It happened today - August 19, 2015

Men in Teheran celebrating the coupSpeaking of coups, this is the anniversary of one of the world’s most infamous, the CIA-backed 1953 overthrow of Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddeq that restored the Shah to power. It seems to have been a very bad idea.

With respect to Iran particularly, the Shah’s regime was eventually toppled by the modern world’s first Islamist revolution, the 1979 seizure of power by Khomeini, with further frequently ominous consequences.

The revolution that sent the Shah packing had helped elect Ronald Reagan (which was good) and emboldened radicals in Afghanistan (which was bad) leading to the Soviet invasion (which was worse) whose failure helped undermine the decrepit Soviet regime (which was good) and brought the Taliban to power and led to 9/11 (again bad) which inspired further generations of death-loving jihadis (worse).

Of course these are indirect effects and you can’t hold the architects of the 1953 coup directly responsible for what happened 26 years later. It’s a tangled web as human events typically are. But they’re not totally unrelated to the events of 1953 and the impact they had on Iran’s political processes and culture. And it gets more tangled as we look beyond Iran and its neighbours, because the overthrow of Mossaddeq was important for another reason as well.

It was the archetypal sinister CIA coup on behalf of resource-extraction multinationals who supposedly dictate American foreign policy. To be sure, this conspiratorial vision was always a left-wing fringe view. But it exerted considerable pressure on the more moderate left, especially in radical periods like the 1970s, and what happened in Iran in 1953 was one of their key pieces of evidence. As G.K. Chesterton rightly noted, “most arguments are not about what is true, but about what is important if it is true.”

The more radical critics of American policy in the Vietnam, and Reagan, eras, argued that the fact that the CIA was behind the overthrow of a “reformist” and a “democrat” and the installation of a pro-Western strong-man in an oil-rich Middle Eastern country was important. And many people found it hard to argue that it was disquieting.

One wonders what Washington gained that made these losses worth risking.

There might be a good answer, namely decades of stability in the world’s most chronically volatile region. The Shah was a disappointment as a modernizing strongman but it was not possible to foresee that result back in 1953; he was what trendy liberal development theory said was needed. He favoured land reform, women’s rights and a dynamic middle class, and he opposed full democracy because his people were not yet “ready” for it (obviously his rule didn’t get them readier but, as I say, most enlightened people back then thought it would).

Possibly it was better for Iran to collapse into radicalism in 1979 than in 1953, especially if you lived in the former. Iran as a militarily strong and pro-western power on the eastern edge of the Middle East and the southern border of the then-vigorous Soviet Union was certainly a force for stability in a place that needed it during the more threatening period of Soviet expansion.

Still, I’m not saying I would have supported the coup at the time. Mossadeq was no saint despite the usual rhubarb from the left. And incompetence on his part might have invited Soviet adventurism of a highly dangerous sort. But his failure might have led to a more reasonable regime or, indeed, a restoration of the Shah that didn’t have the CIA’s fingerprints all over it. Since you can’t foresee all the results of your actions, it’s often better not to be too clever by half and do something disagreeable in itself, sinister-looking, and of gravely uncertain benefit.

I don’t think this coup passes that smell test.