Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh admires the Liberty Bell during a visit to Independence Hall in Philadelphia in Autumn 1951.
(Truman Library / Department of State)
The military coup that removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, on Wednesday July 3, 2013, after serving only a single year in office, will have far reaching implications in the months, years, and decades to come.
Following the announcement that Morsi was no longer in power and the nation’s Constitution had been suspended, the Egyptian military arrested dozens of prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders and shut down Islamist-run media outlets. The next day, supporters of the deposed president were attacked during a pro-Morsi protest. Today, the army opened fire on a crowd of Morsi supporters in Cairo, as they marched toward a military facility.
Terms such as “democratic coup,” “people’s revolution,” “people's coup,” and “popular uprising” have emerged from champions of Morsi’s overthrow who have long denounced the president as claiming dictatorial powers and acting like a “new Pharaoh” in Egypt. Morsi’s Egyptian opponents have found common cause with right-wing media entities here in the United States, some of whom have made comparisons of Morsi to Hitler and Mussolini and called the Muslim Brotherhood “the new form of Nazis.” Writing in Commentary Magazine, Jonathan Tobin claimed that “Morsi and the rest of his authoritarian crew [have] already topped the excesses of the Mubarak regime in only a year” in power and, as he has done before, condemned President Obama for not overtly supporting regime change.
Others in the American media quickly began asking how the Obama administration should respond, with many calling for the immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt. The United States provides $1.3 billion in aid to the Egyptian military, which has long maintained extremely close ties to Washington, as well as an additional $300 million in economic assistance annually. TIME magazine’s Zeke J. Miller reminds us,
Under federal law, U.S. non-humanitarian aid must be cut off to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” The developments in Egypt appear on their face to fit the bill precisely. In the past, the U.S. has cut off aid to Mauritania, Mali, Madagascar and Pakistan following coups.Shortly after the Morsi administration was toppled and an interim government installed, a White House statement noted that Washington “does not support particular individuals or political parties, but we are committed to the democratic process and respect for the rule of law.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had previously insisted, “We’re not taking sides in this.”
Almost exactly six decades ago, on August 19, 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by the United States and Britain after nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. Pro-Shah riots were staged, hundreds were killed, newspapers supportive of Mossadegh were ransacked and shuttered, and the prime minister was arrested and tried for treason.
The 1953 coup in Iran and the 2013 coup in Egypt are certainly not the same – just as Mossadegh and Morsi are vastly different leaders with vastly different interests, ideologies and ambitions – and I have no intention of equating or even comparing the two. But the events of the past few days got me thinking from one coup to another and of the way American media covers such events. As such, below is an excerpt from “The U.S. Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference,” written by William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang, and published in 1987:
Given the press’s systematic denigration of Mosaddeq [during the nationalization crisis], his government, and his aspiration during the slightly more than two years of his rule, it might not have made much difference to Americans had they known of their government’s involvement in the overthrow of the premier. The U.S. press was particularly hard on Mosaddeq during the six months preceding his overthrow. The two major focal points of the press coverage throughout this period were Mosaddeq’s personal political ambitions and what was perceived as the increasing vulnerability of communism of Iran under his rule.
In the first instance, the press repeatedly raised the specter of a Mosaddeq dictatorship in Iran, the last time American journalism would demonstrate much concern for consensus politics in Iran until after the revolution of 1978. The word “dictator” to describe Mosaddeq, for instance, was used routinely throughout 1953 by the New York Times and other elements of the prestige press. By contrast, that identification or its variants was used only on three occasions in the Times to describe the shah during the twenty-five years following the coup.
As early as August of 1952, the Times seemed to have made up its mind about Mosaddeq. An editorial dealing with the oil dispute began, “Having established himself as the nominal dictator of Iran, Premier Mossadegh has formally submitted to the British government another offer to negotiate a settlement of the oil dispute which brought him to power and his country to bankruptcy and mob rule.” The Times editorialist added this qualification to the nature of Mosaddeq’s power: “First of all, he is a dictator only by proxy from a murderous mob.”
As the events of 1953 moved toward their eventual summer climax, and a beleaguered Mosaddeq, in the face of right-wing internal opposition and foreign economic and political intrigue, turned more and more to authoritarian methods to keep control of a rapidly deteriorating situation, the American press, led by the Times, sounded an increasingly shrill alarm. In early August, for instance, Mosaddeq called for a plebiscite to dissolve what by this time had become a largely chaotic and uncooperative majles. The plebiscite, admittedly a political ploy whose procedures were deeply flawed, nevertheless did not deserve the treatment the Times accorded it editorially: “A plebiscite more fantastic and farcical than any ever held under Hitler or Stalin is now being staged in Iran by Premier Mossadegh in an effort to make himself unchallenged dictator of the country.”
On the eve of the coup that overthrew Mosaddeq, a confused time in which the shah appeared vanquished and fled Iran – very temporarily, as it would turn out – and it looked as though Mosadeq had prevailed, the Times began its editorial on the situation with this thought: “In a confused and so far bloodless revolt…Premier Mossadegh appears to have made himself the absolute dictator of Iran, who, in the Persian tradition, may be reaching for the throne itself.”
Among other major American newspapers echoing the Times’s concern about whither Iran were the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. In a lead editorial on the shah’s seeming defeat, the Post told its readers:
The Shah has been thrown out by a strong man whose fanaticism has led him into the embrace of the Communists. Precisely what will happen now no one can tell, but it is fairly certain that the only possible beneficiary of Dr. Mossadegh’s grab of complete power will be the Communist Tudeh Party and its mentor – Russia.
The Journal’s editorial on the supposedly successful ouster of the shah, headline “Rise of a Dictator,” told readers, “Dictators come in various sizes and shapes, but they all the same way. They come like Mossadegh by emotional appeals to their countrymen and their designs are always the same: A search for complete power.” The editorial writer then goes on to compare Mosaddeq’s rise to the careers of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Perón, and Huey Long.A mere two days after the coup, on August 21, 1953, the Wall Street Journal published a shining endorsement of Mossadegh's overthrow in an editorial that invented a fictional dictator and promoted wild anti-Communist propaganda. Entitled "Lessons From Iran," the piece noted that, while what it called the "counter-revolution in Iran may not last, or may not provide a stable government...whatever happens, the fact that it was possible to overthrow the dictator Mossadegh is a large lesson for out times." It continued:
It is a reminder to other dictators that they may be least secure when they feel most secure. It is a warning to would-be authoritarians that the price of absolute power is often death or disgrace. It is a challenge to oppressed people everywhere that oppressors can sometimes be removed.The editorial goes to claim that the coup "has a moral for Communists" who, the paper says, were "supporting" Mossadegh. The Journal credits popular mobilization with deposing such a sinister alliance.
What must have surprised the Communists was that the people, from the streets of Teheran to the remote tribal villages, turned out in riotous mobs against Mossadegh; and not the least of their complaints against Mossadegh was his hook up with that Communists.The New York Times was similarly giddy. The same day - August 21, 1953 - an editorial ran describing Iran as "a vacuum between between the Soviet Union and the West. She is a buffer state holding the Russians back from their ancient goal of the Persian Gulf. Her vast oil reserves and the refinery at Abadan constitute one of the greatest of all possible prizes for the Russians." Mossadegh, declared the Times, "was flirting was Russia. He had won his phony plebiscite to dissolve the Majlis, or lower House of Parliament, with the aid of the Tudeh Communists."
The piece goes on to heap praise on the Shah and his CIA-run lackeys for not having Mossadegh killed. "Mohammad Mossadegh is out, a prisoner awaiting trial. It is a credit to the Shah, to whom he was so disloyal, and to Premier Zahedi, that this rabid, self-seeking nationalist should have been protected at a time when his life would not have been worth the wager of a plugged nickel."
A year after the coup, the New York Times still had only good things to say about it, writing on August 6, 1954, that a new oil “agreement between Iran and a consortium of foreign oil companies” was “good news indeed.” It continued:
Costly as the dispute over Iranian oil has been to all concerned, the affair may yet be proved worthwhile if lessons are learned from it: Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders. In some circles in Great Britain the charge will be pushed that American ‘imperialism’—in the shape of the American oil firms in the consortium!—has once again elbowed Britain from a historic stronghold.The American media has always had a penchant for promoting the passions of the powerful. As the situation in Egypt continues to develop, we should all pay attention to the narratives crafted in the press.
A version of this piece was orginally posted at Muftah.