All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
© 2003 Stephen Kinzler
On one dismal night in 1953, a conspiracy destroyed both Iranian democracy and American honor. At the dawn of the 1950s, Iran was struggling to free itself from British domination, a precursor to the bloody colonial revolutions that would mark the mid-20th century. Despite being a product of colonial rebellion itself, the United States would betray its own history and one of amiable relations with Iran to assert itself on the world stage. All the Shah’s Men is an admirably executed mix of espionage, history, and politics, brimming with passion.
Iran arrived at the 20th century in a sorry state; ruled by monarchs who were either corrupt or incompetent, it fell under the influence of both Russia and Britain, whose great game of tug-of-war used Iran as the rope, plundering its resources. While Russia would collapse into civil war in 1917, Britain proved a far more formidable opponent, securing a long-term monopoly over the harvesting of Iranian oil and natural gas, and virtually taking over the country in the 1940s during World War 2. For fifty years, Iran’s mineral wealth was literally siphoned out and shipped away: Iranians were denied the opportunity to learn and master the industry, granted only menial labor and a token share of the profits.
The forced abdication of the shah in 1943 meant that the Iranian parliament and its democratic offices were free to grow in legitimacy and authority. Increasingly, the parties running for office called for an end to British imperialism in Iran, and one Mohammad Mossadegh was particularly famous for his attack on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He called for better working conditions for laborers, the inclusion of Iranians in the engineering and administrative aspects of the oil business, and a more equitable division of profits between the British company and Iran. Britain would have none of it.
Mossadegh achieved office several times championing the cause of an independent Iran as the Truman administration gave way to Eisenhower’s. The change of American leadership was important, for while the British government wanted to take action in Iran, it wanted American support, in part because of D.C’s previous help in securing Iran against German interests. Truman had no interest whatsoever in going to bat for British petroleum, but Eisenhower had witnessed the fall of China to Communism and the unraveling of Korea, and — with help from Winston Churchill, no stranger to mideast debacles — he was sweettalked into seeing red in Iran. There would be no Persian Mao, not on Ike’s watch. While Britain considered and dismissed the idea of simply invading Iran, this was decided to be more trouble than it was worth. Far better to take the country from within, by using the lingering authority of the shah’s successor-prince to dismiss Mossadegh, and back him with the Iranian and Allied militaries as need be.
Although the coup initially seemed to be failing disastrously — arrests of conspirators were made, followed by the fleeing of the shah to Iraq — the American man on the ground was able to turn things around. Kermit Roosevelt was the son of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the first American executives to dream of the United States having a ‘place in the sun’, stretching its wings across the globe. Using the economic depression that followed Britain’s economic war against Iran, Roosevelt stirred up dissent and paid people to form an anti-Mossadegh mob that would march on the man’s house. He was arrested, his government fell, the shah returned, and– well, things just went downhill from there. Emboldened by outside support, the shah grew ever more tyrannical against his own people, until he was ousted by a religiously authoritative regime that was hostile to Mossadegh for its own reasons.
All the Shah’s Men succeeds brilliantly in part because of the connections Kinzler draws to broader Iranian history. The Iranians had thrown off another resource monopoly sixty years before, and in the process they established a constitutional government. While weak against the traditional authority of the shah, and his control of the military, it steadily acquired its own moral authority — increasingly seen as more legitimate than the shah, who was a creature of the outside world, forcing its designs on Iran, from control of Iranian resources to the forced adoption of Western suits and hats. Mossadegh’s championing of Iranian independence was not merely freedom from outside manipulation, but freedom from the unjust and arbitrary rule of the shah. The coup didn’t simply topple Mossadegh’s government: it and Anglo-American support of the shah thereafter sabotaged and reversed the trend toward Iranian self-government.
The coup not only derailed Iran’ development as a democratic and humane society, but has caused no end of trouble for both Britain and the United States, mostly the Americans who did the dirty work. When the shah was ousted in 1979 and sought refuge in the United States, Iranians who remembered 1953 thought they were about to re-witness history. Hadn’t the shah fled before, only to be returned under the aegis of the Americans? Such was the spark of the hostage crisis, leading to decades of hostility and cold fury between the powers in which Iran and the west continue to wage war against one another’s interests; in Iran’s case, this has taken the form of funding terrorist organizations.
All the Shah’s Men is one of the more outstanding books I’ve ever read; though principally about the conspiracy, Kinzler does a terrific job in explaining the historical context. But the book doesn’t read like a lecture; at times it has the feel of investigative journalism or a spy thriller. Kinzler isn’t just summarizing news articles, but relies on interviews with those who remember Mossadegh, for whom the man is a memory of a time when Iran’s destiny seemed its own to make, when the law was being strengthened as a redoubt against arbitrary authority instead of being used to execute it.