A long-standing element of tension in U.S.- Iranian relations has centered around the role American and British forces played in the ouster of the country's prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The issue prompted years of animosity and anti-Americanism in Iran during its 1979 revolution, and, arguably, has incited backlash that persists up to present day. But only this week, almost 60 years after the fact, has the U.S. formally admitted to playing a role.
But of course it isn't newsworthy that the U.S. undermined its rhetorical support for democracy by playing a role in ousting Iran's elected leader. This has been par for the course in the realist, at times contradictory and even uncomfortable approach to U.S. foreign policy in the region persisting up to this day. But what is newsworthy is that the U.S. government is finally admitting to its role.
The National Security Archive released these newly declassified documents formally revealing the U.S.'s role in Iran's 1953 coup on its website, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The document clearly and unequivocally cites a major U.S. role, saying, "[T]he military coup that overthrew Mossadegh and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy." The plot was motivated by U.S. interests to contain Soviet aggression in the country.
The story has all the trappings of a major secretive operation. Running under the codename TPAJAX, American intelligence officers engaged a long list of local contacts and collaborators to pull off the plot. Declassified documents cite a range of strategies employed in the process ranging from using propaganda to meddle in local politics, to inducing the Shah's cooperation, to bribing members of parliament to ensure the American plot to shape Iranian domestic politics would succeed in favor of U.S. interests.
But the story isn't anything new. The U.S. has, of course, towed a precarious line for years by simultaneously spreading and undermining democracy across the world.
The CIA played a major role in a 1954 coup in Guatemala, for example, in the midst of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, a role only later confirmed under the Freedom of Information Act with documents made public in 2003. The agency is suspected to have similarly played a role in 1979 to help oust the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, playing a controversial role in helping train former dictator Samosa's national guard. Even U.S. and British support for Saddam in the 1980's has been labelled by historians as a CIA plot carefully shape the country's outcomes according to U.S. strategic interests at the time. It will only be a matter of time until a range of documents confirming controversial CIA involvement in more recent cases in history will come to light.
But beyond these myriad historical examples and the newest confirmation of America's prickly past in Iran, the conflict between American support for promoting democratic processes versus its discomfort over a range of non-democratic outcomes is raging on. 60 years later, the issue remains particularly heated in the Middle East. The U.S. has crafted a delicate strategy in the region that begs for some consistency.
By carefully picking and choosing unlikely friends among the Middle East's controversial leaders — from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia — the U.S. has enaged in a fragile balancing act to secure U.S. interests in the region.
The release of new government documents confirming U.S. involvement in Iran's domestic affairs only highlights this existing tension. It serves as a reminder, on the one hand, of the fact that U.S. strategy in the region is has required difficult, often unflattering strategies of U.S. meddling in the reigon's politics. But it also highlights that the controversial nature of U.S. involvement in international coups over time can have a range of unintended consequences, impacting the prevalence of anti-Americanism and political trouble down the road.
This week's release of the CIA's Iran documents helps highlight the difficult position U.S. officials must face in owning up to the strategic foreign policy maneuvers the country continues to make despite its lofty pro-democracy rhetoric. American Wilsonian idealism of spreading democracy around the world has, unsurprisingly, faced major roadblocks in practice that the U.S. will and must be held accountable for. With or without released CIA documents, the realist approach to U.S. foreign policy in influencing political outcomes in the Middle East and beyond have unavoidably invited criticism and backlash for hypocritical, even subversive behavior over time.
One of the greatest challenges for U.S foreign policy in the coming years will be owning up to this history, as well as finding a credible line moving forward in which the nation can support a productive foreign policy aligned with America's interests that still manages to help encourage democracy and liberty to flourish internationally.