The 1953 CIA Coup in Iran and the Roots of Middle East Terror
AMY GOODMAN: From Gaza, we turn now to
AMY GOODMAN: From Gaza, we turn now to
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] We want to tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will increase the problems of
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier, Ahmadinejad had made light of US allegations, saying, “Is it not funny that those with 160,000 forces in
While Ahmadinejad’s visit could be a pivotal moment in improving Iran-Iraq ties, it’s also seen as a sign of the dwindling drumbeat for war coming from
Stephen Kinzer is the author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and The Roots of Middle East Terror. The book chronicles the CIA-backed 1953 overthrow of
I sat down with him to talk about what is happening today in
STEPHEN KINZER: It’s more possible than you’d like to think. In a reality-based, fact-based policy environment in
Unfortunately, though, I think the—first of all, the fact that the possibility is fading a little bit off the public agenda and public opinion is being kind of anaesthetized to this possibility increases the danger, because there doesn’t seem to be any public outcry or any outcry in Congress. Secondly, I think the National Intelligence Estimate might have perversely made the attack more likely in one sense. Before that estimate came out, the US’s policy was going to be: now we’re going to get the Security Council and the European Union to agree to really tight sanctions on Iran, because they’re about to develop a nuclear weapon. And we thought we were going to be able to do that because it was that urgent. But now, the reason why we said those sanctions were so urgent has been undercut by our own intelligence agency, so the sanctions option is more or less off the table. They’re not going to agree to sanctions now. And I think that might lead people in the White House to think, well, sanctions option isn’t there anymore; I guess bombing is the only option.
Here’s the nightmare argument that I could imagine being made inside the Oval Office. We had to suffer 9/11 because wimpy
I fear that some variation of this argument, particularly as the election approaches later this year, could lead us into a crazy adventure that’s not only going to set back the cause of democracy in Iran by a generation; strengthen the regime that we profess to detest; eliminate the entirely pro-American sentiment that now exists among the population of Iran; probably set off retaliation attacks by Iran on Israel and maybe states in the Persian Gulf; possibly result in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran could do by just sinking a couple of tankers, and that’s 20 percent of the world’s oil right there; undoubtedly trigger a huge explosion of anti-American violence in Iraq, probably also in Afghanistan; and it would further destabilize Pakistan, which is already in upheaval. And I think throughout the Muslim world you’d see great upheaval.
So you can foresee all these negative effects, but based on what we now know about the long-term effects of the last time we intervened in 1953, I think I could predict one thing; despite all those negative effects, we could predict: history suggests that the worst long-term effects of this operation would be ones that nobody can now imagine. That’s the lesson we learned from the aftermath of 1953. And that’s why that story of 1953 is now so relevant again as we’re preparing possibly for another attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we talk about the effects now, like specifically why you think it would reinforce the hard-line conservatives in Iran, let’s go back to 1953, something that’s not very much done on television in the United States, taking a look at history or context. What did happen? Why is it that the people of Iran, this is indelibly written for every child who certainly wasn’t born then, but in the United States, they don’t know what you’re talking about?
STEPHEN KINZER: Well, I’ll tell you an interesting story to start off. I was recently on a panel in the National Cathedral in
He told me an amazing story. He said, “I had been sitting in my solitary cell as a hostage for about a year, when one day the cell door opens, and there is standing one of the hostage takers, one of my jailers. And all of my rage and my fury built up over one year sitting in that cell just burst out, and I started screaming at him, and I was telling him, ‘You have no right to do this! This is cruel, this is inhumane! These people have done nothing! This is a violation of every law of god and man! You cannot take innocent people hostage!’” He said, “I went on like this for several minutes. When I was finally out of breath, the hostage taker paused for a moment, and then he leaned into my cell and said, in very good English, ‘You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.’”
That story really reinforced to me the connection and the fact that those hostage takers took those hostages not out of nihilistic rage, but for a very specific reason that seemed to make very good sense to them. In 1953, the Iranian people had chased the Shah out, but CIA agents working inside the American embassy in
AMY GOODMAN: Under Carter.
STEPHEN KINZER: Under President Carter. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Ostensibly for medical reasons.
STEPHEN KINZER: People in
AMY GOODMAN: Stay there in 1953. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt. Explain what happened.
STEPHEN KINZER: What happened was that the first half of the twentieth century, Americans had a super good image in
So in the period after World War II, Iranian nationalism came to focus on one great cause. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as a result of a corrupt deal with the old dying monarchy, one British company, owned mainly by the British government, had taken control of the entire Iranian oil industry.
AMY GOODMAN: The company.
STEPHEN KINZER: This one company had the exclusive rights to extract, refine, ship and sell Iranian oil, and they paid
AMY GOODMAN: Called British Petroleum?
STEPHEN KINZER: That was Anglo-Iranian Petroleum, later to become British Petroleum and BP. I’m still on my like one-man boycott, like I go to the Shell station, as if Shell is somehow morally superior to BP. But still, in my own mind, I feel like I’m redeeming Mosaddeq whenever I pass by one of those BP stations.
Anyway, what happened was that Prime Minister Mosaddeq, who really was an extraordinary figure in his time, although he’s been somewhat forgotten by history, came to power in 1951 on a wave of nationalism aimed at this one great obsession: we’ve got to take back control of our oil and use the profits for the development of one of the most wretchedly impoverished nations on earth at that time. So the Iranian parliament voted unanimously for a bill to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company, and Mosaddeq signed it, and he devoted himself during his term of office to carrying out that plan, to nationalize what was then
Bear in mind that the oil that fueled
AMY GOODMAN: Former New York Times correspondent, Stephen Kinzer. His book is All the Shah’s Men. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men, as he goes back in time to the US-backed coup in
STEPHEN KINZER: Actually, it was at this time that Aramco, the Arab American Oil Company, came into Saudi Arabian, and their deal was a fifty-fifty split, so 50 percent for the country that has the oil and 50 percent for the company that comes in and builds the refinery. That had the air of fairness that ordinary people could understand, but the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would not give in one inch. And that just made the Iranians more and more radical.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did the
STEPHEN KINZER: The British tried all sorts of things to bring Mosaddeq down. They imposed a crushing economic embargo on
So then the British decided they would have to overthrow Mosaddeq, and they started a plot to do that. But Mosaddeq figured out what was happening, and he did the only thing he could have done to protect himself: he closed the British embassy. He sent home all the British diplomats. And among those diplomats were, of course, all the spies and the secret agents that were arranging the coup. So then, the only thing that Prime Minister Churchill could think of to do was to ask Harry Truman, the American president, to do this job for us: Can you please overthrow Mosaddeq, because we don’t have anyone in Iran now that can do it? And Truman said no. Truman believed that the CIA could be a covert action and intelligence-gathering agency, but he never wanted it to get involved in overthrowing governments. So that was the end of the line for
We had the election of 1952. Dwight Eisenhower took office. John Foster Dulles became his secretary of state. And Dulles had spent his whole adult life working as a lawyer for giant international corporations. And the idea that a country should be able to get away with nationalizing such a big company, such a big corporate resource, was, as Dulles very well understood, a great threat to the system that he had been representing all his life, the system of multinational enterprise. And he realized that it was in the interest of the
It just took Kermit Roosevelt three weeks in August of 1953—
AMY GOODMAN: With a bag of money.
STEPHEN KINZER: Bag of money and a few other very interesting resources. He was a real-life James Bond. This guy was a real intrepid secret agent, and the story is just amazing how he did this. But it’s really an object lesson in how easy it is for a rich and powerful country to throw a poor and weak country into chaos. So at the end of August 1953, Mosaddeq was overthrown. At the moment, that seemed like a great success. So we got rid of a guy that we didn’t like, and we replaced him with someone else, the Shah, who would do anything we wanted. It seemed like the perfect ending.
AMY GOODMAN: And Mosaddeq is put into exile for the rest of his life.
STEPHEN KINZER: He was under house arrest for the rest of his life in his village in
Just very briefly, so we placed the Shah back on his peacock throne. The Shah ruled with increasing repression for twenty-five years. His repression set off the explosion of the late 1970s, what we call the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically anti-American mullahs. That revolution also inspired radicals in other countries, like next-door
That revolution in
AMY GOODMAN: And, in fact, it affected the Carter-Reagan elections, brought Reagan to power.
STEPHEN KINZER: Oh, and it devastated the presidency of Jimmy Carter forever, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Which had enormous effect then on Latin America, when you look at Reagan’s role in
STEPHEN KINZER: You can—they call it in the CIA “walking back the cat.” You can walk back the cat endlessly on this one. And the reason the story is so relevant is that it tells us the main thing you need to know in assessing the current idea of an attack on Iran, which is the worst consequences are ones you can’t even imagine. Not even the wisest analysts, the most prescient specialists, in 1953 could ever have imagined all these consequences. Ah, the Shah’s going to fall; there’s going to be mullahs in power; the Soviets are going to invade
AMY GOODMAN: And, Stephen Kinzer, the issue of torture that we are dealing with today, can you go back to
STEPHEN KINZER: SAVAK was, of course, the Shah’s notoriously repressive secret police. And one of the early commanders of the SAVAK was General Nasiri, who was a close participant in the coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and brought the Shah to power. In fact, he was the only guy promoted for his work during the coup. The Shah personally promoted from him from colonel to general as a result of his work in the coup. And then he went on to become the director of the SAVAK, which was, of course, the very brutal secret police that the Shah used to repress his people for years.
AMY GOODMAN: And when the Iranian Revolution took place in ’79, didn’t they find CIA offices in SAVAK headquarters?
STEPHEN KINZER: Yes, the CIA and the Mossad were actively involved in training—
AMY GOODMAN: Mossad, Israeli intelligence.
STEPHEN KINZER: Israeli intelligence—were intimately involved in the operations of the Mossad. And this is a classic thing you always see in—
AMY GOODMAN: Of the SAVAK.
STEPHEN KINZER: Yeah, of SAVAK. You see this in the aftermath of many American interventions, that after the intervention, the
But we soon realized you can’t have both. You can’t have somebody who’s genuinely popular and who also is governing on behalf of the
Then, more and more opposition to him develops. He tries to put it down, but he can’t do it alone, because he’s so unpopular and isolated. Then he calls in the
AMY GOODMAN: Is
STEPHEN KINZER: I think so, and I even think that, not just shoring him up, we helped bring him to power. In 2003, the Iranians sent a very comprehensive offer of negotiations to
Now, that was the policy of the old government in
Democracy Now Interview With New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.