Title: All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
Author: Stephen Kinzer
Genre: non-fiction, American history, Middle Eastern history, Iranian history, politics
**This review has been adapted from an essay I wrote for my Modern World Civilization class**
Before I read All the Shah’s Men, my personal knowledge about Iran was very limited. I knew that the Shah had been overthrown in the 1970s, with help from the United States government, and that the Ayatollah was put in place as ruler in the Shah’s stead. I have also hard about the American hostage crisis that took place in Iran in the late 1970s, but I have not completed any in-depth research about either event. Before reading this book, I had never heard about the 1953 coup in Iran (orchestrated with assistance from the U.S. government). I knew that Iran and the United States have had unfriendly diplomatic relations for decades and this book explains the beginnings of this animosity. I have described the events of this book to a few other people and they had never heard of the 1953 Iranian coup either.
Iran, like the Congo, was a victim of European imperialism. Africa was carved and divvied up between European powers in 1885 at the Berlin Conference, with no African input. Iran suffered a similar fate in 1907 when Great Britain and Russia met in Saint Petersburg and divided Iranian soil between them, with no Iranian say-so in the matter (I see a disturbing pattern here….): “Britain assumed control of the southern provinces, while Russia took the north. A strip between the two zones was declared neutral, meaning that Iranians could rule there as long as they did not act against the interests of their privileged guests” (38). Britain was interested in Iran because of its proximity to India and the Russians were also interested in Iran since it was adjacent to its southern border. This paternalistic attitude towards Iran was indicative of the imperialistic and condescending attitudes many powerful Westerners held towards non-Western peoples and societies.
Iran’s relationship with Great Britain can be traced back to numerous bad business and economic decisions made by Nasir al-Din Shah, who “came up with the idea of raising cash by selling Iran’s patrimony to foreign companies and governments” (31). The Shah’s plan was implemented after he and his hundreds of children had bankrupted the country with their lavish lifestyles. Soon after the Shah put Iran’s various industries up for sale, the British obtained exclusive control of Iran’s agriculture, mining, railroad, banking, and tobacco industries. Muzzafar al-Din Shah continued his father’s poor business legacy with the sale of Iran’s natural gas and oil industry to British banker William Knox D’arcy in 1901. With the growing popularity of automobiles in the early twentieth century, the British realized if they “could not find oil somewhere, they would no longer be able to rules the waves or much of anything else” (48).
After the confirmed discovery of oil in Iran, the British created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company “to take control of oil exploration and development in Iran” (49) and to enrich British coffers. Unfortunately, only the British were enjoying the perks of the booming petroleum profits. While British petroleum workers lived in individual, comfortable housing with access to many amenities (shops, theaters, swimming pools, etc.), the lower class Iranian workers enjoyed no such luxuries and “lived in slums and long dormitories with only primitive sanitation” (50). Iranians viewed the Shah as a literal sellout and his most vocal critic was Mohammad Mossadegh who despised the British takeover of his country: “If bringing prosperity to the country through the work of other nations were of benefit to the people, every nation would have invited foreigners into its home. If subjugation were beneficial, no subjugated country would have tried to liberate itself through bloody wars and heavy losses” (59). The British government offered a Supplemental Agreement in 1949 that guaranteed increased petroleum royalties, more Iranian promotions, and less drilling. The Iranian legislative assembly debated for months on whether to accept this deal and things were coming to a stalemate when the Iranian government learned that Saudi Arabia had reached an agreement with Aramco to split all oil profits on a 50/50 basis. When a similar idea was floated to the British government regarding Iran, they rejected the idea of an even split of profits (77). In Iran, calls for nationalization of the country’s oil field divided legislators, angered the British, and was looked upon favorably by the Truman administration who felt that “if the United States did not align itself with nationalist forces in the developing world, those forces would turn toward Marxism and the Soviet Union” (88).
Mohammad Reza Shah officially dismantled the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company on May 1, 1951, and created the National Iranian Oil Company; the British were furious since they considered Iranian oil, found on Iranian land to be British property. The Truman administration “worried that the argument between the United States and Britain over how to deal with Mossadegh might spiral out of control and split the Atlantic alliance” (99). During this time of heightened tensions with the Soviet Union, the United States wanted to maintain as many alliances as possible to stop the spread of communism.
When outright political demands and hostility refused to sway the pro-nationalist Iranians, the British took to more subtle forms of economic sabotage: British refinery managers refused to repair or replace equipment and refused to properly train new managers; the British persuaded their western European allies to deny visas to petroleum workers applying for relocation to Iran. In a desperate move, the British government took their case to the United Nations to justify their monopoly on Iran’s oil industry. That tactic failed as well but a change in the leadership and diplomatic styles in the American and British governments in 1952-1953 brought the United States, Great Britain, and Iran on a collision course. The United States and Great Britain co-authored plans for a coup to overthrow Mossadegh titled Operation Ajax. “One looked forward to recovering its oil concession. The other saw a chance to deliver a devastating blow against communism” (164). Intelligence operatives from both countries used their extensive network of local contacts to start protests and counter-protests to keep the Iranian government and people distracted from the true architects of the imminent coup. After Mossadegh’s overthrow, the British government tried to reinsert itself on the Iranian oilfields but ironically “the logic of power dictated that since the United States had done the dirty work of overthrowing Mossadegh, American companies should share the spoils” (195).
From the 1950s American perspective, the overthrow of Mossadegh and reinstatement of the Shah appeared to be a success but six decades later the world is paying the price of American and British greed and demand for oil that was deemed more important than Iranian democracy. The proverb “Oh what a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive” is an apropos viewpoint of the 1953 coup and its after effects. The Middle East is in a constant state of political, economic, and religious turmoil, most Iranians hate the Americans for butting into situations in which they weren’t asked to assist, and the West has inadvertently contributed to the spread of terrorism. Some members of the British and the US governments still subscribed to imperialism in the 1950s and this narrowmindedness and ethnocentrism blinded government leaders to the long-term consequences of interfering in another country’s politics and industry. The Western powers did not realize that interfering in Iran would have negative ripple effects in a globalized world. I think the worst thing about this is that the United States still has not learned its lesson in orchestrating coups. The US was also involved in disastrous diplomatic incidents in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Iran again in 1979; this is why studying history is so important- so we don’t make the same mistakes as our predecessors!