Monday, February 03, 2020

11. The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian

You know things are getting weird here at Olman's Fifty when not only am I reading two non-fiction books in a row, but one of them is actually a serious history book.  One of my best friends did his undergrad thesis on Iranian history and has an excellent shelf of Iranian history books. I've grown more and more interested in the mechanics of British colonialism as it comes up frequently in much of the fiction I read.  I was originally looking for a broad overview of Iranian history in the 19th and 20th centuries (and am still looking for one of Indian history), but when he handed me tome VI of the 7-part Cambridge History of Iran, that was a bit too daunting.  I went with this thinner, more focused book and I am glad I did.

I was completely ignorant of Iranian history leading up to the 1979 revolution.  This book deals specifically with an equally significant upheaval in Iran in the 20th century: the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq who was seen (and still is by many) as the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran.  Mossadeq was working to separate Iranian civil government from the monarchy and more significantly negotiating to wrest control of Iran's oil production from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and to nationalize it.  The US and UK worked with various internal oppositions (worked with being a very loose term here) to organize a coup against Mossadeq and return power to the shah. 

Abrahamian has a very specific thesis, that this coup was not motivated by a fear of communist takeover of Iran by the Soviets, as was the accepted conventional wisdom (and the propaganda line of the US, UK and the oil companies) but rather by the motivation to maintain control of oil production in Iran.  He argues this very convincingly.  A side affect of this argument is also to contradict the media portrayals of Mossadeq as being an crazed ideologue whose inflexibility to any negotiating offers other than nationalizing oil was the real reason for the coup.  From the beginning, Abrahamian argues, the UK and AOIC would never accept total nationalization (meaning loss of control of oil production in Iran).  The U.S. was more flexible at first, but soon changed their mind over fears that Iranian nationalization would then encourage other countries being exploited at the time to follow suit.

At the very end of the book, Abrahamian also lays out how the coup set the stage for the Islamic revolution of 1979. By basically destroying any republican, secular opposition to the shah the only outlet for a very unsatisfied and exploited people (who had once looked to Mossadeq as their saviour) was to their spiritual leaders.

The biggest takeaway for me from this book was how deep and effective was the propaganda in the large media outlets.  Though I have a deep contempt for the New York Times, I always assumed they more or less tried to post some form of objective truth, while always couching it in the editorial safety that would never truly criticize.  At least in the case of the coup, they just printed outright lies, straight from the CIA.  As did the CBC, the Herald-Tribune and pretty much every other mainstream journalistic outlet  Utterly fabricated and racist interpretations of Iran's quest to control its own oil were standard fodder for editorials and articles. The hatred of Iran and its use as a scapegoat by the west has been going on for a long time.  Fake news, indeed.

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