Saturday, September 14, 2013
Mossadeq and the US: an Introduction
The following is the introduction to a paper I wrote on Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and his relations with the US Administrations of Truman and Eisenhower:
The overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in August 1953 has long been a sore point for Iranians; the inspiration for many conspiracy theories and the source of much ill will directed towards the US government by the average Iranian citizen.[i] The extensive writings on this subject are predictably voluminous. While the perpetrators of the coup included foreign and domestic agents, as well as Iranians from all parts of the political spectrum, the Americans, particularly the CIA, are often singled out as the primary antagonists.
The reasons for this are many, but important amongst them are the claims made by Kermit Roosevelt Jr. in his book, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran. Roosevelt writes about his own role as a CIA agent in fomenting the civil unrest and pressuring the Shah into issuing Firmans removing Mossadeq.[ii] CIA documents corroborate some of his claims, while others contradict them.
The British, in fact, had a significant role in the coup, but because diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Iran were severed prior to the coup, the British Embassy had been closed, and therefore the British had less of a direct role in the actual execution of the events of 16 and 19 August, 1953.[iii] The British foreign intelligence service, the MI6, which had been based out of the embassy, was restricted by the degradation in relations, but still managed to assist the CIA and the locals who acted to overthrow the Iranian government.[iv]
Reinforcing the beliefs of American involvement were statements by Secretary of State Madeline Albright apologizing for the United States' "significant role" in the 1953 coup[v], and President Barack Obama with a similar apology in 2009.[vi] Despite the claims of responsibility by a variety of different groups, and innumerable theories on the events of August 19th, 1953, what actually happened remains difficult to determine.
What makes this question all the more interesting is that the United States initially had been very supportive of Prime Minister Mossadeq, but then in 1953 made an attempt to overthrow Mossadeq. What caused this change?
During and immediately following the Second World War, the foreign policy of the United States underwent significant changes. Up to this time, the state's foreign policy had been primarily isolationist with a few exceptions (Cuba, Philippines etc.), but with the perceived threat of rampant communism, the focus expanded and the state became more predisposed to intervene globally. This change in priorities coincided with a greater demand for natural resources (in particular petroleum) following World War II. In December 1943 a memo from the Petroleum Division stated that the US preferred “Middle Eastern oil to be developed to the maximum” while American and Caribbean oil was conserved because it would be easier to defend in war.[vii]
Iran became a natural focal point for the building tensions to manifest themselves as it has one of the largest reserves of both natural gas as well as petroleum.[viii] Adding to this, there were tens of thousands of American troops occupying the country to ensure delivery of supplies to the Soviet Union.[ix] Even before the discovery of oil, Iran has long been important geopolitically to Western powers, with innumerable examples from history dating back to pre-Roman times.
Perhaps the best pre-modern depiction of how the West saw this part of the world is British political geographer Halford Mackinder's 'Heartland Theory'.[x] The 'Heartland Theory' claims that a state that wishes to dominate the world must physically control the Central Asian Plateau, the Caucasus and what is today Russia.[xi] Iran is a part of this central "pivot area" which Mackinder's theory is concerned with. With the Russian Empire and then the USSR controlling the majority of the "Heartland", fears that Iran, one of the few places of the "Heartland" not under Russian/Soviet control, could fall, led to a British interest in maintaining a footprint in the region. The Great Game between Russia and Britain, where they competed over Central Asia and Iran, is an example of the struggles between global powers over this part of the world and provides the background for American political sentiments towards Iran. Though Mackinder was an academic, during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia he was appointed "British High Commissioner in Southern Russia".[xii] Even if his theory was not wholeheartedly embraced by the British government, his presence in this part of the world as a representative of the British implies that Mackinder held some measure of influence in the British government. While Mackinder's theory was not published until 1904, the British had long seen this part of the world as essential to their geopolitical aspirations.
The election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower as the President of the United States in 1952 changed American policy towards Iran. Eisenhower's beliefs were more in line with the British who (whether they believed it themselves or not), argued vociferously that the threat of communism was increasingly dangerous in Iran.[xiii] Initially Eisenhower's administration attempted to keep Mossadeq in power as they believed that the alternatives to him would lead to Soviet control of Iran and subsequently the rest of the Middle East. As late as March 1953, Eisenhower is on record stating that he wished for Mohammad Mossadeq to continue be the Prime Minister of Iran for he was seen as a moderating voice between the right-wing military, royalist and religious parties, and the left-wing Communist Tudeh party.
It was the beginning of the Cold War, and the Republican President Eisenhower was fearful of the possibility that the Communists might take over the Middle East. Mossadeq was not necessarily friendly towards the Tudeh Party, but he also did not suppress them as forcefully as the Americans would have preferred. He even allowed front organizations and publishing houses of political opponents to operate.[xiv] In the dichotic view of the Western powers, the lack of a consistent, strict crackdown on Communist sympathizers by Mossadeq's government was seen as evidence of an anti-Western bias.
The CIA’s internal history written in 1998, claims that “Even the most bitter anti-Mossadeq partisans did not claim the Iranian Prime Minister was a Communist or sympathizer”.[xv] The evidence suggests that this however, is not the case. A French newspaper said the following about Mossadeq: “The opposition called him an Anglophile, The Russians entitled him the servant of American imperialism. The British labeled him a Communist”.[xvi] Mossadeq, (apparently in a bid to gain Western sympathies) overemphasized the power of the Tudeh to the West.[xvii] Despite the fact that the Tudeh (Communist) party of Iran was officially outlawed, many in the American government and some in the CIA were fearful that Prime Minister Mossadeq was sympathetic towards communism. Mossadeq’s attempt to play the sides against each other by the concept of “negative equilibrium” evidently backfired, as the Americans then saw him as weak and replaceable, rather than weak, but still worthy of support.
The United States was stuck in a position where they had already committed resources to the Iranian government (before and during Mossadeq's tenure), and wished to resolve the oil dispute as soon as possible to reduce tensions in the unstable Middle East. At the same time the risks of harming American business interests and potentially also long-term geopolitical interests were ever-present in the minds of the Eisenhower Administration.
The Truman administration had spent millions of dollars trying to support the Iranian economy through loans and grants.[xviii] This was intended to keep the Iranian government as stable as possible and prevent a Communist takeover. There were also American officials who were sympathetic to Iran's Mossadeq-inspired drive for oil nationalization which complicated the US-Iran relationship even further.[xix] Other Americans were worried for the potential of nationalization happening in American areas of influence and oil production such as Saudi Arabia.[xx] That the oil agreement with Saudi Arabia had recently been renegotiated to a still profitable 50/50 split may have alleviated some of these fears. However, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company’s (AIOC) 'concessionary' deal with Iran was far more exploitative (to the benefit of the British) than the Saudi Aramco agreement and the Iranians were well-aware of this fact.[xxi]
Mossadeq, in his idealism, believed that the United States with its principles of democracy and justice, was likely to side with him in his struggles against the British. Iran and the US had been enjoying closer relations at the expense of Britain and the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War, which reinforced Mossadeq’s beliefs.[xxii] He evidently did not anticipate that political expediencies and historical alliances would play such strong roles in the American decision making process. The good relations which Mossadeq had with several key American officials and negotiators, likely have convinced him that the rest of the government was also sympathetic to his situation. As time passed and an agreement was not reached, Mossadeq's relations with the Americans soured. One reason for this was apparently the perceived mutability of Mossadeq in his oil negotiations. The United States while relatively neutral in the process, wanted the matter settled, as the dispute was a destabilizing factor in an unstable, potentially volatile, geopolitically important region.
Mossadeq was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year for 1951 for his work in nationalizing Iran's oil and other achievements.[xxiii] Despite this honor, the description of his physical and personal characteristics was overwhelmingly negative and used marginally racist words.[xxiv] These sentiments can be described as representative of American public perception, and if not, that fact that these words came from a leading national magazine publication, understandably had a significant influence on people. The New York Times often described Mossadeq as a ‘dictator’, although the paper never bestowed this disparaging title upon the Shah who ruled for 25 years after Mossadeq fell from power.[xxv] Iran was not a wealthy country, and was seen as backwards by many in the West. Disparaging or patronizing attitudes from the West towards the developing countries and their people was commonplace and impacted interactions between the states and individuals, certainly including those between Mossadeq and the West.
[i] In the executive system of the time Iran, Prime Minister was elected by the Parliament (Majles). Mossadeq was voted in by a 79-12 margin. See Foran, John. "Democratization, Separatism, Nationalization, Coup." Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution., 1993. 285.
[ii] Bayandor claims that the removal process is technically legal, but because of the duress it was an illegal act. Bayandor, Darioush. Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited. 2010..
[iii] Keddie, Nikki R., Yann Richard, and Nikki R. Keddie. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution., 2003. 129
[iv] Katouzian, Homa. "Democratization, Separatism, Nationalization, Coup." Musaddiq's Memoirs. By Mohammad Mosaddeq. Trans. Homa Katouzian. London: 1988. 55
[v] Albright, M. (2000, March 17). American-Iranian Relations. Remarks before the American-Iranian Council, Washington, D.C.
[vi] "Obama Admits US Involvement in 1953 Iran Coup." AFP. Google, 04 June 2009. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
[vii] 1 December 1943, folder: ‘Petroleum Reserves Corporation Activities. 7/3/43-1/1/44’ box 1, Records of the Petroleum Division, RG 59 via Anderson, Irvine H. "The American Oil Industry and the Fifty-Fifty Agreement of 1950." Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. By James A. Bill and William Roger Louis. 1988. 151
[viii] It was known that Iran possessed vast reserves of oil-based fuels, and the discovery and understanding of how much Iran has is not a recent development.
[ix] Foran 271
[x] O'Hara, Sarah, and Michael Heffernan. "From Geo-Strategy to Geo-Economics: The ‘Heartland’ and British Imperialism Before and After MacKinder." (2006): 54
[xi] O’Hara and Heffernan 67
[xii] O’Hara and Heffernan 66
[xiii] Ansari, Ali M. Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and after. 2003. 121; Azimi, Fakhreddin. Iran: The Crisis of Democracy. 1989. 295; Ferrier, Ronald W. "The Anglo-Iranian Oil Dispute." Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. By James A. Bill and William Roger Louis. 1988. 186; Louis, Wm. Roger. "Musaddiq and the Dilemmas of British Imperialism." Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. By James A. Bill and William Roger Louis. 1988. 242
[xiv] Foran 290; Cottam, Richard W. Nationalism in Iran. 1964. 215
[xv] Koch, Scott A., "Zendebad, Shah!": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, August 1953," Top Secret Draft History, History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, June 1998., 79
[xvi] Bill, James A. Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. By James A. Bill and William Roger Louis. 1988. 265
[xvii] Bill 277
[xviii] Truman’s Point Four program was intended to help develop Iran, and was responsible for investing tens of millions of US dollars in Iran.
[xix] In particular George McGhee, and Dr. Henry F. Grady, US Ambassador to Iran from 1950-1951
[xx] Bill 273; Siavoshi, Sussan. "The Oil Nationalization Movement, 1949-1953." A Century of Revolution: Social Movements in Iran. By John Foran. 1994. 128
[xxi] Bill 273
[xxii] Foran 271
[xxiii] "Man of the Year: Challenge of the East." Time 7 Jan. 1952: n. pag. Time Magazine. Web.
[xxiv] Bill 265; "Man of the Year: Challenge of the East." Time 7 Jan. 1952: n. pag. Time Magazine. Web.
[xxv] Bill 265