Fariba Amini : What prompted you to write this book?
Stephen Kinzer: Years ago I was a correspondent in S. America; I was covering wars in Nicaragua and Guatemala and I was asking myself after a while why are these wars happening?
Why is Nicaragua so poor? Why is Guatemala gripped with such a terrible civil war? I asked the same question when I started covering Iran. I began to realize how isolated and repressive Iran has become. I then, wrote books to answer these questions . I wrote a book on Nicaragua, one on Guatemala, and then a book on Iran. At that time I thought I had answered my question why are these countries in all this trouble. I talked about how the US overthrew progressive modern nationalist governments to impose dictatorships. I thought instead of covering these conflicts and repressive situations on a day to day basis I should pull back and see them in their full environment, what really happened behind the scene.
In order to see an event like the 28th of Mordad coup in Iran you not only have to understand what was happening in the world in the early 1950’s but also how the United States was operating at the time. What is new about this book, is that instead of studying these events separately as a series of unrelated individual episodes I have tried to study them in stretches of over a hundred years. I have put the Mossadegh coup in the context of America’s intervention over a century and that way I am able to explain that coup and the many regime change operations the US has been involved with in a fuller and complete way.
In the course of 100 years, the US government has overthrown close to 14 regimes Most of these were democratically elected governments except for Noriega and Saddam, one of which was terribly corrupt and the other one which was a bloody dictatorship. Why has there been such a trend? Were there economic reasons or political ones?
One of the advantages of studying the regime change operations in its entirety is that certain patterns begin to emerge. You begin to see one happening after the other, again and again. My approach in this book was to study 14 different countries, fourteen times when the US got involved and to answer three questions about each episode. The first is what happened. Why did we do it? From the perspective of history, what has been the long term effect? In most cases what a foreign government to attract the attention of the US government is to bother, harass or confront and/ or try to regulate a foreign company. If the leader of a government allows foreign companies to do whatever they want and to operate complete freely, then the US doesn’t get interested in that country, the US doesn’t even notice that country. So the first phase is that the US focuses on a country because the leaders of a business who had trouble with a foreign government come to the White House and complain.
The second phase comes in the White House and the US foreign policy establishment. US presidents do not intervene strictly to defend the interests of American corporations. They transform the motivation from economic to geo-political. In essence it is the same, but the US government tells itself that they are acting not for economic reasons but for geo-strategic reasons. American leaders take the view that any leader of a foreign country who would harass or confront or nationalize a foreign company must be anti-American, anti-capitalist, and probably repressive and a tool of some power who wants to undermine the US. The third is how do we present this to the world and to the American people ; then we have an entirely new justification. We are only doing this to liberate the victims of an oppressive regime in a foreign country. We are not just acting in our own narrow interest but acting to help poor victims of tyranny. This is a very good argument for Americans. We are a very compassionate people. We truly hate the idea that there is suffering in other places; this combined with our naiveté about the outside world makes us very willing to support any intervention presented to us in order to save others.
In Overthrow, The chapter on Iran is written from a different perspective than All the Shah’s Men. Here we see the coup from John Foster Dulles' outlook. A lot of what he embodies reminds us of GW Bush, the character of J. F. Dulles, his religious beliefs, His protection of American corporations. What are some of the similarities in your opinion?
The coup against Mossadegh is the central part of my book; having written a whole book about the coup, I wanted to approach it in a new way. I didn’t want to just summarize what I wrote in All the Shah’s Men. I wanted to look at the Iran coup from a new angle. In the other book, the two main characters are Mossadegh and Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA agent who overthrew him. This time, I wanted to pull back a little
And tell it from the American perspective; that is why J.F. Dulles, the American secretary of State becomes the major character. Dulles and many of the people in Washington today share some very basic principles. One of them was protecting American corporate interest, protecting American access to resources in foreign countries and defending the strategic interest of the US which to him was all the same thing. The other way in which Dulles prefigured the current group in power in Washington was the religious fervor
That lies behind the so-called liberation interventions.
You mention that J.F. Dulles was a very religious man? How so and how did his religious beliefs play a role in his decision making?
John Foster Dulles was the son of a preacher, the grandson of a missionary who was buried in Sri Lanka; he went to mass everyday. On Sunday he went to pre-mass. He had to memorize several versus from the bible every week. He had a very deep Christian faith. In fact at one time he considered going into the clergy himself. His Christian faith, led him to believe that the world was divided into good and the evil. He believed that the Godly way existed on earth and Satan’s way; the evil way also existed on this earth.
He identified the devil with Soviet Communism. Everything that would fight communism was acceptable in his views. He was against all contacts between the Communist countries and the United States. He did not want any summit meeting between President Eisenhower and Communist nations. He did not want any cultural exchanges; he fought for years to prevent American journalists to cover China.
He believed that any agreement between the American government and communist countries was wrong because it was a trick to get the US to lower its values so that the Communists could come in and overrun us. With this view he was very eager to strike out communism in the world. In 1952, Dulles was an adviser to the President and in several speeches he and Eisenhower promised to roll back Communism, if they were elected. After Eisenhower won the elections, they had to ask themselves how we do this? It was a very unrealistic promise. They could not bomb Moscow or attack China. Actually they could not attack any country. I think they were confronting this question in a serious way. Then like a gift from God, a secret agent from Britain came to Washington to meet with Dulles and told him, I have a country that communists are on the rise and that country is Iran.
Now of course the reason the British were worried about Mossadegh had nothing to do with Communism, it had to do with oil. But the British realized the way to motivate the Americans, to energize the Americans was to claim that communism was on the rise in Iran. That was all Dulles needed to hear. He seized on the Iran project as a way to prove that the new administration was fighting communism and rolling back communism. The fact that Iran was not a communist country was a minor obstacle to Dulles but not a big one. Actually in a meeting with Eisenhower, the President asked Dulles about this and he admitted that Mossadegh was not a communist but that he could easily be overthrown or that the communists could take over so the best thing to do is to get rid of him before it’s too late.
Thus, in that way also, Dulles pre-figured the present administration; they both believed that you don’t want to wait until the political processes in a foreign country reach fruitation; the best thing is to attack right away. They had what historians call the Hobbsian view of the world. It’s a view that holds that the world is a very dangerous place; it’s full of threats, everybody is against us, and the way to protect ourselves is to strike first at those who might be a danger to us in the future. In my opinion, this is what J.F. Dulles and many members of this administration share.
He was also a corporate lawyer who represented many corporations among them the United Fruit Company. What is your assessment on his role as a lawyer and how did that affect his mindset regarding his dealings with these governments?
Dulles was more than a corporate lawyer. He was the most successful and highly paid lawyer in America. In fact according to some of his biographers, he was the most highly paid lawyer in the world. He represented every major multi-national corporation in the United States during his private practice. And that was during a 30 year period. He came into the job of Secretary of State with a very economic view of what America’s interest in the world should be. He believed that American corporations were the vanguard of American power, and that any regime that was challenging American corporations was challenging American power. He had no agenda for social development or for human rights. His only agenda was economic power. He believed that American companies must be allowed to operate freely in the outside world and he judged all countries not just those that we referred to as leftists, but whether they bothered the US companies operating there.
I give you an example. In the period when Dulles was in office in the 1950’s, two countries in Central America, tried to establish reformist modern regimes that embraced social justice, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Under the Dulles and Eisenhower administration Costa Rica was able to develop its social democracy and became the most successful country in that part of the world. But Guatemala’s social democracy was brutally crushed, in operation that led to imposition of dictatorship which resulted in a 30 year civil unrest. What was the difference? In Guatemala, there was a huge American corporation, United Fruit, that’s what brought the US to intervene. In Costa Rica there was no big American corporation. What the Costa Ricans were doing in their country was no different than what the Guatemalans were doing. But in Costa Rica land reform and other reforms didn’t affect the US so the intervention never occurred.
What do you think of the US attempt for a regime change in Iran? Do you believe an attack against Iran is eminent?
Iran is a classic example of why overthrowing governments doesn’t work. If the US had not intervened in Iran in 1953 this regime that is now in power would never have emerged; this nuclear crisis would never have emerged. We are paying a delayed price for our intervention there. Right now, the US is in a unique position vis-a vis Iran.
We have relations with Iran that is different from any with other countries. We have, over the recent decade negotiated with some of the most odious tyrannies in the world. We negotiated with the North Korean terror regime, with South Africa’s apartheid regime, we traded with Stalin and China. There is only one country that the US refuses steadfastly to negotiate and that is Iran. Now, over the last few years, I have asked many Iranian Americans and many scholars of Iran, why is this?
Most of them give me the same answer: this is what they say: the Islamic revolution was a huge trauma to the US. We lost our Shah, we lost the country that we projected power in the region. The new regime began by taking our diplomats hostage, and humiliating us in the way that was devastating and destroyed the presidency of Jimmy Carter; that regime has spent the last 25 years actively and sometimes violently to undermine American and western interests all over the world.
Many people in Washington feel that the regime in Tehran has hit us a few times and we haven’t been able to hit back. It has led to a psychological block, a feeling that we should hit those people instead of negotiating with them. We don’t want to compromise with Tehran, the way we do with others. We want to crush them. We are now approaching a serious crisis with Iran that cannot be understated. In this emergency situation, it is urgent that the US put aside its childish refusal to sit down with this regime. Can negotiations with Iran succeed? In the first place negotiations cannot succeed unless the US is directly involved. Neither Europe nor any other Negotiating partner can give Iran what it wants. It wants security guarantees, full membership in the world community. Only the United States can give those guarantees. Now, the Iranians
Will not come to the table to negotiate only on the nuclear issue. What they might do, They will come to the table if all Issues were open to negotiations; if you bring your complaints against us and our grievances against you are on the table then we can find a point of departure. Then I think that would a beginning. It is undeniable that The US has many valid, very strong and very reasonable complaints against the government of Iran and rightfully so.
But we should not forget that Iran has also issues with the US; first and foremost that the US destroyed the only democratically elected regime Iran had ever had. Many Iranians still remember that vividly. Imagine how it sounds to Iranians. When the US comes and shakes a finger at them and says you are brutal and you are a tyranny. You should be a democracy. Naturally the Iranians will reply, we were a democracy until you came along and crushed us. Americans need to realize that both sides in this dispute have legitimate points of view and they need to get ready to discuss them.
What was the common denominator for the US activities in these countries? Don’t you think that in fact most of the governments which were toppled were nationalists? That they were not pro-Soviet? When you read the different chapters in the book you come to the conclusion that most of these governments wanted to get close to the US and in a way the US government pushed them away?
The US tragically misjudged nationalist leaders in other countries. These leaders were trying to develop their own countries; they had resources but those resources were
Controlled by foreign companies. They wanted to re-take control of those resources. We did not understand that. We thought that all these regimes were acting as part of a global conspiracy directed by anti-American forces. Why did we misjudge these regimes?
I think there is one particular reason. Some would say it was just because of greed; that we wanted the opportunity to make money out of these countries. That is certainly a reasonable argument but there is another side. American statesmen, diplomats and foreign policy makers are trained in diplomatic history. But to Americans, history of diplomacy usually means European history. That is what Americans study. That is why American foreign policy planners understand things like power blocks, wars of conquest, big powers that use small countries for their own means but the fervent desire of people in poor countries to take control over their own resources has never been a factor in European history. It is only a factor in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Americans were totally unfamiliar with, they had never reflected on nationalism and what it means to be colonized, or dominated by a giant foreign power. This has never been an issue in our history. So I think the idea that these countries were acting as part of a global conspiracy seemed much more logical to our leaders than the idea that the leaders of these nations were simply echoing the needs of their desperate people.
Even in Cuba, Fidel Castro before becoming an ally of the Soviet Union, was hoping to establish good relations with its northern neighbor. In fact Castro himself came from a family of Landowners and he was studying to be a lawyer. He was in a way driven towards the Socialist camp. This is true about Allende in Chile, Arbenz in Guatemala, and many others. In essence, didn’t’ most of the leaders of many of these regimes toppled by the US were pro-western, had been educated in Western Europe and the United States than being leftists?
Let’s take Castro as a starting point. In 1898, the US allied with Cuban patriots to overthrow Spanish colonialism. We did this after promising Cuba that we will withdraw our troops after the independence war was won. When the war was finished however, we changed our minds. We didn’t want an independent Cuba. An independent Cuba would have started to break up big American sugar plantations. It would have place restrictions on the amount of manufacturing goods from the US so that the Cuban factories would in fact grow; we didn’t want that. We violated our promise to allow Cuba to become independent. We ruled Cuba under a military governor for years and a series of military dictators. Sixty years after this event, Fidel Castro won his revolution. He came down from the hills in January 1959 and in his very first speech
He referred to this episode. He said nothing about his political beliefs or his program for the new government, but he did say this: “I make one promise to the Cuban people; this time it will not be like 1898 again when the Americans came in and made themselves masters of our country. We will not allow it.”
Most Americans would have no idea what he was talking about, but I think
That speech shows something very important; it shows the resentment that the people in foreign countries have in what the US has done when it intervenes burns in their hearts and in their souls for generations, for decades. Ultimately it explodes; that is what happened in Cuba, in Iran and many other countries.
In both Afghanistan and in Iraq, the US administration contends, that these were very repressive regimes and that the people will ultimately benefit from the invasion. Do you agree with this statement?
Afghanistan is one example that when the US government intervenes in a country it abandons it. This is a common pattern in American history. Americans are basically bad imperialists. We are bad colonialists. It’s not in our DNA. For the British, the French and the Dutch to go into another country and stay there for a hundred years was very normal. Americans don’t feel this way. We are a former colony ourselves. We don’t want to colonize. So we intervened in Afghansitan when the soviets were already there.
When there was a Soviets backed regime in Kabul. We trained tens of thousand of Jihadi fanatics in techniques of terror and warfare. Ultimately after the most expensive CIA operations in history, those jihadists were successful and overthrew the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. The moment that happened, the US thought its mission in Afghanistan was over. We went home and we thought as we always do our intervention had no affect. What did those jihadists we trained so vigorously do after we left ?
They didn’t open new starbucks in their little villages. They stayed as Jihadists. They then emerged as Talliban, the regime which gave shelter to Ossama Bin Laden. Looking back it was America’s intervention and the failure to stay engaged in Afghanistan that gave us the tragedy of September 11. Saddam is somewhat different but a comparable situation. Saddam had been a friend of the US for a number of years. He was an oppressive dictator but that was true about many of the dictators we supported. American intervention in Iraq was based upon a fantasy that is central to our outlook to the outside world. According to this fantasy, people everywhere in the world really want to live under a political and economic system that the US has. Why don’t they?
According to this theory, because a tiny clique of thugs and gangsters on the top of their government is refusing to let them be free and democratic minded and pro-American . If we only get rid of this little clique then everybody in that country will immediately embrace everything American and will be friendly to America. Only Americans have this fantasy. There is nobody in this world who believes that every nation is dying to be like us. That is why America has emerged as the regime change champion of the world. They are eager to secure our access to resources and markets and we justify this that we are only spreading a political system that has brought us such prosperity at home. We assume that everyone in the world likes to be like us because we think of ourselves as the most successful regime in world history. We assume that we are only helping others when we overthrow the regimes in other countries.
So you think the phrase "why do they hate us" actually applies?
I will defy anyone who reads my book to ask that question. Once you read this book you will find the answer to this question.
In these critical times in US-Iran relations, what is your message to Iranian Americans?
SK: the US appears to be ready to launch a military action against Iran. No one who has studied the history of American intervention in Iran can believe that such an operation can end well. I understand very well why the regime in Tehran wants to heighten tensions with the US. It realizes that the way to bring all Iranians together to support the regime is to provoke an attack against Iran. An American attack or an Israeli attack would be the only thing that would allow this group of leaders to win a broad base of popular support. Naturally many Iranians will support their government if their country is under attack. The leaders in Iran know this and I think they would be very happy if the US bombs.
I understand why the regime in Tehran wants to provoke an American bombing attack. What I don’t understand is why the US administration seems so eager to cooperate. If Iranians are terrified by this prospect as they really are, they need to speak up. It is the moment for Iranian Americans as a group to stand up and make sure that this operation does not have the support a significant group of Iranians. I am looking forward to the day when a large crowd of Iranians from all over America will descend in Washington and make it clear to the US government that they oppose such action. There are two tragedies for Iranians people: one is the regime under which they now live and the other equally terrifying is the threat of bombing by the United States. Iranian -Americans need to make clear that they reject both.
You have been to Iran twice and I am sure you would love to go again. You have dedicated your first book to the People of Iran which is so touching. If they invited you today will you go?
I wanted to correct one thing you said in your question. You said I have gone twice.
I have actually been to Iran two and a half times! I received a visa to make another visit to Iran after All the Shah’s Men was published. I was literally packing my suit case in my home when I received a phone call from a representative of the Iranian government that my visa was canceled. I was very upset and I told him I was going to go anyway. I had my visa and had all my interviews. He told me very nicely that I was likely to be arrested at Tehran airport. I thought about that for a moment and told him I just changed my mind. I am not going.
I think the reason I was granted a visa and then it was revoked, reflects something many Iranians understand. There is no single power, or a single regime or voice in Tehran. I was invited by people who thought that my admiration for Mossadegh and my description of his government was very positive for Iran; at the last moment my visa was canceled by other people in the regime who are afraid of what Mossadegh represents. This clash that has caused so much pain and tragedy in Iran was
Also the clash that led to me receiving a visa and then having my visa withdrawn. From the small story of my visa problem you can extrapolate the whole problem of contemporary Iran. It is that the regime and the nation are very conflicted. There are some groups that want one thing and there are some others who want something totally different. They cannot even decide on the simple question whether to grant a visa to some American writer. If they can do that, I would be thrilled to go back to Iran and support those people who dream of the day when democracy will return to that wonderful country and when a picture of Mohammad Mossadegh will be hanging in every tea house and every government office.