Barack Obama: Hope. Audacity.

First President to Acknowledge 1953 Coup in Iran

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | November 6, 2012                   
[Updated December 1, 2020]

President Barack Obama on the 1953 coup in Iran: "seismic repercussions"

In June 2009, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to acknowledge the 1953 coup in Iran. The succint reference to the U.S. intervention, made during a major speech in Egypt addressing the ‘Muslim world’, maddened many conservative figures and pundits at the time.

Obama had actually mentioned the subject at least once before. One Pulitzer-winning writer reported witnessing a mention during a 2008 campaign speech. President Barack Hussein Obama on Iran Yet Obama’s first public reference is most likely the one in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, a totally overlooked footnote — and ironic counterpoint — to his historic moment in Cairo. In the book, outlining his vision for the country, Obama briefly critiqued America’s imperial overreach and alliances with useful dictators. Only two months before his Cairo speech, however, Obama bowed submissively to a stalwart U.S. ally, Saudi King Abdullah (again outraging conservatives, who were far less concerned when President George W. Bush kissed and held hands with Abdullah).

Cozy relationships with repressive and autocratic regimes like the Saudi monarchy has long been bipartisan policy in the United States. In some ways, Obama has extended and even furthered some of the Bush administration policies he once distanced himself from. It was after all Obama, not Bush, who signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), allowing the U.S. military to indefinitely detain people—at home or abroad—without due process. And like his predecessor, Obama has vowed to keep “all options on the table” with regard to war with Iran, despite his frequent criticism of the war in Iraq.

From secret “kill lists” to drone attacks that have resulted in far more civilian deaths by drone than ever occurred under Bush; Barack Obama, promiser of Hope and Change, has proven to be an exceedingly talented status quo politician.

What is undeniable, however, is that the diplomatic achievements of the Obama administration with regard to the Iranian regime, after 36 decades of mutual hostility, and Cuba, an implacable foe of over 54 years, will be consequential and reverberating. How those consequences manifest themselves will have enormous gravity when historians begin to assess Obama’s legacy.

A Promised Land (2020)

The Mossadegh saga is brought up three separate times in Vol. 1 of Obama’s post-Presidency memoir, released Nov. 17, 2020. As usual, however, the Iranian Premier is never referred to by name, and the index erroneously lists the 1953 episode as the “CIA-MI6 coup (1951)”.

A Promised Land (2020) By BARACK OBAMA [On his 2009 Cairo speech, pg. 358]
“The “Muslim speech,” as we took to calling the second major address, was trickier. Beyond the negative portrayals of terrorists and oil sheikhs found on news broadcasts or in the movies, most Americans knew little about Islam. Meanwhile, surveys showed that Muslims around the world believed the United States was hostile toward their religion, and that our Middle East policy was based not on an interest in improving people’s lives but rather on maintaining oil supplies, killing terrorists, and protecting Israel. Given this divide, I told Ben that the focus of our speech had to be less about outlining new policies and more geared toward helping the two sides understand each other. [Ben Rhodes] That meant recognizing the extraordinary contributions of Islamic civilizations in the advancement of mathematics, science, and art and acknowledging the role colonialism had played in some of the Middle East’s ongoing struggles. It meant admitting past U.S. indifference toward corruption and repression in the region, and our complicity in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government during the Cold War, as well as acknowledging the searing humiliations endured by Palestinians living in occupied territory. Hearing such basic history from the mouth of a U.S. president would catch many people off guard, I figured, and perhaps open their minds to other hard truths...”

[On U.S-Iran relations, pg. 450-451]
“In 1951, though, Iran’s secular, left-leaning parliament moved to nationalize the country’s oil fields, seizing control of profits that had once gone to the British government, which owned a majority stake in Iran’s biggest oil production and export company. Unhappy to be boxed out, the Brits imposed a naval blockade to prevent Iran from shipping oil to would-be buyers. They also convinced the Eisenhower administration that the new Iranian government was tilting toward the Soviets, leading Eisenhower to green-light Operation Ajax, a CIA-MI6-engineered coup that deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and consolidated power in the hands of the country’s young monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Operation Ajax set a pattern for U.S. miscalculation in dealing with developing countries that lasted throughout the Cold War: mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interests with national security, subverting democratically elected governments and aligning ourselves with autocrats when we determined it was to our benefit. Still, for the first twenty-seven years, U.S. policy makers must have figured their gambit in Iran had worked out just fine.
The shah became a stalwart ally who extended contracts to U.S. oil companies and bought plenty of expensive weaponry. He maintained friendly relations with Israel, gave women the right to vote, used the country’s growing wealth to modernize the economy and the education system, and mingled easily with Western businesspeople and European royalty.

Less obvious to outsiders was a simmering discontent with the shah’s extravagant spending, ruthless repression (his secret police were notorious for torturing and killing dissidents), and promotion of Western social mores that, in the eyes of conservative clerics and their many followers, violated the core tenets of Islam.”

[On the 2010 BP oil spill, pg. 567]
“Meanwhile, public attitudes about the disaster began to shift. Throughout the first few weeks of the spill, BP bore the brunt of the blame. Not only did Americans tend to be skeptical of oil companies, but BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, was a walking PR disaster—stating in the media that the spill involved a “relatively tiny” amount of oil in “a very big ocean”; arguing in another interview that no one wanted to see the hole plugged more than him because “I’d like my life back”; and generally living up to every stereotype of the arrogant, out-of-touch multinational executive. (His obtuseness reminded me that BP—previously known as British Petroleum—had started off as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company the same company whose unwillingness to split royalties with Iran’s government in the 1950s had led to the coup that ultimately resulted in that country’s Islamic Revolution)

Iran Deal Interview at the White House
July 14, 2015

Hours after the historic Iran nuclear deal was brokered in Vienna, Obama spoke to Tom Friedman about the meaning, effectiveness of and justification for the agreement. Asked what he had learned about negotiating with Iran, Obama said while he doesn’t trust them, they have been responsive to pressure, and there is a broad political spectrum within the country. Then he addded:

President Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear deal, July 14, 2015 “And then I think the last thing that — this is not maybe something I’ve learned but has been confirmed — even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes. And if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran.

We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq. And so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.

In the same way that, when Ronald Reagan and others negotiated arms agreements with the Soviet Union, you had to recognize, yes, this is an evil, terrible system, but within it are people with specific historic ideas and memories, and we have to be able to understand those things and potentially try to make some connection. And the same was true with respect to Nixon and Kissinger going to China, which ended up being a very important strategic benefit to the United States.”

White House Interview
April 4, 2015

Shortly after the groundbreaking U.S.-Iran nuclear deal in Lausanne, Obama was interviewed in the Oval Office by New York Times Op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman:

President Barack Obama interviewed at the White House “Clearly part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first, their democracy, and then in supporting the Shah, and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war.

And so part of what I’ve told my team is, we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven offensive Iran, and the defensive Iran that, it feels vulnerable and sometimes is maybe reacting because they perceive that is the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.”

United Nations General Assembly Speech
September 24, 2013

President Barack Obama’s at the UN General Assembly “The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and of America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly—or through proxies—taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.

I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight—the suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Cairo Speech to the Muslim World
June 4, 2009

[Full transcript and video here]

President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech “For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”

The Audacity of Hope:
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

Excerpt from Obama’s 2006 New York Times bestseller, when he was an Illinois Senator:

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama Sixty years later, we can see the results of this massive postwar undertaking: a successful outcome to the Cold War, an avoidance of nuclear catastrophe, the effective end of conflict between the world’s great military powers, and an era of unprecedented economic growth at home and abroad.

It’s a remarkable achievement, perhaps the Greatest Generation’s greatest gift to us after the victory over fascism. But like any system built by man, it had its flaws and contradictions; it could fall victim to the distortions of politics, the sins of hubris, the corrupting effects of fear. Because of the enormity of the Soviet threat, and the shock of communist takeovers in China and North Korea, American policy makers came to view nationalist movements, ethnic struggles, reform eforts, or left-leaning policies anywhere in the world through the lens of the Cold War—potential threats they felt outweighed our professed commitment to freedom and democracy. For decades we would tolerate and even aid thieves like Mobutu, thugs like Noriega, so long as they opposed communism. Occasionally U.S. covert operations would engineer the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day.

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2021: The Year of the American Coup
Heartless: Donald J. Trump | Brainless: Shaban Jafari


Barack Obama on Iran:

Speech to Muslim World in Cairo — June 4, 2009 (VIDEO)

Obama Condemns Iran Violence on Ashura Day — December 28, 2009

Obama’s Interview with BBC Persian — September 24, 2010 (Transcript)

President Obama and Shimon Peres’ Norouz Messages to Iranians — March 20, 2012 (VIDEO)

Related links:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Admits the U.S. Regrets the 1953 Coup in Iran

The White House Responds To Question of Apology For 1953 Coup in Iran

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Iran, U.S. Foreign Policy

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

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