Nothing new in the
world By Renato Redentor Constantino
"Memory says, 'I did that'," Friedrich Nietzsche
once wrote. "Pride replies, 'I could not have done
that'. Eventually, memory yields."
ago in the United States, on September 11, airplanes
fell from the sky and thousands died. Countless numbers
mourned the mass murder. Countless mourn still. On the
same day 31 years ago, the sky fell in Chile when the
democratically elected Allende government was overthrown
in a bloody coup staged by the US government. Who mourns
the Chilean sky?
Remembering is a political act,
wrote Boston Globe columnist James Carroll.
"Forgetfulness is the handmaiden of tyranny."
1953, the US engineered a coup in Iran that ousted the
government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh - an
Iranian colossus who happened to live in a frail old
man's body. The Iranian giant's commitment to social
reform was unrivaled in his country's history, while his
towering presence in the international arena as a voice
of poor countries presaged the era of giants such as
Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesia's Sukarno and the
Congo's Patrice Lumumba.
time, Iranian peasants were freed from forced labor in
their landlords' estates, factory owners were ordered to
pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and
unemployment compensation was established. The giant
caused 20% of the money landlords received in rent to be
placed in a fund to pay for development projects such as
pest control, rural housing and public baths.
The giant supported women's rights and defended
religious freedom and allowed courts and universities to
function freely. In addition, the colossus was known
even by his enemies as scrupulously honest and
impervious to the corruption that pervaded Iranian
But above all, the giant was
independent. Too independent. Mossadegh had thrown out
the British, nationalized the Iranian oil industry in
order that Iranians might benefit first from their own
resources, and was intent on implementing further
sweeping social reforms. And so one day in 1953 - when
the US still enjoyed the affections of the Iranian
people - the US government decided that Mossadegh should
not rule for long. And it schemed and schemed and
Code-named Operation Ajax and designed,
hatched and led by Kermit Roosevelt, a key Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative and a grandson of
president Theodore Roosevelt, the US-orchestrated coup
toppled Mossadegh and forever "reshaped the history of
Iran, the Middle East and the world. [The coup] restored
Mohammad Reza Shah to the Peacock Throne", allowing the
monarch to impose a murderous 25-year tyranny that
claimed the lives of thousands of Iranians.
US agents who had assembled in their embassy compound in
Tehran as soon as the success of the coup was ensured
were "full of jubilation, celebration, and occasional
whacks on the back as one or the other of us was
suddenly overcome with enthusiasm", recalled Kermit
Roosevelt in his book Countercoup: The Struggle for
the Control of Iran - a book that came out
ironically in 1979, the year of the US hostage crisis in
Iran, soon after the Islamic Revolution had swept the
Shah out of power.
Jubilation and celebration.
Maybe it's all about perspective. Maybe not.
Where the US government "saw a glorious day",
exiled Iranian intellectual Sasan Fayazmanesh would
write 50 years later, "we saw a day of infamy". Where US
officials "wished the day had never ended, we wished it
had never begun". Where the US "saw a dazzling picture
of his majesty's restoration to power, we saw grotesque
pictures of a brutal dictatorship, informants, dungeons,
"My only crime," Mossadegh
would recall after his ouster, "is that I nationalized
the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the
network of colonialism and the political and economic
influence of the greatest empire on Earth" - referring
to Iran's former tormentor, Britain. But Mossadegh had
also committed another "crime" - one with far graver
consequences: he took no notice of the fact that the US
had already overtaken Britain in the global imperial
race - a US ruled by a government that despised his
independence even as it coveted his country's oil.
But what goes around comes around. There is
always a day of reckoning.
"It is a reasonable
argument," suggested a US foreign-policy journal, "that
but for the coup, Iran would be a mature democracy. So
traumatic was the coup's legacy that when the Shah
finally departed in 1979, many Iranians feared a
repetition of 1953, which was one of the motivations for
the student seizure of the US Embassy." Hostages were
taken by panic-stricken Iranians who feared that the
Shah would be reinstalled by the US.
back of everybody's mind hung the suspicion that, with
the admission of the Shah to the United States, the
countdown for another coup d'etat had begun," one of the
hostage-takers would recall years after the incident.
"Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and
it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the
The hostage crisis, asserts New
York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer in his book
All the Shah's Men - a brilliant reconstruction
of the US coup - precipitated the Iraqi invasion of Iran
and helped consolidate the dictatorship of Saddam
Hussein "while the [Islamic] revolution itself played a
part in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan. A lot
of history, in short, flowed from a single week in
Tehran ... Can anybody say the Islamic Revolution of
1979 was inevitable? Or did it only become so once the
aspirations of the Iranian people were temporarily
expunged in 1953?
"It is not far-fetched,"
states Kinzer, "to draw a line from Operation Ajax
through the Shah's oppressive regime and the Islamic
Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World
Trade Center in New York."
entirely, so long as pride yields to memory.
"There is nothing new in the world," said Harry
Truman, "except the history you do not know."
Renato Redentor Constantino is a
writer and painter based in the Philippines. He writes a
weekly column for the Philippine national daily Today
(whose online partner is abs-cbnnews.com). Constantino
currently works on climate and energy concerns with
Greenpeace China. He can be reached at
(Copyright 2004 Renato Redentor
Constantino. Used by permission of Tomdispatch.)