A 1953 “coup put an end to the best hope for democratic secular politics in Iran during the 20th century,” stated Nader Hashemi during a recent podcast titled “Iran: The Struggle for Democracy.”
Hashemi, an American of Iranian ancestry, is the newly-installed director of Georgetown University’s Saudi-established Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Hashemi was appointed to this position after his anti-Israel conspiracy mongering made his presence on the faculty of the University of Denver untenable. His remarks reflect the standard academic worldview that blames the West for Iran’s deplorable record since the 1979 revolution that brought the current Islamist regime to power.
The podcast’s leftist producer David Barsamian opened with the oft-told tale that “in 1953, the US and UK overthrew the liberal democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran.”
“The consequences of the coup were enormous and ultimately led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Barsamian asserted.
Barsamian and Hashemi’s assertions are a common leftist canard. It holds that the Anglo-American alliance’s affirmation of the authority of Iran’s monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who briefly fled Iran during the 1953 crisis, enabled the shah’s subsequent despotic rule. It further claims that the resulting popular backlash brought on the shah’s ultimate downfall in the 1979 revolution, which Islamists then exploited to take power.
“In 1953, Iran had a very deep-rooted and significant pro-democracy experience,” Hashemi claimed. Mossadegh, he said, was a “democratic leader” and “had a lot of popular support.” By contrast, the shah’s policies “led to the rise of a religious-based opposition politics” and “created an incubator effect for radicalism and extremism that culminated in the ’79 revolution.”
“How different might the Islamic world be today if, in the heart of the Islamic world, you had an authentic indigenous democracy that supported human rights,” Hashemi mused.
Hashemi and Barsamian’s theories are mythology, particularly their fanciful description of Mossadegh as democratically elected. It is true that Mossadegh, along with members of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, stood election. But under the Iranian constitution, the shah had the sole power of appointing and dismissing the prime minister, subject only to a Majlis advisory vote. Moreover, after he was appointed by the shah in 1951, Mossadegh himself engaged in some rather undemocratic maneuvers, such as holding a fraudulent referendum to dismiss the Majlis.
Mossadegh then frittered away whatever popularity he had through his nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This prompted a devastating British embargo on Iranian oil production and sales. In particular, Mossadegh alienated Iran’s middle class by spurning American mediation efforts. Following the shah’s 1953 removal of Mossadegh, this was resolved and Britian and Iran reached an agreement on oil revenues.
In addition, Mossadegh’s secularism alienated Iran’s Shiite clergy and the pious rural population, then a majority of Iranian citizens. As a result, religious Shiites played a major role in popular unrest against Mossadegh’s rule. This unrest began on Aug. 15, 1953, after the prime minister illegally defied the vacillating shah, who had finally found the courage to stand up to Mossadegh with Western support. Although Western agents helped publicize the shah’s dismissal decree and gave some support to protesters, it was largely the Iranian masses themselves who convinced Mossadegh to resign on Aug. 19, 1953.
Thus, Barsamian and Hashemi’s skewed history overlooks the irony that Iran’s theocrats are heirs to the Shiites who were instrumental in toppling Mossadegh. Hashemi never explained why such Shiites would have supported Western ideas of human rights under Mossadegh, given that they reacted with outrage to the shah’s pro-Western, secularizing policies. While the podcast duo painted the shah as a tyrant, it was the shah’s leniency and moderation that facilitated his downfall in 1979.
Hashemi’s policy prescriptions were equally unimpressive. For example, he is opposed to sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
“Average citizens who have no say over the policies of the government,” he said, “pay the price” for the sanctions, which is a “tragedy.” He did say that he is “strongly in favor of targeted sanctions against people who have blood on their hands,” but claimed that sanctions in general have “a very catastrophic effect on the ability of citizens to mobilize” and “undermine the struggle for democracy.” He further asserted that “hardliners” have “their own ways of avoiding sanctions.”
However, Iranian dissidents have not supported sanctions relief. Numerous media reports on Iranian dissidents demonstrate this. Hashemi’s claims may stem from the fact that he is a known supporter of the National Iranian American Council, which Iranian dissidents and analysts have long accused of advocating for the Islamic Republic.
Indeed, Hashemi’s own comments undermined his claims regarding sanctions and their effect on the “struggle for democracy.” For example, he estimated current support for the Islamic Republic at “roughly, perhaps 10-15%” of the population. Supporters, he admitted, are “mostly an older generation,” who are “religiously conservative and buy into the narrative of the state, i.e., this is an Islamic society” so a “good Muslim” must “listen to the supreme leader.” However, he said, the “younger generation is very skeptical and much more independent-minded.”
Given the recent mass protests in Iran, this younger generation has not been stymied by Western sanctions.
Moreover, Hashemi admitted that the Iranian regime survives not because of sanctions but in spite of them. He noted that the apparatchiks of “any authoritarian political system that has a lot of money” like the oil-rich Islamic Republic, “support the system, not because they ideologically buy into the narrative of the authoritarian regime, but because their livelihood” depends on the “political status quo.” In particular, the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps controls an estimated 40% of the Iranian economy and therefore has “a lot to fight for.”
It is this corruption and avarice that hampers Iran’s pro-democracy movement, not sanctions.
The tendency of academics like Hashemi to excoriate the West does not help the Iranian people. Hashemi condemns current Western intervention, which is desired by Iranian freedom fighters, while he blames alleged Western scheming for the mullahs’ despotism.
Only Iran’s Islamists benefit from such warped analysis, which is unfortunately typical of academics engaged in Middle East studies today.