Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 8/33
Previous segment | Next segment | Contents | Overview | Archive

3. Heroes and Devils 47

As the authors of children's tales understand, life is simple when there are heroes to admire and love, and devils to fear and despise. One goal of a well-crafted propaganda system is to dull the mental faculties, reducing its targets to a level at which they will respond with appropriate enthusiasm to slogans carrying a patriotic message. Accordingly, the cast of characters in international affairs includes heroes, who stand for freedom, democracy, reform, and all good things, and devils, who are violent, totalitarian, and generally repellent. Most of the players are irrelevant, part of the background scenery. Entry into the two significant categories is determined by contribution to elite interests, or harm caused them.

Iran provides an interesting example.48 Nationalist currents developed during and after World War II as Britain and the Soviet Union jockeyed for influence, and the United States extended its presence as part of its growing role in the region, control over oil being a major factor. U.S. pressures were instrumental in expelling the Soviet Union from northern Iran at the Soviet border in 1946. The oil resources of the country remained a British monopoly, though the British were wary of U.S. intentions. The nationalist movement crystallized around Muhammad Mossadeq, whom James Bill describes as "an old-fashioned liberal," "a beloved figure of enormous charisma to Iranians of all social classes."49 Mossadeq became Prime Minister in 1951, heading the nationalist bloc, committed to the nationalization of Iranian oil. By 1953, the United States agreed with Britain that he had to go. A CIA coup overthrew the parliamentary regime, restoring the Shah. One consequence of the coup was that U.S. oil companies took 40 percent of the Iranian concession, part of the general takeover of the world's major energy reserves by the United States.50 The Shah remained in power, with constant U.S. support that reached an extraordinary level in the Nixon-Kissinger years, through 1978, when he was overthrown by a popular mass movement.

Our assumptions would lead us to predict that Mossadeq would pass from insignificance to the devil category as the United States determined to overthrow him, while the Shah, generally supportive of U.S. goals, would be a hero until the Peacock Throne began to totter, at which point other devils would arise. In brief, that is the story told by William Dorman and Mansour Farhang in their review of press coverage of Iran over this period.51

When Mossadeq became Prime Minister in 1951, the United States was "generally supportive of Iranian demands" concerning oil policy, Dorman and Farhang observe, perhaps because "U.S. officials saw an opportunity to gain a foothold for American companies at the expense of British interests." Correspondingly, the press "portrayed Iran's position in relatively evenhanded terms." But after nationalization, the U.S. government reversed its stand, and "a new frame began to take shape in the press." "Over about a two-year period, then, Mossadeq's portrait would change from that of a quaint nationalist to that of near lunatic to one, finally, of Communist dupe." In fact, he remained an anti-imperialist nationalist seeking to maintain Iran's independence. It was U.S. plans, not Mossadeq, that had changed; the media shifted course, hardly a step behind state policy.

The New York Times observed that there are lessons to be learned from the restoration of the Shah in 1953 and the establishment of the U.S. concession. Crucially, "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism," attempting to control its own resources. "It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran's experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and far-seeing leaders."52 A sage warning from the independent media.

As the United States geared up to overthrow the Mossadeq government, his media image deteriorated and he was routinely condemned as a dictator. The Shah, however, was virtually never described in such terms as long as his power held. From his restoration by the CIA coup in August 1953 until the revolution of 1978, the New York Times used the phrase once, referring to the Shah as a "benevolent dictator" in 1967, and "did not publish a major story on human rights violations in Iran" during the period when the Shah was identified by Amnesty International and others as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. During the year of revolution in 1978, Dorman and Farhang found one reference to the Shah as a dictator, and that in a positive context, when a Washington Post editorial wondered why he did not use the power available to him as "a dictator" to suppress the population even more violently.

Though Mossadeq's "style of rule was far more democratic than anything Iran had known," Dorman and Farhang observe, and surely more so than that of the Shah, it was Mossadeq who was called an "absolute dictator" while the Shah was a benevolent progressive reformer who "demonstrated his concern for the masses" (New York Times). "It is no exaggeration," they continue, "to say that the Times demonstrated more concern for Iran's constitutional system during the single month of August 1953 [when the U.S. was moving to "save" it by a military coup] than it would during the following quarter of a century." A familiar tale.

A plebiscite called by Mossadeq was denounced by the New York Times as "more fantastic and farcical than any ever held under Hitler or Stalin." A plebiscite conducted by the Shah ten years later "under far more questionable circumstances," with a 99 percent vote in favor of the Shah, was lauded by the Times as "emphatic evidence" that "the Iranian people are doubtless behind the Shah in his bold new reform efforts." The Shah's fraudulent elections were lauded with equal enthusiasm.

Go to the next segment.

47 Addendum to p. 120.

48 On U.S.-Iranian relations, see James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion (Yale, 1988).

49 Ibid., 55-56.

50 The maneuverings are of some interest; see Towards a New Cold War, 313f.

51 Dorman and Farhang, The U.S. Press and Iran. Quotes below are from this book, unless otherwise indicated.

52 Editorial, NYT, Aug. 6, 1954; for a longer quote and more context, see Towards a New Cold War, 99, and the discussion there and in chapter 11.