In the middle of the last century, the U.S. overthrew Iran's democratically elected leader, Muhammad Mossadeq. Some think it happened too long ago to be a major factor in today's protests; some disagree. But it's shaping how both the Iranian and U.S. governments react to what's happening in the streets of Tehran.
Accusations of U.S. interference have been rampant in the past weeks as the Iranian government plays on history and old fears. Even before the June 12 election took place, Iran's main state-run newspaper warned that Western interference in the election was likely; since then, warnings and accusations of intervention have been steady; today, Iran's foreign ministry accused the U.N. of interfering in its affairs.
That's the backdrop against which the White House has charted its course in commenting on Iran, amid domestic calls for a more forceful condemnation of the election that, to be clear, everyone (except President Obama in public) agrees was fake. The administration withheld comment at first, though Joe Biden did say two days later that the administration had "doubts" about the election; on Saturday, President Obama issued this statement, hinting at Iran's suppression of ideas as he praised freedoms of speech and assembly and called on the regime to cease its violence against protesters.
And today, Obama offered his most forceful criticism of the Iranian regime so far.
"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions," Obama said at his press conference today in the West Wing.
He repeated his call for Iran to "govern through consent, not coercion."
He remained agnostic on the election's actual results, restricting his commentary to the Iranian government's response. "There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election," he said, but noted that "we didn't have international observers on the ground" at polling places, so we can't really know for sure.
He stated clearly that the U.S. is not interfering and that claims otherwise are false.
"They've got some of the comments that I've made being mistranslated in Iran, suggesting that I'm telling rioters to go out and riot some more," Obama said, referencing similar claims about the CIA. "All of which is patently false."
The U.S. backed Mossadeq's overthrow in 1953. It's been said that this was too long ago to be relevant to today's protests--that Obama needn't tread lightly in context of America's poor historical record on Iranian democracy. After all, the protesters are young, and Eisenhower isn't immediately relevant to U.S. politics today.
But Guardian columnist Stephen Kinzer reports that Mossadeq has come up in Iran today as a symbol, that his face has adorned signs alongside that of Mir Hossein Mousavi, and that Iranians have drawn a parallel between the two men.
Mossadeq, as Kinzer points out, is a symbol both for democracy and for freedom of intervention.
The question here is: how relevant is history?
"In the streets, they talk about him," Michael Rubin of AEI said of Mossadeq. "Among the people on the street, he was always a symbol of democracy."
"The irony is that, among his biggest detractors were the clergy and the seminary students," Rubin said. "Those who are in government right now really were our co-sonspirators."
"It's a story that's grown bigger with time," Rubin said.
In other words, it's a moment in history that has not been lost on the Iranian people and, according to Rubin, especially Iranians living in the U.S.
Here, opinions have clashed over what to say about Iran. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, notably, have called Obama's response too timid.
It's a clash between the principled reaction and the historical one: those who want a stronger condemnation from Obama want him to apply timeless democratic principles (e.g. calling out tyranny, standing up for democracy, free elections and free speech) to Iran's present situation; others want historical context to weigh heavier on his statements, leading him to the more careful, hands-off tack he has taken.
At today's press conference, The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney asked Obama a question submitted by an Iranian."Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working toward?" he asked.
"Well look, we didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitively what happened at polling places around the country," Obama said, adding that sizable portions of the Iranian people see it as illegitimate and there are significant questions about its legitimacy.
"Ultimately this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government," Obama said, sticking to criticism of the Iranian security forces' violence against protesters.
Some people in the U.S. agree with that Iranian. Some, like Rubin, say we're damned if we do and damned if we don't--that Iran's regime will accuse the U.S. of intervention no matter what Obama says.
"I'd hate to see us make the same mistake three times," Rubin said, referring to the U.S. overthrow of Mossadeq, complacency in the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power, and, now, Obama's decision to resist saying the election results were illegitimate--three times backing (if one counts Obama's response as such) a dictatorial regime.
Regardless of what the history of 1953 means and how it should guide Obama--toward the overtly and actively pro-democratic stance of Graham and McCain, or toward the pro-rights but election-results-agnostic and careful-not-to-intervene stance the president has taken--it's clear that Mossadeq is alive in the discussion both here and in Iran, even if his name isn't being mentioned in the U.S.