John Kerry References Mossadegh


mossadegh.jpgSenate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry has a very sensible piece in the New York Times today. Kerry gets the strategic issues between the US and Iran — but he also understands that what is happening in the streets of Tehran matters. Obama has to be very careful of becoming an easy target for Ahmadinejad and a state apparatus that will now fear its own people.
As I mentioned in a New York Times article by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler today, I believe that Barack Obama’s dismissiveness about differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi and a narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear gambit was a mistake. Obama may not have meant to but he conveyed disrespect for the process at play now in Iran — and what is important for Obama and others in the national security establishment to understand is that Iran’s election is not over.
John Kerry references Mossadegh in his good op-ed — and what I find fascinating is that in Iran’s narrative, the US has been a villain for robbing them of their democracy and installing the Shah. Now, in a palace coup, Ahmadinejad has robbed the Iranians of the belief they had in their own version of an Islamic democracy, and he has become the new villain.
“Death to America” has now been replaced by “Death to the Dictator.”
From John Kerry’s piece:

Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leading reformist presidential candidate, has advocated a more conciliatory approach to America. But his political legitimacy comes from his revolutionary credentials for helping overthrow an American-backed shah — a history that today helps protect protesters against accusations of being an American “fifth column.”
Iran’s internal change is happening on two levels: on the streets, but also within the clerical establishment. Ultimately, no matter who wins the election, our fundamental security challenge will be the same — preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That will take patient effort, and premature engagement in Iran’s domestic politics may well make negotiations more difficult.
What comes next in Iran is unclear. What is clear is that the tough talk that Senator McCain advocates got us nowhere for the last eight years. Our saber-rattling only empowered hard-liners and put reformers on the defensive. An Iranian president who advocated a “dialogue among civilizations” and societal reforms was replaced by one who denied the Holocaust and routinely called for the destruction of Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran’s influence in the Middle East expanded and it made considerable progress on its nuclear program.
The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.

— Steve Clemons


18 comments on “John Kerry References Mossadegh

  1. David says:

    Excellent points, Dan.


  2. Dan Kervick says:

    Article 27 of the Iranian constitution says:
    “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”


  3. WigWag says:

    Dan you say,
    “Iran has an actual formal constitution, so the question of legitimacy isn’t so murky as it is in countries where government establishes itself purely through vagaries of tradition, consent and ad hoc coercion.”
    Any idea what role the Iranian Constitution assigns to the Basij militias or whether the constitution empowers the President or Supreme Leader to muster them to beat or kill women, students or other nonviolent demonstrators?
    The Basij seems to be engaging in coersion to me. I think the fact that it may not be “ad hoc” makes it worse, not better.


  4. Dan Kervick says:

    “In my humble opinion, a President who orders a private militia accountable only to him or his allies to brutally attack his political opponents is not legitimate regardless of how many votes he received. Majoritarianism is not democracy.”
    Well, “legitmacy” can be used in all sorts of ways, to express various forms of legal, institutional and moral approval. One could argue, for example, that once George Bush began torturing people, his presidency was no longer legitimate in some important moral sense. Still, so long as the US Congress did not impeach him and remove him, it is clear that he was the legal president of the United States. (Leave aside the whole Florida, 2000 business.) Iran has laws, including election laws. Those laws determine whether Ahmadinejad is Iran’s legitimate president or not.
    Iran also has constitutional methods for removing a president from office. If Ahmadinejad sanctioned election fraud; if he ordered the non-judicial killings of opponents; if he sent thugs out to brutalize and kill students; then clearly he is obviously guilty of all sorts of crimes, including crimes under Iranian law. A good deal of the public criticism of Ahmadinejad in Iran, increasingly even in the the state run press, is related to these charges. To say that Ahmadinejad should be removed from office because of his crimes is not the same thing as saying he is an illegitimate usurper of governmental power.
    And if Ahmadinejad committed violations of international law, then legal charges can be filed against him in international courts, whether he is the legitimate president of Iran or not. Whether he is Iran’s legal president and whether he is guilty of crimes are two separate questions.
    Iran has an actual formal constitution, so the question of legitimacy isn’t so murky as it is in countries where government establishes itself purely through vagaries of tradition, consent and ad hoc coercion. We might not like various aspects of Iran’s constitution, but it is a constitution nonetheless. A coup is an unconstitutional removal of the legitimate government. And we simply don’t have the kind of evidence we would need to say that a coup has taken place in Iran. Our government shouldn’t get into the business of making intuitive, hunch-based pronouncements about such matters.


  5. Sand says:

    “…$400 million to fund [this] destabilization campaign.”…”
    vs. the ‘billions’ that went missing in Iraq — for what?
    $400 million is nothing — it’s a drop in the bucket — maybe it could have helped with some of those photocopied signs where the spelling is even worse than mine, but to think that it would be enough to bring down a government — really? I could be wrong – but really?
    Last time I checked we don’t even have enough Farsi translators in our intelligence agencies, let alone enough James Bond type field agents to get past Ahmadinejad highly efficient militia and intel networks? Now, bombs we’re got alot of those.
    Oh God — I just had a flashback of Karen Hughes in her ‘outreach post’ role — How much money $$$ did we waste on those books? I just remember those kids faces.


  6. WigWag says:

    Was there a coup? Wasn’t there a coup? It’s hard to know exactly and I suppose it depends in part on what the definition of a coup is. Would it be a coup if Ahmadinejad received a majority of the votes but not enough to avoid a run-off and so had the vote tally falsified? What about if he actually won enough votes to have made a run-off unnecessary but he falsified the results none the less? Can a President (or Supreme Leader) ever be considered legitimate if he sanctions massive vote fraud?
    I am perplexed by those (like Flynt Leverett or Patrick Doherty) who suggest that Ahmadinejad’s presidency might be “legitimate” because he could well have received more than 50 percent of the vote. Ad arguendo, hasn’t it occurred to them that the ruling clique’s behavior in the days since the election has robbed them of any legitimacy that an actual electoral victory might have provided? Have they watched the videos of demonstrators being beaten by vigilantes aligned with the ruling clique? Have they seen the damage to the universities and the violence perpetrated against students? Are they unaware of the regimes attempts to inhibit communication or press coverage?
    It seems to me that those who suggested that Iran’s democracy was real but incipient and imperfect and those who suggest that Ahmadinejad might actually be the legitimate President of Iran because he won the most votes have a heavy burden to bear. They have to explain how so many irregularities could have occurred so quickly and so brazenly. Even more importantly, they have to explain what type of “democracy” sanctions a President to control a well-armed and well organized group of vigilantes on motorcycles empowered to beat, batter and kill peaceful demonstrators at will.
    In my humble opinion, a President who orders a private militia accountable only to him or his allies to brutally attack his political opponents is not legitimate regardless of how many votes he received. Majoritarianism is not democracy.
    Regardless of the eventual outcome of the leadership struggle in Iran and regardless of whether Mousavi and Ahmadinejad agree or disagree about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran’s quest for leadership in the Middle East in general and the Muslim world in particular has been seriously set back. It wasn’t long ago that analysts were agog at the prospect of the Shia revival. With the humiliating defeat of its allies in Lebanon and given it’s obvious need to focus on internal reconciliation, those who once saw Iran as an antidote for the troubles in the mostly autocratic Muslim World need to rethink.
    It’s obvious that the millions of Iranians demonstrating for Mousavi define their aspirations in ways other than resistance to the United States, resistance to Israel and resistance to Arab dictatorship. And it is obvious that even if Ahmadinejad survives he won’t be viewed as a lion but as the pip-squeak that he has always been.
    If Mousavi wins, Iran may very well become a more prosperous and tolerant nation. But regardless of who wins, Iran will be a less formidable presence on the international scene than it was before.


  7. JohnH says:

    Dan–intrigued by your optimism. What would allow Iran to take off?
    There is no petro-economy in the world that has ever been able to develop internationally competitive industry–apart from the oil industry. Oil sets the terms of trade and crowds everything else out, except for goods and services that cannot be traded internationally. It doesn’t matter if industry is locally owned or foreign owned. In economics it’s call the “Dutch disease.” In the vernacular it’s called the “oil curse.”
    On the political side, are there any indications that Moussavi/Rafsanjani will exhibit enlightened leadership, tolerant of human rights, freedom and dissent–apart from their rhetoric, of course?


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    “I would not want to be an Iranian these days. Their future is extremely bleak. There are no good outcomes in sight, only bad ones.”
    I find myself feeling optimistic about Iran. It is a country that is prepared to take off, depending on the outcome of the current crisis.


  9. JohnH says:

    Yep, it’s hell to live in a petro-state. Oil is a fairly localized resource, easily controlled by a small handful of thugs. And that is exactly what happens in most states, the government being the thugs. They are protected by Western governments. Oil is so lucrative that the thugs get phenomenally wealthy, and Western oil companies get phenomenal profits.
    However, the formula gets broken were they to give the people a cut of the profits. Norway is about the only exception to the rule. They were allowed to have a state oil company (not controlled by international oil companies), which provides local employment, an oil driven hi-tech sector, and money for government services, which are democratically allocated.


  10. ... says:

    further to my comments, the usa’s continued involvement in iraq speaks volumes as well…. it doesn’t matter if obama is silent.. as johnh points out, actions speak louder then words…


  11. ... says:

    johnh – it is hard to respect the usa when the usa gov’t is funding destabilization in iran to the tune of an obvious 400 million, not to mention other back doors they are probably using for the same reason… would they do the same in israel? the usa can try maintaining whatever facade they want to, but that is mostly all it is at this point….


  12. JohnH says:

    Obama’s silent? Well, actions speak louder than words. The US has not slowed its drive to regime change. The drive for regime change is in high gear, which is the most likely reason that the Western press is tuned in at all.
    Obama has not reversed Bush’s “secret ‘Presidential finding’ authorizing the CIA to mount covert ‘black’ operations to destabilize the Iranian government. According to current and former intelligence officials, these operations included ‘a coordinated campaign of propaganda broadcasts, placement of negative newspaper articles, and the manipulation of Iran’s currency and international banking transactions.'”
    Seymour Hersch reported that “the Democratic-controlled Congress had approved up to $400 million to fund [this] destabilization campaign.” This is a massive amount of money for a country like Iran. Obama, though acknowledging American complicity with subversion of Mossadegh’s attempt at democracy, has apparently done nothing to reverse American subversion.
    And the National Endowment for “Democracy” continues to work to subvert the government.
    Much as I sympathize with the aspirations of the people in the street, their agony is only just beginning. Instability by itself can devastate a country. Worse, the most likely outcome is a government that cares even less about them than the current one. This generation is too young to have concrete memories of the horrors of the Shah, the puppet of Western interests.
    I would not want to be an Iranian these days. Their future is extremely bleak. There are no good outcomes in sight, only bad ones.


  13. Dan Kervick says:

    A few brief remarks on WigWag’s comments:
    We don’t know there was a coup. I’m satisfied that we do know, to reasonable degree of probability, that there was fraudulent behavior of some kind in the counting and reporting of votes. But we don’t know what the outcome of the election would have been without that fraudulent behavior. Our government shouldn’t denounce a coup if we do not know that a coup took place. What we can support is the principle that votes be accurately counted, and that the voices of the Iranian people are accurately reported and heard.
    If there was a coup, and it fails, will Iranians blame us for not offering fuller-throated support? I do not know. But generally, people only start casting blame when their efforts fail. When they succeed, they are happy and move forward. And anecdotal evidence suggests that many Iranians involved in the reform movement want us to keep our distance, anyway. Americans who are so inclined are helping Iranian reformers and protesters get their messages out. If the reform movement succeeds, all those American friends can take a bow and help build a new US-Iranian relationship. But Washington should probably stay out of it.
    And what if (i) there was no coup, or (ii) there was a coup, but it succeeds? Then in short order we will be back to dealing with Khomenei and Ahmadinejad again. We can’t afford to blow up all the bridges for the sake of a high-risk bet on the revolutionary wheel of fortune.


  14. Paul Norheim says:

    The whole world, including the Iranians on both sides,
    understand why Obama is silent now. What is more puzzling, is
    his silence 1/2 year ago, when Israel bombarded Gaza.


  15. Paul Norheim says:

    “If the coup fails and Mosavi becomes President, the Iranian
    people may very well remember Obama’s silence.” (WigWag)
    And perhaps also be grateful for that silence, because an open
    support would be a powerful weapon in the hands of


  16. Paul Norheim says:

    Many of those in Washington who are screaming that Obama should openly support the Iranian opposition,
    are the same people who have always opposed a dialogue. The argument that a support would be
    counterproductive is not likely to convince them, because they favor military action, and an outcome that is
    counterproductive if you want dialogue would be productive if you want war.
    There is also no evidence that the leaders who represent the Iranian opposition would have a different
    position on the nuclear issue – there may be changes in “optics”, but probably not in substance. This implies
    that those who urge Obama to support the opposition may later push for an attack, even if the opposition
    they now “support” won a re-run. This is a reason for the Iranian opposition to be suspicious towards
    Americans claiming that they support them.
    Reading the comments at TWN, I am surprised seeing that some people seem to suggest that foreign powers
    (especially Israel/USA) CREATED the Iranian opposition and are behind the current actions in the streets.
    I am equally surprised when someone suggest that foreign powers are NOT meddling in the current events –
    and even ask for proofs. It`s usually very hard to prove such things while they are happening, but history
    teaches us that they are always meddling behind the scenes.
    As I see it, both those who claim that the recent events in Iran are the sole product of foreign meddling, and
    those who see them as a pure and honest expression of a homegrown wish for democracy, human rights and
    other virtues often associated with Western societies, are victims of a simplistic worldview.
    We outsiders are currently not in a position to evaluate to which degree foreign powers try to influence the
    events, and to which degree the Iranian opposition is autonomous (nor the substance of, and motives behind
    the various factions of that opposition). What we know for sure is that they want a re-run of the election, and
    that foreign powers try hard not to be seen as meddling by making open statements in favor of the
    opposition. And whatever the outcome, the “spiritual” authority of the supreme leader has clearly been
    weakened, which will have consequences – at least in the long term.
    What is going on behind the scenes is much more unclear, probably also for the Iranians themselves.


  17. WigWag says:

    I don’t claim to have any idea what stance the Obama Administration should take towards the current imbroglio in Iran but I’m not inclined to agree with Senator Kerry when he says this,
    “The last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to evoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.”
    Andrew Sullivan made a compelling case when he said on election night in Iran (just as it was becoming clear that the vote tally was fraudulent) that the surest way to recapitulate the mistake we made with Mossadegh is by not supporting Mousavi.
    It’s clear to Iranians that the United States toppled the duly elected government of Mossadegh in 1953. Not decrying the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad coup of 2009 would be repeating the same mistake all over again.
    If the coup fails and Mosavi becomes President, the Iranian people may very well remember Obama’s silence.
    An America that aided and guided a coup in 1953 and that acquiesced to one in 2009 may not be forgiven so easily by the Iranian people.


  18. Zathras says:

    Sen. Kerry’s column is mostly criticism of Americans who have opposed Kerry in the past.
    Their fault is advocating on the Obama administration a course of action that it is unlikely to take. Kerry’s concern is that expressions of sympathy for protesters of the stolen Iranian election might give Iran’s government the opportunity to make the charge of American meddling.
    That charge will be made anyway, indeed it has been already. Hostility to the United States has been Iranian political clerics’ reason for being for the last 30 years, and that is not about to change. Barack Obama could do nothing but bird impressions for the next month and still find himself accused by the Iranian government of trying to subvert Islam.
    To the extent Kerry is recommending any policy himself, it’s a policy of walking on eggshells. This advice might have been prudent in the first days after the Iranian election, when it was unclear what was happening. Events are moving on, though, and the American government can’t just repeat platitudes and expect to get anywhere.


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