All the Shah’s Men

All The Shah’s Men, An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
By Stephen Kinzer
Published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

The United States took the lead in organizing, funding, and carrying out the 1953 coup that removed the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, and restored Mohammad Reza Shah to the Peacock Throne. Iranians generally had admiration and respect for Americans, but the coup created hatred and distrust. The oppressive regime of the Shah led to his overthrow in 1979 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.   Predicting alternative history is at best imprecise, but perhaps without this coup Khomeini would not have come to power. Perhaps the United States would not have decided to give the Shah asylum, which precipitated the Iranian hostage crises. Perhaps Jimmy Carter would have been elected to a second term. Perhaps the Iranians would not have supported insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, and perhaps they wouldn’t be pursuing development of nuclear weapons. Of course that is all meaningless speculation, since the CIA did engineer the overthrow of the legitimate leader of Iran and installed a replacement who used brutality to remain in power until the Carter administration decided Khomeini and his plane full of supporters should not be killed when they landed in Tehran.

Iran was poor but strategically located at a time when the Russians and the West were vying for advantage. The country became even more important when massive deposits of oil were discovered. The British moved in, negotiated a deal to control the oil with most of the profits going to the English, and acted like selfish imperialists. Their refinery managers lived in luxury next to the Iranian workers who lived in squalor. Iranians were pleased when Mohammed Mossadegh became their leader. He inspired memories of the Persian Zoroastrian religious belief that people have the right to enlightened leadership, the duty to obey wise rulers, and a further duty to rise up against the wicked. Mossadegh saw the British as wicked, nationalized the oil resources and refinery of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and pushed the British out of the country. Time Magazine named him “Man of the Year” in 1951. 

The British were outraged and a bit desperate. They needed the revenue from the oil, and they needed to show the world they couldn’t be pushed around by upstart Iranians. They appealed to the United Nations and the World Court without success. They appealed to the United States to help them organize an invasion or a coup to regain what they had lost. They did everything but show a willingness to negotiate a fair deal with the Iranians. Harry Truman refused to take any action against the Iranians, much to the dismay of the British. Truman appealed directly to Churchill, expressing the belief that a settlement fair to Iran should be negotiated. Churchill refused and demanded that Truman and he should “gang up on a third who is doing wrong.”

American politics provided the change necessary to break the impasse. Truman chose not to run for reelection, and Eisenhower was elected President.  John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles became the Secretary of State and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, respectively. They accepted Churchill’s allegations that Mossadegh must be removed from power to prevent the Communists from taking over Iran.   There was an active Iranian Communist party called Tudeh (masses), but there was little evidence of a Communist threat. However, Eisenhower agreed that something should be done, and the coup code-named Operation Ajax was put into motion.

CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was given the task of organizing the coup. He was given the assistance of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the Gulf War commander and radio voice of “Gang Busters.” The general had trained an elite group of Iranians who were loyal to him, and would be a valuable asset. Even more valuable were the suitcases of money the General delivered to Roosevelt to be used to bribe a wide variety of political officials and military commanders.

The first attempt at a coup failed, and Roosevelt’s seniors sent him orders to get out of Iran.   He instead worked virtually without other CIA or British support to make another attempt. He spent even larger sums of bribery money, including paying for violent protests from large mobs. The second attempt succeeded at overthrowing Mossadegh, and the Shah returned to the country and power.  Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years, and then spent the remainder of his life under house arrest.  About sixty military officers who had been loyal to Mossadegh were executed along with several student leaders at Tehran University. Many others were imprisoned and/or tortured.

Eisenhower visited Iran for six hours in 1959 and privately urged the Shah to pay attention to his people’s “basic aspirations.” The Shah dismissed that request, responding that security could be maintained only by military strength. Nixon later visited Iran and said he was impressed.

The coup was judged to bring 25 years of stability in Iran. The overthrow of a popular leader ultimately made the world a more dangerous place.

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