Abbas Milani: The Myth of Operation Ajax

Roundup: Talking About History

[Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, where he is also the codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His book, The Shah, was published in January 2011 by Palgrave

The Cold War began in 1945 when Russian leader Josef Stalin refused to take his troops out of Iran; the fall of the shah in 1979 marked the beginning of the war's end. Yet even today real and imagined ghosts of that war, in the shape of an eclectic history of U.S.-Iran relations, and of the role the United States played in the fall of Mossadegh, continue to haunt some of the diplomatic discourse on Iran. It is even reported that President Barack Obama's hesitancy in offering stronger support for the Iranian democratic opposition has been at least partially rooted in his desire to avoid the mistakes of the past. Clearly, only after a reckoning with the past and exorcising its haunting ghosts can prudent policy be formed.

The Soviet-British occupation of Iran in 1941 brought with it the creation of the Tudeh Communist party and the rapid rise of a Stalin-era Manichean view that divided the world into two camps: the gulag-laced Soviet Union was the land of light and America was the embodiment of evil. In one of its biggest demonstrations, with more than a hundred thousand fellow travelers in attendance, Tudeh leaders demanded "the liquidation of America spy nests."

Almost three decades later, in offering his blessing to the students who had brazenly taken over the American embassy, Khomeini called it a "den of spies." There was more than lexical coincidence at work here. Khomeini and his allies took up the Cold War narrative and simply changed “proletariat” to “the disposed (mostazaf),” “imperialism” to “arrogance (estekbar)” and “America” to “the Great Satan.” If Satan fell from grace because he defied God, America's "original sin" in this new political theology was its alleged role in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. It mattered little in this transubstantiation of Communist theology to clerical dogma that the Communists were in 1951 Mossadegh's biggest foes, and that the decision of the clergy to go against Mossadegh in 1953 was far more crucial to his fall than any CIA plan. So what role did, in fact, the United States play in that fall and in the events preceding it? Any serious investigation of documents and facts will dispel most of the Cold War shibboleths.

The United States played a crucial, even determining, role in keeping Iran's territorial integrity from Soviet designs. Keen on getting an oil concession for the northern provinces on Iran’s Caspian coast, Stalin ordered the creation of two separatist movements in the country, and threatened to dismember Iran if he did not get the northern oil concessions. Many Iranian nationalists were opposed to the idea of any spoils to the Soviets. Truman issued a virtual ultimatum demanding that the Soviets withdraw from Iran in 1946. Eventually Soviet forces were withdrawn, making it the only instance in the postwar years when Stalin's Red Army occupied a territory and was forced to give it up. Without the United States, in other words, there might not have been the Iran we know today...

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/25/2011

is the suggested account of the events of 1953 in Iran and the main causes of the latter. Soviet troops did not withdraw because of veiled or direct Truman's threat of war or nuclear attack, simply because such a threat had not been made by Truman or anybody else and exists just in the Pan-American imagination of the article's author.
They withdrew guided by the agreement with the British and the decision of the UN heard on the Iranian complaint
about Soviet interference in the Iranian affairs.
The Soviet Union agrees to withdraw army units from Iranian Azerbaijan in exchange for reforms in the region and the establishment of a Soviet-Iranian oil company.
The troops have been withdrawn, but Iranian side did not hold its end of the deal, being economically subjugated by British interests.
The author's account of the minor role of the British and American in overthrowing of Mosadehk's government
and major role of Mossadehk's communist inclinations or/and connections thoroughly contradicts the account of the head of the pertaining CIA operation written many years after 1953, which clearly implicates US government in organizing essential coup d'eta against one and ever democratically elected Iranian regime on British request.