CIA Overthrew Democratic Government in 1953 to Keep Iranian OIl From Being Nationalized: Everything Since Then Has Been Blowback. BF Interview with Stephen Kinzer.
Journalist Stephen Kinzer wrote a book All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. He carefully documents how the US overthrew moderate democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. The reason, Mossadegh wanted the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum: BP) to come under the jurisdiction of Iran. Instead, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company appealed to the US to launch a successful coup, led by a CIA agent who was the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, against Mossadegh, Mossadegh was overthrown, a Western-style democracy was destroyed, and the draconian Shah was installed. The Iranian Islamic Revolution that continues to today is a direct legacy of the US undermining democracy for oil. So Trump’s bellicose hostility to Iran stems from US meddling decades ago.
Originally Published in February, 2003
This mesmerizing account of how a CIA agent, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953, provides a riveting, detailed account that sheds light on current Anglo-American oil politics in the Middle East. It's not an exaggeration to say that the British-American staged coup that put the Shah in power created the model, continuing through today, for CIA involvement in replacing governments that the U.S. finds fault with for one reason or another.
With Iran, it was the nationalization of the oil industry, which had been a British concession, that set in motion the CIA-British coup. Even then, you see, it was about oil. Today, the U.S. is still paying the price, in its relations with Iran, for the 1953 coup and the U.S. support of the Shah and his secret police. As you read the book, you can't help but feel the events eerily foreshadowed Bush's Iraq policies.
Americans are often a people who look to the future and not the past. This book shows the peril of not learning from the history of our efforts to overthrow governments overseas.
Just for the record, Truman opposed U.S. involvement in a coup in Iran. After Eisenhower was elected, the overthrow of a democratic Persian government was authorized.
"All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup And The Roots Of Middle East Terror" can be purchased as a BuzzFlash premium.
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BUZZFLASH: Your book, "All the Shah’s Men," deals with a 1953 coup in Iran that put the Shah in power. It’s subtitled "An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror." Why did you give it that subtitle? What relationship did the coup have to the roots of Middle East terror?
STEPHEN KINZER: I start out my book with an epigram from Harry Truman, and I think it’s something that speaks very much to your question. He says, "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." That really is part of the thesis of my book. We Americans have been asking ourselves now for some time why people in many parts of the Middle East react so negatively toward us and what we consider to be our democratic project for the world. The more we look into history, the more answers we find.
In 1953, Iran had a democratic government. This is a very jarring thing for us to realize now because we are not used to seeing the word "Iran" and the word "democracy" in the same sentence. The fact is, however, that Iran was developing a long, rocky but democratic path in the early 1950s. For reasons which my book explains in great detail, the United States decided, in the summer of 1953, to go in and overthrow that democratic government. The result of that coup was that the Shah was placed back on his throne. He ruled for 25 years in an increasingly brutal and repressive fashion. His tyranny resulted in an explosion of revolution in 1979 the event that we call the Islamic revolution. That brought to power a group of fanatically anti-Western clerics who turned Iran into a center for anti-Americanism and, in particular, anti-American terrorism.
The Islamic regime in Iran also inspired religious fanatics in many other countries, including those who went on to form the Taliban in Afghanistan and give refuge to terrorists who went on to attack the United States. The anger against the United States that flooded out of Iran following the 1979 revolution has its roots in the American role in crushing Iranian democracy in 1953. Therefore, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that you can draw a line from the American sponsorship of the 1953 coup in Iran, through the Shah’s repressive regime, to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the spread of militant religious fundamentalism that produced waves of anti-Western terrorism.
BUZZFLASH: Now, the coordinator of the coup, a colorful character and the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, was a CIA agent who was determined to stage a coup. You detail how his first attempt failed and he was actually recalled to the United States, but he decided just to ignore the orders and staged a second attempt, which succeeded. And the rest, as they say, is history. You also mentioned in the book that this became a role model for the CIA in terms of overthrowing governments in Central America and elsewhere, not just in the Middle East.
KINZER: First of all, to speak a little about how the coup was managed -- you’re quite right. There was a remarkably colorful cast of characters. And this takes us back to a time when the CIA was quite different from what it is now. There was no sophisticated communication in those days between CIA agents in the field and the CIA headquarters in Washington. CIA agents were really real-life James Bonds. They were operating by their own wits. And when Kermit Roosevelt, who was the CIA agent that stage-managed the American coup in Iran, failed the first time, he decided: I’m going to stay around here and try again.
His first plan had taken months to prepare and was the result of many long hours of plotting and meeting. When that failed, he came up with a second plan completely on his own, and really essentially overthrew the government through his own wits. When he came back to Washington, he was given the National Security medal in a secret ceremony by President Eisenhower. And, naturally, he was much celebrated back at the CIA. He writes, however, in his own memoir of the coup, that as he gave his briefing about what he had accomplished in Iran, he noticed the Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, and his brother, the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, looking at him with gleams in their eyes. And he realized that they were already thinking: If we could overthrow the government of Iran so easily, we can do this in other countries, too.
The next year, the United States went on to overthrow the government of Guatemala. That was another coup that seemed successful at the beginning but ended tragically. It produced a series of unspeakably brutal military dictatorships that resulted in the slaughter of literally hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan civilians. These two coups formed a template as the United States embraced the culture of covert action. It is a culture that produces short-term successes. But as my book tries to point out, in the long run, many of these successes turn out to have disastrous consequences.
BUZZFLASH: Now, obviously, given what you just said, we can’t help but ask: Do you want to draw a parallel of what might be learned from the ultimate results of the Iran coup with the invasion of Iraq?
KINZER: The decision of the United States to intervene in a far-away country and overthrow a government is one that is fraught with danger. We have the power to do this very easily, but we do not have the power to shape long-term political processes in foreign countries. Regardless of how positively we view our own role, we have to understand that people in other countries don’t like outsiders coming in and telling them how their politics should develop. We wouldn’t like foreigners shaping American politics, and it’s foolish to think that people in other countries feel any other way. We need to be aware that the time will come when we’re not going to be in these countries anymore, but those countries will still be there. And the political processes that we unleash may very well come back to bite us.
In the case of Iraq, we need to realize that not everybody sees us the way we see ourselves. We see ourselves as liberators and people who bring democracy and freedom to other countries. We need to place ourselves in the shoes of the people whose countries we are intervening in, and realize that unless we are ready to stay the course over a long period of time and be sure that the new systems we’ve put in place function well -- which is something we have a history of not doing -- we need to be very afraid of the long-term results of our foreign intervention.
BUZZFLASH: Your book details how the coup really had its origins. Although it was overseen by the CIA, some of the network that Kermit Roosevelt used was put in place by the British. Your book really begins with the British interest in overthrowing the government due to the nationalization of the British oil concession by the Prime Minister of Iran, who was fiercely nationalist and an extremely fascinating character, as you portray him. But it ended up as an American coup in part, you detail, because of fears that the Soviet Union might invade Iran and gain control of the oil resources.
President Truman was very hesitant. He had been approached by the British to participate in a coup, and he wouldn’t authorize it. But Eisenhower, in a passive sort of way, did, and the Dulles brothers went to work. What happened? And what was the different world vision between President Truman and the Eisenhower administration, which ultimately resulted in the authorization of the coup under the Eisenhower administration?
KINZER: First, we need to look at what was going on in Iran. The Prime Minister of Iran, as you say, was truly a fascinating figure. He’s been largely forgotten by history, and I’m hoping that one result of my book will be to resurrect him. Mohammad Mossadegh was a titanic figure during the early 1950s. This was a time before Fidel Castro and before Sukarno, and before the other Third World leaders who brought their complaints against the world order to public attention. Mossadegh was one of the very first leaders of what we then called the Third World to stand up to the existing imperial system. He was a huge figure. He was on the cover of Time magazine as their Man of the Year for 1951 because of the importance of what he was doing.
Iran, at that time, was the home of the largest corporation, the largest industrial economic enterprise, in the entire British Empire the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This oil company had been, for decades, reaping huge profits in Iran. But most of those profits went back to Britain. Very little of the profits, very little of the benefit from Iranian oil, came back to Iran. Needless to say, this produced rising resentment in Iran. Mossadegh was brought to power because he wished to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and use Iran’s oil wells to develop Iran, rather than to support the standard of living in Britain. He did so in 1952. He nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This enraged the British, and they decided they would stage a coup against him.
Mossadegh got wind very quickly of what they were doing. And to end the British efforts, he decided to close the British Embassy. He sent all the British diplomats home, and along with them, all the secret agents who were plotting his overthrow. That left Britain with nobody on the ground to stage the coup. They came to President Truman and asked him to overthrow Mossadegh on their behalf. Truman threw them out of the office, essentially, and told the British: We don’t overthrow governments; the United States has never done this before, and we’re not going to start now. When we do, when we intervene in a country that way, we don’t know what the consequences are going to be. So we’re not going to get involved in that. This left the British with no options. They had no way to overthrow Mossadegh.
But then, at the end of 1952, President Eisenhower was elected. Even before he had been inaugurated, the British realized that everything was changing in Washington. They sent one of their senior agents to Washington to appeal to the incoming team to change the policy that Truman had set -- the policy of nonintervention. And this secret agent wrote in a memoir many years later that I quote in my book, that when he was flying over to Washington, he decided: "If I ask the Americans to overthrow Mossadegh in order to rescue a British oil company, they are not going to respond. This is not an argument that’s going to cut much mustard in Washington. I’ve got to have a different argument. "
And he came up with the argument: "I’m going to tell the Americans that Mossadegh is leading Iran towards Communism." He figured that this was going to be the argument that would win over the Dulles brothers and the rest of the Eisenhower team. He was right. In short order, the policy that Truman had set of nonintervention was reversed. The Eisenhower administration took office, determined to strike back against what it saw as the march of Communism in the world, and decided that staging a coup in Iran would be a symbol of its anti-Communist passion. It was with that excuse that the United States put an end to the last democratic government Iran ever knew.
BUZZFLASH: Throughout this turbulent period in Iran’s history, lurking in the background, is the Shah, who’s almost a secondary figure, as far as action in your book. He’s portrayed as an extremely passive person. He flees at the first sign of danger and is revealed as almost the quintessential puppet.
KINZER: It’s odd, for those of us who can remember the Shah during his last years of power, to realize what he was like as a young man. We remember him as a tyrant and a harsh ruler. But actually, in his early years, he was a frightened puppy dog. He was petrified of any kind of political action. He cowered in his palace and waited for first the British, and then the Americans, to tell him what to do. At the first sign of trouble during this coup, he fled the country.
And actually he was sitting in a hotel in Rome when the news was given to him that the government back home had been overthrown. Later, he tried to posit himself as a person who had been responsible for re-establishing monarchy in Iran. In fact, he had fled and had already told reporters that he was looking for work because he wouldn’t be able to go back to Iran, and didn’t have enough money to survive in the outside world. He really was a puppet of the CIA. And probably one of the reasons that things went so badly wrong in Iran during the 1960s and ‘70s was that once we put him back in power, we didn’t make any efforts to try to curb his megalomania.
BUZZFLASH: Let’s get back for a second to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. You describe, first of all, that they had complete ownership of the concession, the property, the oil itself, the processing of the oil extracting and processing. One of the arguments that was made against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was not only did they control the oil and give a pittance of the profits to Iran, and consider it their natural resource, but they didn’t, in any serious way, try to train Iranians to manage the company. The workers lived in -- what you describe through people who wrote observations as they went through the towns where the workers lived -- as Dickensian, squalid, wretched conditions, which the British had no interest in improving, it seemed.
KINZER: The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had its main refinery in a town called Abadan on the Persian Gulf. This was the largest oil refinery in the world, and employed tens of thousands of Iranian workers. It was a classic colonial enclave. The British administrators lived in handsome bungalows with well-tended lawns and rose gardens. They had theatres and cinemas, golf courses and swimming pools, but everything was off limits to the Iranians. Even the buses that ran through Abadan were off limits to Iranians.
The Iranian workers lived in terrible squalor. And the British not only considered them faceless drones who had no reason to protest, and really no individuality at all, but viewed with contempt the idea that anybody from Iran could ever be trained to help administer or run the oil refinery. The proof of that is that after fifty years of activity by the British in Iran, there were still no Iranians who had been trained to take over management positions. This is one of the things that enraged the Iranians, and Mossadegh, in particular. He said, "We understand that at the time this refinery was built, the Iranians had no capacity to build it or to run it. But if you wanted to make this into a true joint enterprise from which both countries would benefit, then you had the obligation to bring Iranians into management, and to train them in technical tasks."
The British, however, realized that as more Iranians learned how to run the oil company and run the oil refinery, they would want a greater say in its administration. In fact, the British not only didn’t train any Iranians for any management positions, but they wouldn’t even open their books to the Iranians who they pretended were their partners. Iran was never even able to find out how much oil was being produced, where it was being sent, and how much it was being sold for. So this was a recipe for explosion. And the ultimate responsibility for the anger of the Iranians lies with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the British foreign office, which tolerated and encouraged its old-style colonialist mentality.
BUZZFLASH: At the close of your book, you have a terribly poignant epilogue where you take a trip to Iran to retrace some of the steps of the Prime Minister -- how do you pronounce his name?
KINZER: [spoken: Mo-sa-deck]
BUZZFLASH: Mossadegh. And you’re in Tehran, and you’re given, not just once, but when you come back to the same hotel, room, 9-1-1. I guess someone was sending you a message.
KINZER: The Iranians who are in power now -- that is, the religious regime -- really don’t know how to deal with the history of the 1953 coup. On the one hand, they find the story very sympathetic because they have a stereotype that they like to sell of Iran as the constant victim of outside intervention. This 1953 episode certainly lends credence to that stereotype, because Iran was the victim of a very naked and brutal outside intervention. So in that sense, the people running Iran now think this is a great story to tell. On the other hand, they don’t like Mossadegh, because Mossadegh was the exact kind of political leader they hate. He was a secular democrat. Therefore, he is hateful to people who want to run Iran as a theocratic despotism.
When I went to Iran, I found ordinary people very aware of who Mossadegh was, that he was the nationalist figure, the one who nationalized the oil company, and also the one who allowed Iranians political freedom. People on the street were telling me: "Oh, yeah, Mossadegh, that was the time when we could say what we wanted, when we could write what we wanted. Not like today." So the popular image of Mossadegh is very positive. But the religious regime fears his image.
In Iran today, it’s not possible, it’s not legal to call for an end to Islamic rule and the implementation of a democratic government. However, when you praise Mossadegh, you’re essentially doing the same thing. You’re calling for a regime like his, a secular democracy. Therefore, the religious elite that is in power in Iran today is very fearful of any attempts to credit Mossadegh and make a hero out of him.
BUZZFLASH: Now here we are, 50 years after the coup. This year is the 50th anniversary of the coup that brought the Shah of Iran into power. And you had your book. You’ve met with some of Mossadegh’s relatives?
KINZER: His grandson and great-grandson.
BUZZFLASH: You end with a quote from the great-grandson that he’s not going to go into politics -- it’s sort of too great a burden to bear. And the young man’s statement seemed particularly poignant, because here you had the type of leader back in 1953 that the United States should be supporting -- someone who is a secularist, a nurturer of democracy -- who is overthrown.
Democracy, really, except for a short period after the Iranian revolt against the Shah, has been a forgotten concept in Iran. The original promoter of democracy was overthrown in a violent coup orchestrated by the United States, and now he’s a person, as you mentioned, that the current ideologically radical religious regime in Iran doesn’t want to become too high profile because that would be a threat to their role, since he was a symbol of democratic power. So it seemed terribly poignant and ironic that here was this man who really symbolizes what the U.S. says is the type of man they want to support, and the type of democracy they want to support, and yet he was shunned by the U.S. and overthrown. He’s shunned by the religious leaders, and he would be, as you say, a footnote in history, probably, except for your book.
KINZER: Democracy in Iran is something that we still claim we want to promote. But my book, I think, shows why Iranians are so skeptical and so dubious when they hear Americans saying: "We want to come to your country and push you towards democracy." They look at us and say: "Are you kidding? We had a democracy and you crushed it."
This is why I say other people in the world see us differently from the way we see ourselves. We see ourselves as the great promoters of democracy, but the people of Iran know from their history that we were just the opposite. Therefore, as we make our plans for how to deal with the current turbulence in Iran, we have to realize that no one there will take seriously our claims to be supporting democracy. If we want to support democracy, we need to do it in a way that does not try to posit the United States as a savior. Nobody in Iran will accept us in that role.
BUZZFLASH: Stephen, thank you very much. And again, I really did enjoy your book. Particularly your portrayal of Mossadegh -- what a Balzacian figure.
KINZER: While I was writing this book, when I found out that he had been the Man of the Year in Time Magazine, with some difficulty, I managed to locate a copy. I had it framed, and right at this moment I’m looking right at it on the wall. Man of the Year -- there he is. So, I feel that I’m resurrecting him, and that’s a great feeling.
BUZZFLASH: Good luck with the book.
KINZER: Thanks so much.