More than half a century has passed since the United States deposed the only democratic government Iran ever had. As militants in Washington urge a second American attack on Iran, the story of the first one becomes more urgently relevant than ever. It shows the folly of using violence to try to reshape Iran.
If the United States had not sent agents to depose Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (right) in 1953, Iran would probably have continued along its path toward full democracy. Over the decades that followed, it might have become the first democratic state in the Muslim Middle East, and perhaps even a model for other countries in the region and beyond.
A new American approach to Iran should be based on direct, bilateral, and unconditional negotiations. Beyond that, it is in the urgent interest of the United States to promote all manner of social, political and economic contacts with Iranians. In a new climate, American businesses would no longer be forbidden to trade with Iran, but encouraged to do so. Rather than tightly restricting the number of visas issued to Iranians, the US would do the opposite: invite as many Iranians as possible to the United States, and flood Iran with Americans.
By violently pushing Iran off the path to democracy in 1953, the United States created a whirlpool of instability from which undreamed-of threats emerged years later. A long American campaign of isolation, pressure and threats has produced no change in Iran’s behavior. Continuing it will mean a steady increase in tension that some in Washington believe should culminate in a military attack. Such an attack would usher in another era of upheaval in Iran and the surrounding region, this time with the overlay of nuclear-tinged terror.
Operation Ajax, as the CIA plot to depose Prime Minister Mossadegh was code-named, brought immeasurable tragedy to Iran, contributed to the rise of anti-American terror and, in the end, greatly weakened the security of the United States. Few episodes of 20th-century history more perfectly epitomize the concept of “blowback.” Today, as anti-Iran rhetoric in Washington becomes steadily more strident, it is more urgent than ever for Americans to understand how disastrous the last US attack on Iran turned out to be. They might also ponder the question of what moral responsibility the US has to Iran in the wake of this painful history.