A Review of "All The Shah’s Men"


In the week after the sixth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is appropriate to review some of the questions raised by the event and America’s current relationships with countries in the Middle East. Especially with the drums of war beating between Iran and the US, Stephen Kinzer’s book All the Shah’s Men, originally published in 2003, is worth reviewing again.

In this slim (260 page) book, Kinzer examines the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that removed from power democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. After nationalizing the oil industry, previously run by the British, Mossadegh was the target of the CIA’s first successful major operation to overthrow a government.

The book focuses briefly on the historical context of Iran, examining the various groups that have influenced the region, from the Zoroastrians, to Alexander the Great of Macedon, to the new Arabs that “came armed not only with the traditional weapons of war, but with a new religion, Islam.” Iran also became the country with the largest concentration of Shiite Muslims, which form a minority in the Islamic world. The differences between the more mainstream Sunni Muslims and Shiites stem from what Kinzer identifies as “differing interpretations of who deserved to succeed the prophet Mohammed as caliph, or leader of the Islamic world, after his death in 632.”

Through the high regard that Shiites hold for the Prophet’s cousin Ali and Ali’s son Hussein, who were both killed, Iranians culture was given “a legacy of religious zeal and a willingness, even an eagerness, to embrace martyrdom at the hands of God’s enemies.” This attitude endured through the time of Mossadegh himself, who became another example of an Islamic leader of the people standing up to a corrupt establishment that had lost is popular support, as is examined throughout the rest of the book. Kinzer’s overview of the history of Iran ends with the ruler Reza Shah, an authoritarian ruler who consolidated the rampant corruption of the nation in his own hands, turned the people against him, and established ties to Nazi Germany during World War II.

Another aspect of Iran’s history that can not be left out is the discovery of vast amounts of oil in 1908. The British government’s interests in the oil-producing regions was a constant cause of conflict, although most leaders of Iran were happy to sell off the country’s oil for their own personal benefit at the expense of the people of Iran. Also mentioned is the respect that Iranians had for the United States, mainly due to the fact that, “Neither the young Mohammed Reza Shah nor his various prime ministers managed to capture the public imagination during the 1940’s. The only figure who did was a flamboyant American soldier, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.”

The main part of the book, though, looks at the short rule of Mohammed Mossadegh, his battles with Britain over the oil, the CIA’s role in his overthrow, and even his personal life and habits. This is also the most enlightening portion of the book, as it shows how popular opinion was turned against America through its covert intervention in the country. Although President Truman was uninterested in playing a role in the coup, his successor President Eisenhower approved the plan, called Operation Ajax, laid out by Allen Dulles and his brother John Foster Dulles. Sold as a way to prevent a communist takeover of the country, the CIA sent Kermit Roosevelt to the country to begin the planning for the coup.

Mossadegh himself had gained support through the international community and in Iran for his stance against the British oil interests, nationalizing the industry and removing all representatives of Britain from the country. With no covert operatives to carry out the overthrow, the British turned to America’s Central Intelligence Agency for assistance. The Iranians had no way to refine or sell their oil after the retreat of the British, who took with them all of the technical knowledge and imposed a blockade on ships attempting to purchase Iranian oil. This plunged the economy into recession and made the lives of the common Iranian citizen even worse, even in the absence of Britain’s practice of withholding profits from the Iranian government and not providing for the welfare of the workers of the refinery.

Through propaganda and the paying out of significant amounts of money to dissidents and revolutionaries for hire, the CIA was able to take advantage of the depressed economic conditions of Iran and begin arranging support against Mossadegh. Even through one failed coup attempt on August 15, 1953, Roosevelt decided to push on and attempt to overthrow the government soon after the failure. Mossadegh, according to Kinzer, was not expecting the plotters to try again so quickly and tragically ordered his supporters not to stand against the anti-Mossadegh demonstrators. By the 19th of August, Mossadegh had been overthrown, and the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza, was installed as leader of the country.

Kinzer examines in detail the decisions made by Mossadegh to protect his government from the overthrow and sees his downfall primarily in his trusting nature and respect for American visitors. Being lied to and told that Americans in Iran were being outrageously mistreated, he “seemed genuinely pained by these fanciful stories and alarmed at the prospect of Americans leaving Iran… he issued a decree banning all public demonstrations. He even telephoned leaders of pro-government parties and ordered them to keep their people at home. He disarmed himself.” Thus, on the fateful day of the coup, pro-Mossadegh supporters stayed at home, leaving only CIA-financed anti-government groups to take to the streets and stage demonstrations that led to the eventual overthrow that night.

Through twenty-five years of a brutal dictatorship led by the Shah and his secret police force Savak. When the government was overthrown in 1979, and the mullahs came to power, the Shah was given safe haven in the United States. This led to the taking of the American embassy in Tehran and the Iranian hostage crisis, as Iranians feared another coup led by the CIA that would reinstall the Shah. “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.” Even further, when America began supporting the leader of neighboring Iraq, Saddam Hussein, in the 1980’s in the Iran-Iraq war, the most militant factions in Iran became even more powerful, and the religious leaders of the country began supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, which influenced the actions of the mujahideen in Afghanistan, led by Osama bin Laden.

Kinzer’s book is a detailed look at how the overthrow of a popular leader, even with his faults, stubbornness, and seeming affinity towards being martyred for his principles, led to far worse consequences than the nationalizing of British oil interests. Opinion was turned against America, who was seen as the lapdog of the British Empire, and the roots of Middle Eastern terror were laid and cultivated that much swifter. In a case study of how the CIA concept of “blowback” leads to unintended consequences, All the Shah’s Men allows the reader to more completely understand “why the hate us.” As Kinzer himself states so clearly, “It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”

The book does not blame American policy in general or Operation Ajax specifically and directly for the events of 9/11, but instead shows how covert interventions that overthrow democratically-elected governments in any country in the world will lead to negative opinions of the people of the country against the overthrowing government. While not a justification for the attacks of 9/11, Kinzer’s argument helps us understand how American policies overseas are viewed from the perspective of the people of these countries, and gives us a historical context for the seemingly irrational behaviors of suicide terrorism and the hatred of America by certain factions of the Islamic world.

Oversimplifying and confusing the people of the country with its rulers is also a mistake, according to Kinzer, who states in one of the most interesting passages of the book, “On my flight back to Tehran I sat next to a middle-aged businessman who, like everyone I met in Iran, detested the Islamic regime and thought well of Americans.” By threatening the rulers of this country, popular opinion rallies around the government, even if it is detested. As Robert Pape explains in his own study of terrorism, occupation is a much worse situation for countries than a current corrupt regime. Kinzer’s book shows that antagonizing a nation’s leaders, rather than appealing to and supporting its people, can lead to far-reaching negative consequences that will manifest themselves in the most seemingly unexpected ways.


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