From Washington to Tehran: Stephen Kinzer

kinzer_new_portreStephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. His articles and books have led The Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” His national best-selling book All the Shah’s Men examines the lead-up, execution, and legacy of the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953: the CIA’s first overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The Politic: Most people are familiar with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, but surprisingly few are well-versed with the 1953 CIA overthrow of Mossadegh, the country’s prime minister. Could you provide a quick background to the premise of your book All the Shah’s Men?

Americans and Iranians have parallel narratives of their relationship, and these narratives never coincide. For Americans, the beginning and end of American-Iranian relations was the hostage crisis. For Iranians, however, that was just a minor episode, and the real, key moment in this relationship was 1953 when the United States participated in the overthrow of the democratic government of Iran. For Iranians, that moment is definitely seen as a key turning point both in their own history and in their relationship with the United States.

The Politic: One of the elements that was essential for the United States’ justification of their actions in 1953 was the threat of a communist takeover in Iran, namely in the form of the Tudeh Party. In your opinion, how credible of a threat do you think that this was?

The danger of communism in Iran was strongly overstated in Washington. The influence of the Soviet Union and communist ideology in Iran was negligible, but the shapers of American foreign policy at that time were not able to distinguish between Moscow-originated threats and domestic nationalism. They misread the nature of Iranian nationalism and assumed that, because it involved challenging Western, economic power, it must have been fomented from Moscow. That was not correct, and actually, communist influence was relatively small in Iran during that period.

The Politic: You present in All the Shah’s Men a pretty decisive fissure in U.S. foreign policy between the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower. Would you consider this the key turning point in the United States’ decision to carry out an overthrow in Iran?

In a larger sense, Eisenhower followed a foreign policy quite similar to Truman’s. There were differences, however. One difference was that Eisenhower had more confidence in covert action than Truman did. Truman drew the line at overthrowing foreign governments. He did not want the CIA to do that, ever. Eisenhower eliminated that line. His desire to promote American interests through covert action was a big change in American foreign policy, and without that change there never would have been the same enthusiasm for the Iran operation.

The Politic: This was the CIA’s first overthrow of a democratically elected government, and you stated in your book that “Iran was the place where the Dulles brothers chose to start showing the world that the U.S. was no longer part of ‘Dean Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.’” How did U.S. foreign policy change after point, and do you think that Eisenhower attributed the “success” of the overthrow to a changing foreign policy?

Eisenhower did not arrive in office determined to overthrow Mossadegh. I think that John Foster Dulles (secretary of state) and Allen Dulles (CIA director) did. They had a long history with Mossadegh, dating back to their years as corporate lawyers in New York, because Mossadegh had been bothering a number of their most important clients. They saw him as a threat to American and Western economic power, as well as a geopolitical danger. Eisenhower was persuaded essentially by John Foster Dulles that this operation was necessary. Afterward, however, he seemed quite satisfied with it. He seemed from his writings and his comments genuinely to have believed that Iran was poised to fall into the Soviet orbit and that the CIA had done something decisive to change the course of history. Certainly, this intensified his enthusiasm for future operations.

The Politic: In response to British imperialism before 1953, Iranians turned to a nationalist figure in the form of Mossadegh; however, in the lead up to 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, Iranians turned to a religious leader in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini. What is it that happened between 1953 and 1979 in Iran that eliminated those nationalist aspirations and drove people into the arms of Khomeini?

The shah imposed a repressive form of rule that made it impossible for independent institutions to exist. There was no civil society. Every kind of organization had to be tied in some way to the government and controlled directly or indirectly by the government. This meant that it was not possible for political parties to provide alternatives to the shah’s rule. Therefore, over the last decade of the shah’s rule, people who were genuinely in opposition had only one place to go and that was the mosque. That was the one place that the shah didn’t dare crush.

Over a period of time, opposition figures in Iran came to be linked with mullahs, and they found their political space in a religious context. That was the only place where opposition to the shah was allowed. The result of that was that when people looked for an alternative to the shah, there was no secular alternative. The shah had systematically crushed every possible other alternative. As a result of his policies, the regime that followed took on a religious tint, which might not have been the case had there had been other secular, political alternatives allowed to thrive in the previous years.

The Politic: How is Mossadegh perceived in Iran today?

Mohammad Mosaddeq, former Iranian Prime Minister
Mohammad Mosaddeq, former Iranian Prime Minister

Mossadegh’s name has essentially been blotted from history books in the Islamic period. I think the current regime in Iran is a little bit torn about his memory. On one hand, they like him because he underlines their paradigm. He enforces their idea that every time Iran tries to do something positive and climb up and provide prosperity for its people, the Western world comes in and crushes Iran. This is a line that is very important to the understanding of Iranian history that the mullahs are preaching. On the other hand, they don’t like Mossadegh because he was a secular democrat. He would have not approved of religious rule. The second impulse has become dominant, and you don’t see photographs of Mossadegh anymore. I think ordinary people have a collective memory of who he was, and I think certainly the time will come in the future when he will be hailed as a hero. Nonetheless, today, largely because of the policies of that the current regime has imposed in education and in public life, Mossadegh is not a palpable, major figure or presence in national consciousness.

The Politic: In your preface to the newest version of All the Shah’s Men, you presented an argument as to why the current course of American policy towards Iran is going in the wrong direction. Why is that so?

The United States over many years has gotten into the habit of treating small, faraway countries as if they were just pawns on a geopolitical map that could be pushed around pretty easily from Washington. Somehow Iran got thrown into this category along with Paraguay and Burundi and countries like that. Iran doesn’t think of itself that way. This is a country with a tremendously rich history. Iranians have a very strong sense of themselves. They don’t think of themselves as a country that should be pushed around by foreign power, because so much of the tragedy in their history has resulted from the imposition of foreign will. The United States still hasn’t gotten used to the idea of trying to treat Iran with the respect that Iranians think they deserve.

There is a deep element of emotion guiding American policy towards Iran. Many people in Washington still have a sense of deep bitterness about what Iran did to the United States through the hostage crisis and the actions that Iran has taken in the decades since then, many of which have been aimed directly and sometimes quite violently at undermining American and Western power all over the world. The emotion leads people in Washington to wish to crush Iran and to teach Iran a lesson and to show the world that there is an unacceptably high price to pay for defying the United States. Emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship. We are following now an emotionally guided policy that has only intensified the differences between Tehran and Washington.

The Politic: With a state that is close to becoming nuclear-capable and a president who is threatening to wipe Israel off the map, can the United States afford to let a country like Iran with its current leadership become nuclear-capable?

I hope that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. I hope that Iran is sincere when it says that it’s never going to do that. I don’t want other countries to get nuclear weapons, either. In fact, I would like to see the number of countries with nuclear weapons reduced. The reality is that in the 21st century, more countries are going to have nuclear weapons. Whether it is going to be Iran or others, we don’t know, but we are going to have to live with more nuclear-armed countries. That’s almost a certainty in the coming decade. I also agree that it is urgently in the interest of the United States to try to domesticate the Iranian nuclear program and bring it under some form of international control.

The question is, “How do we get there?” Do you get there by hectoring and threatening and sanctioning and pushing Iran into a corner and making it feel angry and alone and friendless? Or do you try to coax Iran out of its isolation? You may look at an analogy in Europe, and that is Germany after World War II. When you look at a map of the Middle East right now, one thing jumps right out at you and that is that Iran is a big country right in the middle. There is not going to be stability in that part of the world so long as Iran is angry and hostile.

That was the same situation with Germany after World War II. There was a tremendous amount of anti-German emotion in the world for very obvious reasons. At the beginning — at the period when World War II was just ending — the United States adopted a policy called the Morgenthau Plan, under which Germany was going to be forbidden to ever have a factory again; it was going to become only an agricultural country. This was a way to punish Germany and also to ensure that it would never disturb the peace of Europe again. Fortunately, after a few months passed, cooler heads prevailed. We decided to take the opposite approach, which was embodied in the Marshall Plan. The idea was that as long as Germany was angry and hostile, you are always going to have instability in Europe. Better would to be to try to integrate Germany into a regional security system.

That would also be the policy that I would like to press for Iran, but in order for Iran to be integrated into the region, Iran’s security interests have to be addressed. Up to now, the United States has not been willing to recognize or accept that Iran has legitimate security interests of its own. As long as we expect the resolution of the Iranian crisis to be based around an effective surrender by Iran and Iran’s embrace of the conditions that the United States wants to impose on it, we are not going to have a settlement. We need to make a compromise, and compromise by nature requires concessions by both sides. The United States is not yet in a position psychologically to consider making concessions to Iran under any circumstances. As a matter of fact, we have not even asked Iran what it would require in order to do what we would like it to do with its nuclear program.

Forget about getting to the point where we decide whether we can do what Iran wants, we don’t even know what Iran wants. We have never said to them, “Here is what we would like you to do with your nuclear program. What would you require from us in order to do this?” Even going that far suggests that the United States would be willing to make compromises, and the United States has not gotten to that point yet.

The Politic: Iran’s presidential elections are coming up in June 2013. What is the best-case scenario for the United States with these elections?

For some years I asked myself why it was that the United States was following policies that are preventing Iran from developing into a stable, prosperous, self-confident democracy. I use to think that America was very shortsighted and didn’t realize that this was the result of the policies that they were following. Now I’ve come to ask whether I may have misunderstood this question. I think there may be another way of looking at it.

Maybe it’s that the United States fully understands that the policies we’re following are keeping Iran poor and miserable and unhappy, isolated and angry. Maybe we’ve decided that that’s better for us. Perhaps the Americans are calculating in a more sophisticated way that has concluded that a strong, self-confident, prosperous, democratic Iran is not good for us. Better for us is a poor, isolated Iran that is unpopular in the region where the people are unhappy, where there is a lot of domestic turmoil and where people are only worried about their daily lives. Perhaps keeping Iran in the situation that it is in now is better in the eyes of some American policymakers.

So for the presidential election, frankly I don’t see a great deal of hope. I think the results of the last election show that the electoral solution is not at hand for Iran. Nonetheless, I think that there is the possibility that there will be more discussion and that various points of view may be presented. That would be about the most that you could hope for. I don’t expect that Iranian voters will be presented with a legitimate option to choose between a candidate fully committed to the policies of the Supreme Leader and one who is not fully committed to those policies.

That is not going to happen. Such an election will happen at some point in the future, but I don’t foresee this election having a decisive effect on the path of Iranian politics. I do think that we have a very short window right at this moment for negotiating with Iran because we have our president and secretary of state in office, and in a couple of months Iran will be caught up in domestic politics and that will make things very difficult for negotiations. We do have a window now, but I don’t see any sign that we are going to take advantage of that opportunity.

green revolutionThe Politic: In 2009, we saw a public outcry in the form of the Green Revolution. Do you foresee any form of public noisemaking any time soon, whether it is in this election or in the years to come?

I don’t anticipate an outburst like what we saw after the 2009 election anytime soon. The last time I was in Iran a couple of years ago, I spoke to a number of people about this, and I’ll tell you one story about a gentleman that I met at Cyrus’ tomb.

He said to me, “We tried something. It didn’t work. Now we want to live our lives. The situation here is not so awful that we cannot live under this regime. We do not want to throw ourselves against the bayonets of the Revolutionary Guard. We want to live our lives. We are going to get the result that we want; it is just going to come at a different time than we had hoped. It is going at its own schedule. Meanwhile, we want to live.”

This is very Iranian. When you have been around for 35 centuries, and you have had great peaks and tremendous periods of tragedy, you realize that history unfolds at its own pace. It’s a very different attitude from what Americans have. Americans want everything to happen very quickly. We would like to see something happen right now. Iranians don’t think like that. I think they would like that to happen, but their understanding of history is different from ours. They believe, and I agree with them, that they are going to see a new form of government at some point in Iran, but they wouldn’t dare to suggest when that is going to happen.

I sense that there will be growing frustration. Possibly there will be divisions in the ruling group. The Supreme Leader will die at some point; possibly that will change the system to a certain degree, but I don’t see dramatic or violent mass uprising or protest in Iran any time soon.

People sometimes ask, “When is Iran going to have its revolution like what Egypt had and the other countries in the Arab world?” The answer is that Iran already had its revolution. They are not going to have another one. Iran has learned a lesson 30 years ago that the people in Egypt and in Libya are learning now. No matter how bad the situation is, it can always get worse. Revolution doesn’t bring you what you think it’s going to bring. Oftentimes, it is better to live with what you have. They all gathered together as a nation to overthrow the shah.

Even though they disagreed widely among themselves, Iranians agreed on one single, obvious fact, which was although we don’t know what’s coming next, it will certainly be better than what we have. They learned that this was a mistake. Other countries are learning that decades later, so I think that the Iranians are what I would call a “post-utopian society.” They don’t believe in the fantasy of the revolution in the same way that the Egyptians did a couple of years ago. They [Egyptians] may be coming around to the Iranian point of view these days.

The Politic: The United States has a longstanding history of supporting autocratic regimes in the region. Now, in the midst of the Arab Spring, do you think that there are any lessons that policymakers in Washington can take from 1953?

Maybe the best lesson to learn is that the United States doesn’t know what’s best for countries in the Middle East. We should be guided by some of our friends in the region and not arrive and try to dictate to people and countries what direction they ought to take. I think we’ve shown over the years that we misunderstand much of what happens in the Middle East. There, as in other parts of the world, we often take steps to resolve short-term problems.

We are able to do that because our power allows us to make dramatic, short-term alterations in politics, but in many cases we resolve short-term problems in ways that create long-term problems for us that are far greater than the ones that we originally intervened to resolve.


Justin Schuster is a sophomore in Branford College.

Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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