A Middle East Deja Vu

Mossadeq(Pictured: Mohammed Mossadeq during his post-coup trial.)

As if out of nowhere, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets, fueled by poverty, hunger, and anger at their repressive autocratic government. Though the regime was hailed as a beacon of stability in an otherwise volatile region, its collapse was as unexpected as it was rapid. The police quickly lost control, the military refused to fire on protestors, and within the scope of a few days the old order came crashing down. The West, while outwardly supportive of the people’s democratic aspirations, worried about the loss of a stable Middle East ally which had developed historic military and intelligence coordination with Israel.

The description above could serve as an account of events leading up to the overthrow of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. However, it also tells the story of the great Iranian uprising. Not the 1979 revolution that ushered in Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts—the feared replay of which has caused much handwringing among some neoconservatives and their Likud counterparts—but rather its 1951 precursor, which ended in 1953 with a U.S.- and UK-backed coup to restore “stability” to the region. In many ways, the West’s uncompromising prioritization of its strategic interests over its stated guiding principles was directly responsible for the later outgrowth of a virulently anti-American political philosophy in Iran. Though Egypt’s revolution may not resemble Iran’s in 1979, the way the U.S. responds to the ousting of an unpopular—but western-friendly—dictator could go a long way towards creating the conditions for a similar outcome.

The Legacy of Mossadeq

Though largely forgotten in the West, the CIA-orchestrated coup that ousted democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq is ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Middle East. Back in the early 1950s, the Iranian public had grown weary of their stagnant economy, rising unemployment, and most of all, the painfully imbalanced oil concessions that siphoned much-needed public money into foreign hands. Previous attempts to address the issue, even entreaties by the Shah himself, were rebuked by the British. Frustrated by their powerlessness, Iranians rallied behind an emerging leader who promised to address the issue by nationalizing the country’s oil resources. His successful election and appointment as prime minister worried Iran’s western allies, who feared that his nationalist populism would not conform to their strategic regional objectives.

Almost immediately, the U.S. establishment went into propaganda overdrive. Analysts and press outlets warned of Soviet ties to the new “radical” government under Mossadeq, whom they accused of harboring secret “communist leanings.”[1] Galvanizing U.S. fear of Soviet encirclement, politicians and diplomats warned that the new government, though democratically elected, would almost certainly evolve into a Soviet satellite. This fear-mongering campaign culminating with John Foster Dulles’s warning President Eisenhower that “a communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility.”[2] Spurred by a perceived need to counter radicalism and secure regional stability, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Ajax which—through a combination of bribes, blackmail, and staged protests—set the stage for a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected president and return the Shah to power.[3]

In retrospect, Mossadeq now appears to have been little more than a “progressive liberal.” But fogged by the fear and paranoia of the time, the U.S. government chose to handle him as an existential threat to U.S. regional influence. The United States has been paying for this mistake ever since, as scholars on Iran almost unanimously agree that the interference and subsequent dismantling of Iran’s democratically elected government played a significant role in the widespread anti-Americanism that later characterized the 1979 revolution. Unless the Obama administration is very careful, the United States may very well make the same mistakes again in Egypt. And like 1953, there may be no second chances for decades to come.

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Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web and Foreign Policy in Focus.