Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mosaddeq and setting bounds for appropriate apologies

Sar Shalom

A common problem that Israel faces on the international stage is that when many people frame the conflict, they do so in narratives friendly to the Palestinian position. Often, these narratives are based on myths of Arab attachment to the land of Palestine or exaggerations of Palestinian suffering. A similar adoption of dangerous narratives that undermine western interests can be seen in the case of the overthrow of Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953 and the reinstitution of the Shah at that time. In the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, Ray Takeyh has an article on what actually took place in Iran between the time Mosaddeq assumed the premiership and the time we was overthrown.

A summary of the prevailing narrative surrounding the overthrow of Mosaddeq is as follows:
  • Mosaddeq nationalized Iran's hydrocarbon resources.
  • Britain perceived Iran's hydrocarbons as belonging to Britain and thus categorized Mosaddeq's nationalization as theft.
  • Britain, with assistance from the United States, organized a coup from among the Iranian military to reinstall the Shah who would restore Britain's rightful property.
It was this last item in the narrative which has led to numerous apologies for America's past behavior, most notably Obama's apology to the Iranian people. The problem begins when one takes a closer look at the facts underlying the narrative.

The first element in the narrative is accurate. The second element is partly true: the British did resent losing possession of Iran's hydrocarbon resources. However, Britain was prepared to compromise with the Mosaddeq regime, although one might argue that Britain had no right to any role in Iran's hydrocarbon production whatsoever.

The third part is more complicated. Britain did exert pressure on Iran in order to effect leverage in its negotiations over hydrocarbons, such as by cutting Iran off from exporting to the global oil market. However, Britain and the United States did not organize the forces that implemented the coup. Rather, partially affected by Britain's pressure tactics, Iran hit economic hard times leading to discontent among all sectors of the population, including the military and the clerical establishment. Mosaddeq responded to this discontent with authoritarianism. Eventually, the shah stepped in and used his constitutional authority to dismiss Mosaddeq, to which Mosaddeq responded by having the agents delivering the notice of dismissal arrested. It was at this point that the military, with the full support of the clerical establishment that now rails against American meddling, stepped in and removed Mosaddeq by force.

Just as apologizing and accepting an exaggerated share of the blame for America's role in the ousting Mosaddeq strengthens the hand of those who wish us ill, so does apologizing and accepting an exaggerated amount of responsibility for Israeli actions undertaken during wartime strengthen the hand of those who would wish Israel ill. A case in point is the story of what happened in Lydda, at the site of present-day Lod, during Israel's War of Independence. According to My Promised Land by Ha'aretz editorial board member Ari Shavit, what took place was a massacre. However, Martin Kramer investigated the sources Shavit cited and concluded that the events in Lydda were not as clear-cut (h/t EoZ).

In Shavit's telling, the Palmach battalion that conquered Lydda
  • quickly occupied the center of the city
  • used the small mosque as a detention center which they subsequently fired a tank shell on killing the unarmed detainees inside
  • soldiers went through the city with machine guns shooting anything that moved killing 200 people
  • took a group of eight Arabs to bury the corpses after subduing Lydda and killed those eight after they buried those who died in the battle
Shavit goes on to say that the birth of the State of Israel is a complicated matter as it was accompanied by atrocities such as Lydda. As in the case of Mosaddeq in Iran, there is a kernel of truth to Shavit's account of Lydda. There was an Arab city of Lydda prior to Israel's War of Independence which was overrun by the Palmach during the war and whose Arab population was expelled afterwards.

However, Kramer's investigation reveals information at odds with Shavit's account. Among Kramer's findings:
  • On the night after the Palmach began its incursion into Lydda, it still had not penetrated the city limits where the small mosque was located
  • According to the battalion commander, the small mosque was a source of fire upon his troops
  • As the soldiers went through the streets of Lydda, they encountered hostile fire and took whatever defensive measures were deemed necessary
  • At least one Arab who participated in burying the dead from the battle gave an interview about doing so afterwards.
Kramer concludes by saying that we can't be certain about what happened in Lydda because while there are sources giving indications in the direction of Shavit's conclusion, there are other sources with contradictory indications and there are insufficient grounds to select one source over another.

If Shavit's account was accurate, it would be something we would need to account for and it would be a major propaganda boost to those who attack our legitimacy. However, with compelling, even if not definitive, evidence that Shavit's conclusion is not accurate, we should not apologize as if Shavit's allegations are true.

Update: Initially this post omitted the 'not' from the final sentence "... that Shavit's conclusion is not accurate, we should not apologize as if ..." The correction reflects what I intended to say.


  1. Thank you for catching my typo. I'll go in and fix it.

    1. At first I thought that maybe you had some obscure deeper meaning that I was simply not comprehending!

      In any case, excellent piece.

      "Just as apologizing and accepting an exaggerated share of the blame for America's role in the ousting Mosaddeq strengthens the hand of those who wish us ill, so does apologizing and accepting an exaggerated amount of responsibility for Israeli actions undertaken during wartime strengthen the hand of those who would wish Israel ill."

      My sense is - and please let me know if this is consistent with your experience - that there is a tendency within the Jewish heart toward self-reflection and, thus, self-criticism that is exploited by the enemies of the Jewish State.

      Self-criticism is, of course, important, but at some point in can morph into a kind of political masochism.

  2. In 1953 Churchill was back as British PM (Hallelujah!) and The US's new president was none other than Ike who Winston knew well from the war and kinda liked. Anyway they were used to working together and had no illusions about the Soviet empire. .

    By this stage no one like Stalin who was an affliction for his people and a threat to the world. Stalin also had manoeuvres in place for this huge prize and was organising a coup of his own through the Communists and proxies. Churchill, Eisenhower, the CIA and MI6 calculated there was certain to be a coup, it was just a question of whose.

    So they got in first with their own coup. A pre-emptive coup, if you will. Muscular foreign policy for democracies I grant you but these leaders knew Stalin much better than anyone now and had saved the world once from a paranoid, power drunk at an enormous cost that would have been still raw for both men.

    In their judgement Mossaddeq was a dead regime walking and the shots were to be called from abroad. There was just too much at stake for Stalin not to strike. It was either the Peacock or the Reds and who is to say they were wrong?

    Anyway its time the Iranians got over it, I say. A coup in 1953?


    Sorry, but let's face it much worse was going on in 1953 in many places and especially those in the way of the contest for the post war world.

    Iran needs to man up. The coup and the Shah might not have been to the taste of all circles but things could have been much much worse. There could have been some Stalin puppet butcher in Tehran. You could bet your life the Kremlin would have brooked no Ayatollah. Or could even have been a gang of superstitious, utterly uneducated, death cult, women hating, apocalyptic, violent, ninth century, tribal lunatics running the regime.

    Oh wait ... .

    1. You're making an argument that justifies us having caused Mosaddeq's ouster. Takeyh makes a different argument, that responsibility for Mosaddeq's ouster is wider than is commonly believed and that it includes the clerical establishment. This means that the clerical regime is at least as culpable as the US for Mosaddeq's ouster.

      As to the objective of convincing the Iranian people to stop blaming us for their woes, convincing them that we were justified in ousting Mosaddeq and convincing them that their present regime was as culpable us in ousting Mosaddeq could both induce such a change in mindset. The difference is that the latter can be done by merely presenting the facts whereas the former would require getting past emotions, thus making the latter objective more feasible.