Book Review: Originally published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival (a few minor changes have been made here).
All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer. John Wiley, Hoboken NJ, 2003, 258pp.
While pessimistic political commentators on the world situation, after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, have taken to suggesting 'Iran's next', readers of this book will learn the extent to which Iran was first: as Stephen Kinzer puts it in his preface, “the first time the United States overthrew a foreign government. It set a pattern for years to come” and provides a 'stark warning to the United States and to any country that ever seeks to impose its will on a foreign land.' (p.x) Among the now familiar motifs of the pattern, British complicity and the seeds of a lasting legacy of bitterness are conspicuous. The first chapter launches into a racy narrative of the dramatic events of August 1953, when, as Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright put it in 2000: 'the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.' (p.212) The Shah fled into exile and it looked as though the CIA's attempted coup had failed, until the situation was turned around by the determination of their man in Tehran, Kermit [really] Roosevelt.
Not that the Americans were the only or original villains of the piece: for the first half of the twentieth century they appeared in this context enlightened and benevolent by default, and by contrast with the British. Before resuming his page-turning story of the coup in chapter 11, Kinzer does an excellent job of summarising how history led up to it, especially the dismal saga of British dominance via the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which meant not only appalling conditions for the Iranian workforce but pervasive interference, and the use of all kinds of dirty tricks in retaliation for any attempt to wrest control from the profit-making élite. He goes back further, to the sometimes illustrious past of a country that is no diplomatic fiction with geometric boundaries but is rooted in an ancient civilisation. Naturally it was not idyllic; given the brutality, despotism and corruption of the ruling dynasty, before and after the modern world made its presence felt. The advent of the British and other foreign powers, notably Russia, made a crucial difference, however, bringing a new dimension of exploitation and oppression. At the same time the people were provoked to periodic resistance on crucial issues, learning that “History changes course when people realise there is an alternative to blind obedience”. (p.33)
During the twentieth century successive interventions and conflicts reflected a changing world, from the blatantly ruthless profiteering of private companies, backed at need by the Foreign Office and the threat of occasional gun-boat diplomacy, to the confrontational mindset of the Cold War, which led the US to take such a disastrously active interest, lest the Communists get the oil. Meticulously documented throughout, using a full range of sources enhanced by personal observation and investigation, the evidence accumulates to constitute a damning indictment of those governments, agencies and individuals responsible. Their motives and mentalities are analysed with wit and insight, particularly in the character of Mohammad Mossadegh, whom Kinzer describes as a man of towering intellect and education, such as would be, he observes, “a drawback for a politician in some countries but not Iran.” (p.57) He survived the events of 1953 and his subsequent trial, to be confined to a village where he studied medicine in his old age; for the present regime, he is, as a potent signifier of freedom, an abiding source of uneasiness despite his undeniable role in opposing the Shah and ousting the British, winning his case at the World Court..When it came to the crunch, Prime Minister Attlee was not prepared to go to war, holding to the view that: “such action [...] would, in the modern world, have outraged opinion at home and abroad.” (p. 201)
Iran as the first victim of a CIA-directed coup was consequently foremost in incubating the resulting detestation of American imperialism and reacting violently against it, as the slogans of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the hostage crisis in its wake, spectacularly showed. And of course it did not end there. Considering all the consequences, Kinzer concludes that “Only a Soviet takeover [of Iran] followed by war between the super-powers” - an improbable scenario – “would have been worse”. (p. 215) The publishers' claim that this book, dedicated to the people of Iran, is or should be essential reading is hardly an exaggerated one.