Welcome to Part 2 of my 4-part series, Iran: They Think We’re Great! in which I look at the history of US-Iran relations and attempt to explain how we got where we are today: each on the other’s shit list.
It’s all part of my effort to bring history and geopolitics to people who want to sound thoughtful at dinner parties but find The Economist too uppity. I’ll be releasing a new segment each week, but if you’d like the whole essay now, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send it to you! It’s that easy!
Missed Part 1? Read it here.
Want more Finley? I aim to please. Check out my novel, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. It’s been called “wickedly funny!” and “a delight!” And don’t miss my other series, including The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers and High Heels, Wigs, and Flamboyant Robes (or…Dictators). You can find all my writing here.
And now: Part 2
IRAN: THEY THINK WE’RE GREAT!
Rise of the (Pea)Cock
When we left off last week, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had convinced US President Dwight Eisenhower that Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, needed to be overthrown because he was a raging communist (oh, and because of the minor detail that he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry). Eisenhower called on the CIA, which called on Kermit the Frog Roosevelt to boot Mossadegh without anyone knowing who was doing the booting.
Kermit the Spy launched TPAJAX, an operation that was a mix of covert influence and propaganda, with false flag operatives and dissidents and paid protestors and a lot of cash, all thrown together to create massive chaos. The plan consisted of choosing a replacement for Mossadegh—one who would, of course, be more amenable to American demands—building support for the would-be new prime minister and the Shah, and whipping up protests and anger against Mossadegh. Basically, it was a giant mind fuck on the Iranian people: False news stories directed at strategically targeted groups, coordinated talking points from high-level US officials bashing Mossadegh, and planned and coordinated protests among anti-Mossadegh factions. (Years later, when Russia would launch a similar influence campaign to affect US elections, the United States would remember AJAX and have a good laugh at the irony of history.)
In an effort to be fair and balanced, Kermit gave the Shah a choice: participate in the coup or be deposed. Being such a strong leader, ready to fight for the rights of his people—even if it meant enormous sacrifice on his part—he pretty damn quickly agreed to cooperate and signed the agreement that would replace Mossadegh with a CIA-chosen military leader. That’s what was best for the Iranian people, or something like that.
On August 15, 1953, Mossadegh received the Shah’s decree dismissing him as prime minister. But Mossadegh was obstinate and refused to accept the order. His supporters flooded the streets, giving the Shah one big “Bye, Felicia!” The coup had failed. The Shah fled to Baghdad and then to Rome, because eating pasta and gelato is a great way to sooth yourself after a failed coup. Washington sent a message telling Kermit to come home. And that was it.
Or so it seemed. Remember, these were the beautiful days before instant communications, before Washington could micromanage every aspect of an operation.
As it turns out, Kermit decided to ignore the cable from CIA headquarters telling him to stand down. On his own volition, the little frog kept pushing. On August 19, Mossadegh turned himself in. A new, pro-American government was now in charge in Iran.
The Iranian people were thrilled that foreigners had yet again come to show them the light, this time by removing the very person they had democratically voted for. That was very kind of the democratic United States to remove him, they all thought.
The Shah—who took the CIA-engineered coup to overthrow an elected and popular prime minister as a sign that the Iranian people really loved him—preened atop the Peacock Throne. He began implementing a number of modernization programs, including giving women the right to vote. He was the first regional leader to recognize Israel (spoiler alert: this Iranian sentiment would eventually change). He also released his not-so-delicate intelligence services, known as SAVAK, on anyone who dared voice dissent, or anyone who even stood next to someone who voiced dissent. Or even that person’s neighbor. Or even that neighbor’s cousin across town. Or even that neighbor’s cousin in another country. Basically, everyone. Everyone was oppressed.
But the US was happy because the oil was flowing again. Hooray! Sure, the Shah was a dictator, but he was our dictator. Plus, he had really spiffy uniforms. We propped him up with tons of weapons, figuring he would stabilize the region on our behalf. The Shah felt empowered, however, figuring the US needed him more than he needed them. He controlled the oil, after all. As world leaders courted him and Iran’s economy boomed, the Shah’s ego got a little big for his pantaloons.
Turns out, all the SAVAK oppression was hiding the fact that many Iranians viewed the Shah as a puppet of the West. They also really didn’t like SAVAK. Distaste for the monarch grew, even though peacock, when prepared just right, is actually quite delicious. His subjects began to see him as corrupt—a $100 million celebration to mark the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, complete with chefs from Paris’s famous Maxim’s restaurant, didn’t help—and it seemed nobody was benefiting from all those reforms he had launched.
One guy in particular was especially pissed. Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the first Scary Mullah With A Beard with whom we Westerners would become acquainted.
Next Week: The Last To Know