The Regime Change That Backfired

By Stanley Reed


An American Coup and the

Roots of Middle East Terror

By Stephen Kinzer

Wiley -- 258pp -- $24.95

With American and British troops occupying Iraq and the Bush Administration rattling its sabers at Iran, Stephen Kinzer's entertaining and sometimes shocking All the Shah's Men is timely indeed. Focused on the 1953 U.S.-sponsored coup in Iran, the volume serves as a useful reminder that troublesome regimes do not come out of nowhere. Rather, the U.S. and Britain have at times helped construct them.

The overthrow of Iran's nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, ranks with the 1956 Suez Crisis as a landmark in the history of relations between the Middle East and the West. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's defiance of the British and the French helped to build an international anticolonialist movement. However, Mossadegh's unsuccessful face-off with the West led to a quarter-century of American domination, through the despotic rule of the Shah of Iran. The Shah was finally forced to leave in 1979.

All the Shah's Men sheds valuable light on the events of 1953, drawing on scholars' work and on the CIA's secret history of the coup, leaked to The New York Times in 2000. Central to the tale is Mossadegh, one of the more peculiar political figures of the 20th century.

Elected to Iran's first Parliament in 1906, this son of a princess was in and out of government -- more than once withdrawing because of objections to the country's brutal and corrupt rulers. After two decades in retirement, he made a comeback in the relatively free parliamentary elections of 1943. He was many things to many people: U.S. officials found him "witty," "affable," and "honest," while British diplomatic cables called him a "wily Oriental" who "looks like a cab horse."

Above all, Mossadegh was a man of high principle. This set him on a collision course with the big powers and especially with Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Anglo-Iranian, which developed Iran's reserves, enjoyed an enormously favorable position in Iran, paying the government only around 15% of the tens of millions in revenue.

Abadan, the company's center of operations, was "a classic colonial enclave," Kinzer writes. British administrators "enjoyed handsome homes with terraces and manicured lawns." Iranian workers "lived in slums and long dormitories with only primitive sanitation." At one point, there were public "water fountains marked 'Not for Iranians."'

Various Iranian attempts to renegotiate the terms of the oil concession failed, largely because of the stubbornness of the company, which the British government backed unhesitatingly. In 1951, Iran's Parliament elected Mossadegh Prime Minister with a mandate to nationalize the oil company. That set up a "clash of titans," writes Kinzer: On one side was "Mossadegh, the symbol of Iranian nationalism and resistance to royal power," and on the other, the British along with Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, the man they had installed.

The Americans thought the British were wrong in not trying harder to cut a deal with Mossadegh. After all, during the same period, U.S. oil companies had struck a 50-50 profit-sharing arrangement with the Saudis. "We tried to get the blockheaded British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran," lamented President Harry S Truman.

But Mossadegh's 1951 nationalization was too much. The British discouraged potential customers from buying Iranian oil, and their secret services began plotting Mossadegh's fall. They found willing accomplices in the Eisenhower Administration, which came to power in 1953. British spymaster "Monty" Woodhouse won the U.S. over by arguing that Iran's increasingly chaotic situation made it ripe for a coup by the communist Tudeh Party, which could draw support from the Soviets right next door. Soon, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore and the CIA's Middle East chief, was on his way to Tehran.

In Kinzer's work, Roosevelt becomes a figure out of spy fiction: While plotting Mossadegh's ouster, he held regular midnight rendezvous with the Shah, sneaking into the palace under a blanket on the floor of a car sent by the monarch. Roosevelt's first coup attempt, on Aug. 15, 1953, was foiled by loyalist army officers. Ignoring his bosses' urgings to flee, the CIA man opted to try again. Mossadegh's naivete and decency played into Roosevelt's hands: The Prime Minister felt there was no need for further vigilance since the Shah, whom he thought had been behind the coup, had fled to Rome.

In a cynical ploy, Roosevelt sent U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson to complain, falsely, to Mossadegh that Americans in Iran were being harassed. Abashed, Mossadegh ordered a brutal crackdown on his own supporters, clearing the streets for Roosevelt's successful military putsch the next day, Aug. 19.

After three years in prison, Mossadegh spent the rest of his life under house arrest at his country estate. He died in 1967. Roosevelt died in 2000, believing the coup "right and necessary." Instead, Kinzer argues, the U.S. and the world have paid a stiff price. The Shah's bloody and dictatorial rule created enormous pent-up anger, which led to a radical Islamic regime bent on punishing the U.S. Because Ayatollah Khomeini proved such an inspiration for Islamic militants elsewhere, Kinzer says, "it is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [the coup] through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York." That may be going too far, but certainly Kinzer's book should give pause to would-be regime-changers.

London Bureau Chief Reed covers the Middle East.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.