All the Shah’s Men: An
American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror - By Stephen Kinzer
"Life of Dr. Mossadegh"
-- A Look at the Iranian Leader Overthrown By the U.S.
50 Years After the
CIA’s First Overthrow of a Democratically Elected Foreign Government We Take
a Look at the 1953 US Backed Coup in Iran.
After nationalizing the
oil industry Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh
was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence. We
speak with Stephen Kinzer author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup And The Roots of
Middle East Terror and BaruchCollege professor ErvandAbrahamian.
This month marks the
50th anniversary of America’s first overthrow of a
democratically-elected government in the Middle East. In 1953, the CIA and British
intelligence orchestrated a coup d'état that toppled the democratically
elected government of Iran. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The aftershocks of the coup are still being
In 1951 Prime Minister Mossadegh roused Britain's ire when he nationalized the
oil industry. Mossadegh argued that Iran should begin profiting from its
vast oil reserves which had been exclusively controlled by the Anglo-Iranian
Oil Company. The company later became known as British Petroleum (BP).
military action, Britain opted for a coup d'état.
President Harry Truman rejected the idea, but when Dwight Eisenhower took
over the White House, he ordered the CIA to embark on one of its first covert
operations against a foreign government.
The coup was led by an
agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. The
CIA leaned on a young, insecure Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh as prime minister. Kermit Roosevelt had help
from Norman Schwarzkopf’s father: Norman Schwarzkopf.
The CIA and the British
helped to undermine Mossadegh's government through
bribery, libel, and orchestrated riots. Agents posing as communists
threatened religious leaders, while the US ambassador lied to the prime
minister about alleged attacks on American nationals.
Some 300 people died in
firefights in the streets of Tehran. Mossadegh
was overthrown, sentenced to three years in prison followed by house arrest
The crushing of Iran's first democratic government
ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the Shah, who relied
heavily on US aid and arms. The anti-American backlash that toppled the Shah
in 1979 shook the whole region and helped spread Islamic militancy.
After the 1979
revolution President Jimmy Carter allowed the deposed Shah into the U.S.
Fearing the Shah would be sent back to take over Iran as he had been in 1953,
Iranian militants took over the U.S. embassy - where the 1953 coup was staged
- and held hundreds hostage.
The 50th anniversary of
the coup was front-page news in Iranian newspapers. The Christian Science
Monitor reports one paper in Iran publishing excerpts from CIA
documents on the coup, which were released only three years ago.
The U.S. involvement in the fall of Mossadegh was not publicly acknowledged until three years
ago. In a New York Times article in March 2000, then-Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright admitted that "the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it
is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal
In his book All the
Shah’s Men, Kinzer argues that "it is not
far-fetched to draw a line from Operation "Ajax" was the name of
the coup through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to
the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York."
author of "All the Shah’s Men, An American Coup And The Roots of
Middle East Terror"
Prof. ErvandAbrahamian, Middle East and Iran Expert at BaruchCollege, CityUniversity of New York . Author of numerous book including Khomeinism:
Essays on the Islamic Republic (University of California Press, 1993).
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it's good to have you
with us. Stephen Kinzer, why don't we begin with you. This month, August 2003, 50 years ago, the C.I.A.
orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad
Mossadegh. Can you briefly tell us the story of how
this took place?
STEPHEN KINZER: This was a hugely important
episode, and looking at it from the prospective of history, we can see that
it really shaped a lot of the 50 years that have followed since then in the
Middle East and beyond. But yet, it's an episode that most Americans don't
even know happened. As I was writing my book, I had the sense that I was
dredging up an incident that had been largely forgotten. During my work, I
realized early on that Mossadegh, the prime
minister of Iran, had been the Man of the Year
for Time magazine in 1951. And after I realized that, I went to some trouble
and I finally located a copy of that Time magazine. And I framed it, and I
have it up on my wall. And it gave me the feeling that, not only am I digging
up this episode again, but I'm bringing back to life this figure of Mossadegh. He was really a huge figure in the world of
mid-century. This was a time, bear in mind, before the voice of the Third World, as we now call it, had ever
really been raised in world councils. This was a time before Castro, before
Nkrumah, before Sukharno, before Nasser. Mossadegh
actually showing up in New York and laying out Iran's case and by extension the
case of poor nations against rich nations was something very, very new for
the whole world. And what a figure he was. This book is full of amazing
characters. Not just Kermit Roosevelt, the guy who planned the coup. But Mossadegh--tall, sophisticated, European-educated
aristocrat--but also highly emotional, a guy who would start sobbing and
sometimes even faint dead away in Parliament when giving speeches about the
suffering of the Iranian people. When he embraced the national cause of that
period, which was the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, he
set himself on a collision course with the great powers in the world. And
that collision has produced effects which we're still living with today.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Anglo - Iranian
STEPHEN KINZER: The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company
arrived in Iran in the early part of the
twentieth century. It soon struck the largest oil well that had ever been
found in the world. And for the next half-century, it pumped out hundreds of
millions of dollars worth of oil from Iran. Now, Britain held this monopoly. That meant
it only had to give Iran a small amount--it turned out
to be 16 percent--of the profits from what it produced. So the Iranian oil is
actually what maintained Britain at its level of prosperity and
its level of military preparedness all throughout the '30s, the '40s, and the
'50s. Meanwhile, Iranians were getting a pittance,
they were getting almost nothing from the oil that came out of their own
soil. Naturally, as nationalist ideas began to spread through the world in
the post-World War II era, this injustice came to grate more and more
intensely on the Iranian people. So they carried Mossadegh
to power very enthusiastically. On the day he was elected prime minister,
Parliament also agreed unanimously to proceed with the nationalization of the
oil company. And the British responded as you would imagine. Their first
response was disbelief. They just couldn't believe that someone in some weird
faraway country--which was the way they perceived Iran--would stand up and challenge
such an important monopoly. This was actually the largest company in the
When it finally became clear that Mossadegh was
quite serious, the British decided to launch an invasion. They drew up plans
for seizing the oil refinery and the oil fields. But President Truman went
nuts when he heard this and he told the British, under no circumstances can
we possibly tolerate a British invasion of Iran. So then the British went to
their next plan, which was to get a United Nations resolution demanding that Mossadegh return the oil company. But Mossadegh
embraced this idea of a U.N. debate so enthusiastically that he decided to
come to New York himself and he was so
impressive that the U.N. refused to adopt the British motion. So finally, the
British decided that they would stage a coup, they would overthrow Mossadegh. But what happened, Mossadegh
found out about this and he did the only thing he could have done to protect
himself against the coup. He closed the British embassy and he sent all the
British diplomats packing, including, among them, all the secret agents who
were planning to stage the coup. So now, the British had to turn to the United States. They went to Truman and asked
him, please overthrow Mossadegh for us. He said no.
He said the C.I.A. had never overthrown a government and, as far as he was
concerned, it never should. So, now, the British were completely without
resources. They couldn't launch an invasion, the U.N. had turned down their
complaint, they had no agents to stage a coup. So
they were stymied. It wasn't until November of 1952 when British foreign
office and intelligence officials received the electrifying news that Dwight
Eisenhower had been elected president that things began to change. They
rushed one of their agents over to Washington. He made a special appeal to
the incoming Eisenhower administration. And that administration reversed the
Truman policy agreed to send Kermit Roosevelt to Tehran to carry out this fateful coup.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from our
break, we'll find out just what Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy
Roosevelt, and Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the man who led the Persian
Gulf War, Norman Schwarzkopf, did in Iran. Stay with us. We're talking to
Stephen Kinzer. He's author of All
the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy
Now!, the War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman on
this 50th anniversary of the C.I.A.-backed coup that overthrew the
democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh.
We're talking to Stephen Kinzer. He is author of a
new book, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and
the Roots of Middle East Terror. In a minute, we're going to go to old film
about the coup where former C.I.A. agents talk about their role in it. But
talk about the man in the C.I.A. who spearheaded this, Kermit Roosevelt.
STEPHEN KINZER: One of the reasons I wanted to
write this book was because I've always been curious about exactly how you go
about overthrowing a government. What do you do after you choose an agent and
assign a lot of money? Exactly how do you go about doing it? Kermit Roosevelt
really is a wonderful way to answer that question. What happened was this:
Kermit Roosevelt, who as you said was Teddy Roosevelt's grandson, was the
Near East director for the C.I.A. He slipped clandestinely into Iran just around the end of July
1953. He spent a total of less than three weeks in Iran--that's only how long it took
him to overthrow the government of Mossadegh. And
one thing that I did realize as I was piecing together this story is how easy
it is for a rich, powerful country to throw a poor, weak country into chaos.
So what did Roosevelt do? The first thing he did was
he wanted to set Tehran on fire. He wanted to make Iran fall into chaos. So he bribed a
whole number of politicians, members of Parliament, religious leaders,
newspaper editors and reporters, to begin a very intense campaign against Mossadegh. This campaign was full of denunciatory
speeches and lies about Mossadegh, dated and
passed, without bitter denunciations of Mossadegh
from the pulpits and in the streets, on the houses of Parliament. Then, Roosevelt also went out and bribed
leaders of street gangs. You had a kind of "Mobs 'R' Us,"
mobs-for-hire, kind of situation existing in Iran at that time. Roosevelt got in touch with the leaders
of these mobs. Finally, he also bribed a number of military officers who
would be willing to bring their troops in on his side at the appropriate
moment. So when that moment came, the fig leaf of the coup was, as you said,
this document that the Shah had signed, rejecting the prime ministership of Mossadegh,
essentially firing him from office. Now, this was a decree that was of very
dubious legality since in democratic Iran only the Parliament could hire
and fire prime ministers. Nonetheless, the idea was that this decree would be
delivered to Mossedegh at his house at one night and then, when he
refused to obey it, as he probably would, he would be arrested. That was the
plot. But what happened was that the officer that Kermit Roosevelt had chosen
to go to Mossdegh's house at , presented the decree firing Mossadegh and preparing to arrest him but other, loyal
soldiers stepped out of the shadows and arrested him. The coup had been
betrayed. The plot failed. The man who was supposed to arrest Mossadegh was himself arrested. And Kermit Roosevelt woke
up the next day with a cable from his superiors in the C.I.A. telling him, My
God, you failed, you better get out of there right away before they find you
and kill you. But Kermit Roosevelt, on his own, decided that he would stay.
He figured, I can still do this, I was sent here to overthrow this government,
I'm going to make up my own plan.
AMY GOODMAN: Now he had help before from
Norman Schwarzkopf, is that right, Schwarzkopf's father?
STEPHEN KINZER: There's a fantastic cast of
characters in this story and one of them is Norman Schwarzkopf, who had been
the head of the investigation into the Lindhburg
kidnapping while with the New Jersey state police, had spent many
years in Iran during the 1940s, and was a
very flamboyant figure with great influence on the Shah. He was one of the
people that Kermit Roosevelt brought in to pressure the timid Shah into
signing this fateful decree. Now, the decree finally failed to have its
desired effect, as I said. And then Roosevelt on his own devised this plan
where, first of all, he sent rioters out into the streets to pretend that
they were pro-Mossadegh. They were supposed to yell
"I love Mossadegh and communism. I want a
people's republic!" and then loot stores, shoot into mosques, break
windows, and generally make themselves repugnant to good citizens. Then he
hired another mob to attack his first mob, thereby creating the impression
that Iran was falling into anarchy. And
finally on the climactic day, August 19, 1953, he brought all his mobs
together, mobilized all of his military units, stormed a number of government
buildings and then, in the climactic gunbattle at Mossadegh's house, a hundred people were killed until
finally the coup succeeded, Mossadegh had to flee
and was later arrested, and the Shah, who had fled in panic at the first sign
of trouble a few days earlier, returned in triumph to Tehran and began what
became 25 years of increasingly brutal and repressive rule.
AMY GOODMAN: That issue of the U.S. government funding both the
people in the streets who pretended that they were for Mossadegh
but communist, and against Mossadegh, pro-Shah, I
would like our guest, professor ErvandAbrahamian, Middle East and Iran expert at BaruchCollege, to comment on. This was a
time, the British had used the ruse of anti-communism supposedly to lure in
the U.S. Do you think the U.S. was fully well aware of the
issue of oil being at the core of this, and also them possibly getting a cut
of those oil sales.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, I think oil is the central
issue. But of course this was done at the height of the Cold War, so much of the discourse at the time linked it to the
Cold War. I think many liberal historians, including of course Stephen Kinzer's wonderful book here, even though it's very good
in dealing with the tragedy of the '53 coup, still puts it in this liberal
framework that the tragedy, the original intentions, were benign.--that the
U.S. really got into it because of the Cold War and it was hoodwinked into it
by the nasty British who of course had oil interests, but the U.S. somehow
was different. U.S. Eisenhower's interest, were really anti-communism. I sort
of doubt that interpretation. For me, the oil was important both for the United States and for Britain. It's not just the question of
oil in Iran. It was a question of control
over oil internationally. If Mossadegh had
succeeded in nationalizing the British oil industry in Iran, that would have
set an example and was seen at that time by the Americans as a threat to U.S.
oil interests throughout the world, because other countries would do the
same. Once you have control, then you can determine how much oil you produce
in your country, who you sell it to, when you sell it,
and that meant basically shifting power from the oil companies, both British
Petroleum, Angloversion, American companies,
shifting it to local countries like Iran and Venezuela. And in this, the U.S. had as much stake in preventing
nationalization in Iran as the British did. So here
there was not really a major difference between the United States and the British. The question
really was on tactics. Truman was persuaded that he could in a way nudge Mossadegh to give up the concept of nationalization, that
somehow you could have a package where it was seen as if it was nationalized
but, in reality, power would remain in the hands of Western oil companies.
And Mossadegh refused to go along with this facade.
He wanted real nationalization, both in theory and practice. So the Truman
administration, in a way, was not that different from the British view of
keeping control. Then, the Truman policy was then, if Mossadegh
was not willing to do this, then he could be shoved aside through politics by
the Shah dismissing him or the Parliament in Iran dismissing him. But again, it
was not that different from the British view. Where the shift came was that
after July of '52, it became clear even to the American ambassador in Iran that Mossadegh
could not be got rid of through the political process. He had too much
popularity, and after July '53, the U.S. really went along with the
British view of a coup, indeed to have a military coup. So even before
Eisenhower came in, the U.S. was working closely with the
British to carry out the coup. And what came out of the coup was of course
the oil industry on paper remained Iranian, nationalized, but in reality it was
controlled by a consortium. In that consortium the British still retained
more than 50 percent, but the U.S. got a good 40 percent of that
AMY GOODMAN: I said at the top, this month
marks the 50th anniversary of America's first intervention in the Middle East. I should have said, of America's first overthrow of a
democratically elected government. But, Stephen Kinzer,
the statement that you make in your book, it is not far-fetched to draw a
line from Operation Ajax, which the U.S. had called the coup through the
Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic revolution to the fireballs that
engulfed the World Trade Center in New York. Can you flush that out?
STEPHEN KINZER: The goal of our coup was to
overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh and place the
Shah back in his throne. And we succeeded in doing that. But from the
perspective of decades of history, we can look back and ask whether what
seemed like a success really was a success. The Shah whom we brought back to
power became a harsh dictator. His repression set off the revolution of 1979,
and that revolution brought to power a group of fanatic anti-Western,
religious clerics whose government sponsored acts of terror against American
targets, and that government also inspired fundamentalists in other countries
including next door, Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power and gave
sanctuary to Al Qaeda and Osama
bin Laden. So, I think you can--while it's always difficult to draw direct
cause and effect lines in history--see that this episode has had shattering
effects for the United States. And let's consider one other
of the many negative affects this has had. When we overthrew a democratic
government in Iran 50 years ago, we sent a
message, not only to Iran, but throughout the entire Middle East. That message was that the United States does not support democratic
governments and the United States prefers strong-man rule that
will guarantee us access to oil. And that pushed an entire generation of
leaders in the Middle East away from democracy. We sent the opposite message that
we should have sent. Instead of sending the message that we wanted democracy,
we sent a message that we wanted dictatorship in the Middle East, and a lot of people in the Middle East got that message very clearly
and that helped to lead to the political trouble we face there today.
AMY GOODMAN: Right after the Shah was
deposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution of 1979 and then
the Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy, I'm wondering, Professor Abrahamian, how often did the press, and understanding
through the hundreds of days that the hostages were held, go back to the 1953
coup and explain the fears of the students that in 1953 the Shah had fled
thinking that the coup had been fought back and the U.S. brought him back and
that now that Jimmy Carter had allowed him into the United States, that they
might be staging another possible coup, leading the students to fear this and
to take the hostages.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: I think on this issue actually
you see a big cultural gap between the American public and the Iranian
public. For the Iranian public, the '53 coup shapes basically Iranian
history, as Stephen shows very much in his book. But for Americans, the '53
coup was something unreal for them. It wasn't something they were aware of.
If they were aware it, it was like Jimmy Carter saying that this was ancient
history. For the U.S. it may have been ancient
history but for Iranians it was not. So when the students took over the embassy,
they actually called it the "den of spies" because they knew that
in '53 the coup had been actually plotted from the U.S. compound. So they were--
AMY GOODMAN: That very building that they
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: That very building. And that,
for Iranians, was a central issue. In the United States, if you watch how the media
covered it here, it saw the hostage crisis as Iranian emotional rampaging
mobs in the streets calling for death of America and the '53 coup was
intentionally not brought into that context. So you can go for reams of
programs on the main channels in the United States about the hostage crisis, which
lasted 444 days, and you rarely get the mention of the '53 coup. This was
intentional. The media here did not want to make that link to '53.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we're going to go right
now back to an older documentary that very much lays out what happened in
'53, with interestingly enough, former C.I.A. agents. I want to thank you,
Professor Abrahamian, for being with us from BaruchCollege, and Steven Kinzer,
author of the new book, All the Shah's Men: An
American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Stay with us.
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What lessons have we
learned fifty years after the U.S.-British sponsored coup that toppled the
popular government of Dr. Mossadegh in Iran?
This event provides for an in-depth review of the historical
context of the 1953 coup, the U.S.
and the British foreign policy motives and interests in covert intervention in Iran.
The speakers will assess the impact of the coup on the political and economic
development in Iran
and the Middle East,
and its relevance to today’s U.S.
foreign policy advocating more regime changes in the region.
Economics, University of Minnesota, Morris
International Relations, Bennington College
Professor of History, UCLA
Life of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh
documentary film will be screened following a Q & A session.
November 8, 2003 6-10 PM
2050, Valley Life Science Building, U.C. Berkeley
Radio 94.1 FM, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of History
and ASUC at UC Berkeley, Iranian Student Alliance in America