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The Iran Conspiracy

In August of 1976, while working as a reporter for The Washington Post, I found myself in Tehran during what would turn out to be the final years of the Iranian monarchy. It was clear then that Mohammad Reza Shah, only the second and the last of the Pahlavi dynasty, was in difficulty. His so-called “White Revolution,” which tried to modernize Iran quickly, was meeting resistance from a deeply conservative public. Religious leaders, secular democrats, and students were restless under his monarchical dictatorship. His secret police, the Savak, were jailing and torturing dissidents. What was not clear then was that the ally the US had installed in order to hold power in the Persian Gulf was about to collapse. It happened so quickly that even the forces that brought the Shah down were taken by surprise.

For a quarter of a century after the Americans and British organized a coup against the secular-nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the Shah had been America’s man in the Persian Gulf, which American leaders saw as strategically vital because it produces the one essential commodity for the industrial world. In 1973, when Saudi Arabia embargoed oil to the United States, it was the Shah who supplied fuel for US Navy ships then in the Gulf. During the Nixon years the Shah was cast in the role of America’s surrogate and partner in preserving Western, anti-Soviet interests in the region; he received large amounts of advanced military equipment from the US. In 1976 you could fly on El Al directly from Tel Aviv to Tehran. Until the clerics came to power in 1979, both Iran and Israel found it useful to have informal diplomatic relations because both felt threatened by Iraq. As it still does, Israel sought friends among the non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East.

Now another quarter-century has passed, a very grim one for Iran as well as Western interests in the Gulf. The takeover of the American embassy in 1979 and the 444-day humiliation of American diplomats ruined relations with the United States to this day. The advent of a religiously based regime, equally or more tyrannical than the Shah’s, has changed the pattern of power in the Middle East. The regime of the ayatollahs has supported Hezbollah and other terrorists in the region, and it is accused of harboring members of al-Qaeda, which it denies.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that deposed Mossadegh and the forces allied with him struggling to create a democracy in Iran. The coup set the Shah on a course that was to end so ignobly for him and the United States twenty-six years later. According to Stephen Kinzer in his book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,

It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [the CIA’s code name for the coup] through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.

Kinzer also says that the coup against Mossadegh, the first time that the CIA had brought about a change of regime, emboldened the US to overthrow Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz,

and set off a sequence of events in that country that led to civil war and hundreds of thousands of violent deaths. Later, the CIA set out to kill or depose foreign leaders from Cuba and Chile to the Congo and Vietnam. Each of these operations had profound effects that reverberate to this day. Some produced immense misery and suffering and turned whole regions of the world bitterly against the United States.

Using new and published material, Kinzer has written a convincing account of the US conspiracy in Tehran during the summer of 1953, events so melodramatic that President Eisenhower, when he was briefed on the coup, wrote in his diary that they “seemed more like a dime novel than historical facts.” In the 1970s, when Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, was ambassador to Iran, he recalled that the Russian ambassador complained about him to the Shah. How, he asked, could the Shah accept a man of Helms’s background in secret intelligence as ambassador? The Shah, Helms told me, replied: “Well, at least I know that Americans have sent me their top spy.” Helms would later write in his memoirs that he had gotten along with the Shah because “the Shah had always been well impressed by the quality of the CIA people he had met through the years.”1

Undoubtedly the first CIA man that impressed him was Kermit Roosevelt, “Kim” to his friends, a grandson of Theodore, and a graduate of Groton and Harvard, who was recruited from college for the wartime Office of Strategic Services by Frank Wisner, who went on to become a high CIA official. By 1953 Roosevelt was in charge of Middle East operations for Wisner. As Kinzer writes, Roosevelt was dispatched to bring down Prime Minister Mossadegh, whom the Shah hated because he saw Mossadegh as a threat to his throne—although the Shah had appointed Mossadegh prime minister after he had become widely popular for leading the movement to nationalize the British oil company. The British, for their part, hated Mossadegh for having done just that. The Americans opposed him because they believed he would open the way for Communist domination of Iran. Roosevelt was smuggled into the Shah’s palace in the summer of 1953 under a rug in the back seat of a car to meet a monarch who was at that time weak, vacillating, and a very frightened young man.

The first coup attempt organized by the CIA and the British failed. Following the CIA’s advice, the chief of the royal guards brought a formal notice of dismissal to Mossadegh’s house, only to be arrested by Mossadegh’s own loyal guards. The Shah fled abroad, people came into the streets to support Mossadegh, and Roosevelt’s bosses back in Washington ordered him to leave Iran. But Roosevelt decided to have another try. He arranged for a mob of demonstrators to fill the streets in protest against Mossadegh’s government. Among them were army officers and some of the grand ayatollahs, who had been paid by Roosevelt. The demonstrators reached Mossadegh’s house and stormed in after a fight with his guards. Mossadegh took refuge with a neighbor, but surrendered the next day. The Shah returned from Italy in triumph to tell Roosevelt: “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army—and to you!” It was, as Helms would later write, “the high tide of covert action.” Put on trial for treason, Mossadegh denounced foreign conspiracies against him; after three years in prison he was put under house arrest until he died in 1967.

Mossadegh was a unique figure in the history of the twentieth century. With a huge nose and “basset-hound eyes,” he was aristocratic and imposing—his father had been a minister in the court of a former king and he had been educated in France and Switzerland. He was a nationalist who vehemently and uncompromisingly opposed British petroleum concessions in his country. By force of personality, Mossadegh shoulders everyone else aside in Kinzer’s narrative. (He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951.)

Kinzer quotes Averell Harriman’s impressions of Mossadegh:

He projected helplessness; and while he was obviously as much a captive as a leader of the nationalist fanatics, he relented on nothing. Under pressure he would take to his bed, seeming at times to have only a tenuous hold on life itself as he lay in his pink pajamas, his hands folded on his chest, eyes fluttering and breath shallow. At the appropriate moment, though, he could transform himself from a frail, decrepit shell of a man into a wily, vigorous adversary.

Mossadegh had real illnesses—Kinzer is vague about what they were—but he knew how to use them in the political theater he created, driving his foes and some would-be friends to distraction. Winston Churchill, who had much to do with Mossadegh’s fall, called the Iranian leader “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists.” But Churchill was steeped in the importance of the British Empire, and had trouble adjusting to third-world nationalists.

When he was put on trial, Mossadegh said: “My only crime is that I nationalized the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth.” He meant the British, not the US, and he was largely right. Oil had been of paramount importance to Britain ever since the Royal Navy switched from coal in the early years of the century. Lord Curzon said that in World War I the Allies had “floated to victory on a wave of oil,” and in World War II Britain was even more dependent on oil. The postwar British government, under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was opposed to sharing control with Iran of the Anglo-Persian, later Anglo-Iranian, Oil Company. Iran in those days was the world’s fourth-biggest oil exporter, supplying Europe with 90 percent of its petroleum. The British were unwilling to make any compromise with the nationalist feelings of Iranians. They would not even consider sharing oil revenues equally as the Americans were doing in Saudi Arabia.

In the early 1950s Britain was not content with being a second-tier country as it is today; it still sought to maintain itself not only as a world force but as a colonial power. Anglo-Iranian oil was 51 percent owned by the British government, and a great share of the profits went straight into the British Treasury. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was frank in saying that without Iran’s oil there would be no “hope of our being able to achieve the standard of living at which we are aiming in Great Britain.” But more than money was at stake. The British had built the Iranian oil industry from nothing and they believed it was theirs to control.

Mossadegh said they could not. A more practical politician, Kinzer writes, might have struck a deal. “But Mossadegh,” he writes,

was not a pragmatist. He was a visionary, a utopian, a millenarian. The single-mindedness with which he pursued his campaign against Anglo-Iranian made it impossible for him to compromise when he could and should have.

Kinzer adds that Mossadegh’s attitude fitted in with Iran’s Shiite Muslim faith, with its traditions of martyrdom; he was willing, even eager, to accept pain for a cause.

The Americans were caught in the middle. On the one hand Truman thought the British attitude was “block-headed,” and against their own interests. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, paraphrasing Churchill’s famous remark about the Battle of Britain: “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast.” For although the British blustered, threatened invasion, and sent warships to intimidate him, Mossadegh went ahead and nationalized the oil and threw the British out. The British countered by blocking Iran’s exports of oil, so Iran’s economy spiraled down as did Britain’s.

  1. 1

    Richard Helms, A Look Over My Shoulder (Random House, 2003), p. 419.

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