Stephen Kinzer, a New York Times journalist, composed a riveting account of the rapidly changing events around Iran during the 1950s in All The Shah’s Men. He argued that American involvement in Operation Ajax was viewed in its time by foreign policy elites as part of the Cold War rather than a neocolonial struggle between Britain and Iran. This mission undermined Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the developing tradition of democracy in Iran, leading to reprisals against Americans during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. America withdrew its support for the democratically elected government of Mossadegh for the despotic Shah in order to prevent a possible communist takeover of Iran, which would have given the USSR the potent oil resources to start World War III.
The events of 1950 Iranian politics revolved around several prominent domestic politicians and agents of foreign leaders. Prime Minister Mossadegh governed by his conviction of universal legal supremacy and fervent nationalism. After a prolonged struggle, he nationalized oil facilities of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, which he viewed as an issue of national sovereignty. This act led him to being named Time Man of the Year, with the article described him as, “the Iranian George Washington.” In his Shiite martyr idealism, he refused to compromise with the British, ultimately leading to plots against his authority. Instead, the British chose to support the Shah, whose power had declined relative to the prime minister.
Mohammad Reza Shah was the Shah of Iran, who sought to preserve his own power by collaborating with foreign agents, such as the CIA and MI6, against Mossadegh. Kinzer described the Shah as “timid and indecisive.” He signed the firmans – orders – presented to him by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, deposing Mossadegh. Roosevelt, “thought leaving Mossadegh in power would “lead only to a Communist Iran or to a second Korea.” While the British viewed the Iranian conflict as one of imperial dominance to President Harry Truman’s dismay. Americans, especially Einsenhower’s State Department and the CIA of the Dulles brothers, viewed the conflict through the lens of the Cold War. The aspirations of these leaders became present in tangible plots, political parties, and establishments.
Several non-state actors played critical roles in the overthrow of Mossadegh. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later AIOP, then BP), a multinational corporation, was largely controlled by the British government, and harmed Iran by exploiting the land of its resources and interfering in Iranian domestic affairs. This was most evident at Abadan, “a classic colonial enclave,” which was a humongous British oil refinery in Iran. Concurrently, Iranian political parties developed in the 1950s. Mossadegh led the National Front, until dissenters, such as the Ayatollah Kashani, led bribed mobs against him. Another Party, the Tudeh, was the communist party of Iran. This party provided British agent ‘Monty’ Woodhouse with an opportunity to win over the Americans for coup. Agent Woodhouse claimed, “Mossadegh was still incapable of resisting a coup by the Tudeh party, if it were backed by Soviet support.” The Mossadegh plot, now led by the CIA and Iranian dissenters, became known as Operation Ajax or official as TPAJAX.
Operation Ajax was the American effort to dispose of Mossadegh in order to install General Fazlollah Zahedi as Prime Minister. This act would weaken the Tudeh party in Iran. Operation Ajax was a psychological operation (PSYOP), with the CIA influencing up to 80 percent of Tehran’s newspapers against Mossadegh, tarnishing him as anti-Islamic and pro-communist. The overall operation had four phases: Undermine Mossadegh’s public popularity, win over the military, riot in the streets, and then replace Mossadegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi. The original effort on 15 August 1953 failed as pro-government soldiers guarded Mossadegh against the rebellious Imperial Guard under Colonel Nematollah Nasiri. After widely circulating the firmans and bribing mobs, the second attempt succeeded on 18 August 1953.
Kinzer created a fascinating account of 1950s American-Iranian relations. His writing style was enthralling and encouraged the reader to continue. Kinzer also started the novel in medias res, hooking the audience to ask why this event was occurring and how it would end. His historical overview in the chapter, “Curse this fate,” explained the unique situation of the Iranian psyche through its history. His career would allow him access to CIA leaked documents, which would help him explain the intent of the Americans. He used his research material well, such a Kermit Roosevelt’s diary, to portray a vivid scene of the subversion in Tehran. He also included conclusions of Operation Ajax drawn by historians of Iran and political scientists, such as James A. Bill and Mary Ann Heiss. He visited Iran, and interviewed ordinary Iranians for their current opinion on Mossadegh. One shortcoming was that he did not obtain critical evidence of Russian involvement in reaction to Operation Ajax. He also stretched the claim that Operation Ajax, which had direct causation to the Islamic Revolution, led to the 9/11 attacks. He could have included a timeline to assist the audience in following key dates, along with a global context. In Kinzer’s own words for summation, “(All the Shah’s Men is) more than just a remarkable adventure story, it is a sobering message from the past and an object lesson for the future.”
Byrne, Malcolm. “The Secret History CIA History of the Iran Coup, 1953.” National Security Archive of The George Washington University. 29 November 2000: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB28/
(Note: this source has the PDFs of the official CIA after-action report –Clandestine Service History – on Operation TPAJAX).
Kinzer, Stephen. “All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror”. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; New Jersey, 2003. Ch. 1-3.
Kinzer, Stephen. “All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror”. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; New Jersey, 2008. Ch. 4-Epilogue.
The Light Millennium. “New Book – July 2003.”: http://www.lightmillennium.org/index14.html
Mossadegh. Myspace: http://www.myspace.com/mossadegh/photos/3436638
O’Connell, Barry. “Notes on the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi.” Persian Carpet Guide: http://www.persiancarpetguide.com/sw-asia/People/shah_Iran_Mohammed_Reza_Shah_%20Pahlavi.htm
Tpajax. “Mossadegh – Stephen Kinzer – Iranian Democracy”. Youtube.com. 26 April 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYutojeC5Kk