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The Banality of Evil and the Ivory-Tower Masterminds of the 1953 coup d'etat in Iran

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Mossadegh at his trial in late 1953
Mossadegh at his trial in late 1953
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The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied --- as has been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsel --- that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani ["enemy of humanity"], commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong ~ Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York, 1963: 253.

August 19th 2016 marked the sixty-third anniversary of the 1953 (28 Mordad 1332) CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup d'etat in Iran, toppling Mohammad Mossadegh's democratic-nationalist government. Revisiting that tragically momentous episode in Iran's modern political history, which has reverberated to the present, I was recently reading one of the chapters of Ervand Abrahamian's acclaimed book about the 1953 coup d'etat and came upon an aspect of the story that had not stood out for me this glaringly before [1]. In chapter three of his book, Abrahamian briefly details the role of a few noted Western ivory-tower academics of the era and how from the very outset of these events they actively collaborated with MI6 and the CIA to topple Mossadegh, and how especially for twenty-five years afterwards they facilitated the narrative spin about what had happened. Abrahamian specifically names A.K.S. Lambton, R.C. Zaehner, Peter Avery and George Lenczowski, to name just four. He concludes the chapter with this observation:

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These weighty analyses [in the post-coup period] managed to avoid unseemly topics such as the CIA or MI6. They even avoided the term "coup." Instead they portrayed the overthrow [of Mossadegh] in much the same way as did the Pahlavi dynasty--as the "nation's revolt" and "people's revolution" [qiyam-e melli]. Some historians have argued that Edward Said's well-known and highly controversial book Orientalism unfairly exaggerates the links between academia and the foreign-policy establishment. Fortunately for them, Edward Said was unaware of the nitty-gritty of these links in the 1953 coup. They were far greater than even he could have possibly imagined. More cautious academics wisely kept silent and pretended to be pure scholars uninterested in such unseemly subjects as politics. The whole sorry story tended to widen the gap on how Iranians and Westerners saw not only the coup but also the history of Iran's relations with the West [2].

While the name of Kermit Roosevelt (d. 2000) has become synonymous with the events of August 1953, long before Roosevelt entered the scene as the CIA's main operator on the ground in Iran, other hands were already busily working to that end: hands setting up the preliminary stages of what only later became Operation TPAJAX. America was only to enter this misadventure after the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in early 1953, since Truman refused Attlee and then Churchill's overtures to oust Mossadegh, seeing Mossadegh in 1951-2 as a nationalist bulwark against a potential communist takeover of Iran: a situation that for the period of 1951-3, in any case, is now known to have been deliberately exaggerated by the cold warriors of the era, since the Soviet Union (given its experience in 1946) was reluctant to intervene or even to shore up or to encourage its own local client, the Iranian Tudeh Party, into any kind of "revolutionary" power grab [3].

Recent historiography about the 1953 coup d'etat (especially from source documents declassified by the CIA since 2000-14) [4] suggest that the idea of overthrowing Mossadegh through covert means in its gestation had actually first come from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) [5]. However, and less than two months after he had first become premier on 28 April 1951, the responsibility for broaching the idea of specifically undertaking covert action in Iran by the British government had originated with the British Foreign Office [6] and with A.K.S. Lambton specifically on 15 June 1951 [7]. As Iranian scholar Mohammad Amini has characterized it, A.K.S. Lambton was the veritable "theoretician" of Mohammad Mossadegh's overthrow, beginning at its formative stage [8]. The timing of Lambton's recommendation to the Foreign Office also coincided with a raid undertaken by Iranian police ordered by Mossadegh's government of the Tehran home of the AIOC's Iran chief, Richard Seddon, where incriminating documents were found proving how the company was directly interfering in the internal affairs of Iran: documents implicating countless Iranian politicians and public figures on the AIOC's payroll [9].

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Nearly two months before Mossadegh's accession as prime minister, and just after the oil-nationalization bill had only recently been adopted by the Iranian majlis as of 15 March 1951; on 22 March 1951 (in a piece now identified to have been penned by her), A.K.S. Lambton had anonymously published a near scurrilous op-ed in The Times of London attacking Mossadegh and his Iranian National Front coalition as "extremists" where she urged the Attlee government to action with the objective of replacing the then-interim prime minister Hossein A'la (d. 1964) with someone more amenable to British interests, instancing majlis deputy Siyyid Zia'uddin Tabataba'i (d. 1969) by name as someone Britain could work with [10]. Tabataba'i was, of course, a longstanding British asset in Iran who had briefly served as prime minister in 1921 and was part of the duumvirate with Reza Shah Pahlavi in the British-engineered coup d'etat of that year, which brought the Pahlavis to power and in 1925 formally displaced Ahmad Shah (d. 1930) and the Qajar dynasty [11]. In 1953 Tabataba'i would again play a role for his imperial benefactors, albeit not as important as the one in 1921.

HMG's Orientalist Mastermind: A.K.S. Lambton

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Wahid Azal is an independent scholar and political commentator living in Berlin, Germany.


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