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The CIA in Iran

Repression Family Style

By Trevor Barnes

THE RECENT DEPARTURE of the Shah from Iran probably marks the end of his reign. His position is as hopeless as it was 26 years ago. Yet in 1953 he returned. Many know the CIA played a role in his restoration. But few know the details of that involvement with all its implications for Iran, the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. foreign policy.

On July 6, 1953 a young American stepped off the plane at Qaar-E-Shirim, Iran, and passed through customs. His name was Kermit Roosevelt '38, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt '81 and the cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04. The customs officer let him pass without hindrance unaware that Roosevelt had just received instructions from Allen Dulles, the new head of the CIA, to topple the regime of the Iranian nationalist Dr. Muhammed Mossadeq. The fledgeling CIA had taken considerable interest in Iran during the preceding years, as previously unpublished documents show. Alarmed by the continuing Soviet threat to Iran, Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the chief of the Agency, sent a secret memo to President Truman on June 27, 1950. Hillenkoetter warned Truman that although the USSR would not attack Iran directly it would intensify its efforts "to build up subversive forces within Iran and...weaken the country by means of propaganda, border activities and diplomatic pressure." For the moment, however, the CIA was not unduly alarmed because the newly appointed government of General Ali Raumara maintained firm support for the United States.

This brittle calm was shattered on March 7, the following year. While attending a funeral at a mosque General Raumara was shot dead. His assassin was a member of a militant religious group called the Devotees of Islam. Eight days later the Iranian parliament passed a bill providing for the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

Back in Washington panic began to build and the CIA produced on March 16. 1951 a secret analysis of the situation for Truman and his top officials called "The Current Crisis in Iran." The report noted increased turmoil in the country, the amount of support for the nationalization of the oil industry and the danger of the British worsening the situation by an "unyielding attitude." Yet the special estimate concluded confidently (and Truman marked this in the margin) that "We do not believe...the situation is such that there is imminent danger of the government's losing control, barring armed intervention of the USSR."

The CIA had failed to consider one very important factor in the situation, the Majlis or Iranian parliament, which voted soon afterwards for the immediate seizure of the oil industry and then named Mossadeq prime minister in April. Mossadeq immediately began talks with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to finalize nationalization and the following year commenced his attack on the royal prerogatives. His actions were seen by the CIA as evidence of a desire to create a communist state. Dulles stated bluntly later that "Communist...stooges took over power in Iran in 1953." This misinterpretation of Mossadeq's nationalism followed from cold war suspicion of the Soviets, the existence of a fairly powerful Tudeh (Communist) Party and from flimsy evidence in information reports pointing to Russian tommy-guns furnished to Iranian soldiers.

NEITHER Mossadeq nor the British were willing to compromise on the oil issue. This delay increased bitterness and weakened Iran's financial position, indeed so much so that Mossadeq asked Eisenhower in May, 1953 for increased aid, trying to force the president's hand by talk of a communist threat. Eisenhower refused on June 29. The president had already decided, with the consent of British prime minister Churchill, that Mossadeq "had to go" after a National Security Council meeting in March.

Kermit Roosevelt seemed a natural choice to organize the covert operation. He was a historian by training (his doctoral dissertation was on "Psychological Techniques in the English Civil Wars") and during the war he was assigned to the Near East where he served in army intelligence. Later he was recruited by the CIA and in early 1953 was station chief at Beirut in the Lebanon. Roosevelt's Eastern manner was a perfect facade to hide his role as a covert operator--"the last person you would expect to be up to his neck in dirty tricks" as Kim Philby, the English spy wrote later.

After arrival in Tehran Roosevelt set up headquarters in the basement of the U.S. military mission. He was visited there by General Fazhollah Zahedi, Mossadeq's disaffected Minister of the Interior once described by Soroya, the Shah's second wife, as "half swashbuckler and half Don Juan." Zahedi swashbuckled but was finally compelled to agree with Roosevelt that the prospects for a successful coup were poor. The Shah was depressed and dispirited, incapable of taking any decision, while the armed forces seemed increasingly behind Mossadeq.

Dulles had flown to Geneva to control by radio the whole operation from afar like a pipe-smoking puppetmaster. At Geneva, made even more apprehensive by the arrival of a new Soviet ambassador in Tehran, Laurentiev, he spoke out in a news conference on July 25 against the communist menace in Iran. He was meanwhile working desperately behind the scenes to bolster the Shah's confidence. It was Dulles who persuaded the Shah's sister, Ashraf, to return the same day to Iran in a vain attempt to encourage her brother to be more assertive.

Some members of the armed services did offer their services unasked when they heard of the projected coup. General Gilchenshah, head of the air force, did so on August 10. Roosevelt was cheered. Meanwhile CIA experts had examined the Iranian constitution and decided on the shape of the coup--Mossadeq was to be dismissed by Imperial decree and replaced by Zahedi while a force recruited for the CIA by General Schwarzkopf demonstrated in favor of the Shah's return.

This coup failed. Schwarzkopf's recruits had shared their excitement with friends and Mossadeq learned of the plans. When the Commander of the Imperial Guard arrived to deliver the decree to the prime minister he was arrested. The army remained loyal to Mossadeq and significantly the mobs hired by the CIA were unable to stir up popular enthusiasm for the Shah, who fled to Rome. The CIA was not invincible. The successful coup only came about because Roosevelt was able to learn lessons from his mistakes and because dissatisfaction grew among Mossadeq's supporters.

ROOSEVELT obtained the Imperial Decree and using the skills of an innocent Armenian photographer unable to read Persian he made 300 copies and rushed them to foreign embassies and public places. Then he hired the mobs of a former champion athlete, Sha'abar Bi Mokh, who ran a gymnasium in Tehran. Bi Mokh's name means "Brainless" but his lucrative employment with the CIA shows he was inappropriately christened. Roosevelt's other macabre preparations for the coup included the assasination of some of Mossadeq's supporters. Their bodies, throats slit, were buried in the Elburz mountains.

Discontent with Mossadeq's regime was accumulating. The mullah Bebamani spouted influential warnings of a communist subversion and Teymur Bakhtiar, chief of the garrison in Kermanshah, indicated he was ready to move on Tehran in aid of the Shah. Ordinary people were also influenced against Mossadeq by the Tudeh (Communist) Party's desecration of Shah Riza's tomb on August 18.

On the morning of the coup itself, August 19, the outcome was unclear. Roosevelt had made careful plans with Zahedi, General Arfa and other officers loyal to the Shah but the reaction of the rest of the army and of the inhabitants of Tehran was as yet a mystery.

The CIA had already decided to buy the support of the people. Estimates of the amount distributed to the crowds run as high as six to ten million dollars. CIA's Rent A Mob came to maturity in the 1953 Iranian coup.

Brainless's mob began chanting slogans in support of the Shah early on August 19, slipping banknotes under windscreen wipers and giving others to all who would join them. It was a cynical tribute to the CIA's tactics soon all the streets around Parliament Square were squeezed tight with pro-Shah demonstrators. Orators miraculously sprang from the crowd and called for the downfall of Mossadeq. The Shah's portrait was hung on a banner across the railroad station.

At about 10 p.m., a fantastic procession of wrestlers, mountebanks and clowns emerged from the bazaar and struggled through the crowd. Suddenly they halted and--ripping off their disguises--transformed themselves into a group of about 300 young Iranians with guns and clubs who stormed the ministries nearby. A CIA agent on a rooftop above the square described the scene later as out of Cecil B. De Mille movie with a "cast of thousands" milling about in all directions.

The army was not yet won over although its loyalty to Mossadeq was feebler than Roosevelt and the generals had dared to hope. For when Zahedi arrived in a tank at Parliament Square a few tense moments passed and then the troops defending Foreign Minister Fatemi threw their caps in the air and declared for the Shah. By mid-afternoon Tehran was under the control of General Zahedi.

In Rome the Shah was despondent. A gynecologist provided by the CIA was giving a course of injections to his wife, Soroya, in a vain attempt to reverse her childlessness. He badgered her so often to make love with her husband that she finally lost her temper. "Doctor," she snapped, "all I'm asking you to do is find something to break my eggs. I'll see the Shah goes on making omelettes." The news of the successful coup cheered the Shah over this contretemps, however, and he returned triumphantly to Iran.

CRITICS of the Shah, American imperialism and the CIA present the 1953 coup as the result of the agency's effort alone. The Shah saw it as a spontaneous movement on the part of the people. The truth lies between the two. Roosevelt certainly played an invaluable coordinating role (and the Shah rewarded him for it by taking him on a skiing holiday, all expenses paid, every year since the coup). The CIA provided money to buy the loyalty of the crowd and beyond this furnished the most important element of all for those loyal to the Shah--confidence that the United States supported them. But without a change in the direction of the political tide the CIA was powerless.

In fact the agency's effort in Iran was modest, especially by later standards. It cost no more than $20 million to restore the Shah to the throne and ensure (if only in the short term) American influence in the area. Dulles cleverly hid the importance of luck in the successful coup and revelled in the image of invincibility acquired by the CIA. The CIA mythe was born in Iran and the 1953 coup bears much responsibility for the subsequent expansion of covert activities so that they came to dominate the agency.

If only because the outcome of the coup is not wholly attributable to the US, America should not be held responsible for all the excesses of the Shah since that time. The Shah was dominated by the United States in the 1950s and early '60s but even at this time he was adept at balancing America against Russia, hinting that he might at any time sign treaties with the Soviets. As a secret CIA National Intelligence Estimate phrased it in 1961: "a continuing problem for the U.S. will be how to give the Shah sufficient support to preserve his present pro-Western policy without encouraging excessive demands for aid." With the massive oil deposits and valuable intelligence sites made available in Iran growing in importance the U.S. came to exert little pressure for reform and the Shah became less and less susceptible to it.

America also failed to encourage reforms in Iran for a different reason. The CIA did not provide the U.S. government with sufficient, accurate intelligence about both the growth of opposition and its causes--among them repressive domestic policies. This was because the CIA saw SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, as a friendly intelligence service on the lines of the British or French models with whom it exchanges information, rather than an instrument of political oppression akin to the KGB.

How different would Iran be in 1979 if the CIA had not intervened. Mossadeq's aims were not as laudable as many now believe: in June and July 1953 he was almost certainly planning to abolish the Iranian parliament. As support slid from beneath his feet he was also being forced to rely unduly on the Iranian Communist Party. The CIA probably replaced one emerging dictator by another but in the long run by doing so it increased hatred of the United States. Kermit Roosevelt would have been saddened. The operation begun with moral fervor to save the Iranians for democracy resulted in a totalitarian regime which crushed the very freedom the coup of 1953 was supposed to create.

Trevor Barnes is a Kennedy Fellow from Ipswich, England, currently researching the CIA in Europe, 1945-55.

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