Steve Kettmann's Reviews > All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

All the Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer
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May 02, 2010

really liked it

My S.F. Chronicle review from 2003:

Nearly two years after the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, it's fair to start poking through the legacy of U.S. foreign policy and raise troubling questions about the extent to which our own past misdeeds ultimately boomeranged on us. Few readers of "All the Shah's Men," by longtime New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, can come away without grave suspicions that Sept.
11 was in many ways a self-inflicted wound.

What American crime could explain so sensational a charge? Simply that U.S. leaders in the early 1950s lacked the courage of their convictions and did not really believe in democracy. Instead, despite the post-Stalin vacuum of power in the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower held his nose and gave the CIA the OK to overthrow the elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.

If you've never heard of Mossadegh, don't feel bad. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine as "Man of the Year" for 1951, no small feat for a year when Henry Luce could easily have chosen Winston Churchill, Harry Truman or Ike. But in the years since his illegal ouster, Mossadegh has slipped into a deep obscurity, unless of course you happen to be Iranian. To most Iranians, he remains a potent symbol of freedom and the hope of democracy, and most have long been aware of the millions of dollars the CIA spent to topple his government, a dirty chapter in U.S. history finally owned up to during the Clinton administration.

"Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?" a relative of Mossadegh demands of Kinzer. "We always loved America. To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us. But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had that problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran. All your trouble started in 1953. Why, why did you do it?"

Why, why indeed? The short answer is that then as now, U.S. decision-makers based their choices on alarmist, highly ideological interpretations of short- term problems and left the toxic fallout to other administrations (and generations).

But by manipulating the Iranian media, renting thugs and bribing military officers, all to oust Mossadegh, the CIA virtually forced large numbers of Iranians to adopt a strident anti-Americanism. Desire for revenge against "the great Satan," seen in this context, is not nearly the puzzle it seemed to poor Jimmy Carter, hunkered down in the White House during the hostage crisis. The anti-Americanism that thrived in Iran's Muslim community soon spread to influence other radicals in the region, most especially Osama bin Laden.

Kinzer, co-author of "Bitter Fruit," a classic study of the CIA-sponsored coup against Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, emphasizes the importance of British influence in Iran, and in particular, the role of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadegh nationalized the company only after the British ignored repeated American pleas to compromise and split profits 50-50 with the Iranians.

The smugness of British imperial disdain for the Iranians ought to serve as a bracing reminder to the contemporary reader of how unchecked global power can lead to a deep -- and deeply stupid -- form of arrogance. Before Mossadegh showed up at the U.N. in New York for a dramatic appearance, British delegate Gladwyn Jebb made a speech that showed a complete lack of understanding of the resentment imperialism could inspire.

Despite the appalling living conditions of workers at the company's huge oil refinery in Iran, as British directors lived nearby in luxury, Jebb sputtered on patronizingly about how the company's profiteering in Iran "must arouse the greatest admiration from the social point of view and should be taken as a model of the form of development which would bring benefits to the economically less-developed areas of the world."

The British had in fact discovered the oil in Iran, and had in fact built the refineries and assembled the fleet of tankers to transport it around the world. But the unwillingness of British leaders, including Churchill, to accept even a 50-50 split of the billions derived from Iranian oil was a costly miscalculation.

The truly sad part of the story concerns American willingness to take over as a pawn of the British, once Mossadegh had the good sense to evict all United Kingdom diplomats (and spies) from his country as their scheming to overthrow him reached fever pitch. The Dulles brothers, key aides to Eisenhower, did not argue that Mossadegh himself was a Communist or was likely to turn to the Soviets, only that they needed him removed to install Mohammed Rezah Shah and bolster him as a hedge against Soviet expansionism. As Kinzer notes, the Dulles brothers showed little awareness of what they were getting their country into with the first U.S. action to overthrow a foreign government.

"Their decision to make Iran the first battleground of their crusade may or may not have been wise, but they deserve to be judged harshly for the way they made it," he writes. "Even before taking their oaths of office, both brothers had convinced themselves beyond all doubt that Mossadegh must go. They never even considered the possibility that a coup might be a bad idea or that it might have negative consequences. History might view their action more favorably if it had been the result of serious, open-minded reflection and debate. Instead, it sprang from petulant impatience, from a burning desire to do something, anything, that would seem like a victory over communism. . . . Iran was the place they chose to start showing the world that the United States was no longer part of what Vice President Richard Nixon called 'Dean Acheson's college of cowardly Communist containment.' "

Steve Kettmann, editor of "Game Time," the new Roger Angell collection, lives in New York.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi...

This article appeared on page M - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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