- After nationalizing the oil industry Iranian Prime Minister
Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and
British intelligence. We speak with Stephen Kinzer author of All the Shahís
Men: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror and Baruch College
professor Ervand Abrahamian.
- This month marks the 50th anniversary of Americaís
first overthrow of a democratically-elected foreign government.
- In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence orchestrated
a coup díetat that toppled the democratically elected government
of Iran. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The aftershocks of the coup
are still being felt.
- 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
- After considering military action, Britain opted for
a coup d'Ètat. 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 Schwarzkopfís father: Norman
- 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
- Mossadegh was overthrown, sentenced to three years in
prison followed by house arrest for life.
- 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 affairs."
- In his book All the Shahís Men, Kinzer argues
that "[i]t is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [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." Stephen Kinzer, author All the Shahís Men, An American
Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror Prof. Ervand Abrahamian, Middle
East and Iran Expert at Baruch College, City University of New York . Author
of numnerous 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 Mossaugh--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 Oil Company.
- 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
entire British Empire. 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
- 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. [MUSIC BREAK]
- 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 that 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 midnight 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 midnight, 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 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 Ervand Abrahamian, Middle East and Iran expert at Baruch College,
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 control.
- 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
- 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
- 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 took over.
- 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 Baruch College, 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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