Making it safe for the King of Kings
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
"So this is how we get rid of that madman Mossadegh,"
announced John Foster Dulles to a group of top Washington policy
makers one day in June 1953. The Secretary of State held in his
hand a plan of operation to overthrow the prime minister of Iran
prepared by Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt of the CIA. There was scarcely
any discussion amongst the high powered men in the room, no probing
questions, no legal or ethical issues raised.
"This was a grave decision to have made," Roosevelt
later wrote. "It involved tremendous risk. Surely it deserved
thorough examination, the closest consideration, somewhere at
the very highest level. It had not received such thought at this
meeting. In fact, I was morally certain that almost half of those
present, if they had felt free or had the courage to speak, would
have opposed the undertaking."
Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore and distant cousin of
Franklin, was expressing surprise more than disappointment at
glimpsing American foreign-policy-making undressed.
The original initiative to oust Mossadegh had come from the
British, for the elderly Iranian leader had spearheaded the parliamentary
movement to nationalize the British owned Anglo-lranian Oil Company
(AIOC), the sole oil company operating in Iran. In March 1951,
the bill for nationalization was passed, and at the end of April
Mossadegh was elected prime minister by a large majority of Parliament.
On 1 May, nationalization went into effect. The Iranian people,
Mossadegh declared, "were opening a hidden treasure upon
which lies a dragon".
As the prime minister had anticipated, the British did not
take the nationalization gracefully, though it was supported unanimously
by the Iranian parliament and by the overwhelming majority of
the Iranian people for reasons of both economic justice and national
pride. The Mossadegh government tried to do all the right things
to placate the British: It offered to set aside 25 percent of
the net profits of the oil operation as compensation; it guaranteed
the safety and the jobs of the British employees; it was willing
to sell its oil without disturbance to the tidy control system
so dear to the hearts of the international oil giants. But the
British would have none of it. What they wanted was their oil
company back. And they wanted Mossadegh's head. A servant does
not affront his lord with impunity.
A military show of force by the British navy was followed
by a ruthless international economic blockade and boycott, and
a freezing of Iranian assets which brought Iran's oil exports
and foreign trade to a virtual standstill, plunged the already
impoverished country into near destitution, and made payment of
any compensation impossible. Nonetheless, and long after they
had moved to oust Mossadegh, the British demanded compensation
not only for the physical assets of the AIOC, but for the value
of their enterprise in developing the oil fields; a request impossible
to meet, and, in the eyes of Iranian nationalists, something which
decades of huge British profits had paid for many times over.
The British attempt at economic strangulation of Iran could
not have gotten off the ground without the active co-operation
and support of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and American
oil companies. At the same time, the Truman administration argued
with the British that Mossadegh's collapse could open the door
to the proverbial communist takeover. When the British were later
expelled from Iran, however, they had no alternative but to turn
to the United States for assistance in toppling Mossadegh. In
November 1952, the Churchill government approached Roosevelt,
the de facto head of the CIA's Middle East division, who told
the British that he felt that there was "no chance to win
approval from the outgoing administration of Truman and Acheson.
The new Republicans, however, might be quite different."
John Foster Dulles was certainly different. The apocalyptic
anti-communist saw in Mossadegh the epitome of all that he detested
in the Third World: unequivocal neutralism in the cold war, tolerance
of Communists, and disrespect for free enterprise, as demonstrated
by the oil nationalization. (Ironically, in recent years Great
Britain had nationalized several of its own basic industries,
and the government was the majority owner of the AIOC.) To the
likes of John Foster Dulles, the eccentric Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh
was indeed a madman. And when the Secretary of State considered
further that Iran was a nation exceedingly rich in the liquid
gold, and that it shared a border with the Soviet Union more than
1,000 miles long, he was not unduly plagued by indecision as to
whether the Iranian prime minister should finally retire from
The young Shah of Iran had been relegated to little more than
a passive role by- Mossadegh and the Iranian political process.
His power had been whittled away to the point where he was "incapable
of independent action", noted the State Department intelligence
report. Mossadegh was pressing for control of the armed forces
and more say over expenditures of the royal court, and the inexperienced
and indecisive Shah-the "King of Kings"-was reluctant
to openly oppose the prime minister because of the latter's popularity.
Earlier in the Year, the New York Times had noted that "prevailing
opinion among detached observers in Teheran" was that "Mossadegh
is the most popular politician in the country". During a
period of more than 40 years in public life, Mossadegh had "acquired
a reputation as an honest patriot".
In July, the State Department Director of Iranian Affairs
had testified that "Mossadegh has such tremendous control
over the masses of people that it would be very difficult to throw
him out. "
A few days later, "at least 100,000" people filled
the streets of Teheran to express strong anti-US and anti-Shah
sentiments. Though sponsored by the Tudeh, the turnout far exceeded
any estimate of party adherents.
But popularity and masses, of the unarmed kind, counted for
little, for in the final analysis what Teheran witnessed was a
military showdown carried out on both sides by soldiers obediently
following the orders of a handful of officers, some of whom were
staking their careers and ambitions on choosing the winning side;
some had a more ideological commitment. The New York Times characterized
the sudden reversal of Mossadegh's fortunes as "nothing more
than a mutiny ... against pro-Mossadegh officers" by "the
lower ranks" who revered the Shah, had brutally quelled the
demonstrations the day before, but refused to do the same on 19
August, and instead turned against their officers.
What connection Roosevelt and his agents had with any of the
pro-Shah officers beforehand is not clear. In an interview given
at about the same time that he finished his book, Roosevelt stated
that a number of pro-Shah officers were given refuge in the CIA
compound adjoining the US Embassy at the time the Shah fled to
Rome. But inasmuch as Roosevelt mentions not a word of this rather
important and interesting development in his book, it must be
regarded as yet another of his assertions to be approached with
In any event, it may be that the 19 August demonstration organized
by Roosevelt's team was just the encouragement and spark these
officers were waiting for. Yet, if so, it further illustrates
how much Roosevelt had left to chance.
In light of all the questionable, contradictory, and devious
statements which emanated at times from John Foster Dulles, Kermit
Roosevelt, Loy Henderson and other American officials, what conclusions
can be drawn about American motivation in the toppling of Mossadegh?
The consequences of the coup may offer the best guide.
For the next 25 years, the Shah of Iran stood fast as the
United States' closest ally in the Third World, to a degree that
would have shocked the independent and neutral Mossadegh. The
Shah literally placed his country at the disposal of US military
and intelligence organizations to be used as a cold-war weapon,
a window and a door to the Soviet Union-electronic listening and
radar posts were set up near the Soviet border; American aircraft
used Iran as a base to launch surveillance flights over the Soviet
Union; espionage agents were infiltrated across the border; various
American military installations dotted the Iranian landscape.
Iran was viewed as a vital link in the chain being forged by the
United States to "contain" the Soviet Union. In a telegram
to the British Acting Foreign Secretary in September, Dulles said:
"I think if we can in coordination move quickly and effectively
in Iran we would close the most dangerous gap in the line from
Europe to South Asia.'' In February 1955, Iran became a member
of the Baghdad Pact, set up by the United States, in Dulles's
words, "to create a solid band of resistance against the
One year after the coup, the Iranian government completed
a contract with an international consortium of oil companies.
Amongst Iran's new foreign partners, the British lost the exclusive
rights they had enjoyed previously, being reduced now to 40 percent.
Another 40 percent now went to American oil firms, the remainder
to other countries. The British, however, received an extremely
generous compensation for their former property.
The standard "textbook" account of what took place
in Iran in 1953 is that-whatever else one might say for or against
the operation-the United States saved Iran from a Soviet/Communist
takeover. Yet, during the two years of American and British subversion
of a bordering country, the Soviet Union did nothing that would
support such a premise.
When the British Navy staged the largest concentration of
its forces since World War II in Iranian waters, the Soviets took
no belligerent steps; nor when Great Britain instituted draconian
international sanctions which left Iran in a deep economic crisis
and extremely vulnerable, did the oil fields "fall hostage"
to the Bolshevik Menace; this, despite "the whole of the
Tudeh Party at its disposal" as agents, as Roosevelt put
it. Not even in the face of the coup, with its imprint of foreign
hands, did Moscow make a threatening move; neither did Mossadegh
at any point ask for Russian help.
One year later, however, the New York Times could editorialize
that "Moscow ... counted its chickens before they were hatched
and thought that Iran would be the next 'People's Democracy'.
At the same time, the newspaper warned, with surprising arrogance,
that "underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have
an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of
their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism."
A decade later, Allen Dulles solemnly stated that communism
had "achieved control of the governmental apparatus"
in Iran. And a decade after that, Fortune magazine, to cite one
of many examples, kept the story alive by writing that Mossadegh
"plotted with the Communist party of Iran, the Tudeh, to
overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevl and "hook up with the
And what of the Iranian people? What did being saved from
communism do for them? For the preponderance of the population,
life under the Shah was a grim tableau of grinding poverty, police
terror, and torture. Thousands were executed in the name of fighting
communism. Dissent was crushed from the outset of the new regime
with American assistance. Kennett Love wrote that he believed
that CIA officer George Carroll, whom he knew personally, worked
with General Farhat Dadsetan, the new military governor of Teheran,
"on preparations for the very efficient smothering of a potentially
dangerous dissident movement emanating from the bazaar area and
the Tudeh in the first two weeks of November, 1953".
The notorious Iranian secret police, SAVAK, created under
the guidance of the CIA and Israel, spread its tentacles all over
the world to punish Iranian dissidents. According to a former
CIA analyst on Iran, SAVAK was instructed in torture techniques
by the Agency. Amnesty International summed up the situation in
1976 by noting that Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties
in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history
of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has
a worse record in human rights than Iran."
When to this is added a level of corruption that "startled
even the most hardened observers of Middle Eastern thievery",
it is understandable that the Shah needed his huge military and
police force, maintained by unusually large US aid and training
programs, to keep the lid down for as long as he did. Said Senator
Hubert Humphrey, apparently with some surprise:
"Do you know what the head of the Iranian Army told one
of our people? He said the Army was in good shape, thanks to U.S.
aid-it was now capable of coping with the civilian population.
That Army isn't going to fight the Russians. It's planning to
fight the Iranian people."