Synopses & Reviews
Half a century ago, the United States overthrew a Middle Eastern government for the first time. The victim was Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. Although the coup seemed a success at first, today it serves as a chilling lesson about the dangers of foreign intervention.
In this book, veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer gives the first full account of this fateful operation. His account is centered around an hour-by-hour reconstruction of the events of August 1953, and concludes with an assessment of the coups "haunting and terrible legacy."
Operation Ajax, as the plot was code-named, reshaped the history of Iran, the Middle East, and the world. It restored Mohammad Reza Shah to the Peacock Throne, allowing him to impose a tyranny that ultimately sparked the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Islamic Revolution, in turn, inspired fundamentalists throughout the Muslim world, including the Taliban and terrorists who thrived under its protection.
"It is not far-fetched," Kinzer asserts in this book, "to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shahs repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York."
Drawing on research in the United States and Iran, and using material from a long-secret CIA report, Kinzer explains the background of the coup and tells how it was carried out. It is a cloak-and-dagger story of spies, saboteurs, and secret agents. There are accounts of bribes, staged riots, suitcases full of cash, and midnight meetings between the Shah and CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, who was smuggled in and out of the royal palace under a blanket in the back seat of a car. Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was a real-life James Bond in an era when CIA agents operated mainly by their wits. After his first coup attempt failed, he organized a second attempt that succeeded three days later.
The colorful cast of characters includes the terrified young Shah, who fled his country at the first sign of trouble; General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the Gulf War commander and the radio voice of "Gang Busters," who flew to Tehran on a secret mission that helped set the coup in motion; and the fiery Prime Minister Mossadegh, who outraged the West by nationalizing the immensely profitable Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The British, outraged by the seizure of their oil company, persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower that Mossadegh was leading Iran toward Communism. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain became the coups main sponsors.
Brimming with insights into Middle Eastern history and American foreign policy, this book is an eye-opening look at an event whose unintended consequencesIslamic revolution and violent anti-Americanismhave shaped the modern world. As the United States assumes an ever-widening role in the Middle East, it is essential reading
"Stephen Kinzers brilliant reconstruction of the Iranian coup is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is true. It is as gripping as a thriller, and also tells much about why the United States is involved today in places like Afghanistan and Iraq." Gore Vidal, author of Lincoln, Burr, and 1876.
"Remarkable, readable, and relevant . . . All the Shahs Men not only reads like an exciting, page-turning spy novel, it deals with the hard issues of today." Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
"A well-researched object lesson in the dismal folly of so-called nation-building. British and American readers of today should blush with shame." John le Carré, author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
and The Tailor of Panama
"With breezy storytelling and diligent research, Kinzer has reconstructed the CIA's 1953 overthrow of the elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was wildly popular at home for having nationalized his country's oil industry.... This stands as a textbook lesson in how not to conduct foreign policy."
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." Ivo H. Daalder, New York Times
”…meticulously documented throughout…essential reading…” (Medicine Conflict and Survival
, Vol. 21(4) October 2005)
That the past is prolog is especially true in this astonishing account of the 1953 overthrow of nationalist Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh, who became prime minister in 1951 and immediately nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This act angered the British, who sought assistance from the United States in overthrowing Mossedegh's fledgling democracy. Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy's grandson, led the successful coup in August 1953, which ended in the reestablishment of the Iranian monarchy in the person of Mohammad Reza Shah. Iranian anger at this foreign intrusion smoldered until the 1979 revolution. Meanwhile, over the next decade, the United States successfully overthrew other governments, such as that of Guatemala. Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent who has also written about the 1954 Guatemala coup (Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala), tells his captivating tale with style and verve. This book leads one to wonder how many of our contemporary problems in the Middle East may have resulted from this covert CIA adventure. Recommended for all collections. —Ed Goedeken, Iowa S tate Univ. Lib., Ames (Library Journal, June 15, 2003)
"...He does so with a keen journalistic eye, and with a novelist's pen...In what is a very gripping read." (The New York Times, July 23, 2003)
Tell people today that the United Nations was once the center of the world—the place where struggling nations got a shot at a fair hearing instead of a monkey trial before they were overthrown—and most would probably shake their heads in puzzlement.
Yet it was at the U.N., in October 1953, that one of the greatest dramas of the nascent television age unfolded: The eccentric, hawk-nosed Iranian nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh squared off with the aristocratic ambassador of the fading British Empire. At stake was Britain's claim to own Iran's oil in perpetuity.
The press played the showdown like a prize fight, "the tremulous, crotchety Premier versus Britain's super-suave representative, Sir Gladwyn Jebb," in Newsweek's account. The Daily News groused, "Whether Mossy is a phony or a genuine tear-jerker, he better put everything he's got into his show if he goes on television here." Time magazine had made him its Man of the Year. Now came "the decisive act in the dramatic, tragic and sometimes ridiculous drama that began when Iran nationalized the Anglo-American Oil Co. five months ago."
Five centuries ago would be more accurate, in the eyes of veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, who has written an entirely engrossing, often riveting, nearly Homeric tale, which, if life were fair, would be this summer's beach book. For anyone with more than a passing interest in how the United States got into such a pickle in the Middle East, All the Shah's Men is as good as Grisham.
And what a character Mossadegh makes: a fiery, French-educated nationalist with wild eyes, a high patrician forehead and droopy cheeks. His legendary hypochondria—he was prone to fainting and constantly received even diplomatic visitors in bed—seemed to flow from some deep wellspring of Shi'ite martyrdom, Kinzer suggests.
But the author's real accomplishment is his suspenseful account of Persia's centuries-old military, political, cultural and religious heritage, in which Mossadegh's face-off with London comes as the stirring climax to a drama that began with "Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, titans whose names still echo through history." By the 1930s, most Iranians had come to regard the abject misery they plunged into with every passing decade of exclusive British control of their one great natural asset as another passing calamity in a long history of the same. But with the global stirring of post-World War II nationalism, Anglo-American Oil pushed them to the breaking point.
In 1947, for example, the company reported an after-tax profit of £40 million—the equivalent of $112 million—and gave Iran just £7 million," Kinzer writes. Meanwhile, the company ignored a 1933 agreement to pay laborers more than 50 cents a day, or to build "the schools, hospitals, roads, or telephone system it promised." Inevitably, riots began breaking out at Abadan, the oil city where hundreds of thousands of Iranians lived amid baked mud and sewage in cardboard hovels in shadeless, searing heat. Their British overseers lived in another world entirely—tending to their green lawns and gardens, watching their well-scrubbed children frolic in the fountains, attending air-conditioned, "no-wogs-allowed" movie theaters, and sipping gin and tonics in their private clubs. The Abadan riots also propelled the fiery Mossadegh to his rendevous with destiny. But although the Iranian leader held his audience at the United Nations Security Council with a moving explication of his country's destitution at the hands of Anglo-Iranian interests, his triumph proved short-lived—and was soon to become a bittersweet memory.
In 1953, President Harry S Truman, whose gut-level sympathy for the impoverished Iranians led him to rebuff British pleas to conspire in Mossadegh's removal, was gone. The incoming Republicans were much more favorably disposed toward the British, especially after Whitehall repackaged its pitch in terms of a communist threat: Iran would fall to the Soviets, they now said, if Mossadegh stayed in office. Within weeks, the Eisenhower administration was plotting to get rid of him.
After all this drama, the machinations of CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt in Teheran to bring down Mossadegh and replace him with the young Reza Shah Pahlevi seems almost like an epilogue. For connoisseurs of covert action, however, there's a hell of a story left, even if some of it will make even the hardest-bitten Cold Warrior wince.
The basic facts of Operation Ajax have been known for some time, in part from "Kim" Roosevelt's own memoir, in part from other sources, most notably a windfall of long-classified CIA documents leaked to Kinzer's New York Times colleague James Risen in 2000.
The author makes good use of the material, toggling his drama between Washington, where CIA desk officers furiously churned out material for bought-off Iranian newspapers and radio stations, to Teheran, where Roosevelt scurried among clandestine meetings with Reza Pahlevi—a man so timorous he flew to Baghdad when the plot seemed to unravel—as well as with various treasonous Iranian Army officers.
Ajax was a triumph in the eyes of many—especially, needless to say, in the CIA. That verdict, of course, discounts the whirlwind of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by furious Shi'ite mobs whipped up by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who quickly spawned the terrorists of Hezbollah and other groups who plague us today.
"We got 25 years out of the Shah—that's not so bad," a CIA man once said to me, stirring a drink with his finger. As always, the Iranians had a different view. —Jeff Stein is co-author of "Saddam's Bombmaker" and editor of Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security, a daily news Web site. (The Washington Post, Sunday, August 3, 2003)
On Aug. 15, 1953, a. group of anxious C.I.A. officers huddled in a safe house in Tehran, sloshing down vodka, singing Broadway songs and waiting to hear whether they'd made history. Their favorite tune, "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," became the unofficial anthem of Operation Ajax - the American plot to oust Iran's nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and place the country firmly in the authoritarian hands of Mohammed Reza Shah.
In fact, luck was not much of a lady that night; as Stephen Kinzer's lively popular history of the 1953 coup recounts, Mossadegh's chief of staff got word of the conspiracy and rushed troops to defend the prime minister, thereby panicking the feckless young shah into fleeing to Baghdad and plunging the carousing Central Intelligence agents into gloom. The coup succeeded four tense days later, only after a C.I.A.-incited mob (led by a giant thug known memorably as Shaban the Brainless) swept Mossadegh aside. Luck was even less kind to the Ajax plotters in the longer haul; in 1979, the despotic shah fell to Islamist revolutionaries bristling with anti-American resentment.
Even the president who approved the coup, Dwight Eisenhower, later described it as seeming "more like a dime novel than an historical fact." Sure enough, "All the Shah's Men" reads more like a swashbuckling yarn than a scholarly opus. Still, Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent now based in Chicago, offers a helpful reminder of an oft-neglected piece of Middle Eastern history, drawn in part from a recently revealed secret C.I.A. history.
The book's hero is the enigmatic Mossadegh himself. In his day, British newspapers likened Mossadegh to Robespierre and Frankenstein's monster, while The New York Times compared him to Jefferson and Paine. Kinzer full-throatedly takes the latter view, seeing Mossadegh's achievements as "profound and even earth-shattering." But he acknowledges that the great Iranian nationalist was also an oddball: a prima donna, prone to hypochondria, ulcers and fits, who met the urbane American diplomat Averell Harriman while lying in bed in pink pajamas and a camel-hair cloak.
Mossadegh's Iran faced formidable foes: British oil executives, the C.I.A. and the brothers Dulles, all of whom come off wretchedly here. The least sympathetic of all are Iran's erstwhile British rulers, who continued to gouge Iran via the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. When the Truman administration prodded it to share the wealth with Iran, its chairman sniffed, "One penny more and the company goes broke." In 1951, to London's fury, Mossadegh led a successful campaign to nationalize the oil company, drove the British to close their vital oil refinery at Abadan and became prime minister. The British began drafting invasion plans, but Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned them that gunboat diplomacy would hurt the West in its struggle with Moscow.
Truman and Acheson's successors, alas, were less restrained. Third-world nationalists like Mossadegh made Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, as one scholar has put it, "see red" - as Communist wolves in neutralist sheep's clothing. Eager to roll back Communism rather than contain it, enthralled with covert action and egged on by Winston Churchill, they Soon concluded that Mossadegh had to go.
Conveniently enough, the secretary of state could ask his brother to do the dirty work. Allen Dulles was then running the newly founded C.LA., which had grown out of the wartime Office of Strategic Services. The C.I.A.'s man in Tehran was Kermit Roosevelt, an affable young O.S.S. veteran who had inherited his grandfather Theodore's taste for adventure. After masterminding the 1953 coup, Roosevelt began his victory speech by crowing, "Friends, Persians, countrymen, lend me your ears!"
Kinzer's brisk, vivid account is filled with beguiling details like these, but he stumbles a bit when it comes to Operation Ajax's wider significance. Kinzer shrewdly points out that 1953 helps explain (if not excuse) the Islamist revolutionaries' baffling decision to take American hostages in 1979; the hostage-takers feared that the C.I.A. might save the shah yet again and, in part, seized prisoners as insurance. One mullah - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now Iran's supreme leader - warned at the time, "We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadegh, whom the C.I.A. can snuff I out." Kinzer also notes that the 1953 conspiracy plunged the C.I.A. into the regime-change business, leading to coups in Guatemala, Chile and South Vietnam, as well as to the Bay of Pigs.
THE book's subtitle, unfortunately, suggests a less persuasive argument. "It is not far-fetched," Kinzer writes, "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." Kinzer is right to warn against the unintended consequences of American intervention, but his suggestion here involves far too many causal leaps. After all, the shah needn't have turned out to be such a tyrannical disaster, and 1953 needn't have led to 1979. Moreover, while Iran's Shiite radicals surely helped inspire many Sunni Arab Islamists, the Iranian revolution hardly created the fanaticism of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, who nursed hatreds of their own. Indeed, revolutionary Iran and Taliban Afghanistan were rivals, not allies, and they even almost went to war in 1998.
Moreover, blaming the C.I.A. and the AngloIranian Oil Company for the Iranian revolution lets later American administrations (and the shah himself) off the hook. Most cold war presidents relied too heavily on the shah for Persian Gulf stability while doing too little to press him to reform. John F. Kennedy, who did push Iran to liberalize, proved an honorable exception. In April 1962, he told a somewhat baffled shah to learn from the example of Franklin Roosevelt, who "was still regarded almost as a god in places like West Virginia" for siding with the common citizen.
The shah didn't get it. Nor did Eisenhower, who, in a March 1953 National Security Council meeting, wondered why we can't "get some of the people in these downtrodden countries to like us instead of hating us." It's still a splendid question. (The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, August 10, 2003)
"entertaining and sometimes shocking...serves as a useful reminder that troublesome regimes do not come out of nowhere." (Business Week, Aug. 18-25, 2003)
"...For those who like their spy data raw, the CIA's secret history is now freely available, thanks to a leek..." (Economist, 15 August 2003)
"...Kinzer's book offers a cautionary tale for our current leaders...not all such changes go according to plan..." (The Scotsman, 16 August 2003)
"...a new book about the coup All the Shah's men...recalls some unwelcome parallels(with the Gulf War)..."(The Guardian, 20 August 2003)
"...a topical subject with an explanation..." (Greenock Telegraph, 29 October 2003)
"...provides an able and often vivid summary of our knowledge..." (BBC History Magazine, December 2003)
"...an astonishing achievement, a thriller backed by meticulous research, a political analysis in artful prose..." (Irish Times, 25 December 2003)
"this skilled correspondent and analyst writes this so effectively is one of the many reasons why this incisive critique is so relevant today." (Ray Locker of the Associated Press)
Praise for All the Shah?s Men
"Stephen Kinzer?s brilliant reconstruction of the Iranian coup is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is true. It is as gripping as a thriller, and also tells much about why the United States is involved today in places like Afghanistan and Iraq."
?Gore Vidal, author of Lincoln, Burr, and 1876.
"Remarkable, readable, and relevant . . . All the Shah?s Men not only reads like an exciting, page-turning spy novel, it deals with the hard issues of today."
?Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
"A well-researched object lesson in the dismal folly of so-called nation-building. British and American readers of today should blush with shame."
?John le Carr?, author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
and The Tailor of Panama
Praise for "All the Shahs Men"
"Stephen Kinzers brilliant reconstruction of the Iranian coup is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is true. It is as gripping as a thriller, and also tells much about why the United States is involved today in places like Afghanistan and Iraq."
Gore Vidal, author of Lincoln, Burr, and 1876.
"Remarkable, readable, and relevant . . . All the Shahs Men not only reads like an exciting, page-turning spy novel, it deals with the hard issues of today."
Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
"A well-researched object lesson in the dismal folly of so-called nation-building. British and American readers of today should blush with shame."
John le Carri, author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
and The Tailor of Panama
This account of the CIA's coup d'etat in Iran in 1953 is based on documents about the coup (including internal CIA reports) that have now been declassified. The narrative is at once a vital piece of history, a cautionary tale and a real-life espionage thriller.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 244-249) and index.
This is the first full-length account of the CIA's coup d'etat in Iran in 1953—a covert operation whose consequences are still with us today. Written by a noted New York Times journalist, this book is based on documents about the coup (including some lengthy internal CIA reports) that have now been declassified. Stephen Kinzer's compelling narrative is at once a vital piece of history, a cautionary tale, and a real-life espionage thriller.
About the Author
STEPHEN KINZER is a veteran New York Times correspondent who has reported from more than fifty countries on four continents. During the 1980s he covered revolution and social upheaval in Central America. In 1990 he was named chief of the Times bureau in Berlin, and spent the next six years covering the emergence of post-Communist Europe. Later Kinzer became the first Times bureau chief in Istanbul. He is coauthor of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and author of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua and Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. Kinzer is currently a New York Times correspondent based in Chicago.
Table of Contents
Notes on Usage.
1. Good Evening, Mr. Roosevelt.
2. Curse This Fate.
3. The Last Drop of the Nation’s Blood.
4. A Wave of Oil.
5. His Master’s Orders.
6. Unseen Enemies Everywhere.
7. You Do Not Know How Evil They Are.
8. An Immensely Shrewd Old Man.
9. Block Headed British.
10. Pull Up Your Socks and Get Going.
11. I Knew It! They Love Me!
12. Purring Like a Giant Cat.