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Covert Oops
By Margaret Black

All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
By Stephen Kinzer, John Wiley & Sons, 258 pages, $24.95

‘Nothing is new in the world,” said Harry Truman, “except the history you do not know.” It’s a fitting epigraph for Stephen Kinzer’s concise and gripping account of Operation Ajax, the CIA plot that overthrew Iran’s elected government in 1953. This is history that was deliberately hidden from the American public, and we are still suffering its consequences.

Today as we watch our government resolutely turning its back on hard-won principles of multilateral diplomacy and international consensus to reassert the ancient bloody code that might makes right, it is timely to examine a similar turn in American conduct of foreign affairs, when covert overthrow became the government’s method for dealing with weak but strategic countries the United States could not otherwise control. In the 1950s, expansive Soviet communism was both a genuine threat but also an ever-convenient rationale, just as terrorism is today. At that time, however, Soviet military might, and later nuclear threat, made overt military action much more dangerous. Secret destabilization and overthrow seemed efficient and cost-effective.

Kinzer opens with tense, highly cinematic coverage of the first attempt to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh on Aug. 15, 1953. Orchestrated by Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA operative in charge, it fell apart completely. Then, dangling the forlorn hope that Mossadegh may yet survive, Kinzer turns to the past. With brisk precision, he brings us up to speed on Iran’s long history and strong self-identity, its religious background, and its gradual loss of independence in the 19th century. From these few pages it becomes abundantly clear that Iranians have a longer and often prouder history than most Western nations and that they have little reason to accept colonial condescension kindly. From the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, they have retained a deep belief in their right to enlightened leadership and their duty to rise up against the wicked and corrupt; from Shi’ite Islam they have embraced a mystical spirituality, which also promotes a willingness for martyrdom. During the 19th century, however, Iran suffered under a particularly sorry ruling dynasty that mired the country in poverty and backwardness while selling off its resources to Russia and Britain.

Operation Ajax in 1953 was simply America taking over for Britain. After World War II, Britain, or more particularly the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, had gotten exasperated with Iranian accusations that it was stealing Iranian property and mistreating Iranian workers. The Iranians even had the audacity to ask to examine the books. The company was adamantly opposed to any changes, including examination of its fraudulent bookkeeping. Company officials’ intransigence stiffened Iranian demands and brought Mossadegh triumphantly to power on a program that included nationalization of the oil industry. The British in turn blockaded export of Iranian oil, the chairman of Anglo-Iranian belligerently asserting that “when they need money, [the Iranians] will come crawling to us on their bellies.” British attempts at a coup resulted in their being expelled from Iran altogether, and so the baton passed to the United States.

Beginning with the Iranian/British arguments over the oil concession, the author returns to a fast-paced filmic coverage. Truman and his State Department work assiduously for negotiations and compromise on the Iranian issue. The Korean War has broken out, and the last thing Truman needs is a Soviet advance into Iran or a rupture in the Atlantic alliance. On the other hand, he thinks Anglo-Iranian Oil is excessively greedy, its working conditions horrific, its British colonial attitude outdated. Eisenhower’s election (and Churchill’s in England) brings in a new cast of characters, with the Dulles brothers—John Foster at the State Department; Allen at the CIA—more than willing to overthrow Mossadegh. Kermit Roosevelt is put in charge. Ordered home in the chaos following his first attempt, Roosevelt disobeys, convinced that one last effort will work. And just as he has predicted, four days later Mossadegh is in flight and the Shah has returned from Rome.

Kinzer tells this James Bond tale with economy and detachment, letting characters condemn themselves with their own words. We can easily see how communications between the Iranians and British would be difficult if the British thought, as one diplomat did, that the average Iranian was “vain, unprincipled, eager to promise what he knows he is incapable or has no intention of performing, wedded to procrastination, lacking in perseverance and energy, but amenable to discipline.”

The book falters, however, with regard to Mossadegh himself, an unusually complex character to be sure. He appears to have been completely honest and truly committed to Iran’s economic and social improvement. A report Truman commissioned described him as “supported by the majority of the population,” “well informed,” “honest,” “witty,” and “affable.” British cables, on the other hand, called him “gangster-like,” “fanatical,” “demagogic,” “inflammatory,” and “clearly imbalanced.” He was also a “wily Oriental” who “diffuses a slight reek of opium.” Mossadegh may have been somewhat naive, he did not work to build his National Front into a cohesive party, and he did not take the actions following Roosevelt’s first attempt that might have prevented the second. His health and his use of it in politics appear odd in the current context. But without question, Mossadegh is an enormous hero to Iranians—even the current regime fears the power of his name and beliefs.

And the bad outcome of this piece of covert action? Again the author allows others—American historians who have studied the coup—to make his point: that it ousted a movement with great promise for Iranian national development and democratization, that it created a deep hostility toward America where there had once been friendship, that it paved the way for extremism of both left and right, that it helped to discredit America as yet another colonial power in the eyes of all aspiring new countries. One might add that it didn’t reflect the wishes or desires of the American people either. This is a pertinent lesson.

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