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The Wages of Coups

To the Editors:

The competent review by H.D.S. Greenway of the book All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer [NYR, September 25] was right on the mark, except for its failure to discuss several remarks in the book which troubled me. That the coup against Mossadegh in 1953 led in a straight line to 9/11 is misdirected. Did the Boer actions against the British in South Africa lead to Irish resistance to the British, which resulted in the independence of Ireland? After all both rebels were Christians, just as Iranians in 1953 and Arabs in 2001 were Muslims. The straight line to 9/11 began rather with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, while 1953 led to the revolution of 1979 in Iran. Also, I doubt whether “Mossadegh’s attitude fitted in with Iran’s Shiite Muslim faith,” since he is described correctly in the book as a secularist. He would use religion, as many leaders did and do to further their aims. On the morning of the day he was handed a dismissal note from the Shah, he told me that politicized religious leaders were the bane of Iran, much like the attitude of present-day young Iranians. I have a slightly different account of the fateful days of 1953, which hopefully can be read in my memoirs soon to be published.

Richard N. Frye
Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Emeritus
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

H.D.S. Greenway replies:

Professor Frye is correct to question the assertion that the 1953 coup against Mossadegh led “in a straight line to 9/11.” Indeed, I said in my review that “in Kinzer’s cautionary tale of unintended consequences, it is hard to find a clear link between the coup against the nationalistic Mossadegh and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.” I suspect that the publishers stretched a bit to connect the events of fifty years ago to our present woes. The subtitle of the book back in April, according to John Wiley and Sons, was: “The Hidden Story of the CIA’s Coup in Iran.” But by publication date it had transmogrified into: “An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.” This minor bit of hype, however, does not detract from Kinzer’s overall thesis.

Professor Frye and Kinzer agree that there is a straight line between the events of 1953 and the revolution of 1979 in Iran, but I would question Frye’s assertion that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 led straight to 9/11. To be sure, many Arabs still feel that the Jewish state was and is an outpost of Western colonialism, an intrusion on the Arab world similar to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Osama bin Laden, in his declara-tion of jihad against the United States in 1998, specifically mentions the “Crusader– Jewish alliance.” But the Jews and Israel play only a supporting role in his denunciation. Most of his rant is directed at the “Crusader hosts that have spread like locusts,” across the Arabian peninsula, “crowding its soil, eating its fruits, and destroying its verdure….” Israel is only the third and last of his three specific reasons for jihad.

Since Osama bin Laden represents an extreme form of Wahhabism, itself an extreme form of Islam, I would argue that al-Qaeda represents a reaction against Western influences and Eastern decadence, and is more directed against apostate Muslims, specifically the Saudi monarchy and other Arab regimes, than Israel, which, in bin Laden’s view, is a satrap of the United States.

Winston Churchill said of the Wahhabis, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1921, before the Wahhabis had captured Mecca and Medina, that they bore “the same relation to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars.” I would have to suppose that the line leading from the advent of Wahhabism in the Arabian wildernesses to the World Trade Center is the straighter line, and that the Twin Towers would have been attacked even if Israel had not existed. Palestinians are not a significant factor in al-Qaeda’s ranks.

But as in nature, there are really no straight lines in history, only meandering paths and dotted lines, crisscrossed with the consequences of roads not taken.

I think it is fair to say that Kinzer was on solid ground to say that Mossadegh’s tactics played well to Iran’s Shiite Mus-lim faith, even though he himself was a secularist.

I look forward to reading Professor Frye’s own memoirs of those summer days of 1953, which were freighted with so many lessons for our time.

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