Ron Paul is wrong: Overthrowing Mossadegh wasn’t a mistake

Barry Rubin Director, GLORIA Center
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Presidential candidate Ron Paul has said repeatedly that Iranians hate America because of its role in the 1953 coup overthrowing Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh. Similarly, Paul frequently claims that the September 11th attacks were a response to a supposed decade-long U.S. bombing of Iraq. In fact, about the only bombing of Iraq done by the United States in the last 20 years was for two weeks at the start of the 2003 war and one time in retaliation against an assassination plot against former President George H.W. Bush.

But people know far less about the 1953 case, though it has long been a source of complaint by left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy. I was the first scholar to see the U.S. government records for the crisis when writing my book, “Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran,” in 1979. Here is a brief summary of the key points.

First, the pressure for the coup came from the British, whose oil company Mossadegh wanted to nationalize. The Truman administration, which ended in January 1953, opposed American involvement. However, the situation worsened and the Eisenhower administration changed U.S. policy on the issue.

Mossadegh was an extremely unstable person and leader. He was clearly losing control of the country and the Communist Party, which backed him, was gaining power steadily. A close examination of the documents shows that whether it was correct or not, U.S. fear of a Communist takeover of Iran was based on serious evidence. This was the midst of the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. was Iran’s northern neighbor. The Soviets occupied northern Iran from 1941 to 1946 to secure the country’s oil during World War II, set up puppet regimes inside the country and only withdrew under intensive U.S. pressure.

On balance, and after long consideration, I think the coup was a proper move for U.S. policy.

What is especially interesting in retrospect is that among the supporters of the move were the Iranian Muslim clerics, including Ayatollah Kashani, the man who would be something of a role model for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It is ironic for Islamists to complain about a U.S. policy which they backed and even participated in at the time.

Second, in legalistic terms the U.S. argument was that this was actually a “counter-coup” because the Shah had the right to dismiss Mossadegh. The regime — as opposed to a particular prime minister — was not being overthrown by a coup but rather it was being saved from a coup by Mossadegh. This case is not rock-solid but has some standing. The situation was not like a Latin American military overthrowing a democratic government.

But perhaps the most important point for today is the third one: the Shah ruled for a quarter-century and basically did about as good a job as anyone was going to do there. He was a dictator, the regime had a high level of corruption and the secret police used torture. Yet in many ways the succeeding regime has been even worse.

For U.S. policy, the two key questions were: 1.) Did a better alternative exist? 2.) Is a quarter-century success a failure because it comes to an end? I’d say a better alternative didn’t exist at the time and that if a policy works for 25 years, that policy isn’t a failure.

As for the coming to power of a radical Islamist regime — as we are now seeing in countries like Egypt and Libya — that isn’t due to American backing for the previous ruler but to the nature of the societies involved.

All of this, however, only leads up to responding to Ron Paul’s claim. Liberal nationalist Iranians have blamed the United States for overthrowing Mossadegh, who after all was their leader. Yet these people have never been in power in Iran and only comprise a small portion of its population (though a larger portion of the exiled intelligentsia, the people who write books on the subject).

One of the very first acts of the Islamist regime was to repress the followers of Mossadegh. Consequently, a country whose rulers supported a coup and then repressed the opponents of the coup can scarcely be said to hate America for supporting the coup.

There is one more point that doesn’t fit well with the currently hegemonic radical ideology — expressed by the supporters of both Obama and Ron Paul — but it must be included if one is ever going to understand Iran. Power is respected; weakness is not. In 1978 and 1979, the Carter administration basically refused to support the Shah in the belief that this diffidence would win the Iranians’ love. In fact it led to disaster.

The Clinton administration in effect tried to do the opposite of what American policy had been in 1953. You can see the results for yourself.

Why is Ron Paul so much like Barack Obama on foreign policy? Because both men tend to blame America first and neither have a firm grasp of the realpolitik principles that must guide international policy in most situations. They also both overstate the role of things like popularity in global affairs.

Paul is an isolationist who believes that if the United States doesn’t bother other countries, they will leave America alone.

Obama believes that America is bad for the world, mistakes America’s enemies as the good guys and rejects U.S. interests in the belief that if we please other countries, they will leave America alone.

Barry Rubin’s latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.