"The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations" by Ervand Abrahamian, New York and London: The New Press, 250 pages. Hardcover, $26.95.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Public discussions and media reports about Iran routinely focus on how repressive and anti-American its government has been, especially after the Ayatollah Khomeni rose to power in 1979. News reports focus on Iran's opposition to the policies of governments in the United States, Israel and many other countries.
These discussions ignore the central event that helped mold Iran's history over the past 60 years.
On Aug. 19, 1953, Iranian military forces, backed by some citizens paid to help, overthrew the democratically-elected Muhammed Mossadeq. The Central Intelligence Agency and MI6, the CIA's equivalent in Great Britain, planned that event.
Mossedegh headed Iran's government for 28 turbulent months, between April 1951 and August 1953, when he was overthrown by the military-led coup. He stirred major controversy when he nationalized his country's oil industry.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., controlled by Great Britain, oversaw the nation's oil production. AIOC was later renamed BP, or British Petroleum. After Mossadeq's action, British leaders urged a worldwide boycott of oil from Iran.
During the armed disruptions designed to overthrow him, Mossadeq reacted passively. He made almost no efforts to counter those attacks, remaining in his house most of the time, Abrahamian writes.
An effort to arrest him on Aug. 15 failed. But four days later, CIA-financed mob rioted in the streets of Tehran, then marched to his house. Mossadeq was arrested, convicted of treason and sentenced to three years in prison. He spent the rest of his life under home confinement until he died in 1967.
Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi wrote that Abrahamian's new book "expertly shows that this coup was rooted in fervent Anglo-American opposition to Iran controlling its oil resources, rather than the 'intransigence' of its government or Cold War imperatives."
"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an historian to gain access to the CIA and MI6 files on the coup," wrote Abrahamian, a Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York.
Aug. 19 was the 60th anniversary of the overthrow of Mossadeq. After six decades of public silence, the CIA finally released documents showing it was the mastermind behind the coup.
Throughout his book, Abrahamian discusses and documents the "vehement opposition to nationalization" by leaders in the United States and United Kingdom, and Britain's insistence that it continue to control oil production in Iran.
British leaders believed nationalization of oil in Iran posed a threat to all of its colonies and former colonies -- including Pakistan, India and Ceylon -- and assets around the world.
Those assets included: Oil in Iraq, Burma and Indonesia; lead and rubber in Burma; tin in Bolivia; copper and nitrates in Chile; and magnesium and nickel in Greece.
During a speech to the United Nations in New York City after he was elected in 1951, Mossadeq specifically accused "Britain of dangerously escalating the issue [of nationalizing oil] into an international crisis by threatening invasion, massing warships and imposing sanctions."
Abrahamian argues that the "impasse [in negotiations] came not because of cultural or racial prejudices but because of the economic clash between resurgent nationalism and old-fashioned imperialism."
Great Britain, he added, "continued to treat Iran in a typical colonial fashion reminiscent of the old East India Company."
The CIA-backed coup had a devastating impact on democracy in Iran. But it is difficult to determine exactly how history may have been different if Mossadeq had been allowed to remain in power.
Some results from the coup are clear, including: denationalization of the oil industry, destruction of secular opposition groups and an increasingly paranoid style of politics throughout Iran.