So…I read another book, and I feel compelled to tell you what I learnt from it. The book was called All The Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer, and it tells the story of the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and the role played by the British and American governments in the coup on behalf of a British oil company Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and under the pretext of combating ‘communism’.
The facts surrounding the overthrow and the methods used, presented in piercing clarity by Mr Kinzer thanks significantly to an internal history of the coup compiled by the CIA, draw alarming parallels to certain political events that have happened in the last couple of years - not a million miles away from Iran either (geographically as well as perhaps, prophetically).
Britain was under the stewardship of a Labour government at the start of the crisis - the end of the 1940s - when the process of decolonisation was supposedly high on the agenda and actively supported by darling-of-the-white-left Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The NHS had just been formed, the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal mines, the railways, road haulage, telecommunications, electricity and gas were all nationalised, so it should give us some idea of the direction Britain was putatively going in, and what this should have meant for its colonies.
In 1949 the leader of AIOC travelled to Iran to have the Shah of Iran sign the ‘Supplemental Agreement’, a contract that would extend a deal made sixteen years previously, giving AIOC full ownership of Iranian crude oil. There had been some protest from Iranians about the unfavourable terms of the Agreement, and indeed the issue of AIOC became a hot topic in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. The Finance Minister, Abbasgholi Golshayan presented a report that “documented the accounting tricks by which Anglo-Iranian was cheating Iran out of huge sums of money”. The Shah, like any dictator supported by the forces of Western imperialism, was hugely in favour of any kind of privatisation and he was rewarded in kind with cash and the must-have for any self-respecting tyrant, arms.
The Shah had done his best to try and suppress disquiet in the Majlis about the Supplemental Agreement by corrupting the parliamentary elections and forcing through royalist candidates. He only relented and reluctantly held free and fair elections when the future Prime Minister Mossadegh arranged a mass protest in front of the Shah’s palace and declared they wouldn’t move until the Shah respected the democratic wishes of the Iranian people. Following the elections – in which Mr Mossadegh had been elected as a member of the Majlis – the Shah, in consort with AIOC and the British Foreign Office, had sought to install Prime Ministers that would push through the Supplemental Agreement. Three Prime Ministers later, during which time public opinion on AIOC had drastically deteriorated, new terms were put to the British oil firm that were perceived to be politically palatable for the opposition Majlis representatives and the majority of the Iranian voters that they represented.
British refusal to compromise on anything short of complete British control over Iranian oil and not yielding a single penny in profit sharing only further stoked the fires of anti-imperialism throughout Iran. AIOC would refuse to allow any Iranian employee to rise into a position of management, it would allow no Iranian oversight of its accounts and its advocates in the British Embassy had the ear (and mouth) of the Prime Minister – General Ali Razmara.
A political assassination and several episodes of misguided political meddling later, the iconoclastic Mohammed Mossadegh found himself Prime Minister of Iran, with the number one priority for the Mossadegh government being, of course, the nationalisation of AIOC.
The Labour government was still in office in Westminster, albeit with a different man at the helm of the Foreign Office, one Herbert Morrison, whom Kinzer described as “colossally unprepared” and considerably unqualified for the role. Morrison, a Labour Minister, came across as a bona fide strategist and spokesman for the East India Company. He appeared determined to keep the fire of British colonialism burning; strongly urging against any compromise from AIOC and expressed hostility towards (genuine) American efforts to defuse the situation. In fact, Morrison and the subsequent Churchill government thought the Americans were obliged to intervene on their behalf, seemingly forgetting the bacon-saving actions of the US in the last decade.
Unfortunately for Mossadegh and his supporters, which by this time included everyone but cronies of AIOC and the Shah and the fringe of the ultra-religious, there were two brothers in the US who – irrespective of how they reasonable they felt the British’s grievances were – understood that the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry was a disaster for American interests. The brothers in question, John Foster and Allen Dulles, Secretary of State and CIA Director respectively, materialised the hawkish foreign policy impetus provided by (if they did not create it themselves) the newly elected President Eisenhower.
The Dulleses wouldn’t be the only notable siblings to play a part in this tale, for the notorious Rashidian brothers deserve honourable mentions – if for their fulgurant names alone. Seyfollah, Assadollah and Qodratollah Rashidian worked tirelessly with the CIA - who had assigned Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of former President Theodore - to stir dissent on the ground in Iran. They worked with gang leaders and corruptible army officers to arrange flash mob-like political protests against the Mossadegh premiership and to distribute other forms of subversion.
Meanwhile in the Majlis, Iranian MPs that were ‘sympathetic to the interests’ of a-foreign-colonial-era-institution-that-existed-to-drain-Iranian-natural-resources-and-abuse-the-labour-of-their-constituents intensified the tumult by dissenting against Mossadegh and his “crusade” against AIOC. With the growing confidence of the Ayatollahs and the wavering confidence of the detached and indifferent MPs, the political bloc behind Mossadegh began to disintegrate. The Prime Minister, in all his innocence and naivety, was unaware that the Americans who were ostensibly sympathetic to his battle against British neo-colonialism, were in fact now plotting against him.
Nationalisation was a difficult process as the British had ensured no Iranian would learn the skills of running an oil company, and they also went to great lengths to ensure international boycotts of Iranian oil, as well as harassing the shipments that actually made it out of Iran. Media coverage of the situation in Britain was typically condescending and xenophobic, exhibiting outrage and offence that a foreign country should have sovereignty over their own resources – like it would two years later with the decision of Jamal Abd al-Nasser to nationalise the Suez Canal, and like it does even in 2013 with mainstream publications like the Financial Times and the Economist deriding and shaking their figurative heads at the policies of Rafael Correa and his contemporaries on “resource nationalism”. The Observer – who admittedly haven’t always purported to be a ‘centre-left’ newspaper – described Mossadegh as a “Robespierre fanatic” and a “tragic Frankenstein” who was “obsessed with one xenophobic idea.”
Interestingly, media and popular opinion within the United States was very much on the side of Mossadegh and his campaign against AIOC. Neo-colonialism and the role of global-crusader-against-communism was yet to be officially instilled into the American people until the next year as a matter of necessary self-defence, when Dwight Eisenhower would become president. The situation in Iran, which was to be the precursor to a medley of American adventures in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and so on, offers a fascinating insight into US foreign policy – particularly the change in nuance that came with the replacement of the Democratic Truman’s presidency with the Republican Eisenhower’s. It is perhaps important to note here, however, that President Eisenhower strongly rebuked and put an end to the pretentions of the three noteworthy dregs of colonialism – Britain, France and Israel – in their assault on Nasser in 1956.
Back in Iran, Roosevelt and the Rashidians were concocting a fervour in the streets by paying gang leaders to arrange protests that would bring about the downfall of Mossadegh. Protestors were commissioned to shout both pro and anti-Shah slogans. The anti-Shah, pro-Mossadegh ‘protestors’ were to be the more unruly; intended to polarise public opinion against Mossadegh. Tribesmen from outside Tehran – naturally on the payroll of Roosevelt – swelled the crowds, and defecting soldiers (who were promised cash and political promotions by Roosevelt) would facilitate the occupation of public spaces by the protestors. The live broadcast on Radio Tehran was interrupted by goons screaming “The government of Mossadegh has been defeated! The new Prime Minister, (General) Fazlollah Zahedi is now in office. And His Imperial Majesty is on his way home!” After which the home of Mossadegh was sacked and burned by looters, and the Prime Minister eventually “surrendered himself” to his replacements.
The Shah was back in business, the defector army officers and politicians who politicked against Mossadegh were in lofty positions and AIOC – who had changed their name to British Petroleum – had the gloopy black stuff flowing again. Mossadegh was found guilty in a military court for “treason” and “inciting the people to armed insurrection”, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest in his home village.
It is my opinion that the recent ‘democratic uprisings’ in MENA, especially Libya, must be reassessed under the context of imperialist-engineered popular revolution. There is a shrill noise that emanates from some - supposedly enlightened - parts that objects to such a theory under the premise that critique of the ‘Arab Spring’ is ‘orientalist’ because it gives credence to the idea that people in the East aren’t capable of having ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’, and that such critiquing upholds the myth that Arabs need a strong dictator to ensure order. It is my opinion that it is very difficult to have real democracy anywhere in the world, particularly in an area rich in natural resources. All the Shah’s Men outlines the lengths imperialist forces will go to to ensure foreign ownership of a country’s natural resources and the subtlety with which foreign intervention can be carried out. There were no American tear gas cans or tanks present, yet it is impossible to argue the political upheaval in Iran wasn’t an entirely American-instigated affair. We have seen that popular protests can be manipulated, and the Western coverage of political protests are often misrepresented to align itself with the objective of the Western government. To my knowledge, the once-in-a-lifetime Mossadegh was the last democratic leader anywhere in the Middle East, yet he was deposed of so unceremoniously by the self-styled proponents of democracy. Freedom, democracy and tolerance are useful buzzwords vociferated reflexively by political actors to endear themselves to Westerners because it’s supposed to show a conjunction in values. It also ratifies the conception that Western policy in the Global South is about encouraging democracy and tolerance, which would be difficult to defend if the factual cases of Mossadegh, 1980s Afghanistan, 1973 Chile, Saudi Arabia and countless others are remembered.
There are many political actors and commentators who still firmly believe that it is possible to remain independent of neo-colonialist objectives yet happily assume the narrative delivered by the psyops departments of the neo-colonialist machine. The coup of Mossadegh in the East and the corrupt, money-addled political systems that exist in the West has taught us that imperialism and capitalism is more powerful than democracy – when corruptible or apathetic and apolitical individuals are involved. It took essentially four men to undo the democracy built by Mossadegh because it didn’t suit the objectives of neo-imperialism. The West has never and will never align itself on the side of the people in any Global South struggle, so it would be asinine to assume they’ve suddenly turned over a new leaf with Syria. Stephen Kinzer wrote a book in 2003 about events that happened in 1953 that has had an effect on the way we should interpret events since 2011. It wouldn’t surprise me if similar books were written about the Western involvement in ‘revolutions’ in Libya and Syria, about how most people were unwittingly drawn into supporting the aims of neo-imperialist powers. But we might have to wait another fifty years.
Selected extracts from the book
Under the leadership of Sir William Fraser, a famously obstinate Scotsman who hated the idea of compromise, Anglo-Iranian rejected every appeal to reform. Fraser’s militancy and that of the British government were easy to understand. Britain had risen to world power largely because of its success in exploiting the natural resources of subject nations. More than half of Anglo-Iranian’s profits went directly to the British government, which owned 51 percent of the shares. It paid millions of additional pounds each year in taxes and also supplied the Royal Navy with all the oil it needed at a fraction of the market price. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was not exaggerating when he observed that without oil from Iran, there would be “no hope of our being able to achieve the standard of living at which we are aiming in Great Britain.”
Senior officials of both the British government and Anglo-Iranian resolutely rejected his pleas for compromise. They told him that the company would not train more Iranians for supervisory positions, would not open its books to Iranian auditors, and would not offer Iran more money for its oil. “One penny more and the company goes broke,” said the chairman, Sir William Fraser. That astonishing piece of mendacity made clear to McGhee that more talks were fruitless.
Truman sent a note to Attlee urging that negotiations “be entered into at once” to prevent a worsening of the “explosive situation in Iran. Attlee replied that allowing Iran to get away with nationalisation would have “the most serious repercussions in the whole free world.”
“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.” ~ Mohammed Mossadegh
“In debates with British colleagues we often tried to show them the mistake they were making in treating the Persians the way they did. The answer was usually: “We English have had hundreds of years of experience on how to treat the Natives. Socialism is all right back home, but out here you have to be the master.””