US-Iran relations: When history isn’t history after all

June 19, 2014


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.

PHOTO: Students shout slogans to police and hardline vigilantes at the gates of Tehran University holding posters of history lecturer Hashem Aghajari (R), former nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (C) and Dr Ali Shariati after a rally to mark national students day at a university auditorium December 7, 2002. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi


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So that means that the United States did not train Savak agents in the refinements of torture to keep the Shah in power and that President James Earl Carter did not travel to Tehran to toast the Shah in the Peacock Palace?

Posted by JLeinsdorf | Report as abusive

Good article and I hope writers like you will continue to fight back revisionist history. The US has meddled with plenty of countries but our reputation usually exceeds reality.

Posted by Stickystones | Report as abusive

So I guess the CIA deposing Dr. Mossadegh and imposing the shah on Iran is a myth, even though the CIA has pretty much admitted to these events happening.

I love to hear our revisionist historians tell tall tails, hahahahahaha!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

hmmm I guess I misunderstood my USA friend who was living in Iran at the time this happened, speaks perfect Iranian, and worked for the CIA.

Posted by thomasreut | Report as abusive

Actually, Dr. Takeyh’s revision is based in part on CIA reviews of the attempt to overthrow Mossadeq. His conclusion was theirs. One of them labeled the commonly understood story “a work of fiction.”

Posted by jimgaines1 | Report as abusive

One could also argue that Brutus did not kill Caesar. The point is that for decades, the US officially denied ANY involvement. The Iranian people know the truth is complicated but what has matters is comments from Obama apologising for the part the US played. From the Iranians I have spoken to, this has allowed the country to move on and has weakened the hand of the hardliners who use the myth of the “Great Satan” to keep the country isolated from the West.

But let us not kid ourselves, the UK and the US wanted Mossadegh out.

Posted by nobby73 | Report as abusive

So we didn’t over throw the elected government, we just tried to and failed and then someone else did and we were happy about it. Is that his-story?

So what we have now is a picture of a CIA that was exactly the same as we previously believed, but just not as good at its job.

I like this new version even less than I liked the old version.

Posted by K-Wulf | Report as abusive

You’re very confused and fact challenged. You are fooled by the plot the CIA hatched- they ” backed off…” only after they had gotten their dirty-work panzies to a point where they would take down Mossadegh.

Posted by Faxplz | Report as abusive

Please. Give me a break! The U.S. CIA with the blessing, if not encouragement, threw Mossedegh out of office because he nationalized the oil industry in Iran. Britain lost it’s power. The author you speak of is an Israeli shill. Did we put the Shah in power? You bet we did and we also trained SAVAK, their version of the Gestapo. Was there unrest in Iran. Sure there was. Just as in all the Middle East save the Arabian Peninsula. It’s been a war since the death of Mohammed. Nevertheless, we put the Shah in power, we armed him and we trained Savak. Either Takeyh is right and ALL U.S. and British historians are wrong or he is wrong. Who was it that secreted him out of Iran? The Taliban? YOU are the one who is the revisionist, not the rest of the academic world.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

I guess you are going to say in your next piece that the Israeli’s didn’t try to sink the U.S.S.Liberty, an American naval vessel in International waters in 1967. That episode with rivaled the bombing of the Panay by the Japanese some thirty years earlier was also fiction by your logic. In that raid, several American sailors were killed by Israeli gunfire and bombs, even though the American flag was painted on the ship. Next you are going to say that the Reichstag fire in 1933 really was a Russian plot. Please, give your revisionist history back to the Israelis.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Thomasreut, I think meant “he speaks perfect Farsi” but we all get the point. This blog is the reason we call these things blogs. It’s an opinion at best. This is a sad attempt to mislead what has been written about by the people that were actually there.

Posted by Jerry-Houston | Report as abusive

The 1953 Coup in Iran was not to place the Shah on power again. The Operation Boot was mainly to help the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (today British Petroleum) to escape Nationalization after months of conflicts wit Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh over the abusive exploitation of Oil in Iran. Completely different idea of what it is being expressed here. The Shah was place as in power as consequence of it.
This article is extremely dangerous because is already altering the past. Like in the book 1984, the newspapers are being adulterated.
The CIA intervention was a significant in Iran as in Chile.

Posted by yago32 | Report as abusive

Takeyh didn’t seem to be arguing about SAVAK or the CIA’s training thereof, nor of Carter’s actions later (at least we don’t know that from Gaines’ piece). My fellow commenters are inserting those back into the narrative when it’s not the point being contested. Takeyh was saying that the CIA/MI6 are (in his mind) being given inflated credit for the event of Mossadegh’s ouster, something I suspect happens far more frequently than people realize (for a number of reasons – the intel services relish the credit, leaders love to blame external forces, and a segment of Americans suspect virtually anything to do with their government/military/intel services). I am not agreeing with Takeyh – I’m simply pointing out his prime contention – that the Iranians involved had more power than has been recognized. As for the merits of his scholarship, it would hardly be the first time ‘knowns’ were questioned, although it certainly seems peculiar (and more than a bit suspect) that he would be the only one to ‘discover’ this version.

Posted by johannesg | Report as abusive

Please… Don’t go confusing all the conspiracy theorists and gov haters… This stuff is all they have.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Politics make strange bedfellows. Nixon’s buddy, Shah Pashlavi kept gas at $.26 @ gal. Big Oil speaks. Revolution and now they are a bitter enemy. Made a good movie called Argo.
Eisenhower/Kennedy got us involved in Viet Nam to protect us from Russia? Rubber CEO’s are the answer. Last laugh, we use synthetic rubber now. Credit Nixon for getting us out.
Like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s now way to control American overpopulation.

Posted by Doc62 | Report as abusive

US did try to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Mosaddegh, and the fact that the operation did not succeed in its goal, does not imply the US’ good intentions. Please, what is the point of saying “Oh! We are not as bad as you think. We did try to overthrow you Prime Minister. But we failed! We are good people, because we failed!” That writer needs to do a better job in changing people’s perceptions of our government’s imperialist agenda.

Posted by Eddie1986 | Report as abusive EBB435/

This (above) is CIA report on how they secured the overthrow of Mossadegh…and replaced him with Shah of Iran!

Jim Ganes is presenting a revisionist version of history as opposed to CIAs own report.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

And the model of “the success” of the CIA in Iran was used by the USA for the next 20 years from Nicaragua to Chile and around the world.

Posted by johnnyboone | Report as abusive

The link above refers to Kermit Roosevelt’s version of events, exactly the one the CIA’s own evaluation of Operation Ajax called “a work of fiction”, according to Dr. Takeyh.

Posted by jimgaines1 | Report as abusive

This article starts off with such a ridiculous statement that I decided not to read the rest of this. Either you are ignorant of facts or are getting paid by someone to purport lies. I suggest you read “Fog of War”. It is clear that the US didn’t have the foggiest idea about the Vietnam war. It was a civil war and had nothing to do with communism. This is by the Secretary of Defense at the time – Robert McNamara.

Posted by Not1Not2 | Report as abusive

What does it matter? The revolution happened. I’m sure England has stories about how we misunderstood them in 1776. How taxation without representation was a big myth cooked up in a Philadelphia bar.

What difference does it make now? What are we supposed to do, apologize? Have a do-over? No. We won and we moved on. So did the Iranians. The Iranians believe that we screwed them in the 1950′s. So for all intents and purposes…. we screwed them.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I think something myself, and many citizens of the world, keep believing is that the leaders of the world have their own facts they run on, and then hand us their version that we are supposed to use to make decisions that they favor. While this does happen pretty much as often as those people who use this tactic feel they need them, which is a tactic we use on each other socially more than we think, the truth that keeps coming out is that the ones in power are as clueless about what the right thing to do as the rest of us. When controversial things happen around the world (disaster, conflicts, misunderstandings, etc.), they can often be more clueless as to what to do since they have decided that they are the solution makers, and we just facilitate. Because so few people are actually involved in making solutions, and everyone else is seen as potential inhibitors of those goals, we too often find ourselves in situations where controlling belief and using revisionist tactics are often more helpful in changing peoples minds and actions then actually giving them the truth. Until these aspects of society changes (the hoarding of knowledge and truth, and the actively putting everyone else at a disadvantage just in case they end up becoming the enemy) then revisionism will remain an unfortunately justifiable tool in making peace. We are raised early on to “know” that the truth hurts, and to fear it. And though this might not be the only reason we do things the way we do, it is a mechanism that perpetuates the need we feel in almost all of us to reflexively temper the truth for fear of overreaction from others. Those in power are people too, they fall for the same traps they grew up into, just like the rest of us.

Posted by epockismet | Report as abusive

What does Jim gains?

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

This gleeful piece is as shoddy as the resume of the author.

Time and Life indeed.

Try critical thinking, rather than jumping on every bandwagon that comes around cheer-leading for the USA with new versions of accepted history.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

According to the logic of Ray Takeyh and his sympathizer Jim Gaines, if an individual shoots at someone but misses, he’s not a bad person. Yet the CIA didn’t even miss—as Eisenhower himself noted in his private diary, brimming with praise for the CIA operation. [“The Things We Did Were Covert”: President Eisenhower’s Diary Confession — hy/dwight-d-eisenhower/diary/october-8-1 953/

The U.S. campaign to push the Shah to dismiss Mossadegh was not only of enormous significance, but, as it comprised a foreign plot, effectively nullified its supposed legality. As Takeyh notes, the Shah resisted at first, but soon caved in. [“The CIA Scheme to ‘Dismiss’ Mossadegh: compel the Shah to sign illegal decrees under duress” — hy/august-16-1953/

The foreign role in the coup has been a matter of record for over 60 years. There’s a reason why so many U.S. officials, Presidents, etc. say so—because it’s undeniable.
[“Operation Ajax Was Always An Open Secret—A Timeline” — eration-ajax/an-open-secret/

The Mossadegh Project —

Posted by Mossadegh | Report as abusive

I haven’t read Ray Takeyh’s article yet, but I remember reading Truman’s diary about this. Truman said or suggested that this was the Britain’ priority all along, because it was their oil firm that was being nationalised. Truman seems to contend he wasn’t comfortable with it. But he writes in his diary (might have been memoir) he needed British cooperation on a number of foreign policy fronts, and so in the end Truman approved the operation to unseat Mossedeq and have the Shah reinstalled. Truman wanted Mossedeq to go away, but wanted that to happen through “political” means, whatever that meant exactly. Truman seemed to believe, or wanted others to believe at least, the conventional story more or less. If in fact the whole thing made him uncomfortable, what would be his motivation to continue propagating something that was sort of untrue? I’d think Truman would have loved a version that says the U.S. didn’t do it or help. Maybe he was in the dark, too, about the real truth? Somehow I doubt it.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened. However, the CIA of myth is far more potent than the CIA of reality.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

The other historical fact about the Iran-U.S. relationship that is ALWAYS ignored (and oddly so) is that the Truman administration in the 1940s put out a very tough line to Stalin’s USSR to withdraw Soviet troops from occupied northern Iran, which could have turned into a Middle Eastern version of East Germany. This is NEVER mentioned by all the Mossadegh conspiracy industrial complex of historians and pundits who must always assign original sin to the Great Satan.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

The other historical fact about the Iran-U.S. relationship that is ALWAYS ignored (and oddly so) is that the Truman administration in the 1940s put out a very tough line to Stalin’s USSR to withdraw Soviet troops from occupied northern Iran, which could have turned into a Middle Eastern version of East Germany. This is NEVER mentioned by all the Mossadegh conspiracy industrial complex of historians and pundits who must always assign original sin to the Great Satan.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

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