Foaad Khosmood: In your April 2004 American Prospect article(“Handle With Care”), you wrote “Iranians fervently wish for change, but not through revolution.” Do you believe there is a viable non-revolutionary option toward greater freedom and economic change in Iran?
Stephen Kinzer: Iranians learned a very painful lesson from the years of the late 1970s and early 80s. The lesson is that revolutions are unpredictable. You don’t want to let the wheel of revolution roll start rolling, because you can never predict how it will bounce or where it will ultimately land.
Where there is a possibility of institutional change, it should be pursued. Iran is in a period of peaceful transition. This process may be far too slow and frustrating for many Iranian, but it is in everyone’s interest to let it proceed.
FKh: The 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami and the moderates in the Majlis marked a new chapter in the evolution of the Islamic Republic. There was genuine, free opposition, a flourishing of independent newspapers and a significant spectrum of political rhetoric. Some here in the west, wonder why it took 20 years for a moderate movement like Khatami’s to surface. Why didn’t something like this happen in the 80s or early 90s? Why have the hardliners been able to dominate the Iranian political system for so long?
SK: I think there are at least two reasons. First, conservative forces were able to consolidate their power because they were willing to repress their opponents. In political conflicts, the group that is willing to fight hardest has an advantage. Groups that play by the rules of democracy are at a disadvantage. Also, it is important to recognize that secular political parties and their leaders in Iran have often represented an urban elite. Clergymen are sometimes more in touch with the feelings of ordinary people. Reformers need to strengthen their ties to these people.
FKh: In this country, too, there seems to be a struggle to control the official US/Iran policy. In the April 26, ’04 issue of The New Republic, Michael Rubin attempts to draw a straight line between Mogtada Al Sadr’s insurgency and the Iranian government. He ends his article (“Bad Neighbor”) with this: “End Iran’s infiltration through forceful action or wish it away. How long can we afford to keep choosing the latter?” Which side is more likely to influence US Policy in the near future?
SK: The governments in Tehran and Washington are unsure how to deal with each other. In both capitals, there is a group that favors engagement and another group that wants to pursue a hard-line policy. Actually the Iranian government has been playing a fairly constructive role in Iraq.
It is not in Iran’s interest to have a turbulent or unstable Iraq. Unfortunately neither country has been able to build on this.
If Iran can show that it is cooperating with international agencies regarding its nuclear power, and if it can prove that it is not connected to violent groups working in other countries, I think a new administration in Washington would take a new approach to Iran.
The United States and Iran have many common interests, and a new administration in Washington could engage more seriously with Iran.
FKh: In the United States, the ordinary person’s impression of Iran is still negative. Perhaps the event most remembered about Iran is the hostage crisis of the late 70s. What made the crisis so shocking and unexpected to most Americans?
SK: The shock that Americans felt over the hostage crisis was based on two things. First, of course, it was a violation of international law, a humiliation, a very hostile act. No one likes to see citizens of his or her own country, especially diplomats, taken prisoner and paraded in front of cameras the way American diplomats were. But besides that, this action seemed totally incomprehensible to most Americans.
We had come to believe that most Iranians felt positively toward the United States. Most Americans had no idea that the CIA had brought Mohammad Reza Shah back to his throne in 1953, so when militants who invaded the American embassy in Tehran said they were acting to prevent another such coup, we had no idea what they were talking about.
FKh: Your 2003 book, “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” describes the life of Mohammad Mossadegh and events of the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in great detail. How has Mossadegh’s legacy influenced US/Middle East relations?
SK: Mossadegh was the first great expression of post-war nationalism in the Middle East. He set the pattern that Nasser and other would later follow.
The coup that overthrew him also had a great regional impact. It showed the Middle East that the United States did not want to support democracy in the region, and that it preferred strongman rule. This message was heard very clearly throughout the region.
FKh: You write about the initial failure of operation Ajax. And how Kermit Roosevelt almost single-handedly turned things around and toppled Mossadegh, saving the day for the CIA. How differently would things have turned out had Rooselevelt packed his bags and left as he was ordered to by the CIA after the initial failure of Ajax?
SK: If the 1953 coup in Iran had failed, Iran might have continued evolving toward true democracy. Possibly there could have been a democracy in the heart of the Middle East for all these 50 years.
That would have spared Iranians untold amounts of pain, and also had a profound impact in the region by drawing other countries toward democracy.
FKh: Something that may not have been so obvious to most people familiar with the 1953 coup is the vast difference in the attitudes of the Truman administration versus that of the Eisenhower administration. Why did Eisenhower, despite his personal reservations, reverse Truman’s policy on an Iranian intervention? Was operation Ajax, the point in time in American history where the military industrial complex began to dominate US foreign policy as Eisenhower himself warned later?
SK: In the years after World War II, the United States was unable to send troops to overthrow foreign governments because it feared the response of the Soviet Army. The 1953 coup in Iran marked the first time the CIA had been used to overthrow a government. The ease with which the coup was carried out showed American leaders that they now had a new way to shape world events.
Ten months after the Iran coup, the CIA went on to depose the government of Guatemala. This was the moment when the United States set out on the path of clandestine regime change.
FKh: Is it possible that absent the US consent, the British, especially with the election of Churchill, would have eventually acted against Mossadegh? The way they did some years later in Egypt with the Suez crisis?
SK: President Truman was strongly opposed to British action against Mossadegh. If the United States had maintained his policy, Mossadegh would probably not have been overthrown. Once Churchill left office, Britain’s attention might have turned away from Iran. Perhaps the British would have been moved to pursue a policy that took fuller account of the rising nationalist and anti-colonialist passions in the Middle East.
FKh: You write that Mossadegh reached international celebrity status for challenging the Anglo-Iranian oil company (and the British by extension) on the world stage. However, the western press coverage of that era was only marginally sympathetic at best. The Time magazine “Man of the Year” essay used downright insulting and colonialist language. The British press was backing the countries D’Arcy concession line of argumentation. Did the western media fail to grasp the importance of this precedence? Was there ever any hope of any domestic pressure against an interventionist foreign policy in either US or Britain?
SK: Very few people in Britain or the United States knew that their governments were plotting against Mossadegh. In Britain, a fair number of people might have liked the idea, since Britain’s standard of living was heavily supported by the money the country earned from its control of Iranian oil.
In the United States, people were deeply worried about the Communist threat and were being told that Mossadegh posed a Communist danger.
But there was also considerable sympathy for Mossadegh in the United States, so the government was wise to keep its involvement in the coup secret.
FKh: The British, even after the eventual “success” of Ajax, ended up with 40% of the oil concessions and a US foothold in Iran. How was the resolution to the “Mossadegh problem” viewed in Britain after Ajax?
SK: The British actually ended up with less in Iran than they would have had if they had been willing to accept a 50-50 split of profits in the pre-Mossadegh period.
Unfortunately the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, along with the British government, was caught in a colonial mentality and was unable to see the new world situation.
FKh: You write that the Shah “made Mossadegh a non-person” and tried to erase all evidence of the 1953 coup. How does the Islamic Republic view the crisis and Mossadegh? Has there ever been any attempt to bring to justice anyone involved in operation Ajax such as the Rashidian brothers?
SK: Neither Iranians, Americans or British have ever come to grips fully with the meaning of the 1953 coup.
The question of how to regard the Iranians who were involved is for Iranians themselves to consider. Some of them acted only for reasons of money or power, but others may have believed they were doing wat was best for their country. I do not judge them, but it would be useful for Iranians to consider this question.
FKh: It seems that in Iran, as in Guatemala and other CIA interventions, there was a convergence of political ideology and monetary gain on the part of the US and British administrations. Do you agree with this statement and do you think the United States foreign policy is essentially dominated by the same duality today?
SK: The 1953 coup in Iran and the 1954 coup in Guatemala were carried out for a combination of geopolitical and economic reasons.
The West wanted to strike out against world Communism, protect is own power in the world, and create conditions so that American companies could exploit the resources of developing countries. It is difficult to draw lines separating these various goals. Essentially, both of these coups, like those that followed, were carried out in order to secure both political and corporate power.
We are seeing something very similar today. In Iraq, for example, the United States is seeking a platform from which it can project political influence and also an environment in which American corporations are free to make use of the country’s oil resources.
Whenever outside powers intervene in the Middle East, oil is always at least part of the reason.
FKh: Is Iran actively pursuing a nuclear weapon? How can we describe the Iranian posture toward the United States at this point in time?
SK: Many Iranians believe it is their right to have nuclear weapons. They see that Israel has them, and see no reason why they should be subject to rules that are different from rules that apply to Israel.
Almost any regime that comes to power in Iran will pursue this option. The alternative is a new security architecture for the region that will guarantee security to all countries so that they do not have to pursue the nuclear option.
STEPHEN KINZER is a veteran New York Times correspondent and the author of the 2003 book, “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror”
FOAAD KHOSMOOD is the editor of Znet’e Iran Watch.