As President Barack Obama moves closer to a dialogue with Iran, discussion mounts in Washington over whether the administration soon will make a formal apology for one of the most controversial events in the history of this country's relations with Tehran.
If so, then the next question is whether it will mean anything to the Islamic rulers now in power.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, the president made a much-watched gesture by acknowledging the U.S. role in the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
With CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy) overseeing street demonstrations and contacts with the Iranian military in Tehran, Mossadegh was deposed and the Shah of Iran — then in exile in Rome — returned to power and ruled until the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Mossadegh was found guilty of misuse of power and remained under house arrest in Ahmadabad until his death in 1967 at age 84.
Referring to the long mistrust of the U.S. by Iran, Obama told the UN, "This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America's role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.
"I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight," he added. "The suspicions run too deep."
With those words, the president made the highest official U.S. acknowledgement of the controversial CIA-backed coup. In 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did acknowledge U.S. "interference" in Iran in 1953.
Six days later, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani telephoned Obama and the two had a 15-minute discussion. Since then, speculation has been rampant that the U.S. will issue a formal apology to Tehran for the overthrow of Mossadegh and this will open the door to the nuclear arms talks long sought by Obama.
"But the U.S.' history is one of limited apologies and you can never make a limited apology for something," Brown University Professor Stephen Kinzer, historian and onetime New York Times foreign correspondent, told Newsmax recently.
Kinzer is author of "All The Shah's Men," an in-depth account of the 1953 coup.
He believes that the coup was a mistake, that the reason for it had less to do with the West's conflict with the Soviet Union and more to do with Mossadegh's nationalizing of the prosperous British oil company known as Anglo-Iranian in 1951.
"The U.S. was responding to various economic and strategic fears, most of which were exaggerated," Kinzer told Newsmax. "Mossadegh was in no way a Communist or sympathetic to communism. He hated the Tudeh (Iranian Communist) Party and was a true nationalist, nothing else."
Kinzer, however, acknowledges in "All the Shah's Men" that "the crucial question of whether the American coup was necessary to prevent the Soviets from staging a coup of their own cannot be conclusively answered."
Like many fellow historians and some politicians — notably former Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — Kinzer believes the U.S. role in the 1953 coup produced the "blowback" that resulted in Iran's Islamic revolution 26 years later and the resulting bad relations between Iran and the U.S. since.
Recalling how the U.S. has issued formal apologies in the past — notably the resolution enacted by the U.S. Senate in 1993 apologizing to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of their kingdom in the 19th century — he pointed out "Americans have to make nuanced apologies."
"We don't do it the way [British Prime Minister] David Cameron did [in 2010], straight out and from the heart, when he said he was 'deeply sorry' for 'Bloody Sunday,'" when British soldiers fired upon civil-rights demonstrators in Londonderry in 1972, calling it "unjust and unjustifiable."
"Our apologies have too many 'ifs,' 'ands,' and 'buts.'"
The key to an open door with Iran, Kinzer said, is "a recognition of both the 1953 coup and Iran's seizure in 1979 of American hostages at the embassy in Tehran. That is as much a sore spot with Americans as the overthrow of Mossadegh is with Iranians."
Rather than a "nuanced apology," Kinzer advocates a joint statement, from Washington and Tehran, recognizing the errors that each country made in the coup and the hostage crisis."
"A very senior Iranian official with ties to its religious leaders should sit down with a U.S. official who is above politics," he said. "I think Tom Pickering [career diplomat and U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush] would be outstanding for a job like this. Let's send him to Iran and let him go from there."
Kinzer cited current problems in Iran, including its controversial ties to the Assad regime in Syria and the growing cases of drug addiction stemming from the narcotics tide into Iran from Afghanistan. A relationship with the U.S. is needed, he said, "and, rather than an apology, a good way to start is a sincere statement saying 'we both made mistakes.'"
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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