Both the critics and the admirers of the Central Intelligence Agency have tended to portray it as an all-knowing, all-powerful, invulnerable entity and to exaggerate the ability of America's spies to determine the outcome of developments around the world. An American reporter interviewing an ordinary citizen—or an official—in Cairo, Buenos Aires, or Seoul may hear that “everyone knows” that the CIA was behind the latest rise in the price of vegetables or the recent outbreak of flu among high-school kids. It’s like you Americans aren't aware of what's obvious (wink, wink).
New histories of the agency, drawing on recently released classified information and memoirs by retired spies, provide a more complex picture of the CIA, its effectiveness, and its overall power, suggesting that at times Langley was manned not by James Bond clones but by a bunch of keystone cops. My favorite clandestine CIA operation, recounted in Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, involves its 1994 surveillance of the newly appointed American ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee. When the agency bugged her bedroom, it picked up sounds that led agents to conclude that the ambassador was having a lesbian love affair with her secretary. Actually, she was petting her two-year-old black standard poodle.
But the CIA's history does include efforts to oust unfriendly regimes, to assassinate foreign leaders who didn't believe that what was good for Washington and Wall Street was good for their people, and to sponsor coups and revolutions. Sometimes the agency succeeded.
Topping the list of those successes—if success is the right word for an operation whose long-term effects were so disastrous—was the August 1953 overthrow of Iran's elected leader and the installment of the unpopular and authoritarian Shah in his place. Operation Ajax, as it was known, deserves that old cliché: If it didn't really happen, you'd think that it was a plot imagined by a Hollywood scriptwriter peddling anti-American conspiracies.
Ervand Abrahamian isn't a Hollywood scriptwriter but a renowned Iranian-American scholar who teaches history at the City University of New York. With The Coup, he has authored a concise yet detailed and somewhat provocative history of the 1953 regime change, which the CIA conducted with the British MI6. If you don't know anything about the story, The Coup is a good place to start. If you've already read a lot about Ajax and the events that led to it, the book still offers new insights into this history-shattering event.
Abrahamian constructed his narrative by analyzing documents in the archives of British Petroleum, the British Foreign Office, and the State Department as well as the memoirs of the main characters in the drama. These characters—British spies and business executives, American diplomats and journalists, Soviet agents, Communist activists, Nazi propagandists, Shiite mullahs, Iranian crime bosses—have double or even triple agendas to advance as they jump from one political bed to another and back, lying, cheating, stealing, and killing. It all makes the CIA-led extraction of the American hostages in Iran, depicted in the film Argo, look kind of, well, boring.
On one side there was Muhammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953, a secular, liberal, and nationalist leader who wanted to join the “neutralist” camp that disavowed commitment to either of the superpowers during the Cold War. An aristocratic and eccentric figure who welcomed foreign officials into his house wearing pajamas, Mossadeq introduced many progressive social and economic reforms into the traditionally Shiite society, and sent shock waves across the world when he moved to nationalize Iran's oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
On the other side there was Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, Jr., Teddy's grandson, a legendary spymaster, a self-promoter who dined with major world leaders and business executives but also befriended power-hungry Iranian military generals, corrupt politicians, merchants in the bazzar, and quite a few thugs, who helped him achieve what became Washington's goal: to remove Mossadeq and his political allies, which included liberals, social democrats, and Communists, from power; to return the oil industry into British hands (with more American presence in Iran’s oil business); and to place reliable pro-western politicians in power.
It seemed to work beautifully. The United States gained a key strategic ally in the Middle East. American companies received a considerable share of Iran’s enormous oil wealth. Other oil-producing Middle Eastern nations got a lesson in what might happen if they nationalized. At a time when the Americans were facing challenges from nationalists such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and were trying to contain the so-called Soviet threat in the Middle East, Our Man in Tehran welcomed American soldiers and investors (and purchased a lot of American weapons). It all looked good until it didn’t.
While the coup did set back the nationalization of the oil resources in the Middle East, the delay ended in the 1970s. In that decade, Abrahamian writes, one country after another—not just radical states such as Libya, Iraq, and Algeria, but conservative monarchies such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—“took over their oil resources, and, having learned from the past, took precautions to make sure that their oil companies would not return victorious.”
At the same time, the coup decimated the secular opposition, leaving Shiite clerics as the most viable political force when the Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah in 1979. The pro-American puppet gave way to a radical and anti-American Islamic Republic where the secular and liberal opposition remains weak and leaderless. That, as they say in Langley, is blowback.
The coup also intensified what Abrahamian calls the “intense paranoid style prevalent throughout Iranian politics.” While the Iranian clerics worry that Washington wants to do a rerun of the 1953 regime change, many members of the opposition are counting on that to happen. In Tehran, they still think the CIA makes the world turn around.
The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations, by Ervand Abrahamian, The New Press, 277 pages, $26.95.