CAIRO (AFP) — US President Barack Obama made a major gesture of conciliation to Iran on Thursday when he admitted US involvement in the 1953 coup which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
"In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government," Obama said in a keynote speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.
It was the first time a serving US president had publicly admitted American involvement in the coup.
The US Central Intelligence Agency, with British backing, masterminded the coup after Mossadegh nationalised the oil industry, run until then by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
For many Iranians, the coup demonstrated duplicity by the United States, which presented itself as a defender of freedom but did not hesitate to use underhand methods to get rid of a democratically elected government to suit its own economic and strategic interests.
Washington went on to become the major backer of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Relations between the two countries have been severed ever since the revolution's aftermath and former president George W. Bush made the Tehran government part of his "axis of evil" with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Stalinist North Korea.
But since he took office earlier this year, Obama has made repeated overtures to Iran, offering it a dialogue on its nuclear programme and other outstanding issues.
On Thursday Obama did not conceal the extent of the differences between the two governments but emphasised his readiness to try to overcome them through diplomacy.
"For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us," the US president said.
"Since the Islamic revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops and civilians. This history is well known.
"Rather than remain trapped in the past, I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build."
Shortly after Obama's inauguration on January 20, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded apologies for "crimes" he said the United States had committed against Iran, starting with the 1953 coup.
Arab American Institute President James Zogby said that although Obama's admission of US involvement in the coup added little to historical knowledge as it was already well known, it remained an important gesture to Iran.
"There is no surprise," Zogby said when asked about the fact of CIA involvement,
But he added that Obama's admission of it was a "very important statement, it's the beginning of closing the chapter."