Operation Ajax. Sixty years ago, on Aug. 19, 1953, the United States of America, staunch defender of democracy, operating through CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt Jr., overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadagh, and installed a shah in power.
The pretense for the coup, a Cold War conceit advanced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointees, CIA Director Alan Dulles and his brother Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was to keep the Soviets from making inroads through Persia to the Indian Ocean. However, its true motive, which is why President Truman had rejected a previous plan for a coup, was to protect the interests of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which wanted to keep exploiting its Iranian concessions without sharing profits in an equitable manner with the host country.
Roosevelt’s mission was successful. Mossadagh was deposed, his nationalization of Anglo-Iranian was reversed, and the exploitation of Iran continued under the new shah, who imposed his own reign of despotism and exploitation over the Iranian people, supported with American arms and training — one that continued until 1979 and the rise of the Ayatollahs.
Last week I attended a lecture in Jaffrey named for Amos Fortune, an African-American citizen of Jaffrey who was born in Africa, brought to America as a slave and by age 60 had purchased his freedom and started his own successful business in the Monadnock Region.
Fortune died in 1801 and is buried behind the classic white-clapboarded Jaffrey Meetinghouse in the Old Burying Ground. He prospered as a businessman and one of his bequests to the community endows an eponymously named lecture program that occurs each summer.
Recently, I was at a lecture given by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye on transformative and transactional American presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries — with President Eisenhower mentioned among the transactional. After the lecture, a friend wondered about Eisenhower’s decision to overthrow Mossadagh, and speculated that the coup decision was one of Ike’s most serious mistakes — one that we are still paying for and one for which Ike should be held seriously accountable. I agree.
One for which we are still paying.
Today, unprecedented levels of conflict and violence are racking the Middle East — and while the West is not doing much of the direct killing it bears some of the responsibility for the current state of chaos and destabilization.
A land once called Holy is being colored red by the blood of victims slaughtered to protect the power and privilege of dictators, preachers and politicians. Weapons supplied by outside powers enable the continued suppression of peoples’ desires for justice, dignity, freedom and economic opportunity. Bombings, torture, poison gas, martial law, church burnings, massacres, incarceration, inter-communal fighting and fear and intimidation roils a region nominally free only since the end of World War II — a region struggling still to free itself from a burdensome legacy of colonization and exploitation.
Historic tensions between religion, culture, tradition and secularism, which should, if properly balanced, produce synergistic energy between communities, is currently producing only chaos and insecurity.
We share some of the blame: It is a collective fault — it is not Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations but an Ignorance of Civilizations — of theirs and the West’s. It’s neither exclusively Bush’s nor Obama’s fault — it is our complacency, our communal unwillingness to move beyond our narrow exceptionalist world view to see how the world is changing, how we fail to distinguish between worlds that hunger to be modernized without wanting to be Westernized, and ours.
Failed policies, selfish interests and lack of vision have blinded us from seeing that our own interests can only be protected if everyone’s interests are being engaged.
We need an Axial Age.
Axial Age, a term first used by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, is often used to describe pivotal times in history where new paradigms emerge — a pivotal age — a time of transformation as religious scholar Karen Armstrong described it.
The Middle East, I believe, is struggling to enter such an Axial Age.
Since the end of World War II — when the yokes of tyranny, occupation and colonialism were being lifted from the shoulders of the occupied peoples, when religion, culture and tradition began to struggle to reassert their place within local societies — the region has been in flux.
They don’t hate us — they don’t trust us. The West has been complicit in their occupation, subjugation and exploitation. The West has allied itself with privileged power elites against justice and dignity.
America came late to the world stage, late to the idea of becoming a global citizen, and late to being a super power — and in that evolving process made a lot of mistakes.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.