Would It Kill Us to Apologize to Iran for the Coup?

When President Obama told
, "if countries like Iran are willing to
unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," the
most widely reported Iranian response was President
Ahmedinijad's suggestion that if the U.S. truly wants good
relations with Iran, it should begin by apologizing for U.S. "crimes"
against Iran, including U.S. support for the coup that overthrew
Iranian democracy in 1953.

Not surprisingly, there hasn't exactly been a groundswell of popular
support in the United States for President Ahmadinejad's suggestion.
Just 11% of U.S. voters think America should apologize for "crimes"
against Iran, according to a poll
from Rasmussen.

Of course, if you know anything about the United States, you wouldn't
leap to the conclusion that Americans, as a country, are a bunch of
jerks who can't admit when they've done anything wrong. Occam's Razor
suggests a simpler explanation: most Americans have little knowledge
about the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. As far as
they know, the U.S. hasn't done anything wrong. So why should we

Unfortunately for us, outside our borders U.S. foreign policy isn't
judged according to what we know, but according to what our government
does and has done. And it is well known in Iran and throughout the
Middle East that the U.S. (at the urging of and with the assistance of
the UK) organized a coup against the democratically-elected Iranian
government of Mohammed Mossaedgh in 1953, in retaliation for
Mossaedgh's stubborn insistence that Iran's oil belonged to Iranians.
And for the next twenty-five years, the U.S. kept in power a
dictatorship in Iran, actions justified in no small measure by the
alleged need to protect "our oil" that God had misplaced "under their

[To brush up on your history, read Stephen Kinzer's excellent account,
a tour de force of accessible writing, or watch the 6 minute version

If you know this history, the proposal that the U.S. apologize for
overthrowing Iranian democracy seems a lot more reasonable. Imagine
that the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose that in 1953, when
someone who is now 65 was 10 years old, Iran, together with the
British (something we have in common with Iran is the experience of
Britain as a colonial power), organized a coup that overthrew the
democratic government of the United States and replaced it with a
dictatorship that lasted until 1979, when someone who is 39 today was
ten years old. And now comes Iran talking about improved relations. Do
you think that no-one in the United States would suggest that Iran
acknowledge its role in the coup as a step to improving relations?

But if it is reasonable for Iranians to propose that the U.S.
apologize for its role in overthrowing Iranian democracy and
installing a dictatorship, would it be feasible for the U.S. to do so?
I maintain that it would not only be feasible, but useful.

While 1953 is recent enough that there are people alive who remember
it, it is long enough ago that those directly responsible for the coup
are long gone. In this way it differs from admitting, for example,
that Bush Administration officials authorized torture in violation of
U.S. and international law - that admission could have immediate legal
consequences for the responsible officials.

In contrast, acknowledging the U.S. role in the 1953 coup would not
put anyone at risk of prosecution, and would not harm us in any way.

On the contrary, it could be a game-changer in U.S. relations with the
Muslim world - indicating that there really is a new guy at the helm.

Is there a precedent? There sure is: a close one. In 1999, President
Bill Clinton gave a "near-apology"
for the U.S. role in Guatemala's civil war.

Guatemala City, March 10 - President Clinton expressed
regret today for the U.S. role in Guatemala's 36-year civil war,
saying that Washington "was wrong" to have supported Guatemalan
security forces in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that
slaughtered thousands of civilians.

Clinton's statements marked the first substantive comment from the
administration since an independent commission concluded last month
that U.S.-backed security forces committed the vast majority of human
rights abuses during the war, including torture, kidnapping and the
murder of thousands of rural Mayans.

"It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces
or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread
repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," Clinton
said, reading carefully from handwritten notes. "And the United States
must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue
to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala."
Clinton's aides said the president had thought for some time about how
to word his near-apology. The Guatemalan military received training
and other help from the U.S. military in an era when the United States
supported several Latin American rightist governments fighting leftist

The "original sin" of the U.S. role in Guatemala's civil war was the
of the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 -
the year after it overthrew democracy in Iran.

If President Clinton could "near-apologize" for the U.S. role in
Guatemala, is it beyond the realm of imagination that President Obama
could "near-apologize" for the U.S. overthrow of democracy and support
of dictatorship in Iran?

If President Obama did so, mightn't it be a "game-changer" in U.S.
relations with Iran? What would it cost us to merely state the truth?
And doesn't the righteous man admit fault when he has the opportunity
to do so?

Many Americans would be justifiably proud of President Obama if he
would apologize to Iran for the 1953 overthrow of Iranian democracy on
behalf of the United States. Patch Adams told me: "when you write
about this, please say that I support it."

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