Exactly seven decades ago, on August 1953, the eyes of the world fell on Iran (Persia). The Iranian crisis would lead to the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, in an event called to mark a milestone for the Eisenhower Administration.
The events followed one another since the concern that oil nationalizations launched by Mossadegh aroused by affecting Western interests and by the possibility of a Iranian falling into the communist orbit.
The world was then witnessing one of the most critical moments of the Cold War. In the previous years, a series of events had alarmed the free world. The rapid expansion of Soviet influence throughout Eastern Europe had already unfolded. In China, Mao’s triumph over the nationalists led by Marshal Chiang Kai Shek in 1949 led the world´s most populous country into the communism field. That same year, the Soviets had completed their nuclear program, depriving the US of a monopoly on the matter. And in 1950 the world seemed to witness the start of a third world war when Kim Il Sung’s troops crossed the 38th parallel starting the Korean War.
It was then when, amid the agitations of the Tudeh Party (party of the masses), a coup took place with evident American and British support in order to remove Mossadegh and restore absolute power under the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The events marked the decisive action of the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles -secretary of State and head of the CIA respectively- whose influence was at its peak. Determining that on the 19th the Shah would abandon his fleeting exile in Rome to be reinstated on the throne.
The then Argentine Ambassador to Iran, the legendary Benito Llambí, wrote in his Memoirs that the Shah returned strenghtened. “I was his personal friend and I went to the airport to meet him on his return”, the Ambassador remembered. “The Shah, despite the fatigue of the days lived, was exultant. After the usual greetings and congratulations, I took part in a welcome meal that was served that same night at the palace”, Llambí remarked.
Llambí maintained that the monarch “had overcome the crisis and paussed unscathed the most difficult test of his reign”. “As he used to say, until August 19, 1953, he had been Shah by dynastic inheritance. From that day it was also by popular decision”.
Reinstated in the Niavaran Palace, the Shah would indulge in an autocratic but pro-Western policy. The one that would combine a decided cultural opening, a notable advance in women’s rights, a closeness to Israel and an accelerated modernization policy under his “White Revolution”.
Regarding Mossadegh, for his part, Ambassador Llambí offered the following reflection: “Beyond his successes and errors, Mossadegh has the undoubted merit of having marked a milestone in the history of oil exploitation and in the recovery of the resource by poor producing countries.
The truth is that the coup against Mossadegh would be marked as an early example of US interventionism that would characterize various administrations in the attempt to stop the communist advance during the Cold War.
Almost fifty years later -in the midst of an effort to improve relations with Iran– US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that the US had played a “significant role” in the overthrow of Mossadegh. Drawing criticism from conservatives, she argued that the coup had caused “undermining of Iranian political development” and was “one of the causes of the resentment of a large part of the Iranian population regarding US intervention in its internal affairs.”
What followed later is a very well known story. Until his overthrow in 1979, the Shah would become America’s greatest ally in the region. To the extent that in the early 1970s the Nixon Administration seemed willing to supply him with virtually all the non-nuclear military material he required.
For the Carter Administration, meanwhile, the Shah would constitute an early test. Since there was an apparent contradiction between maintaining support for Tehran in the midst of Human Rights violations by the feared SAVAK (secret police).
Despite this, Carter would embrace the Shah. To the point that on December 31, 1977, Carter would celebrate the arrival of the new year together with the Shah and his wife Farah Diba in Tehran. An occasion where he would utter a sentence that he must have regretted for years. When he assured that Iran was an “island of stability” in the middle of the hottest region in the world. A sentence that would prove wrong just a few months later, when the Shah was finally forced to go into exile after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
A tragedy for the free world had taken place. Conservatives would say that Carter had abandoned America’s best friend. And the most pro-American country and friend of Israel in the Middle East would become its greatest enemy. Until becoming the threat to peace and international security that Iran represents in our present.
But, truth be told, the Shah had also made mistakes. Perhaps affected by the hubris that usually invades the powerful, perhaps he had forgotten to what extent his secular reforms were sustainable.
Some bystanders recalled the epistolary exchange in which the Shah had recommended King Faisal to modernize, opening Saudi Arabia, allowing mixed schools, enabling women to wear miniskirts and opening nightclubs and discos. Faisal had replied: “Your Majesty, I appreciate your advice. But let me remind you that you are not the Shah of France. You are not in Elysee. You are in Iran. And ninety percent of your population is Muslim. Please never forget that”.
Mariano A. Caucino is a foreign policy analyst. He served as Argentine Ambassador to Costa Rica and the State of Israel.