Uncle Sam’s Regime Change in Iran

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

July 23, 2003

Review of Stephen Kinzer’s book, All the Shah’s Men.

Regime change has become the hallmark of President Bush’s foreign policy. In two years Mr. Bush has dispatched two regimes (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s), tried to sideline a third (Yasir Arafat’s), and would like nothing better than to dispatch still others (Kim Jong-Il, the mullahs in Iran and the potentates that rule much of the Arab world).

In seeking to change regimes not to America’s liking, Mr. Bush travels a well-trodden path. It started more than a century ago when, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States found itself in charge of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Soon thereafter, President Theodore Roosevelt promulgated his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which led to the occupation of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua.

Once colonialism was discredited, the United States adopted a different approach—covert regime change—with the C.I.A. rather than the United States military in the lead. The first of these attempts, which occurred almost 50 years ago to this day, is the subject of Stephen Kinzer’s riveting new book. On Aug. 19, 1953, Kermit Roosevelt, a C.I.A. operative and grandson of Teddy, orchestrated the ouster of the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh—a populist leader who had gained London’s wrath by nationalizing the British-owned oil industry and frightened Washington for failing to oppose Communist influence vigorously inside Iran.

The C.I.A.’s success in Iran was but the first in a long list of United States coup attempts—in Cuba, Chile, Congo, Guatemala, Vietnam and elsewhere. Some of these coups succeeded. Others did not. But all suffered unintended consequences—perhaps none more than the coup that ousted Mossadegh.

That is why Mr. Kinzer, a veteran correspondent for The New York Times whose last foreign posting was in Istanbul (where he also covered Iran), decided to take another look at this well-known episode. He does so with a keen journalistic eye, and with a novelist’s pen. In what is a very gripping read, he recounts the story of the coup and how it came about. In the process, he reveals much about Iran’s history, paints a sharp portrait of British colonialism just at the point of its ultimate collapse, and lays bare the debate on how the United States should engage the world.

Mr. Kinzer leaves no doubt that he thinks the coup was a mistake. His portrait of Mossadegh is highly sympathetic—here is a learned leader who speaks for the oppressed and willingly risks his life for the betterment of his own people. Clearly in the wrong were the British. Mr. Kinzer recounts how the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum) in effect ran Iran for years—with nearly all the benefits of oil exploration going to its owners and the British government and virtually none to the Iranian people.

In 1951 Mossadegh rose to power on a promise to nationalize Anglo-Iranian, setting in motion a crisis that two years later would lead to his ouster. London threatened war, and was dissuaded only by the firm rejection of that option by Washington. President Harry S. Truman, instead, sought to mediate a resolution to the British-Iranian standoff. But neither side would budge. Britain considered Iran’s oil rightfully its own and rejected the nationalization of the industry and assets as illegal; Mossadegh had no intention of reversing a decision that put Iran in charge of the resources within—or in this case under—its national territory.

A violent outcome might have been avoided had it not been for elections in Britain and the United States. In 1951 Winston Churchill returned to power and, after the loss of India, was in no mood to see the British Empire shrink still further. A year later Republicans regained the White House with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Among their top priorities was stopping Communism wherever it encroached, and rolling it back wherever possible. The unrest in Iran—and Mossadegh’s ties to the Communist Party there—was now a top concern not only in London but also in Washington.

The August coup ousted Mossadegh and put Iran firmly in Washington’s sphere of influence. But Mr. Kinzer argues that success in the short run came at a very high price in the long run.

To retain control over an unruly population, the Shah of Iran ruled with an ever more brutal and savage hand. Oppression bred nationalism, which found an outlet in Islamic fundamentalism. The result was the Iranian revolution in 1979. The decision by students and revolutionaries to take over the United States embassy was at least in part designed to avoid a repeat of 1953, when the C.I.A. used the embassy’s diplomatic sanctuary to plot the coup against Mossadegh.

The revolution and hostage crisis led Washington to support Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and Tehran to support Islamist terror groups as a way to attack the United States and its interests. “It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax,” the C.I.A. code name for the 1953 coup, Mr. Kinzer argues, “through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”

Even if that is quite a stretch (and hardly an excuse for 9/11), Mr. Kinzer has a point. Regime change can have very different consequences than originally intended. Iran was kept out of Soviet hands—but the coup also produced a brutal regime that fomented a violent and very dangerous revolution, the impact of which is felt even today.

Mr. Kinzer’s book offers a cautionary tale for our current leaders, who have embarked on their own version of regime change. As many of the 150,000 American troops in Iraq are discovering every day, not all such changes go according to plan. And who knows what unexpected and unintended consequences President Bush’s regime change still hold in store for us all, whether sooner or later.