As a student of history, I suspect Dick Cheney may be regarded by historians in years to come as an enemy of self-determination, human rights, and long-term political stability internationally on a comparable scale to John Foster Dulles. I say “long-term political stability” because while short-term political stability can (at times) be realized by political repression and economic subjugation of the majority of a nation’s citizens, long-term political stability cannot be forged by such means. Although it would be unfair to entirely attribute the “excesses” (to put it mildly) of Blackwater, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Abu Ghraib and the protracted wars the United States continues to wage in both Afghanistan and Iraq on Cheney’s shoulders, his roles in our nation’s foreign policy decisions have been significant during the administration of GW Bush. Historians will help us judge the degree to which Cheney’s influence has been beneficial. Although the Presidents which Dulles and Cheney each served (Eisenhower and GW Bush) should reasonably bear more responsibility for the foreign policy successes as well as mis-steps of their administrations, the importance and influence of their closest foreign policy advisors should not be underestimated.

I am reminded of Cheney and Dulles after reading Stephen Kinzer’s excellent article “Inside Iran’s Fury” in the October 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Iran's anger over decades of foreign meddling in its internal affairs reached its apex in the 1979 revolution.

I learned about John Foster Dulles for the first time in college, when I researched and wrote a history paper about the CIA’s overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. That U.S. sponsored coup d’état in support of the financial interests of the United Fruit Company had close parallels to the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. Both of these coups were strongly supported by Dulles, and both resulted in crippling blows to the causes of self-determination and peaceful transfers of power among members of competing political groups in both nations. The destructive legacies of those “successful” coups are still felt today in both Guatemala and Iran, as well as many other nations.

For many U.S. citizens, these events may seem like distant memories unrelated to our present international relations challenges. This misperception is a key reason Kinzer’s article should be regarded as mandatory reading for anyone wanting to better understand the complex dynamics and histories which have created today’s “modern” Middle East.

Does the name William Knox D’Arcy ring any bells for you? Before reading this article it did not for me. It was D’Arcy who negotiated the “concession” in 1901 for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) which further sowed the seeds of Iranian hatred for foreign control and intervention in national affairs still vibrant today. According to Kinzer:

In 1872, a British company bought a “concession” from the decadent Qajar dynasty that gave it the exclusive right to run Persia’s industries, irrigate its farmland, exploit its mineral resources, develop its railway and streetcar lines, establish its national bank and print its currency. The British statesman Lord Curzon would call this “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of, much less accomplished, in history.”

According to today’s English WikiPedia, “APOC was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935 and eventually became the British Petroleum Company (BP) in 1954.” Before BP was formed, however, events would transpire in Iran thanks to covert paramilitary operations supported by the United States which would help form an Iranian perception of our nation as a colonial, imperial power feared and hated to this day by many.

On May 1, 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq “nationalized the AIOC, cancelling its oil concession due to expire in 1993 and expropriating its assets.” Great Britain, which enjoyed tremendous financial rewards from its control of the Iranian oil industry and economy, was outraged. According to Kinzer:

After trying every conceivable way to pressure Mossadegh to abandon his nationalization plan, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered British agents to organize a coup and overthrow him. When Mossadegh learned of the plot, he closed the British Embassy in Tehran and expelled all British diplomats, including the agents who were plotting his overthrow. In desperation, Churchill asked President Harry S. Truman to order the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency to depose Mossadegh. Truman refused.

Mohammed Mosaddeq

President Truman was RIGHT to refuse Churchill’s plea. Unfortunately, his successor Dwight Eisenhower was not interested in supporting the cause of self-determination abroad and as a result met Churchill’s request affirmatively. Again according to Kinzner:

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, however, U.S. policy changed. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was eager to strike back against growing Communist influence worldwide, and when the British told him that Mossadegh was leading Iran toward Communism—a wild distortion, since Mossadegh despised Marxist ideas—Dulles and Eisenhower agreed to send the CIA into action.

The result of this U.S. instigated coup in Iran, as in Guatemala, was long-term U.S. support for a repressive regime which actively persecuted and destroyed opposing political opponents. The same course was pursued in Vietnam, to similar effect. The Statue of Liberty may have still stood in New York harbor beckoning the downtrodden of the world to come to our shores for protection from suffering and political persecution, but the foreign policy of the United States in the early 1950s communicated a very different message.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Phil Guest

Under the leadership of Eisenhower and Dulles, the United States was not interested in supporting democratic movements in nations like Iran or Guatemala. Rather, the United States was most interested in subjugating foreign policy objectives to the desires of powerful multi-national corporations. Human rights? Democracy? Those were just flowery words bantered about in speeches to deceive the public into thinking our nation stood internationally for these ideals, rather than merely the economic, realpolitik needs of wealthy corporations and the men who controlled them.

When I studied for a year in Mexico City and wrote “Defining and Refocusing US Policy Toward Latin America” in 1993, I concluded by noting:

At the end of the cold war, the United States was most likely at the pinnacle of its global power. Shifts in international power balances are presently underway, and the relative influence of economically powerful nations like Japan and Germany is certain to increase. Despite this predictable “decline” in U.S. power, citizens of the United States have the good fortune of having their economic and political systems copied by virtually all the nations of the Western hemisphere. Nations of the Americas appear to be integrating into a universal culture, defined by capitalism and democracy.

The role of policymakers during this transitional era is extremely critical, as momentous changes in economic and political policies are attempted. Mistakes, like the rejection of NAFTA by the U.S. Congress, a unilateral U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, or a Latin American government’s resort to violence to restore order in a nation destabilized by democratic protest could have dramatic, long term effects for the collective future of the Americas.

I wouldn’t conclude that paper in the same way today. The strong influence of Francis Fukuyama on my thinking about economics and democracy at that point in my life is very evident. Despite my current misgivings about some of the opinions I offered in that paper (most notably the idea of “a universal culture”) I think my point about the dangers of unilateral military interventions is still apropos to this discussion.

Just as the unilateral paramilitary and military interventions in Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s under the Eisenhower administration had dramatic implications for the people of each nation and their political development, so too have the near-unilataral wars promulgated by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan had tremendous negative effects. Neo-colonialism and imperialism must CEASE to be operational objectives of U.S. foreign policy, and we must embark upon explicit policies which seek to repair international perceptions of our nation as the enemy of freedom and self-determination abroad.

The continued viability of the current repressive, theocratic government in Iran is based to a large degree on a predominant perception of the United States as “the Great Satan:” a country bent on meddling in Iranian national politics and exporting a set of immoral, unacceptable cultural values. This current perception of the United States in Iran has its roots in Eisenhower and Dulles’ decision to militarily support the AIOC with a coup d’état. Kinzer notes:

“Iranians traditionally believed that the United States was not a colonial power, and older people remembered [President] Woodrow Wilson’s anti-colonial views,” says Mansour Farhang, who was the revolutionary government’s first ambassador to the United Nations and now teaches history at Bennington College. “Even Mossadegh initially had great goodwill toward the United States. But during the 1950s and ’60s, largely as a result of the 1953 coup and concessions the Shah made to the Americans, a new generation emerged that saw the United States as imperialist and neo-colonialist. As time went by, this perspective became completely dominant.”

As a citizen of the United States, I reject the proposition that our nation should act in ways which are construed as either “imperialist and neo-colonialist.” I reject the contention that the people of Iran are the enemies of the people of the United States. While I certainly do not support the repressive policies of the current government in Teheran, I also do not support the United States’ policy to unilaterally militarize the “war on terror.” (See my article “Time to Weed the Garden” from 9-14-2001 for more on this.) I deeply regret the terrible decision of President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to support the violent overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953, as well as their decision to violently overthrow Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala one year later. There is not much I can do about those past decisions, but there ARE important things we can do as a nation NOW to repair and restore our relationship with the people and government of Iran as well as other nations around the world.

First of all, as citizens of the United States we need to find ways to pro-actively communicate to the world that the values of Hollywood movies and our syndicated television programs do NOT accurately represent the moral perspectives of our entire nation. Two publications which address these issues well are Frank Viviano’s article “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom on Edge” for National Geographic in October 2003, and Robert Bork’s 2003 book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.” Brittany Spears, Madonna, and other popular (at least at one time) divas of U.S. culture do NOT represent the pinnacle of cultural exports and inheritance for which I want our nation to be noted. Fear and distaste for perceived Western cultural values as communicated through popular music and movies are not the only center of gravity for Iranian political leaders’ support base, however. Threats from the United States are as well. Kinzer explains:

“The [current Iranian] regime feeds off American hostility,” says Robert Tait, who spent nearly three years in Iran as a correspondent for the Guardian until he was forced to leave last December when the government refused to renew his visa. “Every time there’s another threat from Washington, that gives them more oxygen. They won’t be able to use this threat indefinitely. There’s a widespread feeling in Iran that the way things are isn’t the way they should be. People believe that too much isolation has not been good for them. But as long as there seems to be a clear and present danger, the government has what it sees as a justification to do whatever it wants.”

We need to strive to cut off this “flow of oxygen” to the repressive leaders in Iran and those who would replace them with more theocratic, repressive rule in the following two ways:

  1. We need to pull out all the stops, NOW, to end our dependency on foreign oil. We need to implement the Pickens Plan. A diverse constituency of organizations and individuals are coming to recognize the geo-strategic, environmental, as well as economic benefits of ending foreign oil dependence, and eventually ALL dependence on fossil fuels for our commercial as well as consumer energy needs. This change will not happen without strong leadership, however, and thankfully we have a new President steering our ship of state with this change agenda.
  2. We need to support proactive programs of international cultural exchange with Iran and other nations of the Middle East, to communicate person-to-person that our nation is NOT “the Great Satan.” While a side effect of freedom IS the opportunity people have to engage in and support the base desires of humankind reflected in industries like prostitution and pornography, it is NOT the national agenda of the U.S. government or our people to drag the predominantly Muslim peoples of the Middle East down into a “race to the bottom” of cultural mores and standards. Prostitution and porn are not U.S. inventions, of course, but our nation and the “values of the West” are inaccurately associated with societal ills such as these. These misconceptions should be proactively redressed.

On day 4 of the Democratic National Convention this past summer, now-President Barack Obama said:

For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

I look forward to our new President making good on this promise.

Breaking our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels more generally will be a formidable task in the years ahead, but so will be restoring international perceptions of the United States as the champion of the ideals of freedom, human rights, and self-determination. President Obama addressed these ideas and this need with the following words in his first inaugural address last week:

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediences sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

I am THRILLED that the new, highest elected leader of my nation is “ready to lead once more.” More than any other words in his speech last week, these inspired a cheerful wave of joy throughout my body. My heart tingled with excitement.

Yes, the leaders of my nation have made regrettable mistakes. We cannot rewrite the pages of history. Yet we cannot and should not relegate ourselves to merely accept the mixed inheritance of our forebearers. Our task is to write the future. We, the citizens of the United States, ARE the friends of all who seek “a future of peace and dignity.” We are that light on a hill, shining out into a dark world still filled with fear, corruption, hate, and discord. The economic and military power with which we are now blessed confers great responsibilities, and from those we should not retreat.

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8 Responses to Iran, Sovereignty, Colonialism and the Values of the West

  1. James Sigler says:

    Wow…that is some deep and thoughtful writing. Your synthesis of the past, the present, and the hope of the future is powerful. The quotes are spot-on and your metaphors true. I also have high hopes for our new president, not too high I hope. After a war president, I hope we can now have a peace president.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Thanks James. I’ve been mulling over these ideas for quite awhile, well before I saw this article in Smithsonian magazine. I think we should grapple with some of the contradictions inherent in conceptions of “the West” and “Western values.” Our family watched one of the last “Planet Earth” episodes tonight which addressed environmental concerns in light of development. Lots of good things to consider and think about here.

    I agree we should be wary to not have our expectations set too high for our new President, he is going to be limited by many factors in terms of what he can do. Still, there are lots of reasons to have higher hopes than we have in the past, I think. Similar to our U.S. wars in Indochina which started in the late 1950s and continued through the 1970s, however, I don’t think we’re going to have or at this point even want a “fast way” out. It sounds like troop deployments to Afghanistan are going to actually go up sooner, rather than later. The drawdown from Iraq seems imminent. We’re in a difficult spot in both situations, however, and I dearly wish Colin Powell was our Secretary of State and had ensured that The Powell Doctrine was actually followed when he was SecDef. President Obama has been given some incredibly difficult situations to work with both economically and in terms of foreign policy. With all of that on his plate, I’m not excessively optimistic that he’ll put forward a constructive change agenda for education anytime soon. We might be surprised, however. I will continue to hope as well.

  3. […] Iran, Sovereignty, Colonialism and the Values of the West » Moving at the Speed of Creativity A well researched and interesting article written in the light of recent and ongoing tensions in the Middle East (tags: politics opinion history) addthis_url = ‘’; addthis_title = ‘links+for+2009-01-26’; addthis_pub = ”; […]

  4. Mike H says:

    I enjoyed reading your article but I really think you’ve written this out of context. You only briefly mention Communism and the USSR. I think it played a much larger role in what was happening than you are portraying. I’d be interested in your take on:, which has some disputes with Kinzner that you use. Remember, Mossadegh didn’t have to be a communist, just pro-USSR and being that they were invading parts of his nation, he could easily want to appease them. I would think that Eisenhower’s fear of Soviet domination of the era was the guiding force, not a total playing out of the scenario to where we are today and then trying to create policy based on a post-9/11 atmosphere.

    You say we “cannot rewrite the pages of history.” But that’s done all the time to promote one person’s viewpoint over another. In essences, that’s what this article comes out as, a re-writting of history when you take out the context of the communist threat and what the 1950s point of view on that was. Cannot judge Ike totally by today’s standard.

  5. Wesley Fryer says:

    Mike: There is no doubt both Eisenhower and Dulles used the threat of communism and the U.S. government’s desire to oppose Soviet expansion (containment) as the justifications for both the Iranian coup in 1953 as well as the Guatemalan coup in 1954. The viability of the communist threat and our need to oppose it militarily not only in these instances, but elsewhere (Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, Central America in the 1980s, etc) are definitely important issues to consider.

    The blog post you linked also references U.S.-led/supported assassinations of Trujillo in the Dominican Republican (1961) and Diem in South Vietnam (1963). In both of those cases, regular US military forces were also deployed to those countries to stabilize the nations following the overthrows. I know the Church Committee looked into these issues at length in the mid-1970s following Watergate. I think some of their hearings are still classified, but I’m not sure about that. I certainly reject the legitimacy, morality, and acceptability of the United States using political assassinations as a foreign policy strategy. Certainly that has been done in the past, in these instances cited here and in others. One of my main points is that the values of self-determination, human rights, and long-term political as well as economic stability are not supported by actions such as these, and we should not revere or applaud leaders who supported these actions.

    Eisenhower’s administration certainly used fear of “the Soviet threat” to justify the coups in Iran and Guatemala. We’ve recently seen the Bush administration use fear of “global terrorism” to justify horrendous and ridiculous foreign policy as well as domestic policy actions and laws. I think those types of decisions and actions were what President Obama was referencing in his inaugural when he said “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” and “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediences sake.”

    In terms of rewriting history, what I am meaning is that we can’t change the facts of what happened in the past. We can unwrap different aspects of that past, amplify different voices who shed new light on those events, etc. I definitely support this process of more fully and (hopefully) accurately representing and understanding the past.

    In the post you linked by John Gizzi, he wrote:

    A strong case can be made that Mossadegh was not a Communist although he was apparently not hostile to Communist elements within Iran. He was also a committed nationalist who remains a lionized figure in his country today. It is also inarguable that, with its strategic location along the Russian border and as the fourth-largest supplier of oil in the world, Iran was a major Soviet target in the post-war years

    The point I made and you may be overlooking (along with others) is that economic considerations were most paramount in the case of the Iran and Guatemala coups, much more than actual anti-communist concerns or rhetoric. Anti-communism provided an easily understood and digestible cover story for these coups, which fundamentally served the interests of BP in Iran and the United Fruit Corporation in Guatemala.

    I would like to read Kinzer’s book myself as well as follow up further on these issues. They are complex and multi-faceted, and very important to understand in our present foreign policy context in the Middle East as well as other places.

    Thanks both for you comment and link to John Gizzi’s post.

  6. Mike H says:

    Thanks for the reply and I don’t mean to try and dominate the discussion. Also, I’ve been enjoying your posts for about a year now, and because I know writing in a comment box can sometimes be misunderstood, please don’t read any disrespect in this.

    I still get from your post and comment that you don’t think the Communist threat of the Cold War era was a serious threat and that the Presidents of the time, Republican and Democrat, also believed this.

    The phrase today seems to be “terror is the new communism.” Hundreds of millions of people died under the USSR and China which leads me to believe that the Cold War fear of Communism was justified.

    Your post makes it seem like our Presidents and government were more interested in lining their pockets than fighting a true evil. The same has been said by others about Bush/Cheney/Iraq.

    I’m hoping the best from our new President. But if history is any indicator, he’ll soon realize that we are facing a true evil. The Iranians are already burning pictures of Obama in the streets. He’ll realize that our defense doesn’t just come from the “justness of our cause.” That sometimes, sadly, fighting is needed.

    I was glad to see that finally, a Democratic President validated the Vietnam War as he did in his Inaugural speech, placing the Battle of Khe Sanh along side Concord, Gettysburg, and Normandy.

    I know their are millions of people who believe Obama will be able to fight or deal with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups like Hamas through “humility and restraint,” but I don’t see how that will happen.

    But you know what? I hope you’re right.

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    Communism from the USSR certainly was a threat we had to fight in the Cold War and should have fought. In the course of that struggle, however, I definitely think all our actions were not justified. That is the comparison to the contemporary war on terror that I am making here as well. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were not and are not “ok” because we are fighting a war on terror that provides leaders, soldiers, or contractors with a justification for immoral actions without bounds.

    The facts of both the coups I addressed in this post, Iran in ’53 and Guatemala in ’54, indicate that the decisions by US officials to promulgate those coups had everything to do with economics and virtually nothing to do with fighting communism. Winston Churchill did not ask President Truman, and then President Eisenhower, for CIA support to overthrow Mossadegh becuase he was a communist. He asked because his British oil company (which would later become British Petroleum or BP) stood to lose its Iranian oil fields and revenue.

    As Iranians burn pictures of President Obama, it is important for us as citizens of the United States to understand the roots of that hatred. Were we (the United States) right to overthrow the Iranian government Kinzer argues was the most democratic to date in the history of Persia, so we could support the oil interests of Great Britain and one of it’s wealthy oil corporations? I don’t think so. But whether or not we agree or disagree on that point, I hope we can agree that we need to do the two main things I argued in my post:

    1- Make it a national priority to end our dependency on foreign oil, making a short term shift to natural gas and a long term shift to alternative energy sources which do not utilize any type of fossil fuel at all. We need to shift to electrical vehicles and hydrogen energy. The Pickens Plan is the most realistic proposal I’ve heard to date for moving in this direction.

    2- We need to grapple with the “values of the West” which we export as a nation, and strive through intercultural exchanges to demonstrate that “The Great Satan” is not the United States. Human rights, including the right of self-determination, are not U.S.-created rights and are ideals which we should support and promote.

    If Kinzer is way off base in his analysis, I’d like to read more about it. As a student of Middle Eastern history during college I did not learn about these chapters of history, and I’m glad to have an opportunity to do so now. As a nation we need to find a constructive way forward to improve our relations with the people of Iran. Our leaders need to stop demonizing Iran and Iranians. Terrorists are the enemies of civilized people everywhere. It requires multilateral action as well as understanding to defeat terrorism, because nation states cannot merely kill terrorists to end terrorism, we have to address terrorism’s root causes. Studying and understanding the roots of anger and anti-American sentiments in Iran require that we study these recent chapters in US/Iranian relations, and why Mossadegh is an important hero in Iran. If I was an Iranian, I’d be mad that the United States overthrew Mossadegh and had him put in prison until he died as well. We can’t change the facts today of what happened to Mossadegh in the past, but we certainly can strive to better understand that history so we do not repeat those mistakes again.

  8. Wesley Fryer says:

    This recent message from President Obama is right on target:

    My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives… My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.

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