Remembering and Learning From U.S. Responsibility for the 1953 Coup
Roham Alvandi and Mark Gasiorowski describe in detail how the U.S. overthrew Iran’s prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, and they push back against the false revisionism being pushed by Iran hawks and the Trump administration that seeks to absolve the U.S. of responsibility for the coup:
Behbahani and Kashani were maverick, populist political activists, distant from—and often disdained by—the mainstream Shiite clergy epitomized by Borujerdi. Their involvement in the coup should not be taken as evidence that the mainstream clergy supported or participated in the coup, as Bayandor implies. And the clerics who did participate did so with U.S. support.
Acknowledging the role of Iranian actors, including some of the Shiite clergy, in the 1953 coup does not absolve the United States of responsibility for the coup. Many historians of the 1953 coup, most recently Ervand Abrahamian and Ali Rahnema, have judiciously documented the overwhelming evidence that the United States played a central role in toppling Mosaddeq. But their voices are being drowned out by a shrill cacophony of opportunistic politicians and revisionist scholars and pundits.
While British and Iranian actors played significant roles in the events before and during the coup in August 1953, it was the Americans who organized and led the overthrow of Mosaddeq, mobilizing and directing the Iranians who carried it out.
The 1953 coup was a clear case of blatant U.S. interference in Iran’s internal affairs. Overthrowing Mossadeq was one of the earliest examples of destructive U.S. meddling in the affairs of other nations during the Cold War, and it should be taken as a cautionary tale about what happens when the U.S. tries to dictate the political future of another country. Our government bears responsibility for the coup, and it seems fair to conclude that without our government’s involvement the coup would not have happened. Iran’s political development was severely distorted as a result of the coup, and Iranians have been living with the consequences of this interference for decades.
Meddling in Iranian affairs didn’t just blow up in America’s face later on, but it was also the wrong thing to do at the time. It was one of the first things Eisenhower did as president, and it was one of his worst mistakes. Whatever the U.S. might have gained from the coup in the short term has been far exceeded by the damage that U.S. support for the shah did to Iran and to U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. We need to remember the truth about this shameful intervention so that it isn’t whitewashed and erased by propagandists, and we also need to learn from it that our government has no right to meddle in other countries’ affairs.
It is interesting that the leading “revisionists” that have tried to cast doubt on the importance of the U.S. role in the coup are leading proponents of interfering in Iranian internal affairs today. Iran hawks today are strangely eager to minimize the U.S. role in 1953 in order to promote a regime change agenda now. They seem to think that if they can shift the blame for the coup to Iranian clerics that this will help to undermine the current government:
If the revisionists can pin the blame for Mosaddeq’s downfall on the Shiite clergy of the 1950s, so the thinking goes, then they might be able to use Mosaddeq’s ongoing popularity to mobilize Iranians against their clerical rulers today.
The problem for the “revisionists” is that there is so much evidence of U.S. culpability that this will never work, but their attempt to rewrite history needs to be refuted just as Alvandi and Gasiorowski have done in their article. Iran hawks want to rewrite Iran’s past so they can justify another outrageous U.S. intervention in Iranian politics, and they mustn’t be allowed to get away with it.