Yes, it's true: Obama made an extraordinary speech today in Egypt before Arab and Muslim crowds newly friendly to the American president. The speech, combined with other gestures of friendship and reconciliation with the Muslim world, will hopefully begin a new process of rapprochement with the nations of the Middle East and beyond.
Lost in the flurry of analysis regarding Obama's speech, however, is perhaps the most important development in it from a diplomatic point of view. Today, Obama became the first sitting American president to publicly admit American involvement in the Iranian coup of 1953.
The key quote from the speech is as follows:
The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.
This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.
This is absolutely critical from a diplomatic standpoint. It was this coup that began the downward spiral that led to the unfortunate hostility with Iran today. In 1953, the democratically elected government of Mossadegh was overthrown by a coup, staged and backed by the CIA and MI6. We helped overthrow Mossadegh because he had the temerity to nationalize Iran's oil supply, thereby preventing British and American oil companies from capitalizing on Britain's longtime investment in Iranian oil fields. In a fit of greedy and anti-communist pique, we removed the democratically elected leader Mossadegh, allowing the corrupt Shah Reza Pahlavi to consolidate power. The Shah caused such anger and resentment among Iran's rural, religious and nationalist forces that he was expelled and exiled, leading to the Islamic fundamentalist regime Iran still has today, and which is responsible for the Iranian Hostage Crisis. It was a classic case of blowback.
In 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first major American official to publicly admit involvement in the 1953 fiasco. But there is a significant difference between a gesture made by a secretary of state, and an admission made by a Head of State in a major national address. Obama's conciliatory move is a deeply meaningful gesture of goodwill and accountability between America and region.
It can only be hoped that this admission marks the start of a new foreign policy of honesty and new beginnings. Leaving aside America's own failures on nuclear and civil rights issues, America cannot begin to make serious demands of other regimes regarding human rights and nuclear proliferation until those nations have assurances from America that we will not meddle in their affairs by invasion or by political coup. Publicly admitting the error of previous clandestine efforts on the grandest possible stage can go a long way to repair this damage, and foster a mutual trust that helps improve world security and advance the cause of human rights across the Middle East and beyond.
Creating real accountability for war crimes and criminals of a more recent era would be a good next step. But admitting older wrongs is an excellent place to start.