effort that overthrew Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restored to power his rival, Mohammad Reza Shah. Secretary Albright gave that history a new twist. That 1953 coup, she said, was a “setback for Iran’s political development.” The shah, who had done a fair measure of America’s bidding in the Persian Gulf, was written off by Albright as a man who had “brutally repressed political dissent.” It was history at a distance, after history’s dangers and truths have long scattered to the wind.

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A society never yields its truth to outsiders easily. U.S. officials may express some remorse for the overthrow of Mossadegh nearly five decades ago as contrition for the past and a gift to Iran’s moderates. But the political cartography of Iran is vastly complicated. A hero to the modernists in that country, Mossadegh is at best an ambivalent figure to the theocrats. He was a man of secular nationalism, educated in the West. For many of the hard-liners, Mossadegh is more of an anathema than the shah. The great tribune of the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself, was disdainful of Mossadegh. These are Persian rules, not ours. If moderation is to hold, if the men and women who shouted themselves hoarse against the Great Satan (America) and the Little Satan (Israel) wake up to the poverty of their country and wish for themselves a better world, they will make it with their own hands. There comes a time when a people tire of blood--and of revolutionary virtue and terror. For Iran, the matter, for now, lies in the balance.

New York Times Book Review — May 8, 1988

In a 1988 edition of The New York Times, Fouad Ajami reviewed James A. Bill’s THE EAGLE AND THE LION: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, which contained his observations on Bill’s description of the Mossadegh era:

Bill’s version of the history of Iranian-American relations is decidedly liberal: there was a reasonably democratic, nationalist option in Iran, which the United States could (and should) have understood and nurtured when it became a power in Iran’s affairs in the years following World War II. But American officials did otherwise. When they “chose sides in the internal Iranian political game,” they quickly settled for “the royal alternative.” Was there another alternative? Mr. Bill is sure one existed, symbolized by the nationalist politician Mohammed Mossadegh, a Western-educated aristocrat with a long record of opposition to the Pahlevi monarchy. Mossadegh’s politics was the stuff out of which middle-class nationalism elsewhere was made, Mr. Bill believes - a strong sense of economic nationalism, a desire to break with his country’s legacy of foreign dependence and humiliation, a demand for a greater measure of control over its oil resources.

American officials flirted with Mossadegh during his brief tenure as Prime Minister (1951 through 1953), the narrative tells us. But Mossadegh’s brand of politics was far too wild and unpredictable for the Eisenhower Administration. There were vast stakes in the oil fields of the Middle East which American officials wanted to protect, and there were worries that Mossadegh might be just a stalking horse for Iran’s Communists. So in the summer of 1953, a coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence brought Mossadegh down and restored the Shah to power. In Mr. Bill’s words, this was a “momentous event in the history of Iranian-American relations”; America aborted Iranian radical nationalism.

Twenty-five years later it would return with a vengeance: instead of the secularist, Western-educated Mossadegh, Iranian nationalism would appear with a turban, in the person of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The American intervention in 1953, in Mr. Bill’s words, “left a running wound that bled for twenty-five years and contaminated America’s relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran following the revolution of 1978-79.” The script was written when Operation Ajax, as the coup was called, brought down Mossadegh; American intervention “deeply alienated Iranian patriots of all social classes” and Iranian nationalism became “unalterably anti-American.” America broke with middle-class nationalism, Mr. Bill argues with both great detail and enormous conviction: successive American administrations were to go the full length with the Shah, with the option of royalist dictatorship.

The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon — 1986

In his book about Iranian-born Lebanese Shi’ite cleric Musa Al Sasr’s, Ajami referenced Mossadegh:

An intensely political man, he was in his teens when his maternal grandfather tried to rein in Reza Shah’s drive against the clergy; he was in his mid-twenties in the early 1950s when Iran went through a nationalist eruption which culminated in the brief triumph of Mohammed Mossadeq; a Western-educated liberal nationalist, over the Shah and in the exile of the latter. (The back of the Mossadeq experiment was broken in 1953 by an American-led effort against him).

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Ayatollah Hussein Borujerdi...a cleric of conservative temperament, was not unfriendly to the Shah. He believed in the separation of religion and politics and frowned on political activism. Royal dictatorship was in full stride in the late 1950s. The view of Borujerdi’s entourage on the role men of the religious institutions should play was summarized by one cleric as follows: “Our duty is to advise, not to fight.” It was in this spirit that Borujerdi refused to come out against the overthrow of the popular prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953.

Foreign Affairs — Winter 1980/1981 Issue

In "The Third World Challenge: The Fate of Nonalignment", Ajami wrote of the “Bandung generation”—25 Asian and African countries (including Iran) that met at a historic 1955 conference in Indonesia:

The energy that propelled them was the comparatively moderate one of middle-class nationalism. This was the force represented by the Iranian Mohammed Mossadegh (who was not at Bandung but might have been had Iranian history been allowed to take its own course), by Nasser, by Nehru, and by the others. [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru] In their own way, these were the non-Western children of the Westphalian nation-state system that had emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century and was now being globalized. The most "extreme" of them might have been Fabian socialists. None of them were nostalgic for imagined traditions.

Natives and prospectors: Arab oil and competing systems of legitimation — 1976

Ajami mentioned Mossadegh in his 1976 book on Arab oil from Princeton University Press:

“Those who saw risks in politicizing oil beyond reasonable and manageable limits recalled the fate of Iran’s Mossadeq.”

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Related links:

Christopher Hitchens Calls 1953 Coup in Iran an “Atrocity”

Fareed Zakaria on Iranian Nationalism, Mossadegh and the 1953 Coup

(VIDEO) Prof. Ervand Abrahamian Argues 1953 Coup About Control, Not Communism

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

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