< Back to The Price of Oil, The Price of Life web links
OBITUARIES - KERMIT ROOSEVELT June 16 2000
Kermit Roosevelt, former CIA agent, was born in 1916. He died on June 8 aged 84
Mastermind of the CIA coup that put the Shah of Iran back on his Peacock Throne in 1953
|Roosevelt: urbane and courteous, but nevertheless
"up to his neck in dirty tricks"
The background to the crisis was Iran's substantial oil reserves, which
in the early 1950s - like the Suez Canal in Egypt not so long afterwards
- were becoming a focus for nationalist sentiment. As soon as Mossadeq became
Prime Minister of Iran in 1951, with the support of the Tudeh (Communist)
Party, the debate over them moved from aspiration to direct action.
In 1952 Mossadeq nationalised Iran's (mainly British-owned) oil resources, an action which put him beyond the pale with the Americans, who swiftly came to regard him as being the thin end of one of the Cold War's many wedges. From that moment they saw him as opening the door to the Soviet domination of Iran - although in fact he had been as much opposed to giving the Soviet Union an oil concession in the north of the country as he was to the dominance in the south of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the forerunner of BP).
But with the Americans obsessed with the Soviet danger to their interests worldwide, and in the uncertain climate that prevailed within the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Stalin's death, this obvious fact could not save Mossadeq. And the British Government of Winston Churchill, enraged at the nationalisation of its huge oil assets, was even more anxious to have him removed.
When British Intelligence approached the CIA about the possibility of toppling him, it found a ready ear, and a plan - Operation Ajax - was formulated with remarkably little discussion of the ethics of removing the legitimate government of a foreign country. It was the precursor of several such infamous actions by the CIA.
Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and the head of the CIA's Middle East division, was the man for the job. A man of languid coolness, he was dispatched to Iran where, on August 3, 1953, he confronted the Shah and bluntly told him that there would have to be an insurrectionary solution to the Mossadeq problem, with the support of the army absolutely vital to success.
But the frightened monarch havered, and it was for Roosevelt to "help" key members of the armed forces to realise where their loyalties lay and physically to assist them to carry out their "duties". In particular he arranged for the influential army commander, General Fazlolah Zahedi, to make an address to the country over the radio, which was to prove important to the Shah's cause.
In spite of all these precautions, the success of the coup was in its early days far from a foregone conclusion. There was widespread rioting from crowds who remained loyal to Mossadeq, and for several days it was difficult to tell whether Roosevelt's tactics were succeeding or not. The Shah himself so doubted the outcome that on August 16 he fled the country and took refuge in Baghdad.
But CIA money was lavished on officials and police. Mossadeq supporters were quietly done away with. Roosevelt gradually persuaded the wavering commanders of army units to show themselves on the streets at the head of their units and to face down the pro-Mossadeq mobs. Mossadeq and ministers and officers loyal to him were arrested, and on August 19, just three days after his flight, the Shah was able to return in triumph to his capital, where he later expressed his heartfelt gratitude to his saviour.
Mossadeq was more fortunate than many of his officers and his Foreign Minister, who were shot. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
As the years rolled by, and the oppressive rule of the Shah gave way in 1979 to the even more iron grip of Ayatollah Khomeini, it became difficult to recall why this relatively moderate secular nationalist should have been seen as such a bogeyman by the West. For many Iranians suffering under the Islamic fundamentalist state, Mossadeq became the symbol of all that Iran might have been without American intervention: a modern, progressive state, yet one independent of the West.
This was certainly a view shared by Shapour Bakhtiar, whose premiership in January 1979 was a brief liberal interlude between the extremes of the Shah and Khomeini.
But Roosevelt remained unrepentant. In his book Counter Coup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, which appeared in 1979, he made it clear that he had no qualms about the American involvement or the chain reaction it triggered, and no doubts about the rectitude of his actions. Whether his mind was changed by the taking of American hostages by the Khomeini regime, as a reaction to the giving of sanctuary to the deposed Shah, is not on record.
Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt was born in Buenos Aires into an illustrious political family. He was not only the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt but a distant cousin of another President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. His father worked in banking and shipping.
Kim Roosevelt was educated at Harvard, which he left to teach, briefly, before joining the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA. He specialised in the Middle East and travelled extensively in the region from his Washington base.
It was in Washington, in the late 1940s, that he met another famous spying Kim - Harold "Kim" Philby. Long after the latter's defection to the Soviet Union in 1963 he described his namesake as being a typically urbane, courteous Easterner, "the last person you would expect to be up to his neck in dirty tricks".
In 1958 Roosevelt left the CIA and he then worked for half a dozen years at Gulf Oil. Thereafter he was in demand as a consultant to American companies doing business in the Middle East and to Middle East governments in the US.
Kermit Roosevelt is survived by his wife Mary and by three sons.