Should the U.S. Have Overthrown Iran's Mossadegh?

Was it preordained? August 18 marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-orchestrated, and very successful, coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The ouster could be analyzed and judged as the first case of a CIA-crafted, covertly executed “regime change.”

“Operation Ajax” restored the briefly deposed Shah of Iran to the Peacock Throne, where he would reign for more than a quarter-century. It kept oil-rich Iran firmly in the American corner during the Cold War. It paved the way for operations such as the equally successful coup in Guatemala in 1954. And it was also obviously the lineal ancestor of such “successes” with mixed long-term outcomes as the assassination of pro-U.S. but heavy-handed strongmen Trujillo of the Dominican Republican in 1961 and Diem of South Vietnam in 1963.

In All the Shah’s Men, veteran New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer spins a tale and judges “Operation Ajax” with a vengeance.

“It is not far-fetched,” concludes Kinzer, who has reported from 50 countries on four continents, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and then Islamic Revolution [that sent him into exile in 1979] to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center [on Sept. 11, 2001].”

An awesome conclusion, to say the least: that a plot to stave off the specter of a pro-Soviet seizure of Iran and its oil fields a half-century ago spawned today’s anti-Western wave of terrorism from the world of Islamic fundamentalism.

Kinzer’s argument is compelling because he makes his point using the style of a spy thriller, with real-life characters who could easily be from Ian Fleming or John LeCarre: Mossadegh, the septuagenarian nationalist and democratically-elected prime minister, whose fits of tears and governance in pajamas from bed made him unforgettable; the Shah Reza Pahlevi, son of Iran’s most powerful rule, more comfortable romancing Hollywood starlets than with statecraft, who flew himself to exile at the first signs of a failed coup only to be restored to power to his own surprise; Other characters include Kermit Roosevelt (alias “Jim Lockridge”), grandson of Teddy and the CIA’s dashing man in Tehran, who turned the coup to a success within three days after it appeared to have collapsed; Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, namesake-father of the heroic Desert Storm commander and onetime narrator of radio’s “Gangbusters” series, who trained the Shah’s feared Savak secret police; and a young fundamentalist cleric named Ruhollah Khomeni, who would eventually assume absolute power in Iran after the Shah and denounced both monarchy and democracy (“Why do you talk of the Shah, Mossadegh, money? Islam is all that remains”).

When the Iranian military stood by Mossadegh and the Shah fled on August 15, the coup appeared doomed. Agent Roosevelt was ordered to abandon Tehran. Undeterred, he began spreading cash to key political actors. He mobilized entertainers, athletes, and circus acrobats, and other demonstrators into the streets. He convinced the military theat Mossadegh’s was the losing side. The prime minister was deposed, tried and spent his remaining years under House arrest. The Shad returned and ruled for a quarter-century, a stalwart ally of the U.S. in the Cold War and in Middle Eastern politics. The rest is history.

Was it right to depose a freely elected regime that was by no means Communist? Was, as Kinzer says, the U.S. action in 1953 the direct descendant of today’s Islamic terrorism?

A strong case can be made that Mossadegh was not a Communist although he was apparently not hostile to Communist elements within Iran. He was also a committed nationalist who remains a lionized figure in his country today. It is also inarguable that, with its strategic location along the Russian border and as the fourth-largest supplier of oil in the world, Iran was a major Soviet target in the post-war years.

In 1946, the well-organized Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran turned out tens of thousands of committed demonstrators for May Day. That same year, Tudeh proclaimed the “People’s Republic of Azerbaijan” in Iran’s northern province. Stalin ordered Soviet occupation troops to remain there and prevent Iranian soldiers from entering the province. Moscow also armed a local militia. Finally, with a catastrophic confrontation on the horizon, Stalin “withdrew his soldiers as [the first] Gen. Schwartzkopf’s gendarmes marched into Tabriz, the provincial capital. The People’s Republic of Azerbaijan faded into history.”

The degree to which Tudeh had gone and that Moscow was willing to go in placing Iranian turf under Soviet dominance was chilling. The U.S. also had legitimate doubts about whether Mossadegh-the “George Washington of Iran,” as Time Magazine dubbed him in naming the prime minister its “Man of the Year” in 1951-was the right leader to resist Soviet trouble-making.

(The day after North Korea invaded South Korea, President Truman-while friendly to Mossadegh and the cause of Iranian nationalism-nonetheless told an aide that Korea was not his only worry and, walking to a globe and placing his finger on Iran, said “Here is where they [the Soviets] will start trouble if we aren’t careful.”)

Mossadegh appeared to be respected for nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but there were serious questions about the depth of his popularity among the masses and his commitment to democracy. Kinzer concedes the point in describing the last referendum during Mossadegh’s tenure in power. Mossadegh vowed to resign if voters refused to oust the existing Majlis (parliament); “the announced result was over 99% in favor of throwing out the Majlis . . . . The referendum. . .was a disastrous parody of democracy.”

Kinzer’s attempt to link the toppling of Mossadegh in 1953 with the modern rise of Islamic fundamentalism falls short. The secular, European-educated Mossadegh was not close to the mullahs. Younger clerics such as Khomeni refuse to support him because they felt Mossadegh had abandoned Islam. The older and more influential Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani originally backed Mossadegh but the two had a falling out. The prime minister tried to oust Kashani as speaker of the Majlis. Kashani switched sides and supported the coup-with a $10,000 cash pay-off from Kermit Roosevelt.

Kinzer makes the serious blunder that other authors have made by applying today’s standards to the geopolitics of the Cold War. He comes up with a flawed case and revisionist history. When Eastern Europe and Mainland China were engulfed by Communism, just as the Soviets had successfully tested nuclear arms, it was logical to conclude that oil rich Iran was next on Moscow’s takeover list. A stable, pro-U.S. regime was a pivotal necessity in thwarting the Communist menace.

To say then the “regime change” in Iran a half-century ago caused the rise of militant fundamentalism today is to say the CIA could have foreseen what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.