No, the 1953 Coup in Iran Didn’t Start U.S.-Iran Dilemma

Michael Rubin

As foreign policy and national security increasingly become political footballs, a bizarre phenomenon has taken root in Washington that no matter what the outrage, pundits and press fall all over themselves to lay blame disproportionately on Washington’s doorstep, often without regard to historical accuracy.

The latest flare-up in U.S.-Iran tensions provides a case-in-point. Wholesale panic erupted after President Donald Trump targeted Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani in a successful drone strike on January 3. #WWIII began trending on twitter. In Congress, politicians of both parties suggested that Trump’s actions were the opening salvo in a war against Iran, a premise that ignores both the killing of an American contractor and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad both of for which Soleimani was responsible. Even putting these aside, the notion that targeting Soleimani started a conflict would be a notion that hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of Soleimani’s plots would find curious.

More broadly, such self-flagellation is often based on a tendentious and inaccurate reading of history. NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, for example, tweeted, “If the US hadn’t used political intrigue and force to change a government in Iran it disapproved of in 1953 with the overthrow of Mosaddegh, Iran may have remained over time a US ally. But overconfidence and a lack of local understanding unleashed the opposite.”

A few points about which Engel appears ignorant. Firstly, Mossadegh was not the constitutional leader of Iran; the shah was. Mosaddegh was a populist who refused to step down when the shah sought to form a new government. This is why at the time, the 1953 action was referred to as a counter-coup rather than simply a coup.

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