by Ethan Azad
In upcoming months, Americans will be bombarded with political ads from campaigns seeking to establish why their candidate is the best choice for the American people. As evidenced by the 2016 presidential elections, we are vulnerable to disinformation and have our own political shortcomings, particularly pertaining to confirmation bias. With the 2020 presidential elections in the United States coming up, the story of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq–and America’s role in his removal from power–bears revisiting.
Dr. Mosaddeq was a Swiss-educated aristocrat who served in multiple governmental positions such as governor, finance minister, and eventually prime minister. His career-defining policy decision was to nationalize Iran’s oil from the British government, who owned a majority stake in and operated the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which at the time had the world’s largest refinery. His grievance (and the majority of Iranian society’s) against the AIOC regarded the unfair concessions obtained from past Iranian rulers. These included Iran receiving only 16% of the corporation’s oil profits, a lack of the corporation’s managerial positions being allocated to Iranians, and poor living conditions faced by laborers.
Mosaddeq’s party–the National Front–was what Mark Gasiorowski describes in his contribution to Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran as “a coalition of political parties and prominent individuals established by Mosaddeq in 1949 to promote democracy and nationalization of the oil industry [in Iran].” Mosaddeq is revered today by many Iranians and advocates of democratic values for his audacious endeavour to obtain better terms on previously negotiated oil concessions from an imperial superpower.
He was elected by the Majles (Iranian parliament) as the prime minister in 1951, shortly after a controversial vote to nationalize all Iranian oil. What followed was a consequential series of events that eventually led to Mosaddeq’s overthrow. Mosaddeq’s government came under British assault, starting with an embargo on Iranian oil. When the embargo failed in breaking Iran’s economy and ensuing negotiations were rejected by Mosaddeq, the British–who were lacking in resources after World War II–enlisted U.S. support against Mosaddeq’s government by emphasizing the threat that nationalization posed to American interests worldwide. This occurred at the onset of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had long considered Iran highly strategic. Given that the Tudeh party–Iran’s most organized communist party–were early Mosaddeq supporters, U.S. officials saw reason to fear Mosaddeq’s success.
Attempts to destabilize Mosaddeq’s government centered around tying Mosaddeq to anti-communist propaganda that had been circulating for years prior to Mosaddeq’s election. Seeking to undermine Soviet influence in the 1940’s, the CIA launched “Operation TPBEDAMN.” This operation had an annual budget of $1 million and was responsible for planting “articles and cartoons in local newspapers targeting the Tudeh,” paying off key political actors, and stirring discord. Essentially, it served to create a backdrop for anti-communist sentiment in Iran.
Under the Truman administration, the United States had worked to gain Mosaddeq’s allegiance. To do this, the United States provided aid to Iran during the oil embargo, deterred the British from invading Iran (twice) and prevented any possible Soviet invasion of northern Iran by acting as a looming hegemonic counterbalance.
However, the political atmosphere changed completely upon the election of President Eisenhower. Though there was no substantive reason to believe the Tudah party would exert communist influence over Iran at the time, negotiating with Mosaddeq was ruled out as an option under the Eisenhower administration and CIA officials undertook “Operation TPAJAX.” This ultimately led to Mosaddeq’s removal and sowed the seeds of the anti-American resentment in Iran that persists today.
This would become the CIA’s first overthrow of a foreign government and would go on to serve as a blueprint for U.S. intervention in Guatemala, Cuba, and a list of other countries. Propaganda under “TPAJAX” was not restricted to just Iranian newspapers, however. Even in the United States, as stated in Dr. Donald Wilber’s declassified Secret CIA History of the Iran Coup, “A request was made that U.S. papers reflect the Iranian press campaign against Mossadegh and that inspired articles be placed in the U.S. press.”
Mosaddeq was overthrown and replaced by an authoritarian monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah. The actions taken by the Shah’s government in the years after Iran’s experiment with democracy have been labeled by many as an dictatorial rule under which occurred numerous human rights abuses. These same abuses motivated the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and are significant factors in anti-American sentiment in Iran today.
It is important to note that Mosaddeq’s story can be both portrayed and interpreted in a variety of ways. In 1951, Time magazine named Mosaddeq their “Man of the Year”. However, in that same feature, he was described as a “strange old man” and a “dizzy old wizard.” Some will call him a hero, even a patriot, and others would use his usurpation as justification to further their own anti-western agenda.
It is the burden of people living in democratic systems to ensure that their opinions and electoral decisions are based on a reasonable analysis from multiple sources. There are Iranians today that find fault with the history of the CIA coup because they feel they should not have been influenced so easily. They live with the consequences of the coup even now.
In the upcoming election, Americans can expect to see candidates smearing opponents by tying them to Russia, terrorism, or any number of other negative buzz words lingering in public perception. The media is often shrugged off by viewers, but Jason Rezaian says it best in his book Prisoner, “Propaganda media, when viewed critically, can be an incredibly revealing window into what a state apparatus is trying to accomplish.” It will be crucial for voters to challenge their own confirmation bias and be open to the possibility of being wrong in their beliefs; after all, it is the voters who will have to live with the outcome.