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Interview with Stephen Kinzer: 1953+1979=2001 (Well, There's a Link)

Mr. Kinzer is the author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). He is a correspondent with the New York Times.

Let's start with history. In 1953 the Eisenhower administration backed a coup against the elected leader of Iran, a man named Mossadegh, who had sought to nationalize the country's oil industry. The British wanted to overthrow him to save their control over Iran's oil. But why did the United States become involved? In your book you seem to argue that Ike was conned into helping the British out.

The idea that Mossadegh should be overthrown originated with the British. They were apoplectic at the prospect of losing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which Mossadegh's government had nationalized with the unanimous approval of the Iranian parliament. Their efforts to carry out a coup, however, were disrupted when Mossadegh learned of their plan and responded by shutting the British embassy and expelling all British diplomats from Iran. Among these diplomats were the secret agents who had been assigned to carry out the coup. That left the British with no way to depose Mossadegh. Prime Minister Churchill tried to persuade President Truman to carry out the coup as a favor to the British, but Truman refused. Only after Eisenhower came into office did the United States change its mind.

The British agent who came to Washington to present the coup plan to Eisenhower's team, Christopher Montague Woodhouse, wrote afterward that he knew the Americans would not respond to an appeal based on Britain's desire to regain its oil company. He decided instead to argue that Mossadegh was leading Iran toward communism. This argument was patently false, but Woodhouse sensed it would move John Foster Dulles and the rest of the Eisenhower administration into action. He was right.

In your book you assert that a red line can be drawn from the CIA's overthrow of Mossadegh to the revolution to overthrow the Shah in 1979 to the events of September 11. How are these events connected?

The CIA deposed Mossadegh and allowed Mohammed Reza Shah to reclaim his throne. The Shah's repressive rule lasted 25 years, finally provoking the revolution of 1978-9. That revolution brought to power a group of fundamentalist clerics who capitalized on Iran's anger at the United States for having destroyed Iranian democracy. Their regime inspired Muslin radicals around the world, including in next-door Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power and gave sanctuary to terrorists who carried out attacks including the ones on September 11.

If the United States had not overthrown Mossadegh, do you think the history of terrorism would have turned out differently? Would we have had a 9-11 without the coup?

The coup in Iran was hardly the only factor that led many Muslims to begin considering the United States an enemy. It did, however, represent a broader American policy of intervening in the Middle East in ways that crushed prospects for democratic development there. If Iranian democracy had been allowed to flourish, it might well have become an example to other countries in the region and led to a flowering of democracy there. Instead it produced just the opposite.

Americans generally don't know anything about the CIA coup against Mossadegh. Do you think if they did that they would understand events in the Middle East differently?

When Iranians rose up against the Shah with cries of "Death to the American Shah!," when their new regime emerged as bitterly anti-American, and when a group of them took American diplomats hostage in 1979, many Americans wondered how this could have happened in a country they had always considered friendly. Once they understand what the United States did to Iran in 1953, they will understand why so many Iranians became angry at the United States.

What drew you to the subject of the 1953 coup? And when did you decide to do the book?

It took half a century, and particularly the events of Sept. 11, to make clear what an important and disastrous episode the 1953 coup was. This is a perfect example of how foreign interventions, even those that seem successful at the time, can have long-term effects that bring disaster to the intervening country.

9-11 had a profound effect on all Americans, but it must have had a different impact on you considering the subject of your book. Do you remember thinking that you were responding differently because of your research?

Nothing in history happens in a vacuum. There are reasons for everything, even if they are not always good reasons. Only by understanding the causes of tragedy can we hope to avoid future tragedies. I would like readers to come away from my book with a stronger understanding of one fact: that the United States cannot violently intervene in a foreign country's political process without that intervention having long-term effects that may be very harmful to American security.

President Bush said repeatedly after 9-11 that "they hate us" because they hate freedom, specifically our freedom. What did you think when you heard him making this analysis-that he was seriously misinformed (and was misinforming the American people)?

No one in the world cares how much or how little freedom there is in the United States. What angers them is the way the United States uses its power to crush freedom in other parts of the world. In many countries, including Iran, the United States government has deposed leaders who embrace American values and replaced them with others who despise everything Americans hold dear. We subject people in those countries to regimes that we ourselves would never tolerate. We may wish to avoid this truth, but it is the root cause of anti-American feeling in the world. The United States is disliked not because of what it is, but because of what it does.

Lincoln in his second inaugural says that the Civil War was God's vengeance for slavery. We had sinned and now God was washing away the blood of our sins with the blood of civil war. Presidents don't talk that way today. Would we be better off if they did?

Wise leaders realize that they themselves, along with their predecessors, bear some responsibility for the troubles their countries face. They do not instinctively seek to blame others. For American presidents to act as though the United States has not brought some of its present troubles upon itself by its actions in the world--actions like the 1953 coup in Iran--simply intensifies the anger that many people around the world now feel about the way Americans use their power.

Lincoln was saying that to find the root cause of discord and violent anger, we need to look in the mirror. That is as true for nations as it is for individuals.

When 9-11 took place, how far along in your book were you? Did it force you to rethink the way you were shaping the narrative?

I had not yet begun the book when the 9/11 attacks took place. Reflecting on them and trying to understand where they had come from, however, helped lead me to this topic.

Have conservatives criticized you for linking 1953 and 1979 and 9-11?

My book has been remarkably well received across the political spectrum. I think that's because it is not a polemic, but rather a simple retelling of facts that are unfamiliar to many people. That's why I begin it with this quote from Truman: "The only thing new in this world is the history you didn't know."

President Bush says that democracy is on the march in the Middle East? Do you agree? Iran 50 years ago had a semblance of democracy under Mossadegh and the experiment went awry, in part as you point out because of Mossadegh's own weaknesses as a leader, but mostly because of foreign interference. How much confidence then can we have that democracy will succeed this time? And are foreigners--the United States--playing a more positive role this time? (Yes, that's several questions in one. Sorry.)

Imagine how Iranians today feel when they hear Americans insisting that Iran should be more democratic. They naturally reply: "We had a democracy here once, but YOU destroyed it."

The 1953 coup destroyed our greatest chance to spread democracy through the Middle East. Imposing democracy by force cannot work; an ancient Arab proverb says it is better to live 40 years under a tyrant than one day under rule by foreigners. One of the most distressing aspects of the American effort to democratize the Middle East today is that if it succeeds, the results may well be very negative for American interests. The assumption that democratic regimes in Middle Eastern countries will be pro-American, embrace Israel, and happily share their oil with the West is greatly mistaken. People in many of these countries have become so frustrated by American actions over the last half-century that they would use democratic freedoms to make their countries far more anti-American than they are today. This is one of the worst effects of our misguided policies.

If democracy comes to the Middle East, are you confident that the United States will be content to live with the consequences? Or will we be tempted again to interfere to shape the outcome?

In every country where the United States has intervened, it tries to turn power over to a government that will (a) honestly represent the people of that country, and (b) be pro-American. Quickly it becomes clear that these two goals are in conflict, and that the United States has to choose between imposing an unpopular regime that will do the Americans' bidding, or a popular one that will place its own country's interests ahead of American interests. It naturally chooses the first option. Those unpopular regimes must use repression to remain in power. The United States supports them, and violently anti-American anger grows toward future explosions.

Does history seem ironic and tragic and awful to you? It seems that way to me quite often, especially when I consider the history of the Middle East.

History is becoming America's enemy because too many American leaders do not believe in history. They believe that the United States is so unique, so much more powerful than any other nation or empire has ever been, that history does not apply to it. They believe, in effect, that history has stopped happening. Clio always takes revenge for such insults.