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Los Angeles Times
BOOK REVIEW - The
overthrow of democracy in Iran. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and
the Roots of Middle East Terror, Stephen Kinzer, John Wiley
& Sons: 258 pp., $24.95.
By Nikki R. Keddie, professor emerita of Middle Eastern and
history at UCLA and is the author of "Modern Iran: Roots and Results of
Revolution." Jul 6 2003
Fifty years ago, the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, the
popular, democratically elected prime minister of Iran, and reinstalled
the country's exiled monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah. In "All the Shah's
Men," Stephen Kinzer, a longtime New
York Times correspondent, covers
this event in an exciting narrative. He questions whether Americans are
well served by interventions for regime change abroad, and he reminds
us of the long history of Iranian resistance to great power
interventions, as well as the unanticipated consequences of
Mossadegh's overthrow in 1953 undermined Iran's progress toward
democracy and independence, shored up a dictatorial monarchy backed by
the United States and ultimately strengthened the only opposition the
shah could not suppress — the Islamic opposition. Although Mossadegh's
government was more popular than today's Iranian regime, it was
depicted in the U.S. media as unpopular, and the coup against it was
portrayed as a popular victory.
The coup was the first of a series of secret U.S. interventions to
overthrow popular elected governments, including those in Guatemala
(1954) and Chile (1973), and to replace them with regimes that were,
like the shah's, oppressive and unpopular. Kinzer's detailed
examination of this paradigmatic intervention (whose consequences
continue to reverberate) is instructive.
On Aug. 19, 1953, Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup led by U.S.
agents in a plan devised by the British Secret Service. Though a few
Americans and many Iranians blamed the United States and Britain, the
official and widely accepted American story was that this was a
spontaneous popular uprising. In fact, as Kinzer convincingly relates,
the coup was the product of careful planning and some on-the-scene
improvisations by its chief U.S. agent, Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson
of Theodore Roosevelt.
The coup transformed a constitutional monarchy with real political
parties into an absolute monarchy in which elections and parliament
were completely subject to the will of the shah. Because growing
dissent had no licit political outlet, Ayatollah Khomeini and those
clergy who followed him grew stronger and, in 1978, encouraged the
series of popular demonstrations that led to the shah's overthrow in
The writing of "All the Shah's Men" was made possible, as Kinzer
says in his acknowledgments, by the research and writing of Mark
Gasiorowski and other scholars. They have done the hard work of digging
through official documents and interviewing ex-CIA and other persons to
piece together this important story, some of which has already appeared
in books and articles, with more to appear in the forthcoming "Mohammad
Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran" (Syracuse University Press), edited
by Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne.
Kinzer shows the extreme reaction of the British when the Iranian
parliament, in 1951, voted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.,
most of whose shares were owned by the British government.
Nationalization was a response to Britain's refusal fundamentally to
change its existing exploitative concession. The British, despite their
Labor government's nationalization of several British industries,
refused to accept either a 50-50 profit sharing agreement or the
compensated nationalization the Iranians offered. The British Secret
Service planned Mossadegh's overthrow, but, with Harry S. Truman as
president, the United States refused to join the British.
Kinzer attributes this refusal to the cited views of Truman and
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, but some scholars think the U.S.
government and oil companies did not want Anglo-Iranian to continue its
monopoly in Iran with its uniquely favorable terms. Unfortunately, the
political motivations of leaders are more easily documented than the
economic motives of politicians with ties to oil, international finance
When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, he brought
with him the Dulles brothers — John Foster as secretary of state and
Allen as head of the CIA. Both had big business backgrounds and thought
Iran's nationalization threatened oil concessions everywhere. An
alarming situation was presented to the American and British public:
that Iran's communist Tudeh Party was about to take over a strategic
country bordering the Soviet Cold War foe, and that Mossadegh's moves
were a threat to Western oil access. (In fact, all oil-exporting
countries, even communist ones, were eager to sell oil to the West,
their most important market.) What was threatened, Kinzer shows, was
not access to Iranian oil but the huge profits of oil companies. The
communist threat argument was weak, as nationalists were far stronger
and would be further strengthened by international recognition of oil
Even before taking office, the Dulles brothers dealt with the
British regarding Mossadegh's overthrow and soon convinced an initially
doubtful Eisenhower. Winston Churchill and his Conservatives had
defeated the Labor government and had launched an aggressive series of
anti-Mossadegh operations that caused Iran to break diplomatic
relations and expel all British subjects. Hence the British handed over
to the Americans their coup plans and ties to Iranian operatives. Money
was liberally distributed to Iranian agents, who handed out some of it
to mobs under their control.
Several dramatic points of the plot stand out in Kinzer's account.
One is the failure of the original coup plot, of which Mossadegh got
prior warning, followed by the improvisation of Roosevelt. A striking
feature of the new plan was its use of agents provocateurs, a point
documented by Gasiorowski in his 1991 book "U.S. Foreign Policy and the
Shah: Building a Client State in Iran."
Key to Roosevelt's plan was the payment of fake nationalist and
Tudeh mobs that rampaged through Tehran with radical anti-royalist
slogans, overthrowing statues of the Pahlavi shahs and other monarchic
symbols. Mossadegh had to call in the police to put down the mobs with
much force, and he called for people to stay home and not demonstrate.
The absence of crowds supporting Mossadegh gave Roosevelt the opening
to use a paid-off mob, led by thugs and athletic strongmen, on Aug. 19.
Roosevelt had also made arrangements with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, a
former Nazi collaborator, to become prime minister, and he informed the
shah, who had fled to Rome with Queen Soraya, of the situation in the
With the support of the mob and some military, the coup succeeded.
The Tudeh, owing to divisions and to Mossadegh's acts and orders
against demonstrations, did not send cadres to the streets, nor did the
nationalists. Mossadegh and much of his Cabinet were arrested, and
Zahedi became prime minister. The United States began pouring in
economic and military aid, backing the shah as guardian of the region.
A 1954 oil agreement retained nationalization in name only, with
real power going to a consortium consisting of Anglo-Iranian, U.S.
companies and a few international companies. Over the decades there was
a reinstatement of nationalization, though, as long as it was under the
shah, the U.S. did not worry and U.S. companies profited from oil
At the time, the coup seemed a great success for U.S. policy.
Since 1979, its success seems doubtful. American hostility to
nationalists such as Mossadegh, Sukarno in Indonesia and Gamal Abdel
Nasser in Egypt encouraged major governmental changes, but neither the
governments that followed nor the Islamist movements that grew up once
nationalism and communism failed resulted in policies favorable to
their peoples or, ultimately, to the U.S. The day when Western
governments controlled governments in non-Western areas has passed, as
their people no longer accept such foreign intervention.
As Kinzer's book suggests, had the 1953 coup not occurred Iran
might well have by now developed its parliamentary monarchy to become a
full-fledged functioning democracy. The coup gave heart to U.S. leaders
who wanted to overthrow governments considered threats, yet the
ultimate anti-U.S. "blowback" against these operations in Iran and
elsewhere has not inhibited future plans to change other governments.