RUMI shirts by Arash Norouzi

Their Myths—and Ours
A response to Abbas Milani’s "The Great Satan Myth"

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | December 30, 2009                    

Ever since the fraudulent Iranian elections of June 2009, the increasingly desperate Islamic regime has blamed America for the ensuing protests and turmoil. As human rights conditions in Iran have worsened considerably, many are looking to the United States to speak out more forcefully on the crisis, while others caution against that move.

The Great Satan Myth According to one view, condemning Iran’s human rights abuses would be counterproductive for it would be seen as interfering; feeding the mullahs’ bogus portrayal of the unrest as U.S.-instigated. Others argue that U.S. silence is more damaging, and that the Obama administration should speak out in order to take a moral stand, apply pressure and show solidarity with the Iranian people.

History plays a key role here: ghosts of past U.S. intervention remain, and are conveniently exploited by the Islamic regime to distract from its own brutal behavior.

“Now, it’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling—the U.S. President meddling in Iranian elections”, said Barack Obama on June 16, 2009, acknowledging past U.S. transgressions. “What I will repeat and what I said yesterday is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.”

The next day, Senator John Kerry cautioned, “[W]e have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us to strengthen the clerical establishment, distract Iranians from a failing economy and rally a fiercely independent populace against outside interference. . . . The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.”

Abbas Milani Dr. Abbas Milani, a leading Iranian-American scholar, lecturer and author, addressed the enduring credibility gap in a December 2009 article in The New Republic. Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, urges Obama to condemn Iran’s human rights abuses more explicitly and not succumb to timidity and liberal guilt.

The paradox here is self-evident: a cruel, fundamentalist Islamic regime lamenting the destruction of a secular, humane, democratic government 56 years ago; whose fall some of their own contributed to (as we have detailed in our article, Mossadegh, Islam and Ayatollahs). Simply put, part of the blame for the Shah’s ascension to absolute dictator of Iran rests on the shoulders of their radical Islamic cleric predecessors.

Milani could have easily exposed the blatant hypocrisy of the Iranian regime when it conjures up that history, while offering his advice for Obama. Yet unnecessarily, Milani has chosen to counter the Islamic Republic’s disingenuous, hypocritical narrative with his own equally deceptive, revisionist narrative. It’s a logically bankrupt essay permeated with misleading, feel-good innuendo, signifying much but saying nothing. Repeatedly, Milani tampers with facts, contradicts his own conclusions, and even betrays his own recent statements.

The title of his article promises big things: The Great Satan Myth — Everything you know about U.S. involvement in Iran is wrong. In it, Milani goes to great lengths to paint an extraordinarily sympathetic picture of poor old America, whom, he fantasizes, was basically well-meaning and always supported the Iranian people’s quest for freedom despite all appearances.

The problem is, even if we accept every claim he makes at face value, his conclusion about America still doesn’t square. In fact, if we pay careful attention to the substance of what he is saying, America comes off looking even more ignorant, clumsy and dishonorable, not less.

I have responded point by point to key portions in order, beginning with the opening paragraph:

The Iranian regime has never found itself more vulnerable. And, with this vulnerability, it has never leaned more heavily on its own narrative of history. This narrative, of course, has a central antagonist, a character conjured as the “Great Satan.” As this Koranic moniker implies, the Islamic Republic ascribes supernatural qualities to its adversary: From far away in Washington, D.C., the Great Satan has the power to send hordes of stooges to shout in the streets and the remarkable ability to manufacture every ill in Iranian society.
A promising introduction—there must be a caveat around the corner...

The power of this narrative is that it goes beyond these mythological qualities to muster the stuff of history. It was the CIA, the story goes, that deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader back in 1953, and then spent 26 years propping up a despotic Shah while he mercilessly abused his people.
Ah, yes, “the story goes...”

There are, arguably, strategic reasons for the United States to keep silent on the fate of the democratic movement. But history is not one of them. Rather, the regime’s version of events (past and present) is self-serving and, at critical junctures, altogether baseless. Documents (some recently declassified) from various U.S. archives show a rather different version of foreign policy toward Iran.
Believing the credibility factor to be significantly inhibiting the United States, Milani resolves this quandary by formulating a rosy, alternate scenario telling Americans what they want to hear, knowing many will blindly eat it up.

The Shah may have been a U.S. ally in the cold war, but the relationship was fraught. Behind closed doors, the United States pushed hard for the country to democratize. During the periods when the United States failed to stand on the side of the Iranian people, it paid a horrible price. It is worth revisiting this history, not simply because it debunks the Manichaean theory of the past touted by the mullahs, but also because it contains important lessons for how the United States can navigate the current crisis in Iran.
Milani assigns ownership of this “theory” to “the mullahs” as a means of delegitimization, but this game contains an additional irony lost on Milani. The mullahs in Iran employ the same logic to invalidate the current wave of protests, which they claim are merely “pleasing” America. The message: 'Stop protesting our evil ways, because that just plays into the West’s narrative that we’re evil'.

So Milani and the Islamic regime share a skewed perspective: anything that serves the enemy’s propaganda must be deeply flawed, if not altogether false. He took a similar line before, but with one crucial difference—the culprit was Russia! In 2003, Milani, who, according to his own memoir, is a reformed Communist, wrote, “During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda succeeded in inculcating in the minds of much of the Muslim world an image of America as a war-mongering imperialist, hungry for cheap oil and greedy to sell arms to any of the oriental despots that were strewn across the Middle Eastern landscape. In the case of Iran, what helped Soviet propaganda was the role the U.S. government had played in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh and restoring the Shah to his throne.”

The Shah of Iran and President Richard Nixon Milani also introduces his own theory—that the US-Shah partnership, spanning 26 years and six presidents, was not as cozy as it seems. In fact, he offers vaguely, it was “fraught”. In distancing America from the Shah, Milani is necessarily conceding that the Shah was a despot (otherwise there would be no need to rationalize the relationship, as he spends so much effort doing).

Ironically, the U.S. government itself has never felt compelled to disavow their longstanding support for the Shah, even in hindsight. In 1984, for example, President Ronald Reagan praised the late Shah as a “stalwart ally” who had “done our bidding and carried our load in the Middle East for quite some time.”

And it was Milani, after all, who, referencing the Shah in 2003, wrote, “Despots—albeit staunchly anticommunist or willing to accommodate the West on, say, the question of oil—are not the most reliable strategic allies of the United States.”

If there’s one event that has come to define perceptions of U.S. meddling, it is the coup that ejected the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from power in 1953. Both Madeleine Albright and Barack Obama have acknowledged America’s role in the coup in speeches that were widely taken to be apologies.
Milani is careful not to label U.S. acknowledgements of the coup as apologies, as many others incorrectly have, yet he contradicts this later, chiding “each apology by an American politician”. Since the thrust of his article is to defend the reputation of America, it’s worth questioning why in the world American officials would 'apologize' for something that Milani claims they have little responsibility for.

In no small measure, the American understanding of the event derives from a 1979 memoir published by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., Theodore’s grandson. Roosevelt, a CIA operative, had indeed slipped across the border and spent considerable sums on black propaganda intended to inflict mortal wounds against Mossadegh. But Roosevelt’s memoir inflated his own and, in turn, America’s centrality to the coup. He tells the story with the relish of a John le Carré knock-off. Although declassified CIA documents would later confirm many details of his account, his version is exceptionally self-serving.
Most Americans are still unfamiliar with the 1953 coup, but those that know have never relied on the confessions of Roosevelt. Scores of CIA and government officials have offered their accounts of the coup in their own memoirs and interviews, and the event has been explored in numerous books (notably, Stephen Kinzer’s bestseller All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, articles (like the New York Times’ extensive report by Pulitzer winner James Risen, Secrets of History: The CIA in Iran) and documentaries (for example, The History Channel’s Anatomy of a Coup).

In March 1954, the CIA requested that Donald Wilber, a key CIA operative in Operation AJAX, issue a full report on the coup for internal use. That report, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, is a detailed account of the operation, including planning, financing, execution, propaganda and more. It has since been released publicly, published in book form, and has been easily available on the internet for anyone to read for nearly a decade.

The 1979 memoir by Kermit Roosevelt that Milani refers to is Countercoup, an extremely obscure title that’s been out of print since 1981 (I own the first printing in hardcover). The book never got much traction when released, and was especially unwelcome at the time, coinciding with the Iranian revolution which overtook the same US embassy from which Kermit Roosevelt once schemed in 1953. Consequently, its publication was delayed in America because of concerns over the safety of the 52 American hostages, and frowned upon by the Shah, who strongly objected to the revelation that he 'owed his throne' to the CIA.

Countercoup could not have possibly been very influential to “the American understanding of the event” because few Americans have ever read it. Judging from his understanding of the book and it contents, this might apply to Milani himself.

It is true, however, that Kermit Roosevelt’s account is self-serving and error-ridden, and it would be foolish to take anything he wrote as gospel (the entire premise of the book is based on the lie that Mossadegh was a dictator beholden to the Communists who had illegally overthrown the Shah, hence the title).

Despite having little knowledge of Iranian society and speaking no Persian, [Kermit Roosevelt] describes launching an instantly potent propaganda campaign. Eisenhower, for one, considered reports like this to be the stuff of “dime novels.”
It’s largely speculative to judge what Roosevelt, who headed the Middle East Department for the CIA, knew about Iran. Of all their operatives, the CIA must have stationed him in Iran to implement the coup plot for a reason.

Roosevelt devotes fourteen pages in Countercoup to describing his trips to Iran in early 1944 and the summer of 1947. These travels helped inform his 1949 book, Arabs, Oil and History: The Story of the Middle East; and he covered Iran’s history, politics, regional significance, and role during World War II (plus impudent inserts of Persian poetry by Saadi and Rumi) in Countercoup. None of this automatically make him an expert, but he was apparently qualified for the job—the coup succeeded, after all.

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Nor was it necessary for Roosevelt to speak Persian. The Shah himself spoke fluent English and French, as did many other Iranian figures (failing that, there was such a thing as translators).

In particular, Roosevelt writes of a significant contact living in Iran named “Roger Black”, whom he had previously met in Iran in 1944. Professor Black, a Yale man and former OSS colleague who spoke fluent farsi, filled Roosevelt in on all sorts of aspects of Persian culture and “knew far more of Iran and of the people than any of us actually in the Agency did—or probably ever would” It was Roger Black, according to Roosevelt, who forwarded him the initial plans that would eventually become Operation AJAX. “Another Persian expert”, writes Roosevelt, “participated in a key role during preparation of much of the plan”.

The Eisenhower “dime novels” reference—a completely misleading, dishonest non-sequitur—derives from his 1963 memoirs, Mandate For Change (which I also own). President Eisenhower never admitted to the reality of any foreign inspired coup in Iran, much less one in which America was involved. That was the whole idea—Operation AJAX was a covert CIA operation.

In his memoir, Eisenhower feigned ignorance and pretended that the coup was a purely Iranian coup, just as the media had reported. Summarizing his account of the exciting events that led to Mossadegh’s overthrow and arrest, Eisenhower commented that the reports he was getting from Tehran were so fantastical in the coup’s critical days that they “sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact”.

Hence, the “dime novel” phrase which Milani incorrectly pluralizes was not an expression of disbelief, nor was it referring to the CIA as he implies, because that would have meant admitting to the secret US involvement in the coup.

All of this is inconsequential, however, because although the details were still classified, the coup itself was an open secret years before Roosevelt’s book ever debuted, and was legendary within the Central Intelligence Agency and other echelons of the U.S. government.

The Roosevelt book, however, has an enduring legacy. It depicts the coup as an American and British concoction and inadvertently absolves Mossadegh of his many missteps. But the backstory of his fall is far more complicated. Mossadegh had initially seen the Americans as his staunch ally. And the United States reciprocated this warmth.
Mossadegh did view America positively and hoped to strengthen US-Iran relations, but this is a significant exaggeration of Mossadegh’s brief relationship with the Harry Truman administration. Though Truman’s envoys, such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Ambassador Henry Grady, got along well with Mossadegh personally, the oil dispute troubled them. Harry Truman was concerned that countries such as Venezuela, which supplied vital oil to the U.S., might follow Iran’s lead. In 1951, Truman’s diplomat Averell Harriman told the young Shah while visiting Iran that Mossadegh might have to be removed, for he was making it impossible to resolve the oil dispute with Britain.

Regardless of the temperature of the relationship, this doesn’t support Milani’s 'America wasn’t so bad' argument either way. If America hated Mossadegh, it contradicts his thesis; if they loved him, it contradicts his thesis. The warmer the relationship was, the greater the betrayal by America. Perhaps Milani is implying that Mossadegh’s faith in America was his biggest mistake...but that wouldn’t support his thesis.

Throughout the article, Milani hinges most of his case on an undue emphasis on various minor, behind-the-scenes nuances in the US-Shah alliance under successive Presidential administrations (mainly Kennedy’s and Carter’s). Yet when discussing the two Presidents who served during Mossadegh’s time, Milani looks to Truman’s apparent unwillingness to overthrow Mossadegh as proof of America’s good nature, disregarding Eisenhower’s obstinate opposition which resulted in the actual overthrow which he ordered.

It’s really not that complicated.

None of these subtleties, of course, ever merits a mention in the regime’s version of events. Nor do the clerics mention a detail that grows richer in irony with each apology by an American politician. It was the clerical establishment’s animosity towards Mossadegh that laid the groundwork for his ouster. A broad swath of clerics--Islamists like Ayatollah Abolgasem Kashani, a mentor of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--had initially supported Mossadegh. But, by late 1952, the clerics turned against him after he bucked their demands. The Ayatollah Kashani unsuccessfully pressed Mossadegh for the right to appoint key ministers. Another top cleric called on the prime minister to purge the civil service of Baha’is--a bane of Shia clergy.
Milani’s summary of the Islamic clerics’ role in opposing Mossadegh is one of the few worthy moments in his entire piece—yet his conclusions are counter-intuitive. The fact that Dr. Mossadegh refused to bend to the corrupt mullahs and consent to their illegal demands ought to be proof of his democratic virtue. Yet Milani puts forth these “missteps” as if to somehow belittle him.

Mossadegh seemed to represent the promise of post-colonial Iran. Even as ardent a proponent of Pax Americana as Henry Luce felt comfortable making him Time’s “Man of the Year.”
Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh What Milani intentionally neglects to disclose is that Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was selected as Man of the Year not to honor him, but to highlight him as a dangerous threat, who, as the cover accuses, “oiled the wheels of chaos”. The cover article itself had no byline and was likely written in coordination with the CIA (the official 1954 CIA report by Donald Wilber admits to having articles “planted” in American newspapers and magazines to help bring down Mossadegh).

Time is actually a classic example of the CIA consorting with mass media. Its publisher, Henry Luce, was a good friend and confidant of none other than CIA director Allen Dulles, another key figure in the 1953 coup. Luce communicated with his Republican compatriot often, and “readily allowed certain members of his staff to work for the Agency and agreed to provide jobs and credentials for other CIA operatives who lacked journalistic experience”, writes Pulitzer winning reporter Carl Bernstein in his extensive 1977 article The CIA and the Media.

Time’s hostile, openly contemptuous cover article described Mossadegh variously as a fanatic, a “menace”, “dizzy old wizard”, and an “appalling caricature of a statesman” whose “grotesque antics” and “suicidal policy” were leading Iran to Soviet takeover. It closes somberly, bemoaning the “fundamental moral challenge posed by the strange old wizard who lives in a mountainous land and who is, sad to relate, the Man of 1951.”

Time has always selected individuals who have “done the most to change the news, for better or for worse”; this also explains how Time “felt comfortable” giving that distinction to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980. (Their cover article on Khomeini, by the way, makes mention of the “CIA-inspired coup that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh”, twenty years before the incriminating CIA records were made public).

Milani has read the Time article and knows its true nature—he quoted extensively from it on the first page of the Mossadegh chapter in his 2008 book Eminent Persians.

And again, if Mossadegh looked so good, why did the U.S. oppose him? Evidently, Milani deems this crucial component insignificant.

The clergy’s allegiance to Mossadegh weakened further as he allowed the communist Tudeh Party to gain ever more power, despite his own personal abhorrence of communism. Once Mossadegh squandered the allegiance of the clergy, the inevitability of his fate became increasingly clear.
As a true believer in democracy and free expression, Mossadegh did not suppress any political groups in the country, even those that overtly opposed him. Milani implies some sort of non-passive consent to the Tudeh’s influence in Iran—yet paradoxically, Milani tells us that despite this, Mossadegh 'abhorred' communism, as if that makes any sense.

Milani then argues that Mossadegh sealed his fate when he “squandered the allegiance of the clergy”; a strange choice of words, as to 'squander' is to waste something of value, not something detestable. Despite his supposed eye for nuance, Milani also isn’t telling you that not all of the clerics opposed Mossadegh.

Finally, Milani employs another ruse popular among coup apologists: that Mossadegh was done for anyway and would have been deposed with or without American assistance.

If this were true, there would have been no need for the two greatest empires on Earth, England and America, to devote all that time and all those resources over a two year period undermining Iran in preparation for the illegal coup d’etat (blockading Iran’s oil in the Persian Gulf with Naval gunboats, imposing an international boycott, spreading extensive black propaganda, buying street mobs, battling (and losing) in international court, plotting to assassinate Mossadegh, threatening war, and so on...).

None of this is to defend America’s role in the coup. But it was hardly the only or even the decisive factor in his fall.
America’s role was not the only factor, but it was the most critical one. The coup was conceived, funded, and implemented by America and Britain; the “Anglo-American coup” being the most apt description.

Milani’s version of history betrays the prevailing record confirmed by the mainstream media, the academic community at large and America’s own self-assessment. Literally hundreds of respected world figures, conservative and liberal, including members of Congress, Generals, academics, journalists, Nobel prize winners, U.S. Presidents and many others agree that the coup was foreign inspired. Of these, most also view it as an international crime.

Even if America’s role in the coup were as insignificant as Abbas Milani would like to make it seem, it hardly excuses their role in the atrocity. His warm and fuzzy retelling of the crime is akin to the acquittal of a defendant in a case of violent gang rape because he did less actual raping than the rest of the fellas; then insulting the victim further with, “None of this is to excuse his involvement...”

Indeed, in the most obvious instance of its meddling in Iranian history, the United States actually meddled on the side of the very religious establishment that now complains so bitterly about the Great Satan.
Read the sentence above very mindfully, it’s an instant classic.

What does the fact that the U.S. meddled on the side of fanatic, corrupt Islamists say about America?

The history of U.S. involvement in the country doesn’t make for a simple tale. On the one hand, the United States supported the Shah and helped him consolidate his regime. On the other hand, the United States quietly and persistently attempted to prod the Shah toward a more democratic system.
Whatever attempts were made to curb the Shah’s authoritarianism obviously failed. If we are really to believe that the U.S. wasted all this effort to tame its initimate ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it’s hard to imagine its admonishments shaming the current Islamic regime, with which it has had no formal relations for over 30 years.

Abbas Milani actually made this argument just a few months prior. In a June 2009 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Milani and his colleague Larry Diamond concluded that the U.S. is pretty much helpless to act against the regime’s brutality:

“Obama has gotten it right by signaling America’s support for peaceful protest, human rights and the rule of law. More explicit language, not to mention action, would only play into the hands of the most cynical and vicious conservative elements in Iran. Moreover, with no diplomatic ties and all but no trade with Iran, there is little more the U.S. could do right now to pressure the regime.”

The Americans helped the Shah create his dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, in 1957--and then, the next year, attempted to roll back his move toward authoritarianism. For the United States, these two objectives were not contradictory.
In 1979, Time described SAVAK as “Iran’s most hated and feared institution”, with “virtually unlimited powers to arrest and interrogate” which had “tortured and murdered thousands of the Shah’s opponents”. Replace the word “SAVAK” with the “Basij”, and replace “Shah” with “Ahmadinejad”. Now imagine that the United States had not only created the dreaded Basiji militia group (which is now clubbing, terrorizing and murdering innocent Iranians in the streets), but had been a strong ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran for decades, and try to argue with a straight face that this would not be “contradictory”.

Victims of the Shah’s U.S.-created SAVAK (don’t worry, it’s not contradictory)

The Americans grew increasingly frustrated with [the Shah’s] authoritarianism. When the Shah faced a military coup in 1958, the United States essentially gave it tacit assent. It did nothing to relay word of General Valiollah Qarani’s plot to the Shah. Indeed, the CIA station in Tehran arranged for the publication of anti-regime propaganda in the Iranian press--and then let the Shah know that the agency had planted the material there to highlight its wavering allegiance. As CIA Director Allen Dulles told a meeting of the National Security Council in 1958, “We still take a gloomy view of the Shah’s future unless he can be persuaded to undertake some dramatic reforms.”
If the Eisenhower administration was already regretting their installation of the Shah just five years after the fact, that speaks volumes about the stupidity of the coup. Why would the U.S. depose a democratically elected government, replace it with an unaccountable monarch, and then shortly after wink at a coup plot to topple that very leader?

How do these statements give credence to Milani’s notion that the United States favored democracy in Iran?

The tension between the Americans and the Shah reached a crescendo during the Kennedy years, when the administration based its Iran policy on the views of, among others, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. Based on his travels in Iran, Douglas concluded that the Shah was an incorrigible despot and advocated ramping up the push toward democracy. (Bobby Kennedy also shared an aversion to the Shah.) An administration task force considered the fragile state of the Shah and questioned the very rationale of the relationship.
John F. Kennedy welcomes the Shah in the U.S. During the early 1960’s, the Shah’s rising dictatorial tendencies were causing social and political upheaval in Iran. Concerned that the discontent might mean the Shah was losing his grip, the Kennedy administration advised him to implement controlled social and political reforms. JFK also pressured the Shah to appoint a new pro-U.S. prime minister whom Kennedy was friendly with, Dr. Ali Amini (even though the Shah did not favor him, and had him replaced just a year later).

If these reforms failed to pacify the population, the U.S. recommended using police security forces (like SAVAK) to do whatever it took to ensure the regime’s survival. In other words: loosen up, and if that doesn’t work, crack down even harder.

JFK, the Shah and Robert McNamara in the White House
The Shah, Kennedy and Robert McNamara confer at the White House.

For all its work pushing the Shah in the direction of democracy, the United States also did its part to inadvertently abet his opponents. In 1964, the Pentagon pushed the Shah to sign a basing agreement that would have offered Americans in Iran diplomatic immunity from prosecution. For a century, Iran had been a battleground for the Great Powers--and this agreement reeked of colonialism. The fact that the Shah accepted this agreement allowed the Islamists to turn it into a rallying cry.
Yes, the United States continued to push its luck with Iran, forcing through the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which reversed the anti-capitulation measures that had once been championed by Dr. Mossadegh. What this meant was that American military personnel and their families stationed in Iran could potentially get away with any crime there, even murder. So unpopular was this action that Khomeini was able to use the issue to make a significant speech castigating the Shah. The Shah’s response—arresting Khomeini and exiling him (to Turkey, and later Najaf, Iraq)—backfired, elevating Khomeini’s prominence and laying the groundwork for his rise as the de facto leader of the Islamic revolution later on.

Ayatollah Khomeini In 1965, soon after Khomeini’s exile, the State Department stated internally that Khomeini’s significance was “symptomatic of widespread popular opposition to Government policies”, and that he held “widespread support”. “Khomeini’s political stand is not an isolated one”, they determined, “it is a view shared by a significant mass of Iranians.”

The State Department also clearly recognized the trouble it had wrought: “What is now clear is that Khomeini’s exile has aroused dormant nationalist feelings. The Shah and the United States have been branded as both anti-nationalist and anti-religious. This new attitude has tarnished our formerly favorable image, poses a threat to our interests in Iran, and will certainly make our task there far more difficult.” Resentment from such grievances echoed into the future, even amongst the most moderate voices. In 1998, President Mohammad Khatami called the Shah’s capitulation “the worst humiliation for our people”.

The Shah’s government, too, paid dearly for their treachery. An enraged royal soldier attempted to assassinate the Shah, but only killed two of his sergeants. Yet the Shah’s Prime Minister, Hassan-Ali Mansur, was shot in the stomach and throat on the steps of the Majlis where the SOFA bill had passed three months earlier. The location of his murder, plotted by armed Islamists loyal to Khomeini, was not an accidental irony.

America’s insistence on cramming “SOFA” through Parliament against the wishes of Iranians not only makes a mockery of its professed ideals of freedom and justice; it also played into the hands of the very regime that came to power on a tidal wave of anti-American discontent. 'Inadvertent'? Try arrogant, shortsighted and extremely foolish.

In other words, the actual history of U.S. involvement in Iran is far more complicated than the mullahs present--and most Americans realize. It wasn’t an unambiguous cold war travesty, like Vietnam. For much of the era, the United States supported the cause of Iranian democracy. And, when it failed to push the Shah in that direction, it suffered.
All Milani has offered are a few examples of periods of tension with the Shah, when the United States feared that his authoritarian rule would result in revolution (which, of course is exactly what happened).

This hardly proves good faith on the part of America. It merely demonstrates their awareness that without a certain level of freedom, the Shah’s dictatorial rule would backfire and he, along with they, would lose control of Iran. That’s a strategic imperative, not a moral one.

Though his article purports to express concern about the Iranian people, Milani’s thesis ultimately frames the issue in terms of American interests, reconfirming the hubris he is disclaiming. Obviously, even the superficially noble act of the U.S. government showing solidarity with Iranians is calculated to bring about the fall of what America considers to be its greatest enemy.

In 1977, Carter flew to Iran to pay tribute to the Shah and his “great leadership”. “The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations”, said Carter.

Abbas Milani’s convoluted narrative does little to explain why the United States would help remove a popular leader which he himself has described as “democratically elected”, then “push hard” to reform an insecure, arrogant megalomaniac who Milani repeatedly emphasizes had no true faith in democracy, believing it to be the way of “the blue-eyed people”.

His article also wrongly assumes U.S. crimes were limited to 1953-1979. In the 1980’s, America aided Saddam Hussein in an aggressive war that took hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing all 290 innocent souls on board, after which the ship’s commander was awarded a medal for “heroic achievement”. And Milani conveniently ignores America’s other foreign coups and interventions in Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, the Philippines...

None of these “subtleties” are news to Abbas Milani. According to a 2006 report from Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s office, Milani lambasted America’s “shameful record” in a March 2006 interview with Voice of America after misunderstanding the question posed to him:

VOA: Dr. Milani, how can a country that violates human rights be a defender of international human rights?

Abbas Milani:
I think that what you are saying is 100% correct, that is why the US is in a problematic position because of this. An America that has the Guantanamo Bay jail in it, an America in which minorities, blacks, have suffered from legal deprivations, without a doubt has international issues with regards to this. However, the reality is that with all these violations, America has other advantages. Throughout Iran’s history, even though there were the likes of [the coup in] 1953, there are tens of other examples where America has tried to establish democracy... But in total, we have to analyze the sum total of all of this, despite these shortcomings, and despite what I think is America’s shameful record of violation of human rights laws, despite all that, I think America’s interests lie in establishing democracy in the region. Ms. Rice spoke about this, I think.

VOA: Thank you very much, Professor Milani. Of course, the country I was referring to as the violator of human rights which cannot be a defender of international human rights was the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even Abbas Milani’s own biography runs counter to his arguments. In the 1970’s, Milani’s Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics and anti-Shah activism led to a year’s incarceration in the Shah’s jails, including one month in solitary confinement. At the time, he seriously believed he might “disappear” like so many others, and be killed.

It is not necessary to rewrite history in order to poke the Islamic Republic in the eye, nor does it serve the cause of democracy and freedom for the people of Iran today.

America did not display solidarity with the Iranian people in 1953, when they helped destroy the most democratic, enlightened government in Iranian history, or in 1979, after their friend the Shah had brutalized them to the breaking point. That’s historical fact, not a myth.

In 2007, while launching his Presidential campaign, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel told me that overthrowing Mossadegh was “the stupidest fucking thing our country has ever done”. Nothing that has transpired in the last 56 years would suggest anything different.

Arash Norouzi is an artist and co-founder of The Mossadegh Project.


Related links:

The “Dime Novel” Hoax – How Eisenhower’s Words Were Deliberately Twisted

Maziar Bahari’s Negligent BBC Documentary An Iranian Odyssey — Our Response

“The Things We Did Were Covert” – Eisenhower’s Diary Confession of CIA Coup in Iran

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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