Iran, Diplomacy, Culture; Continent: Asia, Europe

All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer

  • Turns out you don’t have to look the whole way back to the Crusades to find Western countries stirring the pot in the Middle East
  • 299 pages (218 pages of content, including the epilogue)

Finding a book about the Middle East that isn’t heavily colored by the author’s politics proves next to impossible. Normally, a book lands in the Reject Pile if its author’s political theme flavors the text too strongly, but I’ve had to adjust my expectations for history books about this region of the world. The cultures in the Middle East embrace passionate ideals and admire historical figures who made sweeping, emotional gestures and speeches. Writers don’t keep the stories here at arm’s length, so reading history for this region requires critical thinking in a way that perhaps no other history does.

Stephen Kinzer has a message he wishes to convey to his reader: the United States didn’t get to be “The Great Satan” to Iran just by having Christians and Jews in its population, by being relatively wealthy or by embracing Western ideals. Up until the mid-twentieth century, most Iranians had a favorable opinion of Americans. Americans valued democracy, and democratic elections were a treasured privilege for common Iranian men. Kinzer writes about events under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations that changed Iranian public opinion about Americans.

Before I read this book, I hadn’t realized that the United States, together with British intelligence, had arranged a coup in 1953 to remove Iran’s democratically elected and very popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. U.S. history textbooks don’t usually cover American foreign policy to any real extent, and the nightly news doesn’t bring up this sort of political backstory, either. Why did the CIA and its British counterpart orchestrate the coup? Two reasons, and neither one is particularly imaginative for this place and time.

Oil, What Else?

Iran’s royals spend to keep up appearances. The extravagant lifestyle of the shah in the early twentieth century emptied the country’s coffers and caused him to use Iran’s natural resources as a quick source of revenue. British businessmen seized the opportunity to gain a historic concession – essentially unlimited access to the country’s oil fields – for a sum that kept the shah’s household going for a while, but hardly matched the value of what lay beneath the sand.

In that era, colonialism still informed British diplomacy and development of foreign assets, including the refinery for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. British management at this oil company oversaw Iranian workers who received poverty wages. Iran’s government received a relatively small portion of the company’s petroleum revenue annually (in fact, the company paid more in income tax to the British government than it did to share revenues with Iran). The colonialism that still dominated British foreign policy in those days didn’t see anything wrong with this arrangement.

In the 1950s, Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company because he found the concession to the company deeply unfair to the Iranian people. The British government argued in World Court and in the court of public opinion amounted to theft. I have to admit, I think this is arguably true, since the Iranian government claimed ownership of the company’s physical assets. However, one can hardly blame the prime minister for wanting to free his country from a bad deal that squandered an opportunity for the kind of wealth that could have changed the standard of living for its citizens much sooner.

The Big Fear in 1950s America

The Truman administration would have cheerfully stayed out of the disagreement between the British and the Iranians except for one thing: Iran shared its northern border with the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviets effectively controled northern Iran for the first part of the twentieth century, and Iran had its own communist party, Tudeh. Viewed through the lens of capitalism versus communism, the U.S. government couldn’t leave Iran alone. That said, the Korean War was underway and drawing most of the American government’s attention, so a diplomatic solution was highly preferable to Truman. He pushed hard for one, but both the British and Mossadegh refused to negotiate in any meaningful way.

Once Eisenhower came into office, however, the new American administration was more willing to take sides. The U.S. needed allies like Britain in the Cold War, meaning that if they wanted Mossadegh gone, then the United States would get rid of him. Plus, it was a chance to install a hardline military type who would then have some allegiance to the U.S. government right on the border of the Soviet Union.

Unintended Consequences

Kinzer tells us what happens next in some detail, since orchestrating a coup overseas sixty-odd years ago is no longer classified information. It’s classic spy movie material: midnight meetings, hiding out, networks of local heavies. In Kinzer’s account, Mossadegh is a paragon of chivalry and righteousness, a tragic hero who assists in his own downfall by refusing to dirty his hands by playing at his opponents’ level.

This 1953 coup is a huge turning point in Iran’s modern history, so Iranians today not only know about it, they know that Americans played a key role. To them, America caused them to lose a democratically elected government run by a prime minister sympathetic to the Iranian common man. Contrast this degree of common knowledge with that of Americans: most of us couldn’t really tell you much about kingmaking as a feature of American foreign policy anywhere, let alone the Middle East. In my case, my formal education in history pushed the idea of isolationism that somehow outlived World War I. The notion that the United States basically minds its own business until some foreign country gets in its collective face made for nicer reading in my high school textbook.

Image:, 2013.


One thought on “Iran, Diplomacy, Culture; Continent: Asia, Europe

  1. Pingback: Four Books about the U.S. Presidency and Troubling Times | History Reading Challenge

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