Read All the Shah’s Men Online

Authors: Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah’s Men

All the Shah’s Men

Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Kinzer. All rights reserved

Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey
Published simultaneously in Canada

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Song lyrics on pages 13–14 from “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, © 1950 (Renewed) Frank Music Corp. All rights reserved

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Kinzer, Stephen.
All the Shah’s men : an American coup and the roots of Middle East terror / Stephen Kinzer.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-471-26517-9
1. Iran—Politics and government—1941–1979. 2. Mosaddeq, Mohammad, 1880–1967. 3. United States—Relations—Iran. 4. Iran—Relations—United States. I. Title.
DS318.K49 2003

For the People of Iran

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.



One day I attended a book party for an older Iranian woman who had written her memoirs. She spoke for an hour about her eventful life. Although she never touched on politics, she mentioned in passing that her family was related to the family of Mohammad Mossadegh, who served as prime minister of Iran for twenty-six months in the early 1950s and was overthrown in a coup d’etat staged by the Central Intelligence Agency.

After she finished speaking, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask a question. “You mentioned Mossadegh,” I said. “What do you remember, or what can you tell us, about the coup against him?” She immediately became agitated and animated.

“Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?” she cried out. “We always loved America. To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us. But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had that problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran. All your trouble started in 1953. Why, why did you do it?”

This outburst reflected a great gap in knowledge and understanding that separates most Iranians from most non-Iranians. In Iran, almost everyone has for decades known that the United States was responsible for putting an end to democratic rule in 1953 and installing what became the long dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah. His dictatorship produced the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which brought to power a passionately anti-American theocracy that embraced terrorism as a tool of statecraft. Its radicalism inspired anti-Western fanatics in many countries, most notably Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and other terror groups found homes and bases.

These events serve as a stark warning to the United States and to any country that ever seeks to impose its will on a foreign land. Governments that sponsor coups, revolutions, or armed invasions usually act with the conviction that they will win, and often they do. Their victories, however, can come back to haunt them, sometimes in devastating and tragic ways. This is especially true in today’s complex and volatile Middle East, where tradition, history, and religion shape political life in ways that many outsiders do not understand.

The violent anti-Americanism that emerged from Iran after 1979 shocked most people in the United States. Americans had no idea of what might have set off such bitter hatred in a country where they had always imagined themselves more or less well liked. That was because almost no one in the United States knew what the Central Intelligence Agency did there in 1953.

In his time, Mohammad Mossadegh was a titanic figure. He shook an empire and changed the world. People everywhere knew his name. World leaders sought to influence him and later to depose him. No one was surprised when Time magazine chose him over Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Winston Churchill as its Man of the Year for 1951.

Operation Ajax, as the CIA coup against Mossadegh was code-named, was a great trauma for Iran, the Middle East, and the colonial world. It was the first time the United States overthrew a foreign government. It set a pattern for years to come and shaped the way millions of people view the United States.

This book tells a story that explains a great deal about the sources of violent currents now surging through the world. More than just a remarkable adventure story, it is a sobering message from the past and an object lesson for the future.


A small but dedicated group of scholars has devoted considerable effort to uncovering the truth about events surrounding the 1953 coup.Most persistent among them is Mark J. Gasiorowski, who has become the group’s unofficial dean. Others who have accompanied him on his mission of discovery include Ervand Abrahamian, Fakhreddin Azimi, James A. Bill,Maziar Behroos,Malcolm Byrne, Richard W. Cottam, Farhad Diba, Mostafa Elm, James F. Goode, Mary Ann Heiss, Homa Katouzian, William Roger Louis, and Sepehr Zabih. Their work made this book possible.

The CIA prepared its own internal history of the coup, but it remained secret for many years. In 2000, a copy was leaked to the
New York Times
. It confirmed much of what was known about the coup and added many new details. The reporter who obtained it, James Risen, deserves much credit for his role in bringing it to light.

My research also owes much to the cooperation of librarians and archivists who freely shared their time and expertise. They include those at the public libraries in Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois; the Kent Law Library in Chicago; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, and the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; the National Archives in College Park, Maryland; and the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, Surrey, England.

Among those who read early drafts of the manuscript, in whole or in part, and made valuable comments were Janet Afary, David Barboza, Elmira Bayrasli, David Shuman, James M. Stone, and John E.Woods. They bear no responsibility for the final product but have my warm appreciation.

Most of the Iranians who helped me during my research in Iran asked not to be identified by name. They know who they are, and to them I extend deep thanks.


There is no universally accepted system for transliterating Persian words into English. As a result, there are many variations in the English spellings of Iranian names and other words. English-language books and articles about Mossadegh, for example, spell his name in almost a dozen different ways.

I have chosen spellings that seem closest to the original pronunciation. For the sake of consistency I have standardized these spellings and changed alternate spellings that occur in quoted documents. I have also omitted diacritical marks that are unfamiliar to English-speaking readers.

At several points I have made minor adjustments in translation and punctuation. These have been made only to clarify meaning and do not in any case represent substantive changes. The division of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service that conducts operations abroad is called MI6. To avoid confusion, I have referred to it by the former name throughout.


Good Evening, Mr. Roosevelt

Most of Tehran was asleep when an odd caravan set out through the darkness shortly before midnight on August 15, 1953. At its head was an armored car with military markings. Behind came two jeeps and several army trucks full of soldiers. The day had been exceptionally hot, but nightfall brought some relief. A crescent moon shone above. It was a fine night to overthrow a government.

Sitting in the lead car, Colonel Nematollah Nasiri, the commander of the Imperial Guard, had reason to be confident. In his pocket he carried a decree from the Shah of Iran dismissing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh from office. Nasiri was on his way to present this decree to Mossadegh and arrest him if he resisted.

The American and British intelligence agents who plotted this rebellion assumed that Mossadegh would immediately call out the army to suppress it. They had arranged for no one to be on the other end of the phone when he called. Colonel Nasiri was to stop first at the home of the military chief of staff and arrest him, then move on to deliver the fateful decree.

The colonel did as he was told. When he arrived at his first stop, however, he found something most unusual. Despite the late hour, the chief of staff, General Taqi Riahi, was not at home. Neither was anyone else. Not even a servant or a doorkeeper could be found.

This might have alerted Colonel Nasiri that something was amiss, but it did not. He simply climbed back into his armored car and ordered the driver to proceed toward his main objective, Prime Minister Mossadegh’s home. With him rode the hopes of two elite intelligence agencies.

Colonel Nasiri would not have been foolhardy enough to attempt such a bold mission on his own. The decree he carried was of dubious legality, since in democratic Iran prime ministers could be installed or removed only with the permission of parliament. But this night’s work was the culmination of months of planning by the Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The coup they were staging had been ordered by President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In 1953 the United States was still new to Iran. Many Iranians thought of Americans as friends, supporters of the fragile democracy they had spent half a century trying to build. It was Britain, not the United States, that they demonized as the colonialist oppressor that exploited them.

Since the early years of the twentieth century a British company, owned mainly by the British government, had enjoyed a fantastically lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil. The wealth that flowed from beneath Iran’s soil played a decisive role in maintaining Britain at the pinnacle of world power while most Iranians lived in poverty. Iranians chafed bitterly under this injustice. Finally, in 1951, they turned to Mossadegh, who more than any other political leader personified their anger at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). He pledged to throw the company out of Iran, reclaim the country’s vast petroleum reserves, and free Iran from subjection to foreign power.

Prime Minister Mossadegh carried out his pledges with single-minded zeal. To the ecstatic cheers of his people, he nationalized Anglo-Iranian, the most profitable British business in the world. Soon afterward, Iranians took control of the company’s giant refinery at Abadan on the Persian Gulf.

That sent Iran into patriotic ecstasy and made Mossadegh a national hero. It also outraged the British, who indignantly accused Mossadegh of stealing their property. They first demanded that the World Court and the United Nations punish him, then sent warships to the Persian Gulf, and finally imposed a crushing embargo that devastated Iran’s economy. Despite this campaign, many Iranians were thrilled with Mossadegh’s boldness. So were anticolonial leaders across Asia and Africa.

Mossadegh was utterly unmoved by Britain’s campaign against him. One European newspaper reported that Mossadegh “would rather be fried in Persian oil than make the slightest concession to the British.” For a time the British considered launching an armed invasion to retake the oil fields and refinery, but they dropped the idea after President Harry Truman refused his support. Only two options remained: leave Mossadegh in power or organize a coup to depose him. Prime Minister Churchill, a proud product of the imperial tradition, had no trouble deciding for the coup.

British agents began conspiring to overthrow Mossadegh soon after he nationalized the oil company. They were too eager and aggressive for their own good. Mossadegh learned of their plotting, and in October 1952 he ordered the British embassy shut. All British diplomats in Iran, including clandestine agents working under diplomatic cover, had to leave the country. No one was left to stage the coup.

Immediately, the British asked President Truman for help. Truman, however, sympathized viscerally with nationalist movements like the one Mossadegh led. He had nothing but contempt for old-style imperialists like those who ran Anglo-Iranian. Besides, the CIA had never overthrown a government, and Truman did not wish to set the precedent.

The American attitude toward a possible coup in Iran changed radically after Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in November 1952. Within days of the election, a senior agent of the Secret Intelligence Service, Christopher Montague Woodhouse, came to Washington for meetings with top CIA and State Department officials. Woodhouse shrewdly decided not to make the traditional British argument, which was that Mossadegh must go because he had nationalized British property. That argument did not arouse much passion in Washington. Woodhouse knew what would.

“Not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire,” he wrote later, “I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry.”

This appeal was calculated to stir the two brothers who would direct American foreign policy after Eisenhower’s inauguration. John Foster Dulles, the incoming secretary of state, and Allen Dulles, the incoming CIA director, were among the fiercest of Cold Warriors. They viewed the world as an ideological battleground and saw every local conflict through the prism of the great East-West confrontation. In their eyes, any country not decisively allied with the United States was a potential enemy. They considered Iran especially dangerous.

Iran had immense oil wealth, a long border with the Soviet Union, an active Communist party, and a nationalist prime minister. The Dulles brothers believed there was a serious danger that it would soon fall to communism. The prospect of such a “second China” terrified them. When the British presented their proposal to overthrow Mossadegh and replace him with a reliably pro-Western prime minister, they were immediately interested.

Soon after President Eisenhower took office on January 20, 1953, John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles told their British counterparts that they were ready to move against Mossadegh. Their coup would be code-named Operation Ajax, or, in CIA jargon, TPAJAX. To direct it, they chose a CIA officer with considerable experience in the Middle East, Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Like other members of his famous family, Kermit Roosevelt had a penchant for direct action and was known to be decisive in times of crisis. He was thirty-seven years old, chief of the CIA’s Near East and Asia Division, and an acknowledged master of his clandestine trade. The Soviet agent Kim Philby described him as the quintessential quiet American, “a courteous, soft-spoken Easterner with impeccable social connections, well-educated rather than intellectual, pleasant and unassuming as host and guest. An especially nice wife. In fact, the last person you would expect to be up to the neck in dirty tricks.”

CIA agents in those days shared a profound idealism, a conviction that they were doing the vital dirty work of freedom. Many combined the best qualities of the thinker and the adventurer. None epitomized that combination more fully than did Kermit Roosevelt. At the beginning of July, ignoring a CIA doctor’s order that he first submit to urgent kidney surgery, he flew off on his secret mission. He landed in Beirut and from there set out by car across the deserts of Syria and Iraq. As he entered Iran at a remote crossing, he could barely contain his excitement:

I remembered what my father wrote of his arrival in Africa with his father, T. R., in 1909 on the African Game Trails trip. “It was a great adventure, and all the world was young!” I felt as he must have felt then. My nerves tingled, my spirits soared as we moved up the mountain road…. As it turned out, on July 19, 1953, we encountered an unusually listless, stupid and semi-literate immigration/customs fellow at Khanequin. In those days US passports carried, as they do not now, some brief description of any notable features of the holder. With encouragement and help from me, the guard laboriously transcribed my name as “Mr. Scar on Right Forehead.” This I found a good omen.

Roosevelt spent his first two weeks in Tehran conducting business from a villa rented by one of his American agents. Decades of British intrigue in Iran, coupled with more recent work by the CIA, gave him excellent assets on the ground. Among them were a handful of experienced and highly resourceful Iranian operatives who had spent years assembling a clandestine network of sympathetic politicians, military officers, clergymen, newspaper editors, and street gang leaders. The CIA was paying these operatives tens of thousands of dollars per month, and they earned every cent. During the spring and summer of 1953, not a day passed without at least one CIA-subsidized mullah, news commentator, or politician denouncing Prime Minister Mossadegh. The prime minister, who had great respect for the sanctity of free press, refused to suppress this campaign.

Iranian agents who came in and out of Roosevelt’s villa knew him only by his pseudonym, James Lockridge. As time passed, they naturally developed a sense of comradeship, and some of the Iranians, much to Roosevelt’s amusement, began calling him “Jim.” The only times he came close to blowing his cover were during tennis games that he played regularly at the Turkish embassy and on the campus of the French Institute. When he missed a shot, he would curse himself, shouting, “Oh,
” Several times he was asked why someone named Lockridge would have developed such a habit. He replied that he was a passionate Republican and considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to have been so evil that he used Roosevelt’s name as a curse.

The plan for Operation Ajax envisioned an intense psychological campaign against Prime Minister Mossadegh, which the CIA had already launched, followed by an announcement that the Shah had dismissed him from office. Mobs and military units whose leaders were on the CIA payroll would crush any attempt by Mossadegh to resist. Then it would be announced that the Shah had chosen General Fazlollah Zahedi, a retired military officer who had received more than $100,000 from the CIA, as Iran’s new prime minister.

By the beginning of August, Tehran was afire. Mobs working for the CIA staged anti-Mossadegh protests, marching through the streets carrying portraits of the Shah and chanting royalist slogans. Foreign agents bribed members of parliament and anyone else who might be helpful in the forthcoming coup attempt.

Press attacks on Mossadegh reached new levels of virulence. Articles accused him not just of communist leanings and designs on the throne, but also of Jewish parentage and even secret sympathy for the British. Although Mossadegh did not know it, most of these tirades were either inspired by the CIA or written by CIA propagandists in Washington. One of the propagandists, Richard Cottam, estimated that four-fifths of the newspapers in Tehran were under CIA influence.

“Any article that I would write—it gave you something of a sense of power—would appear almost instantly, the next day, in the Iranian press,” Cottam recalled years later. “They were designed to show Mossadegh as a Communist collaborator and as a fanatic.”

As the plot gathered momentum, Roosevelt faced his most serious obstacle, Mohammad Reza Shah. The thirty-two-year-old monarch, only the second shah in the Pahlavi line, was timid and indecisive by nature, and he doggedly refused to be drawn into such an audacious plot. “He hates taking decisions and cannot be relied on to stick to them when taken,” one British diplomat reported. “He has no moral courage and succumbs easily to fear.”

More than personality traits held the Shah back. Mossadegh had been the most popular figure in modern Iranian history, and although Britain’s campaign of subversion and economic sabotage had weakened him, he was still widely admired and beloved. It was not even clear that the Shah had the legal authority to remove him. The plot could easily backfire and endanger not only the Shah’s life but the monarchy itself.

None of this daunted Roosevelt. To carry out his coup, he needed signed decrees from the Shah dismissing Mossadegh and naming General Zahedi in his place. Roosevelt never doubted that he would ultimately obtain them. His battle of wits with the Shah was unequal from the start. Roosevelt was clever and well trained, and behind him lay immense international power. The Shah was weak, immature, and alone.

Roosevelt’s first gambit was to send emissaries who might have special influence over the Shah. First he arranged for the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, who was as sharp and combative as the Shah was dull, to visit her brother and try to stiffen his backbone. Ashraf’s tongue-lashings of her brother were legendary, including one in the presence of foreign diplomats when she demanded that he prove he was a man or else be revealed to all as a mouse. She detested Mossadegh because he was an enemy of royal power. Her attacks on his government became so bitter that the Shah had felt it best to send her out of the country. From her golden exile in Europe, she watched events in her homeland with undiminished passion.

Ashraf was enjoying life in French casinos and nightclubs when one of Roosevelt’s best Iranian agents, Asadollah Rashidian, paid her a call. He found her reluctant, so the next day a delegation of American and British agents came to pose the invitation in stronger terms. The leader of the delegation, a senior British operative named Norman Darbyshire, had the foresight to bring a mink coat and a packet of cash. When Ashraf saw these emoluments, Darbyshire later recalled, “her eyes lit up” and her resistance crumbled. She agreed to fly to Tehran and landed without incident under her married name, Madame Chafik. At first her brother refused to receive her, but after being not so subtly urged to change his mind by associates who were in touch with the CIA, he relented. Brother and sister met late on the evening of July 29. Their meeting was tense. She failed to persuade him to issue the crucial decrees, and to make matters worse, news of her presence leaked out and set off a storm of protest. To everyone’s relief, she quickly returned to Europe.

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