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Spoken Word: Original Sin in the Modern Middle East

     Steve Kinzer of the New York Times talks as well as he writes: here.

     We’d all have been more suspicious of the Bush and Blair neo-imperial fantasists, spinning their Anglo-American self-esteem into a Middle Eastern quagmire, if we had a speaking acquaintance with our own history.  But who today mentions the CIA’s catastrophic overthrow of Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh, just 50 years ago next month?  “He towers over Iranian history, Middle Eastern history, and the history of anticolonialism,” Steve Kinzer writes of Mossadegh.  “No account of the twentieth century is complete without a chapter about him.”  Mossadegh was a principled and incorruptible modern secular nationalist, with a Swiss doctorate in law and an unshakable base of popular support in Iran.  His only sin as Prime Minister was doing in 1951 what he’d always said he’d do: nationalize the last great jewel of the withering British Empire, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  Harry Truman blew off the British appeals for an American rescue.  But in 1953 Dwight Eisenhower looked the other way when the Dulles brothers initiated the cult of covert action and coups against uppity democracies.  “Operation Ajax” was the mission that toppled Mossadegh with goons and dollars and then fortified Mohammad Reza Shah on the Peacock Throne–until the fanatical mullahs chased him out in 1979.  “It is not far-fetched,” Kinzer concludes, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”  It is no surprise at all if you believe that events like the secret American intervention in Iran in 1953 have consequences.

     You expect more from a book that is blurbed by the odd trio of John le Carre, Gore Vidal and Richard Lugar–two novelists and the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–and you get more than you expect in Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men.  Steve Kinzer is a Boston Celtics nut who’s become a giant of the Times staff, with duty stripes in Central America, Berlin, Istanbul and now Chicago.  His narrative is unsurpassably lean and authoritative, his ear for official foolishness is perfect.  “They were rug dealers and that’s all they were,” went the Anthony Eden line on the Iranians to the unbiddable Dean Acheson.  “You should never give in, and they would always come around and make a deal if you stayed firm.”  The arrogance of the Brits is well nigh unbelievable, officially dismissing Iran’s claim on its own oil as “base ingratitude if it were not simply ridiculous.”  But the casual and careless imperial ways of the Americans are also stunning.  Eisenhower’s heart was never in the game.  Why isn’t it possible, Ike wondered at a National Security Council meeting before the coup, “to get some of the people in these down-trodden countries to like us instead of hating us.” 

     The blogging angle?  What fascinates me more than the history is the dance of language in which the spinners in office and institutional media have always kidded and conned us about such things as oil and empire, race and righteousness.  Free blogging is part of the cure, as is the Kinzer brand of journalism.  Iran today is a hotbed of blogging.  Iranians at home and in the diaspora “are very sophisticated about the Internet,” Kinzer told me.  He recommends Iranian.com (Slogan: “Nothing is sacred”) as an introduction.  The Internet is a main channel of the ferment that Kinzer says will change the Islamic regime or bring it down.  It should do as much for us.  Listen in.

{ 74 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | July 31, 2003 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Christopher Lydon:

    I take second place to no man (or woman) in my admiration of Stephen “Steve” Kinzer . Bitter Fruit and Blood of Brothers ought to be required reading in contemporary American history courses. In addition to his new book on Iran he continues to write interesting pieces for the NYT, most recently on the lack of American interest in “foreign” literature, literature in translation. So if you want to pay attention to Kinzer and extol his fine work and career, by all means.

    But the blogging (that ugly word again) angle seems to me to be oblique. “Free blogging is part of the cure,” The cure to what? The
    “spinners in office and institutional media” who “have always kidded and conned us about such things as oil and empire, race and righteousness?” The current frenzied ululation emanating from the web log world seem to be taking credit for curing everything from cancer to poverty and now you are including racism and imperialism. Now great things may follow from what Glen Reynolds calls ‘the functioning anarchy” of new media but I prefer Chou Enlai’s assessment of the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”

  2. Anonymous | July 31, 2003 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    It would be useful to know the current size of the “blogosphere” to help gauge its potential influence. My sense is that it’s a fishbowl floating in an ocean: 780,000 blogs isn’t much, especially when you consider that probably at least 70 percent of them are used to inform the world what the blogger ate for breakfast that morning.

    Do we know how many “serious” issues-oriented blogs are out there? And do we know how many people are reading them? When everyone you know is blogging or reading blogs, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that this is a big phenomenon. But that’s like thinking that the majority of Americans must be liberals, based on the fact that most of your friends and acquaintances are liberals.

    There’ll probably be a serious explosion in blogging in the next few years, as user-friendly blogging tools like Typepad come on the scene. But I suspect the bulk of that explosion will resemble the CB radio craze of the late 1970s, in which millions of people bought CB radios for their cars but quickly tired of conversations that consisted of “10-4 good buddy, what’s your 20?” We might have a blogosphere of tens of millions of blogs in a few years, but if most of those blogs are simply online diaries I don’t think we’re looking at a serious agent of social change.

  3. Anonymous | July 31, 2003 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Superb interview! infuriating, uplifting and depressing in one go! (where’s my cheap canadian Prozac..).

    You’ve asked some tough questions, re: why the American public is so ignorant and short sighted about their own history and the mind-bogglingly significant part they play in determining the fate of the world. Its time for American citizenry to take action.

    Please enable talkback so we can rant about it some more :)

    Thanks for bringing these gems to us!,

    -A

  4. Anonymous | August 1, 2003 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I read this discussion and the original article with interest. Readers wishing to read more about the impact of the net on Islam and Muslim societies might want to visit http://www.virtuallyislamic.com – which contains research information relating to this theme. There’s also material on my books Virtually Islamic and Islam in the Digital Age (out this week). I’ve added a blog this week (another drop in the ‘blogosphere’?)…

  5. Anonymous | August 2, 2003 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Tariq Ali has a piece titled Operation Iranian Freedom in The Nation (along with some comments on the Kinzer book).

    Final para:

    Experience, the best of teachers, has educated the people of Iran. Not even all-powerful ayatollahs can override the laws of biology. If left alone the Iranians will get rid of their bearded oppressors in their own way and in their own time. It might even be the dawn of an Islamic Reformation. Certainly the vibrancy of the country’s filmmakers and the clandestine poems and texts that are being circulated are an indication of the change that lies ahead. If the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld team decides to speed up the process, it’s all but certain to create a giant mess that will only strengthen the most backward elements in the country. The interests of the empire rarely coincide with those of the people it is intending to “liberate,” especially when the people know that one reason they are in a mess is because of what the empire did in its own interests fifty years ago.

  6. Anonymous | August 28, 2003 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I stay at home every day and long for communication with some external source of interesting and informative ideas. I recently met an Iranian accountant, trained in the US, who went back to work in the Iranian Medical System. He came back to the US in rejection of the on-the-job treatment by religious managers in the system. His reaction is exactly in tune with this BLOG’s conclusions. Now, this same man is running a small delicatessen in my neigborhood. All his training is wasted. Except, he knows how to make accurate change, and a damned good sandwich. Now I understant why. Strange concantenation of events.

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    “We’d all have been more suspicious of the Bush and Blair neo-imperial fantasists, spinning their Anglo-American self-esteem into a Middle Eastern quagmire, . . .”

    Puhleeze. Do you really talk like this in real life? Are you at all aware that the vast majority of the USA doesn’t? Just don’t be surprised when Howard Dean gets the same % of the vote as McGovern . . .

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    that is good history and it seems Bush and post Blair are adamant about having a foot in the middle east firmly. Watch the Middle East Financial Markets. Pretty soon , big multinational companies will compete on insurance rates over there too. This will indeed make many natives there irate. And they have good reason to be upset. It is there country, let themdo what they do and us what we do here. except invade !!

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{ 6 } Trackbacks

  1. [...] recommend reading Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men for the story. For an overview, Chris Lydon did a podcast interview with KInzer in [...]

  2. Media you can’t trust | September 26, 2007 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    [...] in the 1950’s. I recommend Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men. For an overview, Chris Lydon did a podcast interview with KInzer in [...]

  3. [...] secret police. Though no Iranians were involved in 911, “It is not far-fetched,” as Steve Kinzer has told us, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the [...]

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  6. [...] Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he's ahead of the game again. [...]