We Should Have Seen It Coming: The Inherent Susceptibility of Democracies to Foreign Intervention

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo by: Associated Press

The discovery of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election blindsided much of the American public. It seemed unfathomable that the world’s gold standard for democracy could be covertly manipulated by a competitor. But we should have been prepared. Democracies have always been susceptible to foreign interference, a systemic vulnerability that the U.S. itself exploited in Iran in 1953 during Operation Ajax, utilizing many of the same flaws that Russia would use more than 60 years later against America.

In a tragic lapse of collective memory, America seems to have forgotten the dangers democracy faces from outside forces. In his farewell address, George Washington explicitly warned Americans to be wary of foreign intervention in elections, cautioning that competitors may, “tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils.” Washington could not have been more prescient in his call to guard against foreign manipulation: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”[i]

It was 157 years after the publishing of Washington remarks that the U.S. would weaponize his insights against a democratically elected foe. Angered by Mohammad Mossadegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil production and fearing that Iran would fall behind the “Iron Curtain,” the CIA, working in concert with British intelligence, concocted a coup.[ii]

While Operation Ajax (officially named TPAJAX Project) culminated with a coup in the traditional sense, using tanks and troops to oust the elected leader of Iran, many of the techniques used by the CIA to undermine Mossadegh’s popular support are eerily similar to the methods warned against by Washington and to the techniques Russia employed in the 2016 election. One of the main objectives of Operation Ajax was to exploit domestic divisions in the Iranian public. According to Stephen Kinzer’s account in his biography of the Dulles brothers, the CIA, “bribed journalists and newspaper editors to publish anti-Mossadegh diatribes,” and, “paid mullahs to denounce Mossadegh in their sermons.”[iii] An internal CIA history of the operation stated that the primary means of laying the groundwork for the coup would be “an increasingly intensified propaganda effort through the press, handbills, and the Tehran clergy.”[iv] The propaganda effort was less focused on promoting Reza Shah Pahlavi—America’s chosen replacement for Mossadegh—than on exacerbating internal division in order to delegitimize Mossadegh as a leader.

In 2016, propaganda was again used to disrupt a democracy, this time in the U.S.. Though Russia promoted pro-Trump messaging, it seems that the disinformation operation primarily focused on targeting divisions within the U.S. to foment strife and delegitimize the entire democratic process. A recent Congressional hearing on social media’s role in the influence campaign featured one of the most mind-boggling examples of contemporary influence techniques. The committee discovered that Russian operatives had created two separate Facebook events planned for the same day and location in Houston, Texas. One event was titled “Stop the Islamification of Texas,” the other, “Save Islamic Knowledge.” The dueling American protesters that showed up, unwittingly guided there by Russian misinformation, eventually engaged in a confrontation.[v]

While details continue to trickle out regarding the extent of Russia’s influence and cooperation by US citizens, one striking similarity between Operation Ajax and the 2016 campaign are the roles of General Fazlollah Zahedi and General Michael Flynn. The CIA tapped Zahedi to replace Mossadegh as prime minister in order to lay the groundwork for installing the Shah as Iran’s sovereign, since Zahedi “stood out as the only person of stature who had consistently been openly in opposition to Mossadegh and who claimed a significant following.”[vi] Zahedi received assistance from the CIA in building his image among Iranians through the use of CIA printing facilities.[vii] Michael Flynn infamously attended a Russia Today gala, the premier Russian foreign propaganda outlet, where Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker. RT paid Flynn more than $45,000 and would go on to furiously promote the Trump campaign.[viii] Flynn has since pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S..[ix]

While the CIA’s coup against Mossadegh and the Russian interference in the 2016 election were materially different in their execution and result, the commonality of their motivations and targets reveals the constant danger democracies face from subversion. The U.S. and U.K. were so concerned with Iran’s nationalization of its oil production and the economic power it would wield that the allies were willing to launch major covert action. Russia, it appears, was so concerned with US sanctions that they were willing to undertake an audacious influence campaign. Furthermore, American leadership was concerned with Iran falling to communism and shifting the Cold War balance of power, while Russia was likewise concerned with the distribution of power—specifically with US influence in eastern Europe and global politics generally.[x] This balancing act led both the U.S. and Russia to attempt to choose their rival’s leadership, relying on influencing the public’s opinion to do so.

Democracies are vulnerable to foreign interference in large part because public discourse matters. Unfortunately, the voices that comprise the national dialogue can be surreptitiously manipulated by hostile actors, fomenting a far more divisive political environment. It is not too late to mend America’s domestic factions, guard against those who practice the arts of seduction, promote truth in public opinion, and protect the public councils. But as the 2018 midterms approach, President Trump has made clear that he has no intention of countering further Russian interference that American intelligence agencies, including his own CIA director, say is sure to come.[xi] Nor does Congress appear in any way prepared to protect our vulnerable electoral system. It falls on every citizen, then, to guard against the insidious wiles of foreign influence that are coming our way.



[i] George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[ii] Donald Wilber, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 – August 1953, Central Intelligence Agency, Clandestine Services History, National Security Archives, March 1954, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB28/summary.pdf.

[iii] Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 145.

[iv] Donald Wilber, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq, 7.

[v] Claire Allbright, “A Russian Facebook Page Organized a Protest in Texas. A Different Russian Page Launched the Counterprotest,” The Texas Tribune (Austin, TX), Nov. 1, 2017, https://www.texastribune.org/2017/11/01/russian-facebook-page-organized-protest-texas-different-russian-page-l/.

[vi] Donald Wilber, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq, 7.

[vii] Ibid., 11.

[viii] Rosalind Heldlerman and Tom Hamburger, “Trump Adviser Flynn Paid by Multiple Russia-Related Entities, New Records Show,” The Washington Post, Mar. 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/new-details-released-on-russia-related-payments-to-flynn-before-he-joined-trump-campaign/2017/03/16/52a4205a-0a55-11e7-a15f-a58d4a988474_story.html?utm_term=.4de235907a9d. Michael Crowley, “The Kremlin’s Candidate,” Politico, May/June Issue, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-russia-today-rt-kremlin-media-vladimir-putin-213833.

[ix] Michael Shear and Adam Goldman, “Michael Flynn Pleads Guilty to Lying to the F.B.I. and Will Cooperate with Russia Inquiry,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/01/us/politics/michael-flynn-guilty-russia-investigation.html.

[x] Julia Ioffe, “What Putin Really Wants,” The Atlantic, January/February Issue, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/putins-game/546548/.

[xi] Demetri Sevastopulo, “Trump Backs US Intelligence Agencies But Keeps Faith in Putin,” Financial Times, Nov. 12, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/9f68e3b6-c702-11e7-ab18-7a9fb7d6163e. Gordon Corera, “Russia ‘Will Target US Mid-term Elections’ Says CIA Chief,” BBC, Jan. 29, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42864372.

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