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How to Overthrow A Government Pt. 1: The 1953 U.S. Coup in Iran

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New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer discusses how the U.S. overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran. Kinzer says “I think it was the success of the Iran coup and the Guatamalan one the folllowed that sent the US off on this direction of covert action and regime change.” [includes transcript]

The apparent coup d’etat in Haiti last weekend and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the country evoke images of what can only be described as US-orchestrated coups past. Today we are going to look at two of these. The 1953 coup against the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh and the April 2002 coup of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

  • Steven Kinzer, New York Times reporter and author of the book “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.”

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StoryMar 12, 2018Overthrow: 100 Years of U.S. Meddling & Regime Change, from Iran to Nicaragua to Hawaii to Cuba
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re going to look at two of these. The 1953 coup against the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh , and the April 2002 attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. This week I went to Chicago to speak at the Chicago Public Library. Afterwards, I met with Steven Kinzer, author of the book, “All The Shah’s Men, an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.” The New York Times reporter talked about the 1953 coup against the Iranian leader.

STEVEN KINZER: The story of how the C.I.A. overthrew the government of Iran in 1953 is really an object lesson in how easy it is for a rich and powerful country to throw a poor and weak country into chaos. The C.I.A. sent one of its most adept operatives, Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, to Iran with the mission of organizing the overthrow of the government. One reason I was so interested in writing this book is that I have always asked myself, how do you go about overthrowing a government? What do you do? Suppose that you are sent to a country with that mission. What do you do on the first day? How do you start and then what do you do? Well, now I know. Kermit Roosevelt set about trying to create chaos in Iran. He was able to do that very quickly by a series of means. The first thing he did was, he started bribing members of parliament and leaders of small political parties that were a part of Mossadegh 's political coalition. Pretty soon the public started to see the Mossadegh ’s coalition splitting apart and people denouncing him on the floor of parliament. The next thing Roosevelt did was start bribing newspaper editors, owners and columnists and reporters. Within a couple of weeks, he had 80% of the newspapers in Tehran on his payroll and they were grinding out every kind of lie attacking Mossadegh . The next thing Roosevelt did was start bribing religious leaders. Soon, at Friday prayers, the Mullahs were denouncing Mossadegh as an atheist enemy of Islam. Roosevelt also bribed members of police units and low-ranking military officers to be ready with their units on the crucial day. In what I think was really his master stroke, he hired the leaders of a bunch of street gangs in Tehran, and he used them to help create the impression that the rule of law had totally disintegrated in Iran. He actually at one point hired a gang to run through the streets of Tehran, beating up any pedestrian they found, breaking shop windows, firing their guns into mosques, and yelling — “We love Mossadegh and communism.” This would naturally turn any decent citizen against him. He didn't stop there. He tired a second mob to attack the first mob, to give people the impression that there was no police presence and order had completely disintegrated. So, within just a few weeks, this one agent operating with a large sum of cash and a network of contacts and various elements of society, had taken what was a fairly stable country and thrown it into complete upheaval.

AMY GOODMAN: Then can you talk about how the coup was actually carried out?

STEVEN KINZER: The first coup that Roosevelt organized was scheduled to take place on August 15th of 1953. On that night, an officer, who had been brought into the plot, was supposed to arrive at Prime Minister Mossadegh 's home around midnight with an order signed by the shah firing him as prime minister. Now, they knew that Mossadegh would refuse to accept this order, since in Iran, which was then a democracy — only parliament had the right to hire and fire prime ministers. When he resisted, he would be arrested. That was the plan. The C.I.A. had a general already designated to take over the next day as prime minister of Iran. But what happened? Mossadegh got wind of this plan. When the officer arrived at Mossadegh ’s house at midnight, loyal officers stepped out of the shadows. Soon, the officer who was supposed to arrest Mossadegh was himself under arrest. So now, the coup had failed and the Shah, who had been waiting out the results at his resort near the Caspian, immediately fled the country. He went to Baghdad and then on to Rome where he told people that he was going to be looking for work, since he obviously wouldn't be able to go back to Iran.

Now, what neither he nor anyone else knew was that Kermit Roosevelt despite being ordered by the C.I.A. to come home, decided: I can still do this. I can try again. He was really a true-life James Bond. On his own, he activated his mobs on the 19th of August, just four days later, in a second coup attempt. They rampaged through the streets by the tens of thousands. Many of them, I think, never even really understood they were being paid by the C.I.A. They just knew they had been given a good day’s wage to go out in the street and chant something. Many politicians whipped up the crowds during those days. Roosevelt had been spending $11,000 a week just to bribe members of the Iranian parliament. There were only 90 members. The average annual income in Iran at that time was about $500. So, you can imagine what this sum must have meant. At crucial moments, police and military units joined the crowd. They started storming government buildings. There were gunfights in front of important buildings. The crucial battle, the climactic battle was actually in front of the prime minister’s house. It started at nightfall. There was heavy gunfire, including an artillery duel. About 100 people were killed just in the battle in front of Mossadegh ’s house. Towards the end, members of a military unit, whose leader Roosevelt had bribed, arrived with a column of tanks, and with that, Mossadegh was no longer able to survive. By midnight, on August the 19th of 1953, his house was in flames, and he had fled over the back guard wall to surrender himself a couple of days later. And the general, who was a C.I.A. — who the C.I.A. had selected as the designated savior of Iran was installed as prime minister.

Now, the shah was sitting in a restaurant in Rome imagining that his prospects in Iran were finished, when news correspondents burst in with cables from Tehran saying that a second coup had been attempted and it had succeeded, and he was now being called upon to return to his throne. According to correspondents who were present, he went into a form of shock, the color drained out of his face and his hands started to shake. When he could finally regain his composure, he said: I knew it. They love me. He flew back to Tehran, and a couple of nights later received Kermit Roosevelt on the last night that Roosevelt spent in Iran before returning to Washington. The two of them toasted each other with vodka, and the shah said, “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and you.” He was quite right, although he might have gotten the order a little mixed up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Steven Kinzer of “The New York Times,” who has written the book, “All the Shah’s Men: American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.” So, the shah was installed. And very briefly, the effect of this coup?

STEVEN KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt came back from his great triumph in Tehran and was brought to the oval office to brief President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Dulles and a few other members of the national security team in Washington. He later wrote about this moment. He said, as I looked over to Secretary of State Dulles, I could see he was intensely interested. He seemed to be grinning like a giant cat. My instinct told me he was planning.

Sure enough, only a few weeks later, Kermit Roosevelt was called into his boss’s office, and told, you know, you did such a great job overthrowing that government in Iran, we have decided we don’t like the government down in Guatemala. And we would like you to go down there and do the same thing again. Well, Kermit Roosevelt demurred but someone else was found, and in less than a year after the democratic government of Iran was overthrown by the C.I.A., the C.I.A. did the same thing in Guatemala. Now, these two seemingly great successes, purchased with modest effort and relatively low cost, I think, really thrilled Secretary of State Dulles and his brother, Alan Dulles, the C.I.A. director. Bear in mind, this was a time when the United States could not invade countries of which it disapproved, because of the Soviet Union. The Red Army was always a present threat. Here was a way that the U.S. could dispose of government’s it didn’t like without invading. I think it was the success of the Iran coup, and the Guatemalan one that followed ten months later, that sent the U.S. government off on this direction of covert action and regime change.

The Iran coup was the first time the C.I.A. ever overthrew a government. And Harry Truman never wanted the C.I.A. to go in that direction. I even found a phrase in one of his diaries. He used the phrase, 'American Gestapo', to describe what he was afraid the C.I.A. might become if it were allowed to run loose. So, he never used the it to overthrow governments. But the new administration that came in in January of 1955, seized onto this tool and that led us to our adventures in everyplace from Indonesia to Chile to Cuba, to Vietnam, to the Congo, and, I think, grabbed your government, set it off on a certain direction from which it still is recovering.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Kinzer, “New York Times” reporter and author of the book, “All the Shah’s Men,” describing what happened in 1953. The C.I.A.- backed coup against the democratically elected leader of Iran.

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How to Overthrow A Government Pt. 2: The 2002 Attempted Coup in Venezuela

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