In the 1962 classic Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaperman famously tells the protagonist, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And for more than half a century that is precisely what the press has done when it comes to the United States and Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran likes to claim that the United States is solely responsible for toppling the democratically-elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in a 1953 coup. According to this narrative, Iran’s anti-U.S. attitudes are understandable — even justified. And long after evidence has proven otherwise, many in the media and academia seem intent on echoing Tehran’s line.
On Aug. 19, 2018, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted “65 years ago, the U.S. overthrew the popularly elected democratic government of Mossadegh, restoring the dictatorship and subjugating Iranians for the next 25 years.”
Mr. Zarif — referring to a recently-created U.S. State Department team that seeks to change Tehran’s support for terror and attempts to acquire nuclear weapons — continued “now an ‘Action Group’ dreams of doing the same through pressure, misinformation, and demagoguery. Never Again!”
But when it comes to “misinformation,” it is Mr. Zarif who is an arch-purveyor.
Mr. Zarif is far from the only regime apparatchik to assert that the United States bears the brunt of the blame for the coup.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — who is often called “moderate” by the press despite propagating 9/11 conspiracy theories and overseeing assassinations of dissidents in Europe — has claimed that the United States owes “compensation for its intervention in Iran.”
By claiming that the United States is largely responsible for Mossadegh’s ouster, the regime kindles anti-Americanism, while hoping to mobilize support by suggesting the existence of a sinister foreign influence.
Both Mr. Zarif’s tweet and Mr. Rouhani’s comments were uncritically cited in a lengthy Aug. 20, 2018, Associated Press dispatch which told the conventional story about the coup: The United States, assisting the British and sans Iranian support, overthrew Mossadegh, who sought to nationalize British oil interests in the country.
That AP dispatch was reprinted in The Washington Post, which along with The New York Times, seems to have a predilection for repeating the tale. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor, for example, has claimed that it was purely “Western indignation” and “Cold War geopolitics,” which led to Mossadegh’s ouster (“The Trump administration should read its own documents about regime change in Iran,” July 11, 2017). Indeed, The Post has repeated the same story in no less than eight articles in the last eight years.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a 2014 Foreign Affairs article that although the “history” of the U.S. role in the 1953 coup is “well known,” it is not “well founded.”
“On the contrary,” Mr. Takeyh writes, “it rests heavily on two related myths: That machinations by the CIA were the most important factor in Mossadegh’s downfall and that Iran’s brief democratic interlude was spoiled primarily by American and British meddling.”
Indeed, as Mr. Takeyh pointed out, in the years prior to the 1953 coup, the United States was providing economic assistance to Iran— “assistance that helped ease the pain” of a British blockade which followed Mossadegh’s push to nationalize the country’s oil. The United States even “dissuaded the British from using military force to compel Iran to relent,” preferring to mediate between the two parties. And in the years prior to the nationalization crisis, the Truman administration thwarted Soviet attempts to seize Iran’s oil-rich northern provinces.
Yet these historical events are seldom noted, discarded in favor of the more useful tale of an all-powerful United States overthrowing Mossadegh, spurning the Iranian people and subverting democracy.
But it was Mossadegh who rejected every U.S. attempt to broker a solution between the two countries. As the country’s economy suffered, its citizens grew increasingly critical of their prime minister who, Mr. Takeyh notes, “dealt with the chorus of criticism by expanding his mandate through constitutionally dubious means, demanding special powers from the parliament and seeking to take charge of the armed forces and the Ministry of War,” both of which had long been under shah’s control.
Mossadegh’s growing imperiousness weakened his support among key allies and constituencies, and the deteriorating situation led the CIA to worry about the rise of Iran’s communist party, the Tudeh — a prospect that also worried Iran’s clerics.
In February 1953, the shah of Iran voiced his displeasure with Mossadegh by announcing that he would temporarily leave the country. Iranians responded by protesting against the shah’s departure and attempting to ransack Mossadegh’s home. The protests, and a growing anti-Mossadegh element in Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, led the United States to conclude that support for the prime minister wasn’t as widespread as previously thought. Mossadegh responded by dissolving the parliament and then rigging an election in support of his action.
With encouragement from his family members, advisers, and British and U.S. officials, the shah ordered the dismissal of Mossadegh, who — in full violation of Iran’s constitution — refused. The shah briefly went into exile, an absence that resulted in more pro-shah demonstrations, with many in the military joining the protesters. Finally Mossadegh lost complete control of the military and promptly fled. The shah returned and Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years.
As Mr. Takeyh noted, “the documentary record reveals that the Eisenhower administration was hardly in control and was in fact surprised by the way events played out.” Post-coup, U.S. diplomatic cables cited Iran’s military “and great numbers [of] Iranian civilians [are] inherently loyal to [the] Shah” as crucial.
On a number of occasions, Takeyh has noted that the historical record does not match the conventional narrative—including in an Aug. 18, 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed that contradicts the story later espoused by Tharoor and others (Clerics responsible for Iran’s failed attempts at democracy.
That story has its origins in a 1979 book by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., a CIA agent involved in the coup, who exaggerated both his and the agency’s influence. Yet, many journalists and academics have continued to treat his account as authoritative, eschewing the evidence provided by increased archival access.
Yet, legend is not fact. And Western newspapermen should know the difference.
(Note: An abbreviated version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Washington Times on Aug. 28, 2018)