Madeleine Albright on Iran
A Mea Culpa (But No Apology) For the 1953 Coup

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | March 24, 2022                     

“In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.” — Madeleine Albright (2000)

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)

In a March 2000 speech shortly before Norouz, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1937-2022) briefly acknowledged the U.S. role in the overthrow of Premier Mossadegh.

Ever since, countless write-ups about Iran or U.S.-Iran relations have highlighted Albright’s conciliatory statement. In most cases, journalists, academics and other mainstream media pundits have lazily chosen to label the remarks an “apology”.

Albright’s speech came as the Bill Clinton administration was looking to ease tensions with Iran. Though contrition was clearly in mind as part of this agenda, her reference to the 1953 coup and U.S. support for the Shah’s dictatorship did not fit any standard definition of an apology. It was more of a mea culpa, though in each instance there was a qualifier.

Albright noted that President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the coup for “strategic reasons”. This tracks with remarks made by her successor, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in the years following. Their Cold War framing presents the coup as at least partially justifiable — unmotivated by subordination or malice, merely the national interest.

The subtle implication is that the United States acted with basically good intentions, but perhaps miscalculated (i.e., it was a tough call, so cut us some slack). Shorter version: ‘Sorry/not sorry’.

Backing the oppressive Shah over five U.S. administrations, said Albright, “did much to develop the country economically”. Another admission couched in rationalization.

“Strategic reasons”, like Hillary’s “hard choices” maxim, is political innuendo that could apply to virtually anything. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is invading Ukraine, murdering its people and committing unspeakable war crimes for “strategic reasons”. Any nation, at any time, could play this card – with impunity.

Albright went on to balance her mea culpa with America’s own litany of grievances with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime which probably owes its existence to the chain of events that began in 1953.

But Madeleine Albright’s most famous quote was in 1996 — in response to a question about the human toll of U.S. sanctions against Iraq.

Leslie Stahl (60 Minutes): “We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

U.S.-Iran Relations
Keynote Speech to the American-Iranian Council
March 17, 2000, Washington, D.C.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) “But that common ground has sometimes been shaken by other factors. In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. [mispronounced “Moss-a-day”] The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.

Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent. [When Mossadegh sought a U.S. loan, both Truman and Eisenhower rebuffed him, but after the CIA-backed coup, Ike immediately sent $45 million in aid]

As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations. Even in more recent years, aspects of U.S. policy towards Iraq, during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted, especially in light our subsequent experiences with Saddam Hussein.

However, we have our own list of grievances, and they are serious.

Madam Secretary (2001)

Madam Secretary (2001) book

“In 1953, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a coup that ousted Iran’s elected prime minister and returned its shah, Reza Pahlavi, to power. [sic — Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] During the next quarter-century, the shah maintained close relations with the United States and and aggressively modernized Iran’s economy, while also ruthlessly repressing domestic opposition.”

The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006)

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006) book

“Pursuant to a congressional mandate, the administration began preparing annual reports chronicling the human rights practices of countries receiving assistance from the United States. New restrictions were placed on military training and arms sales to friendly but authoritarian governments in such countries as the Philippines, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. One dictator, however, escaped all such sanctions: the shah of Iran.

The flamboyant Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been America’s ally since 1953, the year the CIA engineered a coup installing him as shah of Iran in place of an elected but anti-western prime minister. [Mossadegh was not in any sense anti-western!] Once enthroned, the shah proved himself both rigidly autocratic and an enthusiastic modernizer. [The Shah was already there, but absolute rule eclipsed constitutional monarchy] His “white revolution” won plaudits from the West for reforming education, building roads, improving health care, and expanding opportunities for women. The Nixon administration had agreed to sell Iran virtually any non-nuclear weapon that its government was willing to buy, expecting in return a regime that would serve as a bulwark of anti-communist stability.

For President Carter, the shah was an early test. A foreign policy based on human rights alone would have shunned such a dictator, whose secret police were well practiced in torture. Instead, the administration embraced him. [Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and other GOP figures argued that Carter abandoned him] Iran, with its abundant oil reserves and its strategic location along the northern banks of the Persian Gulf, was viewed as too great a prize to risk. This was a case in which both the president and Brzezinski agreed that the United States should allow its realistic side to prevail over its more idealistic instincts. We were, after all, engaged in a zero-sum game with the highest possible stakes. Washington and Moscow sat across from each other with the global chessboard between them. The world at the time was divided in two, or so we thought. It took awhile for the superpowers to realize that a bearded man in a long robe had sat down beside them and was already making moves of his own.

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable
The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable


Related links:

Secretary of State John Kerry’s Historic Iran Deal: Smart Diplomacy of Appeasement?

Russia on Iran National Front: Mossadegh Is Opponent of USSR (1949)

President Barack Obama on Iran, Mossadegh and the 1953 Coup

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

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