Egypt, Syria and the Sordid Legacy of UK and US in the Middle East


The Battle for Iran. That’s the title given to the CIA operation that oversaw a coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, 60 years ago.

The CIA has now admitted its involvement in the overthrow, and published documents which reveal not only US but also British secret services were involved (in the aptly named MI6 Operation Boot).

The news will come as little surprise to most Iranians, or to many others who have studied the CIA’s role over the years.

Those in Latin America, from Guatemala in 1954 to Chile in 1973, are familiar with US involvement in coups that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and decades of dictatorship and denial of democracy.

Even today, the threat of hostile US intervention is a real fear across the continent.

Britain was the US’s junior partner, but instigation for the coup may have come from Britain. Mossadeq had had the temerity to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP). British Tory prime minister Anthony Eden regarded Mossadeq as a serious threat to British interests and MI6 went ahead with planning the coup.

Eden tried the same trick three years later in 1956 when the British invaded Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by its president Gamal Abdul Nasser.

That fiasco was resisted by the Egyptians and crucially not backed by the US. Eden left office in ignominy.

The sordid legacy of this Tory prime minister is a small but important reminder of the role of Britain and the US in the Middle East. It has been a damaging, dishonest and destructive one. Unfortunately that role continues.

We don’t have to go back to the First World War, the Sykes Picot Agreement or the many battles fought on Middle East soil that helped redraw boundaries and protect British and other western interests.

We don’t even have to go back to the post Second World War settlement that saw the displacement of the Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel, although all of these events have real pertinence for politics today.

Let’s just consider the last 12 years of the ‘war on terror’, focussed on the Middle East and south Asia.

The grievances were already there in the Middle East, most noticeably the situation of the Palestinians and the existence of deadly sanctions on the people of Iraq.

Yet those grievances were exacerbated following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003.

More than a decade of war, occupation, injustice, killing, displacement and support for dictators has led to greater anti-US and anti-British feeling in the region than at any time.

Just as with Eden in the 1950s, western economic interests are paramount.

While the masses of the Middle East have struggled heroically against these western backed dictators, they have received little support from the western rulers. These rulers preach democracy, but increasingly suggest that the Middle East is not ready for it, seeking stability at any price.

Prospects in the region are once again looking grim, with the coup and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the continued civil war in Syria, sectarian conflict in Iraq and western sanctions and threats against Iran.

It may be that we are seeing a remaking of the Middle East on a much greater scale than we have done since the two world wars.

In 60 years time, how will the conflict appear?

As a brutal and lengthy war for strategic power and raw materials? As a cynical move to exacerbate tensions within the region to advance western interests? As a war which fostered Islamophobia and attacks on civil liberties in the west? As a move to recolonise some of the old empires, especially of Britain and France?

In the battle for democracy and freedom, and economic justice, the people of the Middle East will find no friends among the western powers.

That is why military intervention, economic sanctions and arms sales must be opposed. They have fuelled the problems, not solved them.

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