All the Shah's Men
By David Henderson
On my summer vacation, I read more books and fewer blogs. The first book I’ve read this vacation is Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. It’s excellent.
I saw Kinzer speak at a Future of Freedom Foundation event in northern Virginia in 2008. I spoke there also, as did Glenn Greenwald, Bob Higgs, Sheldon Richman, Jonathan Turley and a number of others.. Kinzer’s speech–I think it was about Cuba–was excellent. Kinzer was a long-time New York Times reporter.
Kinzer tells the story, in great detail, of how Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of TR and an employee of the CIA, set in motion the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in the early 1950s. It’s fascinating and disturbing: I found Roosevelt even more evil than I had expected.
I remember that when the Iran radicals had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they chanted and had signs about the CIA. Shortly after November 1979, I learned the connection with the 1953 events, but I had just assumed that they were angry about the CIA’s role in 1953. Kinzer suggests an even more direct connection. He writes:
The hostage-takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself.
In the back of everybody’s mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d-etat had begun,” one of the hostage-takers explained years later. “Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible.”
The whole story is tragic. Iran was a fledgling democracy stopped in its tracks by the U.S. government at the behest of the British government. When the Iranians finally overthrew the Shah, they got, not another liberal democracy, but a vicious theocracy.
The motivation for the coup was to get back the oil company that Mossadegh had nationalized. I don’t defend nationalization, but overthrowing a government to reverse it is too extreme. I think Americans would be justly upset if, in response to the U.S. government’s nationalization of an Iranian firm, Iran’s government fomented a coup against the U.S. government. Moreover, as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of the Labour government, had said at the time: “What argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country? We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel.”
Three other highlights, two economic, one not:
Incentives: “When the British government insisted that he [Reza Shah, the brutal self-proclaimed prime minister after a coup, from the 1920s to 1941] hire European engineers to build the rail line that was one of his grandest dreams, he did so on the condition that the engineers and their families agree to stand beneath each bridge they built when a train passed over it for the first time.”
Misunderstanding of trade, on Kinzer’s part and possibly on the part of the British, especially Churchill:
“Oil had been discovered around the Caspian Sea, in the Dutch East Indies, and in the United States, but neither Britain nor any of its colonies produced or showed any promise of producing it. If the British could not find oil elsewhere, they would no longer be able to rule the waves or much of anything else.”
Not true: they could buy it.
Woodrow Wilson, whom I’ve generally regarded as one of the three worst U.S. presidents:
“The United States sharply criticized the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement through which Britain acquired colonial powers in Iran. That same year at Versailles, President Wilson was the only world leader who supported Iran’s unsuccessful claim for monetary compensation from Britain and Russia for the effects of their occupation during World War I.”