Liberal democracy and religion-4: The Iranian case study

Iran provides a good case study of how unstable liberal democracies can be when faced with concerted efforts by powerful forces determined to undermine them.

Americans were taken by shock when students occupied the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held embassy employees captive for 444 days. Ever since they have been bewildered by references of Iranians to the US as “The Great Satan” and have asked themselves the question “Why do they hate us?”

If they read the 2003 book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer they would understand better what the rest of the world has long known. The book reads like a spy novel, describing in great detail the CIA-backed coup that in 1953 overthrew the popular elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh and gave Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) and his brutal secret service known as Savak such autocratic power that they suppressed democratic institutions and allowed foreign companies to continue exploiting Iran’s natural resources in return for providing them with military hardware.

The book recounts the history of Iran and the events that led to the coup. In a nutshell, a succession of corrupt Iranian rulers had allowed a British oil company exclusive rights to export the country’s oil with no oversight and paying just a pittance to the Iranian monarch. The British oil company executives and technicians lived in luxury while the Iranian oil workers lived in slums of indescribable squalor. As nationalist sentiment rose in the 20th century, there came demands for a representative parliament (knows as the Majlis) to be formed to take away some of the power of the monarch, redress some of the grievances, and obtain a fairer share of oil revenues. But the oil company, backed by the British government, high-handedly refused to deal with people they considered barbarians.

When the charismatic nationalist Mossadegh was elected prime minister by the Majlis in 1951, he immediately nationalized the oil industry and was hailed throughout the country as a great hero who was finally reclaiming the resources that rightly belonged to the people.

The British government, under the racist and imperialist Winston Churchill, set about trying to overthrow him and managed to use anti-Communist fears to persuade the newly elected Eisenhower government and the newly created CIA to take the lead in the venture. And they succeeded is doing so, conniving with the Shah to overthrow Mossadegh and do so while the Shah fled the country, and then restoring the feckless Shah to the throne, giving him and his puppet prime ministers control of the country. It should be remembered that in their fights with the British (and also the Russians), Iranians had seen the US as their friend in the anti-colonialist struggle, and so the CIA-backed coup against them was seen as a shocking betrayal.

The name of the oil company at the center of the intrigue and exploitation was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and yet later, after the coup, returned to Iran as British Petroleum. (Yes, BP was a greedy and unscrupulous corporation long before the Gulf oil spill.)

After overthrowing Mossadegh and placing him under arrest for the rest of his life, the Shah of Iran ruled dictatorially and brutally until he was overthrown by the followers of the religious extremist Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and had to flee the country again. When President Carter allowed the Shah into the US, outraged Iranians saw this as a repetition of the 1953 history in which the CIA would once again connive with the exiled Shah to engineer a coup to return him to the throne. In order to prevent that, they occupied and ransacked the US Embassy in Teheran, which had been a center of coup planning in 1953.

For the purposes of this series of posts, the point I want to make is that Mossadegh was a believer in liberal values, such as the freedom of speech and the press and the right to demonstrate. He was personally religious, though not a zealot, but believed in secular government. It was his support for liberal democratic values that enabled the enemies of Iran, including the CIA, to foment dissent and opposition by bribing military officers, journalists, media owners, politicians, thugs, and religious zealots to destabilize the government. They did this by creating the impression of popular opposition to his rule by organizing street demonstrations against Mossadegh and even getting some of the thugs to pretend to be counterdemonstrators in favor of Mossadegh and have them deliberately destroy property so that ordinary people would get disgusted with him. Mossadegh did not clamp down on demonstrations or suppress opposition media against his government even though they were being instigated and paid for by the CIA, and thus he was deposed.

Kinzer says (p. 210) that buoyed by their ‘success’ in overthrowing the government in Iran, the CIA then went on to undermine governments in Cuba, Congo, Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere. So now, whenever you hear of ‘popular’ protests against governments that the US does not like, such as that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, you would not be far wrong in inferring that the CIA is playing at least some role in creating the impression of dissatisfaction. The classic book Inside the Company: CIA Diary by former CIA agent Philip Agee (1975) describes in detail the tactics the CIA uses and how they foment ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of opposition. It is a must-read.

So after the Shah’s brutal dictatorship from 1953 to 1979, Iran has been led by an illiberal, religion-dominated government consisting of mullahs and otherwise highly religious people, not quite an outright theocracy yet but dangerously close to becoming one. But it has managed to survive all manner of external attacks, ranging from an invasion by Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein who was then backed by the US that supplied him with money and material and defended him at the UN) that resulted in a war that lasted from 1980-1988 and took a terrible toll, to sanctions and other destabilizing efforts led by the US.

The only window of government which even approached that of a liberal democracy was the period 1951-1953 under Mossadegh.

The demoralizing inference is that liberal democracies cannot survive unless people are willing to defend it with the same fervor that religious fanatics seem to be willing to put forth to defend theocracies.

POST SCRIPT: Philip Agee describes how the CIA subverts democracy