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Pakistan’s Leaked Cypher, Iran’s Mossadegh, and the US War on Democracy

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”

Edward W. Said


In USA’s eyes, it is the noble knight trying to bring peace, liberty, and democracy to a world full of chaos and tyranny. But most of those who have experienced the US efforts to spread “peace, democracy, and liberty”, identify the US as the supreme global tyrant and trampler of liberty and democracy. Why is it so? Subjectivity of course plays a part. Empires, as Said has astutely observed, prefer to see themselves as educators and liberators. One can argue that the Empire’s idea of education and liberty might differ a lot from other people’s understanding of these terms. For instance, the USA considers democracy an integral part of liberty but it is possible that many people, including US allies like the Saudi Royal family, would beg to differ. But subjectivity doesn’t explain the deep-seated resentment felt by many pro-democracy people in the 3rd World against the US. It can be difficult for an Empire to topple democratic governments abroad for strategic motives and then convince the people of those countries to worship it as the embodiment of the goddess of democracy!

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The recent “Cypher leak”, exposed by The Intercept, laid bare the US strong-arm tactics to help unseat a sitting and popular Prime Minister of Pakistan. Donald Lu of the US State Department minced no words as he told the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington: “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington.” In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan termed Lu’s threats as part of a US conspiracy to topple him. Khan was eventually ousted via a no-confidence vote against him in the Pakistani Parliament. This is part of the story but not the whole story. To understand the whole story, a similar episode from history needs to be recounted.

Let’s revisit Iran in 1953. A popular and democratic Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was leading Iran. He was trying to transform Iran from an autocratic monarchy to a democracy. Mossadegh was assertive though and wanted to make Iran a truly independent country with full control over its foreign policy and national assets. He had been instrumental in nationalizing the Iranian oil industry in March 1951 and was soon after reluctantly appointed Prime Minister by the Iranian King Reza Shah. By nationalizing the Iranian oil industry, Mossadegh and his supporters had earned British enmity whose monopoly over Iranian oil had been destroyed. But Mossadegh had committed a much bigger crime than wresting Iranian oil from the British. He had the temerity to tell the West that Iran is a slave no more and won’t dance to its tunes. For that, he had to be destroyed. No Western love for democracy would come in the way.

First, the British attempted to oust him in a coup. But Mossadegh found out about the British intelligence operation to oust him. On October 16, 1952, he ordered to close the British embassy in Iran. All employees (including the intelligence agents/coup organizers) were removed from Iranian soil. Mossadegh had defied Britain successfully but his successful defiance only confirmed him as a dangerous enemy in the eyes of the “democratic” West. Now, the USA joined the fray.

A truly professional and comprehensive operation to oust Mossadegh was launched by the CIA. Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, entered Iran on July 19, 1953, to lead the operation. 150,000 Dollars were spent on bribing journalists, Islamic clerics, and other opinion makers to demonize Mossadegh within Iran. A simultaneous media offensive was launched internationally to tell the US public in particular and the rest of the World in general that Mossadegh was a communist stooge and a tyrant. Papers like The New York Times and Newsweek called him a dictator in the league of Hitler and Stalin. The US public was told that Mossadegh was masterminding a communist takeover of Iran when in reality Mossadegh was a democrat who loathed communism. Another 135,000 Dollars were handed over to one Fazlollah Zahedi, a retired General who had been forced to resign from his post of Interior Minister by Mossadegh after it was found out that he had been planning a coup against him. Now the CIA planned to supplant Mossadegh with Zahedi who was to bribe and rally key Iranian army and police officers to participate in ousting Mossadegh. King Reza Shah, reduced to a figurehead by the advent of democracy in Iran, also joined the CIA operation after Kermit Roosevelt told him that the operation will go through with or without his participation.

Roosevelt’s efforts soon started showing results. Stephen Kinzer mentions in his book “Overthrow”: “Members of parliament withdrew their support from Mossadegh and denounced him with wild charges. Religious leaders gave sermons calling him an atheist, a Jew, and an infidel. Newspapers were filled with articles and cartoons depicting him as everything from a homosexual to an agent of British imperialism.” A vote of no-confidence was planned to oust Mossadegh with the help of bribed members of Parliament but Mossadegh foiled this attempt. He held a fair referendum to dissolve the compromised Parliament and hold fresh elections, and won. Roosevelt then tried another tactic. He got a firman from the Iranian Monarch Reza Shah dismissing Mossadegh and replacing him with General Zahedi. According to the Iranian Constitution, this firman had no legal value as the Shah lacked the authority to issue such an order but Roosevelt planned to use Mossadegh’s dismissal of this firman as grounds to arrest him. On 14 August 1953, Colonel Nematollah Nessiri went to Mossadegh’s house with a squad of soldiers to hand him the firman and arrest him but again Mossadegh defied the conspirators. He had already stationed a squad of loyalist soldiers at his house who arrested Nessiri and thwarted Roosevelt’s designs. Reza Shah promptly fled Iran but Roosevelt refused to give up. He now paid numerous thugs and gangs in Tehran thousands of Dollars through his Iranian agents to wreak havoc on the streets of the Capital and create an atmosphere of chaos. Then, in the ensuing anarchy, he launched his final shot. He activated the bribed army and police officers under General Zahedi to arrest Mossadegh in the name of restoring order. Stabbed in the back by his army and police, Mossadegh received an offer of support from an unexpected source. The communist Tudeh party commanded hundreds of militants and it now requested Mossadegh to arm them to defend his government. Mossadegh, ever the democrat, refused and said, “If ever I agree to arm a political party, may God sever my right arm!” Ironically, the man dubbed as a communist stooge by the Western Media sacrificed his office and put his life in grave danger for democracy but didn’t even seriously consider arming the communists even at the last hour.

After a bloody battle and dozens of casualties, Mossadegh was finally toppled on 19 August 1953. Zahedi was appointed Prime Minister and his government soon signed a new oil agreement through which many British holdings were restored. The USA also got a significant share of the spoils through the new agreement. Democracy was successfully defeated and a monarch pliant and indebted to the West was allowed to establish a tyrannical dictatorship over Iran. For 26 years, Reza Shah ruled in opulence while his destitute subjects were tortured into submission by his notorious intelligence agency SAVAK. When the Shah was finally toppled in a revolution led by clerics, the USA was called “Shaytan-e-Buzurg” (The Great Satan) by the Iranian masses. The US embassy (from where Kermit Roosevelt had led the operation to oust Mossadegh) was stormed and dozens of Americans were made hostages. The violent, extremist, and uncouth Iranian captors became the face of the Iranian Revolution in Western eyes. But sadly, few remembered Mossadegh the democrat. Fewer if any in the US knew about Kermit Roosevelt and his operation to “save” Iran from democracy.

Today, the USA curses Iran as a theocratic dictatorship. But it has forgotten its own significant role in turning Iran away from the path of democracy. Tomorrow, the USA might curse Pakistan as a military or theocratic dictatorship. But it will have forgotten its own significant role in turning Pakistan away from the path of democracy. Donald Lu’s threats are only the tip of the iceberg. At this point in time, hard irrefutable evidence is impossible to provide (as was the case in 1953) but many clues signal that the Mossadegh playbook was heavily utilized in the case of Imran Khan as well, especially after the ignominious US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. Mullahs in Pakistan called Imran Khan a Jewish and foreign agent while simultaneously he was described as a Press freedom predator, a wannabe Dictator, and a terrorism sympathizer. Newspapers and TV channels in Pakistan carried out a malicious campaign against him and even accused him of treachery and selling “Kashmir to India”. Pakistani media pushed the narrative of him being an Israel sympathizer (a political death sentence in Pakistan if the label sticks) while simultaneously the Western media labeled his Foreign Minister as an anti-Semite when he dared to defend the hapless Gazans being bombed to oblivion by Israeli forces. Even his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic (which was managed extremely well by Khan’s government) was lambasted by a large section of Pakistani media in complete denial of objective realities.

Soon after Donald Lu’s “signal” to all political forces in Pakistan (including the powerful Pakistan Army), 24 members of Parliament of Imran Khan’s Party deserted him, denounced him, and made his position untenable in Pakistan’s Parliament. Even before Donald Lu’s “message”, it was no secret in Islamabad that American diplomats had been in frequent communication with almost all significant opposition leaders who wanted to unseat Imran Khan. At the moment it’s impossible to determine what communication occurred between the USA and Pakistan Army high command but Imran Khan alleged that a former Pakistani Ambassador to the USA Husain Haqqani (a man considered a traitor by many in Pakistan) was used as a communication channel with the Americans by then Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa. It has been alleged by an independent journalist that Haqqani not only met General Bajwa in the UAE in the fall of 2021 but also received payments to lobby on his behalf. It appears that like Mossadegh, Imran Khan was ousted through a collusion of Mullahs, Kleptocrats, and Military Officers under the US umbrella. Like Mossadegh, Imran Khan’s chief sin was not being undemocratic, repressive, bigoted, or a tyrant. If those sins had merited a US-sponsored regime change operation, India’s Modi would be in dire straits right now. Rather it was his temerity in trying to stand up to the USA and try to enforce an independent foreign policy that served Pakistani, not US, interests.

Dr. Salman Sayyid of Leeds University has cogently observed, “Democracy operates more as a cultural marker than as a designator of a settled set of procedures and practices, and it is the convergence between Democracy and Western identity that makes it so difficult to imagine a regime that can be generally considered to be both simultaneously democratic and anti-Western.” Any government that resists dancing to Western tunes is thus undemocratic by definition. Both Khan and Mossadegh were “undemocratic” not because they didn’t command the confidence of the people (the reaction and circumstances of their removal clearly suggests otherwise), but because they were deemed anti-Western by the West. The moment Imran Khan said, “Absolutely not” to the USA, he was firmly labeled as an undemocratic tyrant by the global hegemon.

The aftermath of Mossadegh and Khan’s ouster is also eerily similar. The West got its way and now Pakistan is supplying Ukraine with weapons in deference to the wishes of the White House conveyed by Donald Lu. Apparently “All has been forgiven” as the new Pakistani government has been given a clean chit to commit some of the worst human rights abuses seen in the country in over a decade. Journalists and opposition politicians have been abducted, shot, imprisoned, tortured, and humiliated. All the champions of human rights and democracy (both inside and outside Pakistan) are maintaining a deathly silence as elections have not been held in clear defiance of the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and even women and children haven’t escaped the wrath of the incumbent regime. Even uttering Imran Khan’s name on TV channels is forbidden but no high priest of freedom of expression has uttered a word. Pakistan is experiencing an Orwellian nightmare but the greatest proponent of democracy in the World is apparently backing the Big Brother! The US seems very eager to teach and preach the virtues of democracy to Niger but deems some of the worst human rights abuses in countries like Pakistan and Egypt (whose democratic governments were toppled with the USA’s blessings) as the “internal matter” of these countries.

The USA is a great country. It is arguably the most successful democracy in the history of the World. By anchoring its base firmly in democracy, the USA bound itself firmly to democracy in a covenant with history. It was supposed to bring the virtues of freedom, equality of opportunity, and defiance of tyranny to mankind. But whenever the USA sides with the oppressors and curbs democracy abroad, it constitutes a breach of its covenant with history and hence, these actions weaken the ideological roots of the USA itself. The US might gain some short-term goals by backing tyranny but in the long run, it creates enemies for itself amongst the repressed people while simultaneously damaging its own democratic values and character. Wasn’t it ironic that a man who modeled his country’s Declaration of Independence after the US version became the architect of the most humiliating US defeat in the 20th century?

Benjamin Franklin said, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” What would Franklin say today to the people tyrannized by America’s clients in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Palestine? I think I know what his answer will be. I wonder if the US State Department knows his answer.


Note: The facts and figures about the Mossadegh episode have, in large part, been taken from Stephen Kinzer’s book “Overthrow”