The anniversary of the 1953 Coup in Iran is approaching (August 19th) and the drumbeat of the “evils of Imperialist domination” will get louder. For the Iranians it is a national ritual to call the 1953 coup – that returned the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power – an American or CIA Coup. For decades this has been part of an image that associated the United States government and the west in general with the dictatorships around the world; as if these associations were second nature for the western “imperialists”. Close to six decades have passed, the dictatorships in Latin America and South East Asia have turned to democracies with the encouragement of the West, but the dark image of that event continues to persist in the Iranian psyche.
American literature and media is also caught up in this imagery. Wikipedia’s definition is: “The 1953 Iranian coup d'état … was the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency.” This is repeated over and over in other media to the point that it is expected of the American presidents to apologize for their “overthrow” of Mosaddegh. It is like a fable: Once upon a time there was a Mosaddegh (the fairy) and a CIA (the demon)…!
Where were the rest of the Iranians? Isn’t it time to evaluate this image and inquire about its validity?
The records show that the CIA involvement was composed of a few operatives and a few million dollars in funding. The coup was performed by the Iranians themselves. Organizers of the coup were Iranian leaders. The thousands who entered into the street in opposition to Mossadegh were Iranians. The leaders of the coup were from all strata of the Iranian society; military, merchants, religious, intellectuals. In composition, in organization and in its leadership it was all Iranian. The operatives did their cajoling and spent a few million, considerable at the time; but a few operatives and a few million dollars cannot create a coup. The CIA is not that efficient.
The true historical records show that the 1953 coup in Iran was an Iranian coup. Were the coup organizers inspired by the United States? Yes, certainly that is true. But that was nothing new; the Iranian society has been recoiling, twisting and turning since late 19th century from its contact with the West, trying to find its way to modernity. Enthused and educated by the West, we always found excuses to reject it. In 1953 the slice of the society looking to the west and inspired by it was small. Furthermore the slice of the society looking toward modernity was split among the pro west and the communists, which narrowed the independent political outlook of this emerging segment. In that tug of war a democracy could not emerge. The 1953 Mossadegh was not the dawn of Iranian democracy that was thwarted by the evil west but an inept and more and more isolated politician squeezed between the pro west and the pro soviet layers of the society, our thin and conflicted face of modernity at the time.
So, let’s call things by their right names. The 1953 coup was an Iranian coup looking toward Western modernity and the 1979 Islamic Revolution was an Iranian reaction pulling away from modernity. The consequences are clear. There is nothing inherent in our (Iranian) culture to produce democracy on its own. The West will be an ingredient in the emerging democracy in Iran and we will continue to recoil, twist and turn facing this reality.