Not for the first time, the White House has refused to clarify its position on a war with Iran. The latest stonewalling came this weekend after Israel threatened to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities. On Friday Israeli deputy prime minister Shaoul Mofaz claimed Israel has no choice but to strike Iran's nuclear sites as 'options are disappearing and sanctions have proven to be ineffective'. Later that day, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel refused to condemn Mofaz and instead accused Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He also evaded questions to clarify what Washington thought about Israel’s 'unavoidable' attack.
This is the latest development in a series of hawkish poses by the Bush Administration against Iran. The US worries that Iran has nuclear capability and appears to be supporting Israel in a pre-emptive strike. The strike could be timed to support Republican candidate John McCain in a bid to wedge Barack Obama. America does not appear to be interested in compromise at the moment. The Tehran Times claims the US has ignored the outcome of technical examinations that show Iran is co-operating with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The world waits for a confrontation that if it occurs, would leave Iraq looking like a minor sideshow.
This is far from the first time that Iran is at the centre of world attention. It was of massive interest to two of the three Allied Powers in World War II. By late 1943, it was clear Germany was not going to win the war and the thoughts of the Allies turned to the future. In December that year Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met on a sunny Tehran morning to discuss how to divvy up the post-Nazi world. Both Stalin and Churchill came in military uniform, Roosevelt chose a suit. They had just pledged to work together “in war and the peace that will follow”. After the photographers searched their faces for smiles while seated on the veranda, the three great men retire to a hall for a more private conversation.
Before they discussed weighty matters of empire, Roosevelt asked Churchill whatever became of the ruler of this country, Shah Reza, adding “if I’m pronouncing it correctly”. Churchill tells him he became a Nazi and denied Britain and Russia the use of oil and a supplies railway. Britain and Russia couldn’t stand for this and invaded Iran. Shah Reza was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The father was removed to a comfortable life in Johannesburg where he died not long after the Tehran conference. The question showed up US ignorance of Iranian affairs.
Yet the choice of Tehran for this meeting of great minds was no accident. Not only had Britain and Russia invaded it in 1941, it had been zone of influence for both since a 1907 treaty shared the country’s spoils between them. The terms of both conquests allowed the natives to rule as long as they did not act against their powerful guests. An officially neutral Iran was of vital strategic importance to both. Roosevelt was happy to let the two fight it out over Iranian oil while the US maintained control of the biggest fields of all in Saudi Arabia.
But the turmoil of the Russian revolution left Iran almost entirely a Britsh colony. While Russia turned to its own problems, AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (then nationalised by Churchill, now corporatised as BP) was Britain main supplier of oil. First extracted out of a corrupt 19th century leader as a concession to drill in the wastelands near Abadan, AIOC quickly became one of the world’s leading producers in time to supply Britain in two world wars. The company enjoyed a lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil but its wealth was not fairly distributed. In 1947 it reported on an after tax profit of £40 million and gave the young Shah’s country just seven million. It had reneged on a 1933 deal with his hard-nosed father to provide the workers with better pay, more schools, roads, telephones and job advancement. The young Shah was a playboy and had little interests for his people’s problems. As long as he kept control of the military, it didn’t matter how well or badly his country was performing economically.
Mohammad Mossadegh was less sanguine. He knew the people chafed bitterly about the abject poverty they lived in to support Britain and their puppet leaders. By 1951 he personified the country’s anger at the AIOC. Born in 1882, he was a member of the country’s elite and a parliamentarian for 34 years, implacably opposed to foreign influence. In a wave of fervour, he was elected Prime Minister with a mandate to throw the company out of Iran, reclaim the country’s oil reserves and end the subjection of foreign power. Mossadegh was now in his seventies and in the manner of Proust, did much of his business in bed. But when he nationalised Anglo-Iranian, he became a national hero. Shortly after, Iran took control of the refinery.
The British were outraged. They declared Mossadegh a thief and demanded he be punished by the UN and the World Court. When neither organisation would support Britain, they imposed an embargo that devastated the Iranian economy. Mossadegh was unmoved and said he “would rather be fried in Persian oil than make the slightest concession”. But while Britain fumed, Mossadegh struck a chord elsewhere. He became a third world hero and delighted his admirers further when he ridiculed Britain at the World Court saying it was trying “to persuade world opinion that the lamb had devoured the wolf”.
Even Time made him their man of the year in 1951 saying he “put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos”. They called him a “strange old wizard” in a region where, importantly, the US had no policy. Britain, of course did have a policy, and Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee warned President Truman not to interfere with the dealings of “an ally.” The US complied but Attlee also knew that Truman would not support a British military invasion of Iran.
Events were to change dramatically when both Britain and the US turned to the right. In Autumn 1951 the old warhorse Churchill was running for re-election and denounced Attlee in several speeches for failing to confront Mossadegh firmly enough. Churchill said the Prime Minister had betrayed “solemn undertakings” not to abandon Abadan. He knew that the loss of Iranian oil meant the loss of empire and considered Mossadegh “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists.” Britain’s position suddenly toughened when Churchill defeated Labour in that election.
Truman was also up for re-election in 1952 but decided not to contest. As in Britain, a Second World War hero won the election and Dwight Eisenhower was the new Republican President. The Cold War was Eisenhower’s biggest focus and Iran was one of the first challenges. Britain cleverly played up to the new regime in Washington claiming Iran was in crisis under Mossadegh and could easily fall to the Communist Party backed by Moscow. The new Cold Warriors were ready to step up to the challenge of removing Mossadegh.
Even before Eisenhower was inaugurated, his new team prepared to organise the coup. Eisenhower appointed wartime Chief-of-Staff and former CIA General Walter Bedell Smith as his undersecretary of state. Bedell would seamlessly link the campaign between the White House, State Department and the CIA. At the head of these two latter organisations lay a pair of remarkable brothers. John Foster Dulles was a world-class international lawyer now turned Secretary of State while Allen Dulles now ran the intelligence organisation. The brothers had long developed a special interest in Iran and Allen went to Tehran in 1949 on business where he met both the Shah and Mossadegh. Both Dulles brothers were ideological Cold War warriors determined to prevent Communism in Iran.
Eisenhower gave implicit approval for the action but presented a front of plausible deniability. Behind the scenes the two Dulles and Smith had full authority to proceed with Operation Ajax. They appointed a remarkably gifted secret agent with a fantastic name to bring the coup together. He was the grandly titled Kermit Roosevelt. Kermit was not related to FDR, but was a grandson of fellow president Theodore. He was the prototype of the gentleman spy. Independently wealthy, he was a history professor at Harvard until he joined the newly established Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WW2. His work in the OSS remains shrouded in mystery but he stayed on in peacetime when it was rebadged as the CIA.
When given charge of the Mossadegh plan, Roosevelt quickly liaised with his British counterparts in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Iranian tribal leaders on the British payroll softened things up when they launched a short-lived uprising. Roosevelt moved to Tehran where he prepared to gather a rebellion force. He met with anti-Mossadegh politicians and persuaded the Shah to sign the “firman” (a document of doubtful legality sacking the Prime Minister). Mid-August 1953 found Roosevelt and his local agents ready to strike. He paid newspapers and religious leaders to scream for Mossadegh’s head. He organised protests and riots and turned the streets into battlegrounds.
But at the last minute Operation Ajax seemed as if foiled. On 15 August 1953 an officer arrived at Mossadegh’s house to present the “firman”. But he arrived minutes too late, too many people had found about the coup and the Prime Minister was tipped off in advance. The Shah fled the country in disgrace while units loyal to Mossadegh surged through Tehran. Incredibly Roosevelt did not quit and three days later he organised a second attempt. Once again he launched a massive mob in the capital. Crucially Mossadegh did not call out the police to stop them. Armed units loyal to the Shah launched a gunbattle against Mossadegh’s supporters. The following morning Tehran Radio announced “the Government of Mossadegh has been defeated!”
Mossadegh was now under arrest. The Shah flew home from Italy in stunned triumph. The New York Times wrote that "the sudden reversal was nothing more than a mutiny by the lower ranks against pro-Mossadegh officers”. Roosevelt was understandably delighted. Barely a day earlier he had been ordered home by his own superiors, now he would be returning in triumph. Mossadegh was given a three year prison sentence. He served it until 1956 and was confined to home in Ahmad Abad until his death, aged 85 in 1967.
The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tried to return to their old monopoly position after his overthrow. But the US had invested too much in the coup to let that happen. An international consortium was organised to assume control of the oil. AOIC held 40 percent, five American companies held 40 percent and the remainder split between Royal Dutch Shell and Compagnie Francaise de Petroles. The consortium agreed to split the profits fifty-fifty with the Shah but never allowed Iranians to examine the books.
Although the Shah had forbidden his countrymen ever to speak of Mossadegh new enemies emerged within. By the late 1970s the Shah had crushed all legitimate political parties and a new religious force filled the void. When he was forced to flee the country in 1979 as a reviled tyrant, the first government to replace him were determined to invoke Mossadegh’s legacy. Mossadegh had dispatched the new Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan to Abadan after the British fled in 1951. Another Mossadegh admirer Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected president. But behind the scenes Ayatollah Khomeini was consolidating his power. Before long he was arresting all his enemies. Mossadegh had been defeated again, this time in death.
The Mossadegh coup had profound impacts on America. Overnight the CIA became a central part of foreign policy apparatus. While Kermit Roosevelt went home in quiet retirement, the Dulles brothers used the new template to overthrow other rulers. President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown a year later in Guatemala. Later they would fail to kill Castro but were more successful with Allende in Chile. The incident also changed how Iranians viewed the US. Before 1953, Britain was the rapacious and greedy enemy. Now the US was the sinister party, manipulating quietly in the background. The 1979 embassy hostage was a direct result of Carter’s decision to allow the Shah into the country. But the reason the crisis last 14 months was the fact that the royalist regime was re-installed in the first place by the US back in 1953.
With their devotion to radical Islam, Iran’s revolutionary leaders have become heroes to fanatics in many countries. They inspired the Taliban to take control of neighbouring Afghanistan. Their strength so worried Saddam Hussein he fought a ten-year war with them which led to a disastrous quarter century for Iraq. It is not too strong a view to say that the CIA’s overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh has led to the US being involved in two concurrent wars in the region. Mossadegh would be outraged if he could see the state of his country today, but he might afford a smile at the way the coup has bitten the hand that fed it.