While the Obama Administration continues to fight logic and law over what the definition of “is” is in Egypt’s bloodbath, August 19th is a good day to take note of the U.S. government’s earliest and most consequential forays into modern Middle Eastern politics. If the battle lines in Egypt, between secular autocrats and a fractured alliance of religious and liberal reformers look familiar, it’s for good reason. We’ve been down this road before.
On August 19, 1953, the Eisenhower Administration orchestrated a coup, codenamed Operation Ajax, to overthrow the secular, democratically elected government of Iran and install an authoritarian king. Two years earlier, the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh had nationalized the Iranian oil supply, angering the British government that had, through what would later become British Petroleum, essentially monopolized the Iranian oil industry after World War II (the Allied powers had forced another government abdication during their occupation of Iran in 1941). The nationalization of Iran’s oil prompted the British and Americans — the latter a newly-minted world superpower — to overthrow the Iranian government in pursuit of better terms.
Twenty-six years later a loose coalition of young liberal reformers and religious conservatives revolted against the shah, forcing him to abdicate. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the religious conservatives succeeded in suppressing their liberal former allies and Iran has suffered under the grip of an authoritarian theocracy ever since.
For many Americans, including presidential candidates like Rick Santorum, U.S.-Iranian relations began with the hostage crisis in 1979. On this understanding, Iran is and always has been an irrational, paranoid pariah state that lashes out at the Western powers for no legitimate reason. But when we start the timeline where it belongs, in 1953, it becomes obvious that the policy of the Iranian regime over the last thirty-four years, from the aid it offered the US and the Northern Alliance after 9/11 to its pursuit of nuclear weapons, has been designed to insulate the regime against another foreign overthrow.
Not only is the 1953 coup the starting point for decades of hostility between the U.S. and Iran, it was also a watershed moment in the development and galvanization of the reactionary Islamic authoritarianism that grips the region today.
In 1964, an influential Egyptian intellectual and charter member of the Muslim Brotherhood named Sayyid Qutb penned a book called Milestones, in which he decried the decadence of Middle Eastern autocracies and blamed the suffering of the Muslim world on the noxious relationship between the Western powers and corrupt Middle Eastern elites. The only way forward, Qutb argued, was to reject the cronyism inherent in secular government and the nation-state and establish a moral, religious society in its place. Qutb himself was executed in 1966 for allegedly plotting the assassination of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the 1953 Iranian coup solidified these ideas in Qutb’s mind, or to understand how Qutb’s writings gave voice to those in Iran who suffered under the Shah’s policies and catalyzed the push for a religious awakening and revolution. Ayatollah Khamenei himself translated Qutb’s works into Persian.
Since the 1953 coup, every American bomb dropped, every drone missile fired, every tax dollar spent bankrolling a Middle Eastern autocracy, has legitimized the views of men like Qutb and his disciples in a multitude of Islamist movements, including al-Qaeda. From bungled, ill-conceived interventions in half a dozen countries, to the brutal occupations of others, to tens of billions of dollars in aid money wasted on butchery and oppression, U.S. policy has done more to bolster Qutb’s argument than the man himself ever could have.
Have we learned? There are signs that some in the halls of power have started to figure this out. But for every Rand Paul and Douglas Carswell preaching restraint and introspection, there are still dozens of Peter Kings and Barack Obamas clamoring for more. More aid, more weapons, more war, and a stronger American presence in the Middle East.
In 2009 Barack Obama stood in Cairo and promised the Middle East a new beginning; four years later the streets of Cairo are covered in the blood of those who believed him. “Peace upon you” is how President Obama opened his speech in Egypt; ‘smile, you’re dying for democracy’ is what his administration tells them now.
Sixty years ago today the United States thrust itself forcefully and ignorantly into Middle Eastern politics, and has continued doing so ever since. What do we have to show for it? Trillions of dollars in debt, protracted wars that have lost all meaning, and a Middle East whose cultural and intellectual center is burnt and blood-stained.
If the United States is ever really going to write a “new beginning” to the American narrative in the Middle East, we must start by honestly acknowledging the old one. Sixty years of this is long enough.