Monday, August 20, 2018

1953 Coup and Democracy in Iran

The month of August is the anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran, the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mossadegh, then premier of the country. This coup has been widely labeled as the “1953 CIA coup”. CIA stands for the Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. Alternatively the 1953 coup has been called the “1953 CIA led coup”, a milder version. Mohammad Reza Shah which reinstated his rule through this coup and his supporters have called this event as the “Shah and People Uprising”.

There is also a false narrative that Mossadegh was “democratically” elected and his overthrow was a subversion of “democracy” in Iran. This event is portrayed as one of the “evil” doings of the U.S.

Multiple times I have heard from Robert Wright of Bloggingheads.tv saying, Iranians were the victim of the U.S. overthrowing their democratically elected prime minister. This has been repeated by Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks (TYT) and almost all other liberal and leftist outlets. This has been repeated by Juan Cole, a darling of many of my Iranian compatriots. Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website is a typical leftist website with a strong bent against Israel and the U.S. which reverberates among many “liberal” Iranians.

This view now a days is a norm even in the Democratic party, finding its way all the way to the leadership of the party. Barack Obama, the president, was not immune from it. His views would give out some hints of it, that the 1953 Coup was a wrong doing that somehow the U.S. need to account for it. We need to own our “sin”. I wonder if this view somehow was reflected in the weaknesses in the nuclear agreement with Iran!

I have rebuked the first part of this narrative in my post of July 8, 2010, 1953 Coup. In there I asserted that the coup was an Iranian coup encouraged and supported by the U.S. I do not think I need to change anything that I said in that post (a few commas added):

“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 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.”

In that blog post I have mentioned a couple of items which I like to add some details. One is that there never was a democracy in Iran. The only semblance of democracy was the parliament. Most of its members were elected by stuffing the ballot boxes either by the Shah’s supporters or by the tribal and local leaders. To the extent that there was any freedom of thought and expression it was because of the political instability caused by external events. In the period leading to the 1953 coup the instability was framed by the WWII events. These limited freedoms always were constricted by assaults on assemblies by different group of mobs, and by the assassinations carried through by different political currents. The most prominent ones were the work of Tudeh party, a pro-Moscow Communist formation.

Imprisonments of the political opponents was always part of the political mix. Mossadegh was not exempt, he did imprison his opponents. There was a joke prevalent in Iran that the democracy in Iran is defined by who gets up earlier in the morning and occupies the streets! It was mob rule, masqueraded as “democracy” by ideologues of different interests. Democracy needs principles and structures and none of those two ingredients existed in Iran. In my opinion there are no prospects for the generation of those ingredients either, but that is another discussion.

Is there any truth to the claim that Mossadegh was “democratically elected”? One cannot find this even to be marginally true. “Democratic election” in the West conjures certain connotations, that there are different candidates and they campaign on their programs and people vote for them in a fair process. Nothing as such happened in Iran. The process of premiership in Iran was: Shah would select a person and the parliament ratified his selection. It was more like the selection of the supreme court members in the U.S. than a democratic election. But again, the selection of the U.S. Supreme Court members is staged based on a much larger democratic process and institutions. The larger context of Mossadegh’s selection was tribalism and backwardness. That is how Mossadegh came to power. He was selected by the Shah and was ratified by the “parliament”.

There was also another rule at the time, the Shah could sack the prime minister at will, provided he would introduce a new one to the parliament within a certain period. Mossadegh failed to come to an agreement with Britain negotiating the terms of the agreement on the oil exploration and the division of the proceeds. Shah using his legal authority fired Mossadegh. Mossadegh refused to leave. Mossadegh was never democratically elected and he chose to ignore the prevalent law at the time. In another word Mossadegh was illegal! Of course, mobs came to the street and he was reinstated. There was no democracy!

I also wrote that Mossadegh was an inept politician. The first characteristic of an effective politician is to know the relationship of the forces that he is dealing with and the limitations of the forces he is in control of. To understand his ineptitude is not difficult. During the last phase of his power Mossadegh rode on the wave of mob action which he did not have any control over and provided a basis as strong as a quick sand. For years he had propagandized for the nationalization of the oil industry, an illusion which later became the mantra of the Iranian intellectuals as the elixir of the Iranian problem. Oil was labeled as the black gold that its nationalization could carry Iran to the promised land. At the time Mossadegh and his government did not have any expertise in extraction, refinement and marketing of its products in the country. Britain was the sole source of know how for its extraction and refinement and it was the main market for that oil. Imagine a manager of an enterprise who is in combat with the source of the manufacture of its product and at war with the market that its product is destined to. That is the tragedy of Mossadegh’s premiership. Maybe his animosity had something to do with the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty by Reza Khan, the father of the shah during his premiership and the British support of Reza Shah. Mossadegh came from the aristocracy of that dynasty, the Qajars. Tribalism and family feuds are not unbeknownst among Iranians!

Mossadegh was adamant to throw Britain out of Iran. His intransigence only produced financial troubles for the country and in a short period of time the mob support evaporated. His appeal to the U.S. to replace Britain was to no avail. The U.S. tried very hard to convince him to come to terms with Britain and reach an agreement. The U.S. simply could not kick his main partner during the WWII in the teeth to satisfy Mossadegh’s intransigence. The fact of the matter is that it was Mossadegh’s political trajectory that left only two alternatives for Iran at the time. Tudeh party, communist, takeover or his own overthrow. The latter happened.

As unpleasant that experience has been for many Iranians, the balance sheet of the U.S. leadership in confronting communism during the Cold War is clear. Expansion of communism after the WWII was eventually halted and its broad dismantlement with the demise of the Soviet Union has led to the expansion of democracy in the world. These days military rules and coups are an oddity, more and more political discussions are the norm. There is a reason that the entire democratic world, particularly Western Europe sees the U.S. as the bulwark of democracy and its leader.

Most Iranians yet have not learned this basic lesson. They have not learned that the 1953 coup was the best thing that could have happened to them under the circumstances. Most of their intellectual leaders yet think that they can devise their own path to democracy. Europe with all its heritage in culture and science could not do it on its own, but leaders of thought in Iran are certain there is a way to democracy independent of the U.S.! How many ways can one find to turn a donkey driven cart into a car? You can put the donkey behind the cart, on the side of it, under the cart or over it!

Iranian intellectuals in their majority are yet looking for a way to find democracy independent of American principles and thus independent of the United States. The world is waiting! But, can it afford to wait! That is another discussion.

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