(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s admission Thursday of a U.S. role in the toppling of an Iranian government more than half a century ago fell short of the apology that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been demanding for that episode and other “crimes” against Iran.
“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” Obama said in his closely watched address in Cairo, directed at the world’s Muslims.
Saying there was a “tumultuous history” between the U.S. and Iran, Obama cited both the coup and the Islamic Republic’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.”
Hundreds of American military personnel have been killed by terrorists linked to Iran, from the early 1980s in Lebanon until the present day in Iraq.
Iranian media outlets headlined the coup reference in the Cairo speech, with the state-funded PressTV network saying Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to make the admission.
Days after Obama’s inauguration, Ahmadinejad demanded that the new administration offering “change” should first apologize for “dark history and crimes” against Iran, topping his list of grievances with the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
“With a coup they toppled the national government of Iran and replaced it with a harsh, unpopular and despotic regime,” he said in a January 28 speech.
It was not the first time Ahmadinejad had brought up the issue in a challenge to a U.S. leader. In a letter to President Bush in 2006 he said the Iranian people had many questions to pose, “in particular, the coup d’etat of August 19, 1953.”
According to published accounts, the CIA, with British backing, plotted to bring down Mossadegh’s nationalist government after he nationalized the oil industry previously run by a British-owned company. The Eisenhower administration was reportedly also concerned that political instability in Iran at the time could facilitate the spread of Soviet influence in the region.
The Shah returned to power and ruled as an autocrat with U.S. backing until the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Previous Iranian leaders, including the reformist former president Mohammed Khatami, brought up the U.S. role in the overthrow of Mossadegh in speeches in past years, but Ahmadinejad has done so far more frequently
In 2006, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was quoted as saying that the very first words Ahmadinejad had said to him at their first meeting related to the events of 1953.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos the previous year, former President Clinton told journalist Charlie Rose that “the United States deposed Mr. Mossadegh, who was an elected parliamentary democrat.”
Clinton told Rose he had apologized to Khatami for the incident. A Nexis search brings up no public record of his having done so, although at a state dinner in April 1999 Clinton came close to an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
Iran, he said, “has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 150 years ago.”
In 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright in a speech before the American-Iranian Council in Washington referred directly to the Mossadegh affair.
“In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh,” she said. “The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
Albright did not directly apologize however. Asked as a press briefing later that day whether the U.S. was apologizing, she replied, “I said, I think, everything that I needed to say on the Mossadegh coup.”
Invoking Mossadegh ‘ironic’
Despite the demands for apologies over the years by Ahmadinejad, Khatami and others, the Islamic fundamentalists who came to power in 1979 were not sympathetic to Mossadegh.
Margaret Beckett, Straw’s successor as foreign secretary, raised the point in a 2007 op-ed, at a time when European Union-led efforts to negotiate an end to the nuclear dispute with Iran had stalled.
“The regime wants to portray this [nuclear standoff] as a national struggle, a rerun of Prime Minister Mossadegh’s battle with Britain in the 1950s over control of Iran’s oil revenue,” she wrote. “This is ironic. Because of other things Mossadegh stood for – like constitutional and accountable government – they are normally anxious to play down his legacy, and decline even to name a street in Tehran after him, though they happily honor the likes of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Islambouli.”
After the revolution, a major thoroughfare in Tehran named for the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty was briefly renamed Mossadegh Street. But the name was soon changed again, to Vali Asr Street, a reference to the 12th imam revered by Shi’ites.
According to Amir Taheri, an Iranian author and commentator, Mossadegh -- “far from being regarded as a national hero -- is an object of intense vilification.”
“One of the first acts of the mullahs after seizing power in 1979 was to take the name of Mossadegh off a street in Tehran,” Taheri wrote in 2005, reacting to Clinton’s comments to Charlie Rose in Davos.
“They then sealed off the village where Mossadegh is buried to prevent his supporters from gathering at his tomb,” he said. “History textbooks written by the mullahs present Mossadegh as the ‘son of a feudal family of exploiters who worked for the cursed Shah, and betrayed Islam.’”
There was no official Iranian reaction to Obama’s address on Thursday. But shortly before he spoke, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a speech in which he railed against the U.S., saying it was deeply hated by Muslim countries.
“Even if they give sweet and beautiful talks to the Muslim nation that will not create a change,” he said. “Nothing will change with speeches and slogans.”
Khamenei said change and a new image would only come “through practical moves and compensating for U.S. injustice towards the Iranian nation and other nations in the region.”
Iranians go to the polls next Friday in a presidential election pitting the incumbent against three other contenders for the post. Khamenei has indirectly endorsed Ahmadinejad.