Fifty years ago, Britain asked for U.S. help to overthrow the Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh to return Shah Reza Pahlevi to power. New York Times veteran correspondent Steven Kinzer has written a book about the events, entitled "All the Shah's Men." He recently talked with VOA's Laurie Kassman about that moment in history and its repercussions.
Author Steven Kinzer reports the motivation behind the coup emerged from British anger over Mr. Mossadegh's nationalization of the oil industry, soon after he was elected prime minister in 1951. Until then, the industry had been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, one of Britain's most productive foreign assets at the time.
Britain organized an economic blockade of Iran but, Mr. Kinzer writes, was reluctant to topple the Iranian prime minister on its own. Mr. Mossadegh, who a well-educated and flamboyant personality, was highly popular at home.
So, London turned to Washington for help. Then U.S. President Harry Truman refused. "When the British turned to President Truman and asked him to do this favor, to overthrow Mossadegh for them, he said, 'no,'" said Mr. Kinzer. "The CIA at that time had never overthrown a government, and Truman's line was, 'we're not going to get into that business.'"
But Britain did persuade President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who succeeded him in 1952, that Iran was in danger of falling under the influence of the Soviet Union.
"You have to put yourself back, in fairness, in that time period," stressed Mr. Kinzer. "Look at what had just happened in the past few years. The Soviets had blockaded Berlin. Stalin had exploded a nuclear bomb. The Communists had won the civil war in China. Eastern European countries had fallen under Communist rule."
Mr. Kinzer's book describes in detail what he calls the 'cloak and dagger' operations that led to Mr. Mossadegh's ouster.
The United States and its allies expected that putting Shah Reza Pahlevi back in charge would provide a stable bulwark against the Communist world that reached to Iran's northern border.
"What happened," asked Mr. Kinzer. "The Shah ruled for 25 years as an increasingly repressive dictator. His dictatorship produced the explosion of the late 1970s, which we call the Islamic Revolution. That explosion brought to power a group of fanatically anti-Western religious figures, who proceeded to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western targets. And this group also inspired fundamentalist radicals in other countries, including in next door Afghanistan."
Ironically, Mr. Kinzer says, the religious leaders supported Mohammed Mossadegh early on in his term as prime minister out of a nationalist passion. But, he continued, they turned against him when he started to implement secular, democratic reforms. Mr. Kinzer says his goal was most likely a constitutional monarchy. "I believe Mossadegh wanted to maintain a constitutional monarchy. He often pointed to the British system of a figurehead monarch and an elected all powerful parliament as the model for Iran."
In researching the book, All the Shah's Men, Mr. Kinzer says, he looked at the events from an American perspective - how they affected U.S.-Iranian relations and the American role in the world. Now, he says, he has discovered the profound impact on Iranians.
"For them, this is a profoundly emotional experience," he explained. "Put aside the thousands of Iranians who were tortured or killed by the Shah's regime and the Islamic regime. What about the ordinary people, generations of whose lives were frustrated? I had an e-mail from one Iranian woman who wrote to me, 'I was in tears when I finished your book, because it made me think of everything we lost and everything we could have had.'"
Mohammed Mossadegh was arrested on August 19, 1953, and tried for treason. He was sentenced to three years in prison. After his release, he remained under house arrest, until his death in 1967.