50 years later, Iranians remember US-UK coup

Iranians mourned this week the consequences of Anglo-American regime change as they marked the 50th anniversary of a CIA coup that toppled their democratically elected prime minister.

At a time when the United States has adopted a policy of preemptive action in its war on terrorists - and is portrayed here as encouraging student street protests - the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh's government is taking on fresh relevance for some Iranians.

"This year, many political groups in Iran are showing more interest in the history of the [US-orchestrated] military coup," says Ibrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister and leading member of a political party that traces its origins to Mossadegh's National Front. "Now it seems that the Americans are pushing towards the same direction again. That shows they have not learned anything from history."

Organized by the CIA and the British SIS to secure Iran's oil resources from a possible Soviet takeover and secure Iran's oil resources, the coup marked America's first intervention in the Middle East. Its aftershocks are still being felt.

The end of Iran's first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who relied on US aid and arms. The anti-American backlash in 1979 shook the whole region and helped spread Islamic militancy.

"If there had not been a military coup, there would not have been 25 years of the Shah's brutal regime, there would not have been a revolution in 1979 and a government of clerics," says Mr. Yazdi, who served briefly as foreign minister in the first cabinet after the fall of the Shah. "What we have now is a result of the coup."

Today, Mr. Mossadegh remains a hero to many Iranians who believe he fought against colonial exploitation and dictatorial rule during his 26 months in office. Perhaps because he represents a future denied and what might have been, his memory has approached myth.

Mossadegh incurred the wrath of Britain by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and then argued his case successfully at the UN Security Council.

After considering military action, Britain opted for a coup d'état. President Harry Truman rejected the idea, but when Dwight Eisenhower took over the White House, he ordered the CIA to embark on one of its first covert operations against a foreign government.

A new book on the coup - "All the Shah's Men," by New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer - describes how the CIA and the British helped to undermine Mossadegh's government through bribery, libel, and orchestrated riots. Agents posing as communists threatened religious leaders, while the US ambassador lied to the prime minister about alleged attacks on American nationals.

The book isn't on sale here, but the 50th anniversary was front-page news in Iranian newspapers this week. One paper published excerpts from CIA documents on the coup, which were released only three years ago, and lamented how the intervention stunted the country's evolution.

In an allusion to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the daily Yas-e No wrote that some Iranians might wrongly assume the best way to solve the country's problems now would be to turn to a foreign power: "If a foreign country comes to an area, it will think about its own national interest first and not care about the people's rights."

The ruling conservative clergy have portrayed recent street protests in Iran as an attempt by the US to foment discontent among university students. Although student leaders distanced themselves from Washington and monarchist exiles, accusations of foreign meddling carry weight in a country with Iran's history.

The Bush administration has handed the hard-liners valuable ammunition by cultivating relations with Iranian exiles who favor restoring the monarchy and by promoting a media campaign to undermine Iran's clerical leadership.

Washington's tough rhetoric against Tehran and flirtation with the Shah's son are a kind of nightmarish déjà vu for the embattled reformists and students struggling to push for democratic change in Iran.

The reformists allied with President Mohammad Khatami say their country now faces another choice between despotism and democracy, and they worry that the combination of outside interference and internal squabbling within their own ranks could once again defer their dream.

At a conference here this week commemorating Mossadegh, a young Iranian man who asked not to be identified said "If there is going to be [democratic] change, it should not be done by a foreign government but by Iranians, and it should happen gradually," he said.

On Tuesday, the day of the anniversary, there were no official government ceremonies to honor Mossadegh's legacy. Deemed too secular for the Islamic Republic, he is seldom mentioned by the conservative clergy. When they do mention him, they stress the role of clerics at the time and show contempt for Mossadegh.

Abolfathi Takrousta, who worked as Mossadegh's cook, says, "Under both regimes, now and before, they like to hide his name. But the good things he did are clear to Iranians, so I don't know why they would do this. When Mossadegh died, people felt their father had died."

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