Who Knew, About The Coup?

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Chris Hardy


Who Knew, About The Coup?
The book All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer looks in depth at the people and events surrounding the 1953 coup in Iran. At the time, Britain was trying to avoid the end of its colonial empire and the United States was involved with the Cold War and its quest to put an end to communism. With the combined pressure from Britain over the nationalization of oil in Iran and the threat of a communist uprising in Iran, the United States agreed to overthrow the current government and replace it with a friendly one. The United States and Britain devised a covert attack on the government and succeeded in removing a very popular leader, but inadvertently replaced him with a conservative dictator who ruled Iran with no mercy. The book explains the motives for each side more in depth and reveals the successes and failures of the mission overall.

The most intriguing part of this book, in my opinion, is the extent to which the CIA uses covert operations in the planning and carrying out of Operations Ajax, the CIA codename for the operation. This coup was one of the first and biggest covert missions by the freshly created CIA and set the bar for the use of covert ops in the future. I will also look at Iran’s history leading up to the coup and what prompted foreign powers, the U.S. and Britain, to use such operations to impose their will on the country. Another interesting fact is that the leader that was deposed in the coup was the closest Iran had ever come to having a democratic leader in power. Having said that, the third theme that I will examine will be the repercussions of such drastic action for the Middle East, America, and the rest of the world.

The book dives right into the action by first describing how the coup was carried out and gave an overview of who was involved in what way. The first chapter introduces many of the main players in the coup, including: President Dwight Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who had ordered the coup; Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh who was Iran’s prime minister that had rallied his country to nationalize Britain’s oil assets in Iran; the Dulles brothers, John and Allen, who were the secretary of state and the CIA director at the time of the coup; Kermit Roosevelt who was the CIA agent who was chosen to direct Operation Ajax in Iran; and Mohammed Reza Shah, the ultimate leader, or Shah, of Iran. All of these people and hundreds of others under their command had a key role in making this coup successful.

To begin his explanation of the coup, the author first brings up Iran’s long history of “thirst for just leadership” and “a tragic view of life rooted in a sense of martyrdom and communal pain” which can be attributed to the common practice of Shi’ism in Iran (p. 18). He also makes sure to mention that Iran has always been a target of foreign invaders due to its prime location “astride some of the world’s most important trading routes and atop an ocean of oil (p. 18).” This ocean of oil made Iran susceptible to the “resource curse” and attracted Britain during its period of industrialization.

The book looks at decisions made by one greedy Qajar Shah back in the late 19th century and the major effects those decisions would have on the future of his country. Nasir al-Din Shah lived a very lavish lifestyle during his time as supreme leader, and “to support his lavish tastes, [he] sold government jobs, imposed oppressive taxes, and confiscated the fortunes of wealthy merchants (p.31).” When there was nothing left to take from his country’s people, the Shah turned to the land for his wealth. In 1872 Nasir al-Din Shah sold a number of concessions including the rights to exploit its mineral resources and establish banks, and fishing rights to a number of different countries including Britain and Russia. Once again the money ran out, so the Shah resorted to selling the Iranian tobacco industry, a move that led to a huge uprising known as the Tobacco Revolt which is thought to be “the beginning of the end of absolutism” in Iran (p. 33).

Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated in 1896 and “left behind a country dominated by foreigners and plagued by widespread unemployment, crippling inflation, and serious food shortages” to his son, Muzzafar (p. 31). Muzzafar proceeded to sell the “special and exclusive privilege to obtain, exploit, develop, render suitable for trade, carry away and sell natural gas [and] petroleum… for a term of sixty years” to the British in what is now known as the D’Arcy concession or the Anglo-Persian agreement. After the Iranian citizens saw their country sold away piece by piece, they organized and revolted against the unfair rule of the ultimate leader and demanded the establishment of a Majlis, or parliament. The Shah “had no choice but to accept the idea that Iran should have a parliament” and signed off on a new constitution shortly before his death (p. 34).

The Shah’s predecessor, Mohammed Ali Shah, “ridiculed and ignored the Majlis” and sought to thwart the Constitutional Revolution and rule instead by Islamic law (p.36). Britain and Russia supported the Shah to protect their interest in the country and succeeded in having the Majlis shut down for trying to limit foreign power in Iran. This led to a period of occupation by British soldiers in the south and Russian soldiers in the north which ended when the Bolsheviks seized power of Russia in 1917 and withdrew their troops from Iran. The British looked at this as an opportunity to take advantage of the Anglo-Persian Agreement and declared martial law in Iran. This move “removed the last vestiges of Iran’s sovereignty” while at the same time “infused the nationalist movement with new passion (p.41).”

The British at this time wanted a stronger central government in Iran, so to do so they enlisted the help of Reza and the elite Cossack Brigade to stage a coup. The coup was successful and eventually led to Reza becoming Shah, something that the British did not anticipate. Reza Shah sought to limit foreign influence and imposed his will with “brutal decisiveness” and “exemplary terror (p. 42).” Reza insisted Iran no longer be called Persia and “promulgated legal codes and established a network of secular courts to enforce them (p. 44).” With the outbreak of WWII, British and Soviet troops stormed Iran to oust German forces and demanded “free use of Iranian territory by their forces (p. 45).”

During his rule, Reza Shah cancelled the D’Arcy concession because he believed Iran was being cheated. “British officials were in turn shocked, outraged, and desperate” and resorted to compromise after losing their case in the League of Nations, which didn’t have legal jurisdiction to make a decision. This compromise included a reduction in land area covered in the concession, a guaranteed minimum annual payment, and improved working conditions at their oil refinery, Abadan, which was never followed through with. When the war broke out, British oil extraction increased to supply the war effort. This and Reza Shah’s fall from power led to an Iranian labor movement and the comeback of the Majlis, who “passed a bold law forbidding the grant of any further concessions to foreign companies and directing the government to renegotiate the one under which Anglo-Iranian was operating (p. 42).”

With the fall of Reza Shah, a well-educated and respected man who had been in and out of Iranian politics his whole life “ran for his old seat in the Majlis, and was elected with more votes than any other candidate (p. 61).” Mohammed Mossadegh “embraced and shared his country’s suffering” and believed the government “must impose the law equally on everyone” and should be free from foreign powers (pp. 54-55).

During Reza Shah’s brutal rule, the standard of living decreased steadily in Iran which led some to embrace the communist ideology. After Reza lost his power, these people came together to form the Tudeh Party, “Iran’s first real political party,” which grew and was eventually seized by its pro-Soviet faction (p. 65). “Mohammed Reza Shah rightly feared Tudeh, which was antimonarchist,” and after an attempt on his life he blamed the party for organizing the assassination and punished them by banning the party and imprisoning its leaders.

Reza Shah was highly indebted to the British for his rise to power, and after protest broke out once again at Abadan about working conditions and unfair treatment of Iranians, he was forced to choose between the British or his people. The British rejected all appeals to reform, and instead came up with their own agreement. The Supplemental Agreement which was presented to the Shah was still unfair, but he knew he had no choice but to pass it. In order to get approval from the Majlis, the Shah rigged elections “to secure the election of many pliable deputies” but gave in to new elections when he was met by outrage and protest by the Iranian people (p.69).

The protesters “resolved to build on their victory by forming a new coalition of political parties, trade unions, civic groups, and other organizations devoted to strengthening democracy and limiting the power of foreigners in Iran” and chose Mossadegh to lead what became known as the National Front. Seven of the founders, including Mossadegh, were elected to the Majlis and organized a new opposition bloc that Iranians had never seen. The Majlis created an oil committee to discuss the future of Iran’s oil industry and elected Mossadegh as chairman.

With news of an American agreement with Saudi Arabia splitting the profits from oil 50/50 and the rejection of appeals to the British for a fair compromise, the Majlis rejected the Supplemental Agreement. Iranian nationalists “called a rally to launch a mass-based campaign aimed at forcing the nationalization of Anglo-Iranian” and liberating themselves from foreign powers (p. 78). The Majlis voted unanimously to nationalize the oil industry which immediately turned Mossadegh into a hero for most in Iran. The British saw the need for a strong, friendly prime minister to take back their stakes in Iranian oil, but when the Shah nominated a pro-British candidate to the Majlis, the debate took an unexpected turn and ended with Mossadegh as prime minister.

Back in the United States, the Korean and war and the ongoing Cold War had people worried about communist advances around the world, and “in response to this changing international climate, President Truman approved the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 (p.84).” The Cold War led the U.S. “to recognize not only the power of its enemies but also the vital importance of its friends” and led to the creation of NATO, but more importantly contributed to the special relationship between Britain and the United States. America’s alliance with Britain would lead it to go against all of its previous friendly foreign policy toward Iran by taking direct action to change its government.

After Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry, the British would not give up what they believed was their legal right to Iran’s oil. They made many appeals to the United States and even came very close to invading Iran, but refrained without support from their ally. Mossadegh refused to compromise on the oil situation, only saying that “if the British would accept the rights of Iranians to control their oil industry, he would fully and fairly negotiate the oil company’s just claims for compensation (p. 110).” Britain would not recognize this and instead imposed economic sanctions on Iran and made it impossible to export or refine their own oil. Strong opposition from the Truman Administration was the only thing that prevented Britain from using force to take back the oil in Iran.

Instead of invading Iran and displeasing its greatest ally, Britain decided to turn to covert operations to get what they sought without international recognition of what forces were really at play. They sent in secret agents who met “with opposition figures and [suggested] ways they could help undermine Mossadegh’s government” and “took a series of steps to cripple its economy (pp. 114-115).” No matter how hard they tried they could not manipulate Mossadegh into giving up, not realizing “that Mossadegh and the great majority of Iranians were ready to accept and even embrace pain in their sacred cause (p. 115).” After trying to bribe officials and staging “a coup carried out by seemingly legal means,” the British only succeeded in making support for Mossadegh stronger and anti-British feelings more hostile. After Mossadegh “announced that Iran was breaking diplomatic relations with Britain” and forcing all British diplomats and intelligence agents out of the country, they decided American support was necessary for success.

Fortunately for the British there was “a bright glimmer of hope on the horizon” in the form of the upcoming election and Eisenhower’s strong anti-communist campaign. Eisenhower was elected and the director of the British Secret Intelligence Agency, Monty Woodhouse, immediately flew to Washington and met with men in the CIA and who would be taking important posts in the Eisenhower Administration. They spoke about policy toward Iran and Woodhouse “shaped his appeal around the rhetoric of anti-communism (p. 151).” He succeeded in gaining American support, minus that of Eisenhower himself, and John and Allen Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State and director of central intelligence, chose Kermit Roosevelt as the CIA field commander in Iran and General Zahedi as Iran’s “designated savior.”

As soon as Eisenhower was inaugurated “the American ambassador in Tehran began contacting Iranians he thought might be interested in working to overthrow Mossadegh” and built a network of contacts that might come in handy come the time of the coup (p. 155). When Mossadegh suggested that the Shah leave Iran until it became more stable, intelligence agents, with help from Iranians, twisted the news to make it look like the Shah was being forced out by a power hungry prime minister. At the time leading up to and including the coup, “it is estimated that four-fifths of the newspapers in Tehran were under CIA influence,” an estimate that sheds light on the extent of foreign interference in the country (p. 6). With this news, along with some cash encouragement from the CIA, an angry mob took to the streets and protested this move. Frequent protests and mobs were orchestrated by the CIA to make it look like Iran was in chaos in an effort to prove to Eisenhower and the rest who doubted the plan that without intervention, Iran would soon fall to communism. Once fellow members of the Majlis and the National Front turned against Mossadegh and left him “isolated and vulnerable,” Eisenhower gave up on his hopes of compromise and accepted the idea of a coup (p. 159). Allen Dulles “approved $1 million to the CIA station in Tehran” to be used to bribe officials or “for use in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh,” and Kermit Roosevelt assumed control of the extensive underground network that the British had built up over years (p. 160).

Two veteran intelligence officers from the U.S. and Britain came up with the plan for the actual coup. This plan included: the manipulation of public opinion against Mossadegh, “staged attacks on religious leaders” that were to be linked to Mossadegh, General Zahedi and his men to stand ready for military action, bribery of members of the Majlis, and the staging of a massive, paid antigovernment rally on the morning of the coup (p. 163). Kermit Roosevelt arrived in Iran on July 19, 1953 and the country had already been manipulated into chaos. One month later “Roosevelt and his team of Iranian agents [were] in place and ready to strike (p. 165).”

His plan was to have an announcement made that the Shah had dismissed Mossadegh from office, then “royalist military officers would deliver the decrees” that were signed by the Shah, and arrest Mossadegh’s General Riahi and then move on to take Mossadegh himself. The plan was finally in motion, they had obtained the decrees from the Shah to depose Mossadegh and they had succeeded in turning most of the country against him, now all they had to do was finish him. Colonel Nasiri, the man chosen to arrest Mossadegh, and his troops arrived at the general’s house to find it empty and decided to move onto Mossadegh. They found out that was a mistake when they were met by the general and his troops and were all arrested. The coup had failed, leaving Iran’s people confused and angry.

Roosevelt was ordered back to the United States immediately but decided to try one more time. His new plan was to spread agents across Tehran to bribe anyone “who might be able to turn out crowds at a crucial moment,” “send mobs into the street to commit mayhem in Mossadegh’s name,” then pull the mobs off the street and “use military and police units to storm government building and strike the final blow by capturing Mossadegh (p. 169). Riots broke out across the city with the military and police wreaking havoc. One covert team of Iranian agents stormed Radio Tehran and announced on air that “the government of Mossadegh has been defeated” and “the new Prime Minister, Fazlollah Zahedi, is now in office (p. 182).” Anti-Mossadegh military officers and rioters converged on Mossadegh’s home and forced him to flee. The coup had succeeded, Iran was now in the hands of Mohammed Reza Shah and Prime Minister Zahedi, and effectively in the hands of the United States and Britain for the time being.

Although the coup was successful, the new government could not allow Britain to retain its old position in regards to oil, instead an international consortium that included the United States was organized to assume control under the name given to it by Mossadegh and his oil committee, the National Iranian Oil Company. Mossadegh turned himself in the next day and he was charged with treason and sentenced to 3 years in prison, which turned into house arrest for the rest of his life. “Tudeh and the National Front were banned, and their most prominent supporters were either imprisoned or killed (p. 194).” As mentioned earlier, these two organizations may have been a little left leaning, but they had all the makings to form a true democracy in Iran; and thanks to the greedy British and the paranoid Americans, this democracy was traded for a brutal dictatorial rule.

Mohammed Reza Shah forced Zahedi from office a few years after the coup and consolidated total power in his position. He spent massive amounts of money on weaponry to defend Iran in the future and crushed political opponents and opposing viewpoints. “He never admitted his role in the coup and even published a rambling article asserting that the CIA was not involved either,” showing the true secrecy of this mission that was not found out for years (p. 199). The Shah was one of the most oppressive rulers Iran had ever seen; nevertheless he received over $1 billion in aid from the United States during the decade following the coup. By supporting the Shah and his oppressive rule, the United States sealed its future fate in the mind of most Iranians.

The Shah finally met his match in 1979 when the Iranian peoples’ “anger exploded in a shattering revolution led by Islamic fundamentalists (p. 202).” During the revolution, Iranians sought revenge on America and held fifty-two hostages from the American embassy, a move that led the United States to support another dictator in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, in his war against Iran. Little did they know their support of Hussein would lead to a similar, yet overt, government overthrow in Iraq in the future. Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran and “not only imposed a form of religious fascism at home but turned their country into a center for the propagation of terror abroad (p. 203).” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, later “justified the regime’s radicalism by declaring, “We are not liberals like [Mossadegh], whom the CIA can snuff out” (p. 203).” The religious uprising in Iran inspired other Islamic fundamentalists, such as Osama bin-Laden, in other countries and “it is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York (pp. 203-204).”

America defends its choice to go through with the coup saying that it could not risk a Soviet takeover of Iran which they believed would have led to a World War III. Analyses of the coup cannot be exact, but it is safe to say that the risk outweighed the benefits of replacing what could have been a democratic regime in Iran with a tyrant. It has since been said that the strength of the Tudeh party and the extent to which Mossadegh relied on it were highly exaggerated in the decision to go through with the coup. The repercussions, direct or indirect, have been felt around the world and can still be felt today in our wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that were directly influenced by the American position in Iran in the middle of the 20th century.

The initial reaction to the coup’s success by the CIA was one of pride and innovation. The level of covert operations seen in Iran was one that had never been seen before by the American government and proved very useful in achieving goals. It is only natural to question the ethical issues involved with manipulating a whole country such as they did, but in a time of crisis the United States did what it believed necessary to stay safe. To show their appreciation, President Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers, and a small group of other senior officials awarded Kermit Roosevelt the National Security Medal at a secret ceremony in Washington D.C. The CIA looked at the coup in Iran as a precedent for the future and soon began using such operations worldwide in its fight against communism, including in Guatemala shortly after the situation in Iran. “Overnight, the CIA became a central part of the American foreign policy apparatus, and covert action came to be regarded as a cheap and effective way to shape the course of world events (p.209).”

The extent of the impact of this coup will never be known, but there have been serious repercussions around the world which will hopefully make leaders think more critically before implementing their plans in the future. The use of covert operations in such sketchy scenarios should be limited to serious times of crisis and should not be used just to please the officials in office. This coup will go down in history as a desperate attempt by two superpowers to hold on to their powerful position in the world, at the expense of the future of an innocent, democracy-hungry country.

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