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A Defining Moment: The Historical Legacy of the 1953 Iran Coup

Younes Abouyoub is a political sociologist who has been an academic researcher at Paris University and Columbia University. He is currently conducting field research on the sociology of revolution in the Arab Spring countries.
Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New York: New Press, 2012), 304 pages, $26.95, hardback.

In 1999, when Iranian students took to the streets protesting pro-government paramilitary attacks on a student dormitory, some were shouting slogans supporting Mohammad Mossadegh—Iran’s prime minister until he was overthrown in a U.S.-backed 1953 coup. When the 2009 election met accusations of an electoral coup and paramilitaries attacked protestors, the government blamed the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan (a student killed during the protests) on the CIA. Iran’s authorities firmly believed that year’s crisis was part of a U.S.- and British-backed coup attempt in the form of a Color Revolution. The 1953 coup has also been omnipresent during the long standoff between the United States and Iran over the nuclear program issue, as the Iranian government drew a parallel between the sovereign right to enrich uranium and the right to nationalize its own resources, as Mossadegh had attempted to do decades ago.

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States began in earnest as soon as the Second World War ended, shaping most of the remainder of the twentieth century. The U.S. doctrine of “containment” required confronting the Soviets at every point of contact, accompanied by the claim that lasting peace could be reached only through the establishment of an international order based on national states which enjoyed a U.S.-defined political liberty and a capitalist economic order. The Soviets bolstered their security through providing support to countries seen as friendly and close to their borders. Therefore, maintaining influence in Iran was a goal of Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East. U.S. foreign policy was shaped by its own state interests and ideology and driven by the American postwar, worldwide systems of military bases.

Turkey and Iran were major pieces in the chess game aimed at “containing” the Soviet Union—pieces which provided the rationale for the creation of Washington’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. Three main goals framed U.S. foreign policy in the region: the “containment” of the Soviet Union, the protection of Western access to oil, and the security of the State of Israel. But for Iranian-American relations, 1951–1953 was a crucial period. Popular pressure forced the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi to appoint Mossadegh as Prime Minister, and the parliament approved the nationalization of the oil industry.

It is this turbulent period of geopolitical maneuvering that Ervand Abrahamian’s The Coup revisits. Yet, unlike other books on the 1953 events in Iran, Abrahamian locates the U.S.-backed coup less in the Cold War ideological confrontation between East and West than in the conflicts which opposed imperialism and nationalism; between the center of world capitalism and the underdeveloped economies heavily dependent on exporting raw natural resources. This book also challenges another piece of previous conventional Cold War wisdom, namely the “lost” compromise due to the intransigence of Mossadegh in response to the “good faith honest broker” British-U.S. mediation during the oil nationalization crisis.

In fact, the United States had a central role in creating the crisis, and its complicity in the anti-Mossadegh coup was motivated not so much by the fear of communism as fear of the consequences of oil nationalization. This was seen as setting an unacceptable precedent for other third world countries, such as Indonesia and the South American states. Abrahamian describes the coup’s planning and execution in detail. He demonstrates that the CIA report, published by the New York Times in April 2000, was in fact a redacted history written by the late Donald Wilber as “a handbook for future coups.” Abrahamian makes meticulous use of all available information, especially recently declassified British documents.

After decades of official lies and denials, the full story of how in 1953 the CIA and its British intelligence allies overthrew democracy in Iran is set out, and is crucial to any understanding of current events in Iran and the Mideast.

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