US-Iran relations: When history isn’t history after all
By : Jim Gaines
I learned what a trickster history can be 20 years ago at Hanoi airport. After everything the United States gave and lost in Vietnam while trying to keep it safe from Communism, who would have thought you would find the lion lying down with the lamb at a business convention? But there it was, capitalism in capital letters, a billboard advertising VIETNAMERICA EXPO!
Who won that war again?
Things like that change how you understand the world — if only by teaching you to wonder about even those things you think you know for an absolute fact.
It happened again last weekend. I read something that laid waste one of the most common assumptions of Cold War history: that an expert 1953 CIA covert operation in Iran overthrew a democratically elected prime minister to put the shah back back in control of his country. Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues persuasively in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that President Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA did not actually bring down Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh after all.
Hunh? There had to be some mistake. Could it be that the United States is not the Great Satan the Middle East has made it out to be all these years? That the Iranians embraced the shah all on their own?
Maybe that is the reason why the people of Iran have always evinced more affection for the U.S. and its citizens than their government does. They knew all along what U.S. historians did not – the truth.
Takeyh can see it clearly. “[T]he CIA’s impact on the events of 1953,” he writes, “was ultimately insignificant.”
This is historic revisionism that cuts deep. The “truth” being revised has been the subject of soul-searching by U.S. presidents from Harry Truman, who refused to authorize covert ops in Iran, to Barack Obama, who, with implied contrition, invoked the CIA’s role in “the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” during his much-covered speech to the Arab world in 2009.
The notion that the U.S. deposed Mossadegh and reimposed the shah on the people of Iran is one of the founding myths of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and among the most poignant intricacies of the American-Iranian relationship—one that is right now poised at a moment of great danger and great potential.
With the region being fractured by sectarian violence, with extremists on the far side of al Qaeda taking over whole swaths of Syria and Iraq and threatening to carve a radical Sunni heartland out of the desert borderlands now only nominally controlled by Damascus and Baghdad, Iranian and U.S. officials actually met this week to discuss cooperation to keep Iraq from blowing up entirely. And while negotiations are far from concluded, the outlines of a deal that would contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are already coming clear.
This makes Takeyh’s rewriting of history of more than academic interest.
His point, in brief, is that while the CIA and MI6 did plot to bring Mossadegh down, the written record proves that their plotting was ineffective and that everyone knew it. General Walter Bedell Smith gave the news to Eisenhower straight. “The move failed,” he wrote. “We now have to take a whole new look at the Iranian situation….”
Only after Western intelligence backed off was Mossadegh brought down—not by the CIA or MI6, not even by the shah, but by the Iranians themselves, in a coalition of disaffected politicians, military officers, members of parliament, and Iranians of all stripes who took to the streets — led by none other than the most important religious leader in the country, Ayatollah Abul-Qasim Kashani and fellow Iranian clergy.
“You have to understand that Iran in the 1950s was a different place,” Takeyh said in an interview. “The shah was tentative, deferential, not the megalomaniac he would become in the ‘70s. The clergy was more quietist and moderate than they are now, and apart from a few relatively minor disputes they had very good relations with the monarchy.”
Takeyh’s careful scholarship is bound to be contradicted by historians and politicians in both countries who have published the conventional story or have an interest in sustaining it, but the evidence for his case is strong, and it comes at a time when the need for a “reset” in U.S.-Iranian relations is compelling.
Though the correction of a 60-year-old mistake is unlikely to produce a breakthrough in Syria, Iraq or nuclear negotiations, it does subtly change one of the negotiators — from helpless victim of the imperialist dog to a country that, however much its leaders may wish to distance themselves from it, shaped its own history.
Jim Gaines, Reuters Global Editor-at-large, is the former editor of TIME and LIFE magazines and the author of several works of history.