Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy is tarnished — but not by the Iran deal

Critics have taken Obama to task again in recent weeks for his administration's historic Iran deal. They shouldn't

Published January 25, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Evan Vucci)
(Reuters/Evan Vucci)

In a self-effacing moment during his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama expressed “regrets” that during his tenure he was unable to heal “the rancor and suspicion between the two parties,” reflecting that perhaps a “Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”

How ironic that perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy is that the President was able to do just that through painstaking negotiations with Iran, a hostile power with which the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations for decades.

The American public really has no clue about the significance of this accomplishment, because we barely know our own history, much less the authentic narrative of some other country that, chances are, we will never visit. We have been told over and over they are to be feared and regarded as a dangerous adversary.

On the "PBS NewsHour," Brett McGuirk, special envoy for President Obama, described the negotiations for the prisoner swap with Iran earlier this month this way:

"And for many months, it was just a lot of back and forth about historical narratives and competing visions of what has actually happened between our two countries. And, of course, we didn’t give any ground about their history of hostage-taking and support for terrorism, and they would go through their narrative."

Regrettably, McGuirk didn’t supply the Iranian narrative nor was he asked about it.

For most Americans, the Iran-U.S. narrative starts in 1979 when the staff of the American Embassy was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and held for 444 days. Yet, for every Iranian, starting from when they are in school, the most relevant American-Iranian timeline starts in 1953. That’s when the U.S., at the behest of the British, covertly helped the British to overthrow Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran from 1951-53.

As an historical figure, Mossadegh was the Iranian equivalent of our Washington and Jefferson combined (minus the slave owning). He was a lawyer, musician, agricultural innovator and a man who dedicated his entire life to a democratic Iran, freeing it from the colonial domination of the British who coveted Iran’s oil and would do anything to maintain control of it.

Mossadegh was a political prodigy, getting elected when he was just 21 to the national parliament. He was a key player in the country’s move to a constitutional monarchy. As a deputy finance minister he earned a reputation as a reformer who outed corruption. In 1940, when he was arrested by the military, the incident was so traumatizing that his 13 year old daughter, who was present, never recovered and was institutionalized for the rest of her life.

The United States only came clean about the existence of the covert action to remove Mossadegh in 2013. And to this day, key details the ouster remain classified. Yet, from what has been released and reviewed by scholars. it's clear this is one of those instances when a 20th century hegemonic America, dominated by anti-communist corporatists, betrayed our own revolutionary principles. And all this, ironically, at the behest of the British, our former oppressor.

You don’t really get a sense of just how vile this U.S.-Brit escapade was unless you spend some time reviewing the decades long struggle that Iran had been in to secure self-determination. Oil was struck in 1908 and in just a few years the British had control of it under the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In 1920, the British engineered a coup, but by 1946 conditions had become so oppressive in the Iranian oil fields that 6,000 Iranian oil workers went on a strike. The work action was violently suppressed by the government, leaving hundreds dead and wounded.

In 1951, Mossadegh helped lead the movement to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In retaliation the British imposed economic sanctions and rattled their saber. Not long after the bold move, Mossadegh got 90 percent of the votes in the parliament to become Prime Minister. Mossadegh, equipped with documentation of how Britain had been ripping off their Iranian oil "partners" for decades, made his case to the UN Security Council in New York and the International Court of the Hague, venues where the British thought they would carry the day.

In both venues his arguments proved persuassive. By 1952, Mossadegh had scored his second “Time Man of the Year” cover. Rebuffed in the court of international opinion, the British stepped up their efforts to destabilize Iran through increasingly severe economic sanctions, freezing Iranian assets and amassing naval assets in the region to intimidate the country that had dared to claim for itself its own natural resources.

Mossadegh was a real pioneer in the non-aligned nations movement that rejected the bi-polar world where the United States and the Soviet Union directed the planet’s affairs. He wouldn’t grant the Russians an oil concession and was well received by President Harry Truman in Washington D.C..

In the summer of 1953 the CIA, under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt (President Theodore Roosevelt's grandson), launched Operation Ajax, which used a combination of U.S. foreign policy moves to punish and marginalize Iran, while waging a covert propaganda campaign of disinformation to undermine Mossadegh’s legitimacy, which had been won by decades of honest public service and sacrifice.

In August of 1953, a violent coup, which both the U.S. and Britain had fomented, came to pass and Mossadegh’s supporters were hunted down, tortured and murdered. Western oil companies were back in the country. Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, consolidated his power.

Mossadegh, the would-be father of modern Iran, was tried and convicted for treason in a military court. At his December 1953 sentencing he addressed the court, saying:

“Yes my sin—my greater sin——and my greatest sin, is that I nationalized Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire….this at the cost to myself, my family: and at the risk of losing my life, my honor and property….I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interest.”

He was held in prison for a few years and then confined to house arrest until his death from cancer in 1967

In the decades that followed, the Shah was courted and indulged by the west as a bulwark against the nearby Russians. But we ignored his increasing reliance on the Savak, his brutal intelligence service, who maintained control through torture and murder. By the late 1970’s the popular resistance to the Shah’s increasingly authoritarian rule sparked riots, strikes and ultimately the imposition of martial law.

In 1979, all of this upheaval culminated in the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Most Americans still don’t know a coup ever took place, and skeptics in the United States don’t believe it’s anything more than a club the regime uses to beat up the U.S.,“ says Malcolm Byrne, the deputy director and director of research for the National Security Archive, a nonprofit that has successfully used Freedom of Information law suits to fill in huge blanks surrounding the conduct of America’s extensive covert activities.

Byrne, author of “Mohammad Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran,” says that, for Iranians, the U.S. intervention still stings. “From my conversations with Iranians of every different political stripe over the years, it’s generally a very big deal because it’s a concrete example of what they see as a great power’s interference in their internal affairs,” he explains.

How much about the U.S. and British role in the Iranian coup still remains classified? ”Hard to say because so much of the record was destroyed in the early 1960s,” says Byrne. “Allegedly, I’m told there’s roughly one to two feet of documentation left at the CIA. My organization filed a lawsuit for some of it years ago but got nothing.” Byrne says chances are all the actual operational material has been destroyed.

Some 37 years after Americans were taken hostage President Obama used multi-lateral negotiations to get Iran to agree to a dramatic reduction in its nuclear program, submit to robust international inspections and to free several American prisoners.

A case can be made that the several months of talks produced more tangible results than than the 15 years of the War on Terror. Since September 11, that effort has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, proliferated terror and in the process set off the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.

Thanks to the opening to Cuba and the Iranian deal, President Obama has illustrated you can actually make the world a safer place by engaging our adversaries to re-imagine our collective future. To do that we have to know and appreciate the struggle in their past, their tribulations, their disappointments, and their unrealized hopes for their children.

In that effort, the otherness of "they" may become something else that brings us closer to "we." That is the pre-requisite for a less violent, more peaceful world and a break from the U.S.’s perpetual state of war making that the president has also sadly promoted through other foreign policy measures.

But in both the Cuba and Iranian negotiations he has earned a measure of redemption by constructing a visionary platform upon which his successor can stand just as John Kennedy did more than a generation ago.

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” President John F. Kennedy said. “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

When our presidents have the vision to see what others can not see, a world that yet might be, and have the courage to act, they no doubt put their own popularity at risk for a greater good. We can define that as principled leadership.

By Robert Hennelly

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Barack Obama Foreign Policy Iran Iran Deal