Effects of ill-advised CIA plot in Iran still haunts U.S.
By John M. Crisp
Now that Iran looms on our horizon, here's a story that every American should know. Journalist Sandra Mackey tells it in "The Iranians," as does Daniel Yergin in "The Prize," his monumental history of oil. But the best extended version of the story that I've read is in "All the Shah's Men" by Stephen Kinzer. Although other historians have told this story as well, I suspect that the average American has never heard of Mohammad Mossadegh and Operation Ajax. To make a long story short:
Kinzer says that democracy dawned in Iran in 1891 when the shah's wives - he had a harem of around 1,600 - gave up smoking in protest of the shah's sale of the tobacco concession to the British. In fact, the shah, Nasir al-Din, sold concessions of all sorts - mineral rights, railroads, banks - to foreigners in order to support his extravagant tastes. But the shah's son committed an even greater treachery on his own country by selling the oil concession to William Knox D'Arcy in 1901, granting exclusive rights to Iranian petroleum to the British for a period of 60 years.
The unfavorable terms of this concession, as well as many other abuses of monarchial power, led to the Iranian Revolution of 1905, the diminishment of the shah's power, the establishment of a parliament and the beginnings of a democratic tradition in Iran. In the meantime, D'Arcy discovered oil, a resource that suddenly became enormously valuable when Britain converted its coal-burning warships to oil just before World War I.
Naturally, the British favored a friendly, compliant monarchy to balance the power of the parliament, which might have other ideas about the extremely unfavorable terms of the petroleum concession. They found their man in Reza Khan and staged a coup in 1921. Reza soon became the shah, a dictatorial leader who suppressed the parliament and fathered Mohammad Reza, who Americans know as the shah of Iran.
The succession of Mohammad Reza, a weak leader with the personality of a playboy, provided an opportunity for the parliament to reassert power in Iran, which it did, under the leadership of Mohammad Mossadegh, a well-educated eccentric who had opposed the shah for many years. By 1951, Mossadegh was the prime minister, and he had emerged as an international spokesman for a global wave of anti-colonial nationalism. He addressed the United Nations and appeared on the cover of "Time" magazine. When Britain refused to renegotiate the exploitative terms of its oil concession, Iran nationalized the petroleum industry, to Britain's great consternation.
The British hinted at an armed invasion and planned a coup, but were unable to acquire the cooperation of President Truman, who had more sympathy for the emerging nationalism of the former colonies than for the old colonial powers. Things changed, however, when Eisenhower became president in 1952. The Dulles brothers, John Foster as secretary of State and Allen as CIA director, both devoted anti-Communists, convinced Eisenhower to support a coup that would depose Mossadegh and restore the power of the shah to stand as a bulwark against the U.S.S.R.
Operation Ajax, planned and financed by the CIA and orchestrated by Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, was pulled off in August 1953. Hundreds died. Mossadegh was sent to prison for three years and spent the last 11 years of his life under house arrest. Supported by the U.S., the shah became a dictator who controlled Iran with secret police and terror until he was deposed in 1979, when, some historians believe, the U.S. hostages were taken in order to prevent another restoration of the Shah, like the one that occurred in 1953.
Although most Americans never knew or have forgotten this story, many Iranians have not, and the effects of Operation Ajax persist. But the point of the story isn't to berate ourselves over an unseemly intervention into Iran more than 50 years ago. We should note, however, that the story implies that the current radical regime in Iran isn't inevitable, nor does it enjoy the support of all Iranians. Our diplomacy should be careful not to weaken moderates by overly demonizing the leadership. As bad as its leadership is at present, the country itself isn't inherently evil and it retains echoes of a short-lived democratic tradition in its past.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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