“Memory says, ‘I did that,'” Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. “Pride replies, ‘I could not have done that.’ Eventually, memory yields.”
Three years ago in America, on September 11, airplanes fell from the sky and thousands died. Countless numbers mourned the mass murder. Countless mourn still. On the same day 31 years ago, the sky fell in Chile when the democratically-elected Allende government was overthrown in a bloody coup staged by the American government. Who mourns the Chilean sky?
Remembering is a political act, wrote Boston Globe columnist James Carroll. “Forgetfulness is the handmaiden of tyranny.”
In 1953, the United States engineered a coup in Iran which ousted the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh — an Iranian colossus who happened to live in a frail old man’s body.
The Iranian giant’s commitment to social reform was unrivaled in his country’s history while his towering presence in the international arena as a voice of poor countries presaged the era of giants such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesia’s Sukarno and the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba.
During Mossadegh’s time, Iranian peasants were freed from forced labor in their landlords’ estates, factory owners were ordered to pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and unemployment compensation was established. The giant caused twenty percent of the money landlords received in rent to be placed in a fund to pay for development projects like pest control, rural housing, and public baths.
The giant supported women’s rights and defended religious freedom and allowed courts and universities to function freely. In addition, the colossus was known even by his enemies, as “scrupulously honest and impervious to the corruption that pervaded Iranian politics.”
But above all, the giant was independent. Too independent. Mossadegh had thrown out the British, nationalized the Iranian oil industry in order that Iranians might benefit first from their own resources, and was intent on implementing further sweeping social reforms. And so one day in 1953 — when America still enjoyed the affections of the Iranian people — the U.S. government decided that Mossadegh should not rule for long. And it schemed and schemed and schemed.
Code-named Operation Ajax and designed, hatched and led by Kermit Roosevelt, a key CIA operative and a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, the American-orchestrated coup toppled Mossadegh and forever “reshaped the history of Iran, the Middle East and the world. [The coup] restored Mohammad Reza Shah to the Peacock Throne,” allowing the monarch to impose a murderous 25-year tyranny which claimed the lives of thousands of Iranians.
The US agents who had assembled in the American embassy compound in Tehran as soon as the success of the coup was ensured were “full of jubilation, celebration, and occasional whacks on the back as one or the other of us was suddenly overcome with enthusiasm,” recalled Kermit Roosevelt in his book Countercoup: The struggle for the control of Iran — a book which came out ironically in 1979, the year of the American hostage crisis in Iran.
Jubilation and celebration. Maybe it’s all about perspective. Maybe not.
Where the US government “saw a glorious day,” exiled Iranian intellectual Sasan Fayazmanesh would write 50 years later, “we saw a day of infamy.” Where American officials “wished the day had never ended, we wished it had never begun.” Where the United States “saw a dazzling picture of his majesty’s restoration to power, we saw grotesque pictures of a brutal dictatorship, informants, dungeons, torture, executions.”
“My only crime,” Mossadegh would recall after his ouster, “is that I nationalized the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth” — referring to Iran’s former tormentor, Britain. But Mossadegh had also committed another “crime” — one with far more grave consequences: he took no notice of the fact that America had already overtaken Britain in the global imperial race — an America ruled by a government that despised his independence even as it coveted his country’s oil.
But what goes around comes around. There is always a day of reckoning.
“It is a reasonable argument,” suggested an American foreign policy journal, “that but for the coup, Iran would be a mature democracy. So traumatic was the coup’s legacy that when the Shah finally departed in 1979, many Iranians feared a repetition of 1953, which was one of the motivations for the student seizure of the U.S. embassy.” Hostages were taken by panic-stricken Iranians who feared the Shah would be re-installed by the US.
“In the back of everybody’s mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d’état had begun,” one of the hostage-takers would recall years after the incident. “Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible.”
The hostage crisis, asserts New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer in his book All the Shah’s Men — a brilliant reconstruction of the American coup — precipitated the Iraqi invasion of Iran and helped consolidate the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein “while the [Islamic] revolution itself played a part in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan. A lot of history, in short, flowed from a single week in Tehran . . . Can anybody say the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was inevitable? Or did it only become so once the aspirations of the Iranian people were temporarily expunged in 1953?”
“It is not far-fetched,” states Kinzer, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s oppressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”
Outrageous? Not entirely, so long as pride yields to memory.
“There is nothing new in the world,” said Harry Truman, “except the history you do not know.”
Copyright 2004 Renato Redentor Constantino
Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in the Philippines. He writes a weekly column for the Philippine national daily, TODAY. Constantino’s recent articles and paintings can be accessed by clicking here.