Rachel Maddow on 1953 Coup in Iran

Rare Opportunity Squandered in Error-Filled Segment

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | April 9, 2014                      

The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC

Though Iran comes up daily in the media, the seismic Mossadegh saga is scarcely mentioned—never mind discussed—on mainstream television. So when the 60th anniversary of the 1953 coup was featured in a segment on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, it was a rare chance to introduce the story to millions.

Yet in a nearly eight minute diatribe, Maddow fumbled with bits and pieces of the story in an uneven, obtuse and convoluted manner using a script so carelessly researched, it more resembled a student’s rushed classroom presentation prepared the night before.

For starters, Maddow never once used the word “nationalization”, nor offered any background on the controversy over the Abadan refinery amid a backdrop of broken contracts, gross economic disparity and stubborn British interference in Iranian affairs. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later known as BP, was also never brought up.

This bitter international dispute, which went all the way to the United Nations and the World Court, was the impetus behind the British drive to overthrow Mossadegh, and the United States ultimately opted not to defy its closest ally in the world for the sake of little old Iran.

None of the gravity of these drawn-out polemics—the staging ground for the eventual coup—is conveyed to viewers. Instead, Maddow wastes precious time with meaningless folksy chit-chat, almost as if she were trying to explain these events to a bunch of easily distracted four year-olds.

The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC The factual errors are glaring. Maddow gives the impression that the Shah and the Prime Minister shared executive power, when it was the monarch’s role to reign as a constitutional monarch; and implies that the Shah opposed nationalization (he endorsed it publicly). She then incorrectly tells the audience that the young Shah “had cut a deal with the British” to control Iran’s oil. Try again—the D’Arcy concession began in 1901, some eighteen years before the Shah was even born.

Maddow also states that Mossadegh was overthrown in part because he “seemed too friendly with the Communists”, a Cold War myth hatched in the West with zero basis in fact (on the contrary, the Tudeh Party often played the role of nemesis).

Finally, the crux of her whole segment—her breathless announcement that the CIA had just “finally” fessed up and officially admitted to the coup—is 100% wrong. The CIA has “officially” allowed scores of its personnel— including CIA Directors themselves—to write and talk about Operation Ajax publicly for, quite literally, decades.

The main irony here is that even after 60 years, the media still fails to handle this subject with the thoughtfulness and professionalism it requires.

The Rachel Maddow Show — August 19, 2013

Okay, the man on the right in this picture we’re going to put up. See the red arrow? The man on the right, one of the guys holding binoculars, that is President Kennedy. It’s 1962. He’s at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and he’s holding binoculars because he is watching the Marine Corps practice landing operations. The other guy with the binoculars there on the left, that is Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Sitting between President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson is...the king of Iran! Iran has a king. Or at least Iran had a king, except they don’t use the word king, they call him the Shah. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Here he is again on that same trip with President Kennedy and with both of their wives, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and also the Empress of Iran, the Shah’s wife. The government of Iran and our government used to be, to use a technical term, besties. We were really close with Iran. We were double-date-with-the-king close with Iran. Of course now our governments could not be more at odds. We have no formal relations with Iran. We don’t have an embassy there, they don’t have an embassy here, but we did used to be very, very close allies. And one of the major reasons that that relationship ended was because of the Shah and the CIA...

It was called "Operation Ajax". August 1953. So in Iran the Shah was the king. He was technically in power, but Iran also had a Prime Minister who was democratically elected. And the elected Prime Minister in 1953 was Mohammad Mossadegh. He was very popular, he also wanted policies that the Shah did not want. And he scared the bejesus out of the West. So much so that "Operation Ajax" was hatched by the CIA to overthrow that Prime Minister in Iran.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, the reason they decided he definitely had to go, was him crusading for Iran to own its own oil. The Shah had cut a deal with the British to essentially let England own all of Iran’s oil. But Mossadegh said that was ridiculous, it was a terrible deal for Iran and frankly a majority of Iranians agreed with him. He was very, very popular among his own people. And he was very unpopular outside of Iran, especially in the West. Especially among leaders of the UK, who until that time quite enjoyed totally running Iran’s oil operation with the blessing of their friend the Shah. And then here comes this democratically elected guy, this populist guy, telling the king of Iran and telling the Prime Minister of England and telling the President of the United States that he is going to reclaim his country’s oil industry because that’s what he thinks is fair, and most Iranians agree with him.

Danger, Will Robinson. Danger! Obviously, that could not stand, and so we, the United States, specifically the CIA, hatched a plot to overthrow that Prime Minister. It was internally justified over here because he was giving our friends in England and our good buddy the king of Iran a really hard time and we were also scared that he seemed too friendly with the Communists in his country.

So, in the early 1950’s we organized a coup to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran. We used propaganda and subterfuge to gin up and fake street protests. We pressured our buddy the Shah himself to sign a decree forcing the prime minister out of office. The Shah had to flee Iran for his own safety for a while once he did that, but the coup did work. And the elected prime minister, this populist guy, was forced out. And so our good pal the king was returned to the throne in Iran. And Britain’s oil interests were kept safe for a little while longer. And Mossadegh spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

And then—spoiler alert, here’s how that all turned out. Not all that many years later, within a generation the Iranian revolution. When Iranians ousted the Shah, the guy who we had artificially ensconced on his throne in Iran. Turns out people do not like having their leaders picked for them by the CIA. They don’t like having their leaders picked for them by anybody, but maybe particularly by the CIA. And after years of all this being known but not officially owned up to by the CIA, today the CIA admitted for the first time ever, okay, yeah, we did it. We were behind that world-changing coup in Iran back in the 1950’s. They released a CIA internal history, not only admitting to it but explaining how they did it and why. And that admission is both a huge deal and also, as I said, something everybody already knew since, oh, say, pretty much the day after the coup happened in the first place.

Look at the date on this story: August 20th, 1953, the day after the CIA carried out Operation Ajax. “Open charges that the U.S. was implicated in the first stages of the coup”. This was the day after the coup, they were already saying it was us. But we’ve always formally denied it until today. And this is such a widely known thing that we did that there is literally an app for it. [Commercial]: “Introducing "Operation Ajax" for the iPad. Based on actual events of the CIA’s involvement in overthrowing the Iranian government.”

So the CIA today admits something that was already universally known but was still officially a secret thing. And there have been a flurry of these kinds of no-duh CIA admissions lately. On Friday the CIA admitted that Area 51 exists, that secret tract of land in Nevada where UFO conspiracists think the CIA did all their secret experiments on aliens. On Friday the CIA admitted, yes, Area 51 exists, but they did not admit that the alien stuff exists. Also last week the CIA admitted that yes, for years they had kept a file on the linguist and left-wing philosopher and anti-war activist Noam Chomsky. They’d always denied they had done that, but it was pretty much inconceivable that they wouldn’t have been keeping tabs on him given who else we know they were keeping tabs on at that time. We always knew it, but now they are admitting it. How come?

When you implausibly deny stuff that everybody knows is true, it costs you some of your credibility. If we know it is so, if it is proven to be so, if it is widely reported and admitted to be so but you just won’t formally admit it, you don’t seem all that trustworthy in your formal statements anymore. So it is a good thing for the credibility of the U.S. government that the CIA is now admitting this stuff formally that everybody has already reported and figured out. It’s also why it was good for the credibility of the U.S. government when we finally got an admission from the Obama administration that we are, in fact killing people with drones outside of war zones. Instead of hearing them say for years in the most passive way possible that people "had been killed" under circumstances we could not comment on that we all knew were drone strikes, it helped when they finally admitted, yeah, we’re killing people with drone strikes. And that is why it is good now for the credibility of our government that we are finally getting this admission from the CIA about what happened in Iran.

And yeah, maybe it took until today, until the 60th anniversary of the coup, but they never saw fit to admit to it before and now they do. Credibility is priceless. And it is an important thing. A praiseworthy advance when our government stops implausibly denying what is widely known and proven to be true. If this is the new CIA approach under director John Brennan, then thank you, Director John Brennan. If in your life people believe you when you talk, it is a sign of credibility well earned and in some ways of a life well lived. Same goes for government. If you are in public service, try to leave government more credible than how you found it when you got there. Telling us what exactly the NSA does might be a nice next step, you guys...

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

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Related links:

MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes Covers the 1953 Coup in Iran (VIDEO)

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson on U.S. History of Bullying Foreign Policy

U.S. Diplomat Ryan Crocker: We Overthrew A Democratic Iranian Government in 1953

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

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