The Mossadegh Trap

If the left wants to better understand world events today, it should avoid reflexively interpreting them via Cold War-era frameworks

Events in Latin America have once again entered into the U.S. news cycle.

Last week, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by armed gunmen in a traumatic incident that further destabilized the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Suspicions have turned towards a Florida-based doctor who allegedly thought he could become president by killing President Moïse. The country has been left in chaos with no certain succession plan, although Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, has assumed power for now.

Four days after the Haitian president’s assassination, the communist nation of Cuba erupted in protest over government incompetence and suppression of rights. The trigger was the country’s poor response to Covid-19 in particular, and more generally the economic ruin the government has been bringing about for years. The demonstrations in Cuba have the potential to threaten the stability of the 60-year-old communist regime founded by Fidel Castro and now led by its first non-Castro president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Since Americans are not well versed in the political systems operating in Cuba or Haiti, they’ve resorted to familiar tropes and frameworks for discussing these two events.

Some on the right have used the Iraq framework for Cuba in particular, embracing the protests as potentially destabilizing to an oppressive, autocratic regime. Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, a supporter of the Iraq War, argued that the United States should “seize the opportunity to show that it stands on the side of democracy and is willing to provide humanitarian aid to those abandoned by their own government.” A similar narrative has emerged for Haiti, where neoconservatives have both denounced the assassination and hoped that it may lead to a pro-democratic (and ideally pro-American) regime.

Some on the left, meanwhile, have used a much older framework from the Cold War, suggesting that either or both events may have been orchestrated by the United States. For Haiti, the evidence for American influence comes from initial reports that the attackers claimed to be carrying out a DEA operation and more recent accounts that have identified a suspect in the assassination as a former DEA informant—this has led to portrayals of the operation as a DEA action. Jacobin ran an interview with a writer who posited that the assassination was perpetrated by capitalists in Haiti and was openly supported by American citizens and corporations.

In Cuba, the evidence is more circumstantial and historical. Attempts by the United States to assassinate Fidel Castro or overthrow the Cuban regime date back to its founding. The U.S. has always wanted a friendlier government on the island nation 90 miles to the south of Miami. In the response to the recent protests, leftist groups interpreted Joe Biden’s statement supporting the street demonstrations and his apparent reluctance to change policy towards the Cuban regime as evidence of his support for the protestors’ end goals. Once again, Jacobin took the lead: While stopping short of endorsing the conspiracy that Biden is trying to engineer a regime change, the socialist magazine’s Branko Marcetic blamed the decades-long American blockade for the current unrest and characterized statements by politicians in support of the protesters as representing coded Washingtonian “wink-and-a-nod vernacular” for overthrowing the Cuban government. The International Committee for the Democratic Socialists of America directly discounted the legitimacy of protestors, offering its support for the Cuban regime. Several well-known Twitter personalities tweeted out years-old stories about American operations against Cuba in an attempt to endorse the conspiracy of the protests as an American plot.

The CIA-backed coups during the Cold War are still cited whenever destabilizing events occur in other countries. CIA-backed rebels overthrew numerous national governments in the back-and-forth struggle with the Soviet Union from the 1940s until the fall of the Berlin Wall. But one of these events, the 1953 coup in Iran, has become the model for how leftists understand American intervention around the world. Dropping this framework would help the American left move past conspiratorial thinking and gain a measure of credibility that it currently lacks in the discussion of foreign affairs.

In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, faced a difficult situation. His country was being pressured by the Soviet Union and Great Britain, both of which had interests in an Anglo-Iranian oil company. Like Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Mossadegh wanted to move beyond the East-West dichotomy that was already beginning to define the world during the Cold War. He wanted to bring material wealth to his country but did not want to break ties with the West either. A retrospective in The New York Times noted that “Dr. Mossadegh did not promote the interests of the Communists, though he drew on their support. Paradoxically, the [Communist] party turned from him in the end because it viewed him as insufficiently committed and too close to the United States.” For many months, he engaged in negotiations to gain a larger stake in the country’s oil. But after British intransigence, his parliament went ahead of him and nationalized the Iranian oil industry.

The British, furious at this loss, responded with a boycott and secretly convinced the United States that Mossadegh was a front for communists in Iran. President Dwight Eisenhower agreed and helped launch Operation Ajax, a clandestine coup that used the Iranian military to overthrow Mossadegh. The CIA organized the anti-Mossadegh forces and helped the Shah of Iran take power. The Shah ruled for another 25 years. He jailed dissidents and ruled in an autocratic manner. His reign was ended in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution, which led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic autocracy. 

The 1953 coup in Iran was not the only covert action by the CIA to overthrow a government in order to fight the Soviet Union. But it has become the most famous for a number of reasons. Unlike some of the other nations where the CIA intervened, Iran was not clearly subject to Soviet interests. Its leader was democratically elected and had not engaged in severe repression like other leaders of the 1950s. In addition, one of the reasons for the coup was to protect the financial interests of an imperialist corporation. As Gregory Brew argued in 2019, “The coup was therefore necessary to restore Western control over Iranian oil and reduce the threat of nationalization in other oil-producing regions.”

Most importantly, Mossadegh’s successor was overthrown in one of the 20th century’s most significant events. The 1979 Iranian Revolution helped define Islamic fundamentalism as a major theme of contemporary history. It also dominated American politics for years, particularly in the Iran hostage crisis. The Revolution became one of the most studied postcolonial events. As a result, every event that contributed to it was magnified, including the secular Mossadegh’s removal.

The 1953 revolution’s greatest relevance to today, outside of the politics of the Middle East, is its ability to fuel conspiracies about the nature of global events. Even though it is no longer CIA policy to overthrow national governments, and even though the factors at play in Iran are rarely present in current affairs, there is a tendency to view all international unrest through the lens of how it may have been planned to aid American interests. Since it happened in Iran, many on the left claim it could happen in Haiti or Russia or Cuba.

In addition, the social media age has given foreign governments a strong incentive to take advantage of this tendency among the left. Painting U.S. opposition as a CIA-backed group is incredibly helpful. It allows them to rally support from both domestic allies and millions of leftists in other countries. Vladimir Putin learned this after the 2011 demonstrations against him, when he could use the Mossadegh experience to fuel his successful propaganda campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The American left needs to move past the Mossadegh experience. The Cold War has been over for three decades. Cuba is no longer on the revolutionary vanguard. It is a heavily oppressed country that, with the exception of some government programs and the blockade, has mostly been left alone by the United States. A revolution in that country may even be beneficial to the left. It may create a vibrant socialist economy that could serve as proof of the left’s current vitality, similar to the socialist government in Bolivia under Evo Morales.

As for Haiti, the situation seems enormously complicated. But a new government may be more effective at rebuilding that country, distributing vaccines, and turning it into a success story for the Western Hemisphere. The left has opportunities to support potentially vibrant new governments around the world, but being stuck in the past will not do.