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Stephen Kinzer on US-Iranian Relations, the 1953 CIA Coup in Iran and the Roots of Middle East Terror

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As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Iraq for a historic meeting with Iraqi leaders, we turn to former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 23, 2023“It’s Always About Oil”: CIA & MI6 Staged Coup in Iran 70 Years Ago, Destroying Democracy in Iran
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: From Gaza, we turn now to Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iraq Sunday for a historic meeting with Iraqi leaders, first visit to Iraq by an Iranian president since the Iran-Iraq conflict of the ’80s. At a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, Ahmadinejad said his visit would open a new era in Iraq-Iran ties. He also rejected US allegations his government is interfering in Iraq’s affairs.

    PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] We want to tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will increase the problems of America in the region and will not solve them. The Americans have to accept the region as it is. The Iraqi people do not like America.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier, Ahmadinejad had made light of US allegations, saying, “Is it not funny that those with 160,000 forces in Iraq accuse us of interference?”

While Ahmadinejad’s visit could be a pivotal moment in improving Iran-Iraq ties, it’s also seen as a sign of the dwindling drumbeat for war coming from Washington. It’s been nearly three months since the release of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons program years ago. The report was a major blow to Bush administration efforts to shore up support for a possible military strike on Iran.

Stephen Kinzer is the author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and The Roots of Middle East Terror. The book chronicles the CIA-backed 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government after Iran nationalized its oil industry. The aftershocks of the coup are still being felt. His book has just come out in paperback, and he’s traveling the country to warn against a US attack on Iran.

I sat down with him to talk about what is happening today in Iran.

    STEPHEN KINZER: It’s more possible than you’d like to think. In a reality-based, fact-based policy environment in Washington, you’d think that the idea of attacking Iran would be off the agenda now. Not only is there no enthusiasm in the military for this, or even in the Defense Department civilian side, we’re very stretched in Iraq, obviously, and there doesn’t seem to be any public demand or urgency for it. In addition, we had this National Intelligence Estimate, which undercut what had been the principal argument for an attack, which was Iran is just about to develop a nuclear weapon and therefore we need a preemptive attack. Now, our sixteen intelligence agencies have issued this report saying, actually, no, they’re not developing a nuclear weapon nor have they been working on this project for at least five years. So, that also, you would think, would eliminate this possibility.

    Unfortunately, though, I think the — first of all, the fact that the possibility is fading a little bit off the public agenda and public opinion is being kind of anaesthetized to this possibility increases the danger, because there doesn’t seem to be any public outcry or any outcry in Congress. Secondly, I think the National Intelligence Estimate might have perversely made the attack more likely in one sense. Before that estimate came out, the US’s policy was going to be: now we’re going to get the Security Council and the European Union to agree to really tight sanctions on Iran, because they’re about to develop a nuclear weapon. And we thought we were going to be able to do that because it was that urgent. But now, the reason why we said those sanctions were so urgent has been undercut by our own intelligence agency, so the sanctions option is more or less off the table. They’re not going to agree to sanctions now. And I think that might lead people in the White House to think, well, sanctions option isn’t there anymore; I guess bombing is the only option.

    Here’s the nightmare argument that I could imagine being made inside the Oval Office. We had to suffer 9/11 because wimpy Clinton did not go over there and take care of that threat while it was gathering. There’s a threat gathering in Iran. It could be even more serious with millions killed in a nuclear bomb attack on the West. The next president won’t be able to carry out this drastic action for political reasons. But obeying the call of history, we’re going to realize we’ve got to take care of this threat before it grows out of hand.

    I fear that some variation of this argument, particularly as the election approaches later this year, could lead us into a crazy adventure that’s not only going to set back the cause of democracy in Iran by a generation; strengthen the regime that we profess to detest; eliminate the entirely pro-American sentiment that now exists among the population of Iran; probably set off retaliation attacks by Iran on Israel and maybe states in the Persian Gulf; possibly result in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran could do by just sinking a couple of tankers, and that’s 20 percent of the world’s oil right there; undoubtedly trigger a huge explosion of anti-American violence in Iraq, probably also in Afghanistan; and it would further destabilize Pakistan, which is already in upheaval. And I think throughout the Muslim world you’d see great upheaval.

    So you can foresee all these negative effects, but based on what we now know about the long-term effects of the last time we intervened in 1953, I think I could predict one thing; despite all those negative effects, we could predict: history suggests that the worst long-term effects of this operation would be ones that nobody can now imagine. That’s the lesson we learned from the aftermath of 1953. And that’s why that story of 1953 is now so relevant again as we’re preparing possibly for another attack.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we talk about the effects now, like specifically why you think it would reinforce the hard-line conservatives in Iran, let’s go back to 1953, something that’s not very much done on television in the United States, taking a look at history or context. What did happen? Why is it that the people of Iran, this is indelibly written for every child who certainly wasn’t born then, but in the United States, they don’t know what you’re talking about?

    STEPHEN KINZER: Well, I’ll tell you an interesting story to start off. I was recently on a panel in the National Cathedral in Washington, and one of the other panelists — we were talking about Iran —- was Bruce Laingen, who had been the chief American diplomat in Iran and was the most prominent figure among the hostages that were held there for 444 days. And I knew that Laingen had become an advocate of reconciliation with Iran, which I consider quite remarkable, considering the ordeal that he suffered, so I wanted to talk to him. I hadn’t met him before. And we exchanged some emails after that.

    He told me an amazing story. He said, “I had been sitting in my solitary cell as a hostage for about a year, when one day the cell door opens, and there is standing one of the hostage takers, one of my jailers. And all of my rage and my fury built up over one year sitting in that cell just burst out, and I started screaming at him, and I was telling him, ‘You have no right to do this! This is cruel, this is inhumane! These people have done nothing! This is a violation of every law of god and man! You cannot take innocent people hostage!’” He said, “I went on like this for several minutes. When I was finally out of breath, the hostage taker paused for a moment, and then he leaned into my cell and said, in very good English, ‘You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.’”

    That story really reinforced to me the connection and the fact that those hostage takers took those hostages not out of nihilistic rage, but for a very specific reason that seemed to make very good sense to them. In 1953, the Iranian people had chased the Shah out, but CIA agents working inside the American embassy in Tehran organized a coup and brought him back. So flash forward to 1979, people of Iran have chased the Shah out again. He has been admitted into the United States.

    AMY GOODMAN: Under Carter.

    STEPHEN KINZER: Under President Carter. And -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Ostensibly for medical reasons.

    STEPHEN KINZER: People in Iran are thinking, “It’s all happening again. CIA agents working in the basement of the American embassy are going to organize a coup, and they’re going to bring the Shah back. We have to prevent 1953 from happening again.” That was the motivation for the hostage taking, although I don’t think any of us really understood that at the time.

    AMY GOODMAN: Stay there in 1953. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt. Explain what happened.

    STEPHEN KINZER: What happened was that the first half of the twentieth century, Americans had a super good image in Iran. The only Americans there were doctors and school teachers and people who really were selflessly devoting themselves to Iranians. Meanwhile, the British and the Russians and the French and other colonial powers were ripping Iran apart and stealing and looting everything of value there. So they, people in Iran, had a very high, exalted opinion of the United States, perfect country, the ideal country. And the words of Franklin Roosevelt in all his radio speeches during the Second World War also had a big impact on Iranians. And, of course, there was a big World War II conference in Tehran that just focused Iranians on the ideals of freedom that the Allied powers said they were fighting for.

    So in the period after World War II, Iranian nationalism came to focus on one great cause. At the beginning of the twentieth century, as a result of a corrupt deal with the old dying monarchy, one British company, owned mainly by the British government, had taken control of the entire Iranian oil industry.

    AMY GOODMAN: The company?

    STEPHEN KINZER: So, this one company had the exclusive rights to extract, refine, ship, and sell Iranian oil. And they paid Iran a very tiny amount. But essentially, the entire Iranian oil resource was owned by a company based in England and owned mainly by the British government.

    AMY GOODMAN: Called British Petroleum?

    STEPHEN KINZER: That was Anglo-Iranian Petroleum, later to become British Petroleum and BP.

    I’m still on my, like, one-man boycott. Like I go to the Shell station, as if Shell is somehow morally superior to BP. But still, in my own mind, I feel like I’m redeeming Mosaddegh whenever I pass by one of those BP stations.

    Anyway, what happened was that Prime Minister Mosaddegh, who really was an extraordinary figure in his time, although he’s been somewhat forgotten by history, came to power in 1951 on a wave of nationalism aimed at this one great obsession: we’ve got to take back control of our oil and use the profits for the development of one of the most wretchedly impoverished nations on earth at that time. So the Iranian parliament voted unanimously for a bill to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company, and Mosaddegh signed it, and he devoted himself, during his term of office, to carrying out that plan, to nationalize what was then Britain’s largest and most profitable holding anywhere in the world.

    Bear in mind that the oil that fueled England all during the 1920s and '30s and ’40s all came from Iran. The standard of living that people in England enjoyed all during that period was due exclusively to Iranian oil. Britain has no oil. Britain has no colonies that have oil. Every factory in England, every car, every truck, every taxi was running on oil from Iran. The Royal Navy, which was projecting British power all over the world, was fueled a hundred percent by oil from Iran.

    Suddenly Iran arrives and says, “Oh, we're taking back the oil now.” So this naturally set off a huge crisis. And that’s the crisis that made Mosaddegh really a big world figure around the early 1950s. At the end of 1951, TIME magazine chose him as “Man of the Year,” and they chose him over Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower. And they made the right choice, because at that moment, Mosaddegh really was the most important person in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Former New York Times correspondent, Stephen Kinzer. His book is All the Shah’s Men. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men, as he goes back in time to the US-backed coup in Iran in 1953. Mohammed Mosaddegh, the prime minister, had roused Britain’s ire when he nationalized the oil industry. He argued Iran should begin profiting from its vast oil reserves, which had been exclusively controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The company later became known as British Petroleum. I asked Stephen Kinzer to talk about this period.

    STEPHEN KINZER: Actually, it was at this time that Aramco, the Arab American Oil Company, came into Saudi Arabian, and their deal was a fifty-fifty split, so 50 percent for the country that has the oil and 50 percent for the company that comes in and builds the refinery. That had the air of fairness that ordinary people could understand, but the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would not give in one inch. And that just made the Iranians more and more radical.

    AMY GOODMAN: So how did the US get involved? You’re talking about this special relationship between Britain and Iran. Why the United States?

    STEPHEN KINZER: The British tried all sorts of things to bring Mosaddegh down. They imposed a crushing economic embargo on Iran. They required all their oil technicians to leave. Many of them wanted to stay in Iran and work for the nationalized company. The British wouldn’t allow this. So, since they had been very careful not to train anyone how to run the oil refinery, any Iranians, that was the end of the possibility of oil refining. Just in case the Iranians could figure out how to extract any oil, the British imposed a naval embargo around the port, where oil is exported from in Iran. The British took Mosaddegh to the United Nations, they took him to the World Court, both unsuccessfully. The British were arguing that the Iranian oil industry was their private property and that Mosaddegh had stolen it from them. That was their complaint, but they failed to get any redress in international fora.

    So then the British decided they would have to overthrow Mosaddegh, and they started a plot to do that. But Mosaddegh figured out what was happening, and he did the only thing he could have done to protect himself: he closed the British embassy. He sent home all the British diplomats. And among those diplomats were, of course, all the spies and the secret agents that were arranging the coup. So then, the only thing that Prime Minister Churchill could think of to do was to ask Harry Truman, the American president, to do this job for us: Can you please overthrow Mosaddegh, because we don’t have anyone in Iran now that can do it? And Truman said no. Truman believed that the CIA could be a covert action and intelligence-gathering agency, but he never wanted it to get involved in overthrowing governments. So that was the end of the line for Britain, until there was regime change in the United States.

    We had the election of 1952. Dwight Eisenhower took office. John Foster Dulles became his secretary of state. And Dulles had spent his whole adult life working as a lawyer for giant international corporations. And the idea that a country should be able to get away with nationalizing such a big company, such a big corporate resource, was, as Dulles very well understood, a great threat to the system that he had been representing all his life, the system of multinational enterprise. And he realized that it was in the interest of the United States, as he saw them, to make sure that no such example could be set. So the new administration, the Eisenhower administration, reversed the policy of the Truman administration. They agreed to send a CIA agent, Kermit Roosevelt, to Iran in the summer of 1953. And that’s the story that I tell in my book.

    It just took Kermit Roosevelt three weeks in August of 1953 —-

    AMY GOODMAN: With a bag of money.

    STEPHEN KINZER: Bag of money and a few other very interesting resources. He was a real-life James Bond. This guy was a real intrepid secret agent, and the story is just amazing how he did this. But it’s really an object lesson in how easy it is for a rich and powerful country to throw a poor and weak country into chaos. So at the end of August 1953, Mosaddegh was overthrown. At the moment, that seemed like a great success. So we got rid of a guy that we didn’t like, and we replaced him with someone else, the Shah, who would do anything we wanted. It seemed like the perfect ending.

    AMY GOODMAN: And Mosaddegh is put into exile for the rest of his life.

    STEPHEN KINZER: He was under house arrest for the rest of his life in his village in Iran. So that coup seemed like a success at first. But now, when you look back on it, it serves as a fascinating object lesson in unintended consequences.

    Just very briefly, so we placed the Shah back on his peacock throne. The Shah ruled with increasing repression for twenty-five years. His repression set off the explosion of the late 1970s, what we call the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically anti-American mullahs. That revolution also inspired radicals in other countries, like next-door Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power and gave shelter to al-Qaeda with results we all know. That instability in Iran that followed that revolution also led Iran’s great enemy next door, Saddam Hussein, to invade Iran. That not only set off an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, but it also brought the United States into its death embrace with Saddam. We were the military allies of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, and we were supplying Saddam with military intelligence, with Bell helicopters that he used to spray gas on Iranian positions. President Reagan sent a special envoy twice to Baghdad to negotiate with Saddam and ask him how we could help him. And, of course, that envoy was Donald Rumsfeld. So that instability set off by that revolution also led the United States into the spiral in Iraq that brought us to the point where we are now.

    That revolution in Iran also spooked the Soviets. They were terrified that there would be copycat fundamentalist revolutions all along their southern flank. And to prevent that, they invaded Afghanistan. That brought the United States into its position in Afghanistan, where we brought Osama bin Laden there, we trained all these tens of thousands of jihadis in how to kill infidels, which they later became the Taliban. We later became the infidels they wanted to kill. So why is this all so important for today?

    AMY GOODMAN: And, in fact, it affected the Carter-Reagan elections, brought Reagan to power.

    STEPHEN KINZER: Oh, and it devastated the presidency of Jimmy Carter forever, absolutely.

    AMY GOODMAN: Which had enormous effect then on Latin America, when you look at Reagan’s role in Latin America in the ’80s.

    STEPHEN KINZER: You can -— they call it in the CIA “walking back the cat.” You can walk back the cat endlessly on this one. And the reason the story is so relevant is that it tells us the main thing you need to know in assessing the current idea of an attack on Iran, which is the worst consequences are ones you can’t even imagine. Not even the wisest analysts, the most prescient specialists, in 1953 could ever have imagined all these consequences. Ah, the Shah’s going to fall; there’s going to be mullahs in power; the Soviets are going to invade Afghanistan; all these other things will happen. It shows you that when you violently interfere in the affairs of another country, you’re like setting off a wheel at the top of a hill. You let it go; you have no idea how it’s going to bounce.

    AMY GOODMAN: And, Stephen Kinzer, the issue of torture that we are dealing with today, can you go back to Iran with the SAVAK and with the CIA? What was their relationship, and who was the SAVAK?

    STEPHEN KINZER: SAVAK was, of course, the Shah’s notoriously repressive secret police. And one of the early commanders of the SAVAK was General Nasiri, who was a close participant in the coup that overthrew Mosaddegh and brought the Shah to power. In fact, he was the only guy promoted for his work during the coup. The Shah personally promoted from him from colonel to general as a result of his work in the coup. And then he went on to become the director of the SAVAK, which was, of course, the very brutal secret police that the Shah used to repress his people for years.

    AMY GOODMAN: And when the Iranian Revolution took place in ’79, didn’t they find CIA offices in SAVAK headquarters?

    STEPHEN KINZER: Yes, the CIA and the Mossad were actively involved in training —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Mossad, Israeli intelligence.

    STEPHEN KINZER: Israeli intelligence -— were intimately involved in the operations of the Mossad. And this is a classic thing you always see in —-


    STEPHEN KINZER: Yeah, of SAVAK. You see this in the aftermath of many American interventions, that after the intervention, the United States has to decide who’s going to be the new leader now. And you usually want a person with two qualities. First of all, it should be somebody who’s popular, who has the support of his people and can stay in power. Secondly, it needs to be somebody who will do what we want, since we didn’t overthrow someone we didn’t like just to put in someone that would not do what we wanted.

    But we soon realized you can’t have both. You can’t have somebody who’s genuinely popular and who also is governing on behalf of the United States. People want their leaders to represent the interests of their own countries, not the interests of some outside country. So then the US has to choose. What do we want? Do we want a guy who’s going to be popular but won’t do what we say, or one who will do what we say but won’t be popular? Well, it’s just such an easy choice: you pick the guy that is going to do what you say.

    Then, more and more opposition to him develops. He tries to put it down, but he can’t do it alone, because he’s so unpopular and isolated. Then he calls in the US for help. And then the people in that country begin turning their anger not just at their own leader, but also at the United States, which they see behind that leader. And that’s exactly what happened in Iran.

    AMY GOODMAN: Is US policy today shoring up Ahmadinejad?

    STEPHEN KINZER: I think so, and I even think that, not just shoring him up, we helped bring him to power. In 2003, the Iranians sent a very comprehensive offer of negotiations to Washington. In that offer, they actually listed the points that they would be willing to negotiate, and they included the nuclear program in Iran; Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad, and even the Beirut Declaration, in which Arab states proposed that they all recognize Israel in exchange for the recognition of -— the establishment of a Palestinian state. So all the agenda items that we claim to be interested in were in this offer, which was delivered by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to Washington. Not only did we not reply to that offer, but we actually reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for having the temerity to bring it to us.

    Now, that was the policy of the old government in Tehran, the government headed by President Khatami. The policy was, let’s extend a hand of friendship to the United States, let’s offer to negotiate. The other hard-liners then said, you tried that, and it didn’t work. We’ve got to try another policy, which is, you’ve got to make life as miserable as you can for the United States, because the policy of trying have a dialogue with them didn’t produce any results. So I think that actually helped create the climate in which a conservative, militantly anti-American figure like Ahmadinejad was able to rise. It’s because when we had a more moderate president who was talking about the dialogue of civilizations, we just pushed him aside and didn’t talk to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.

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“It’s Always About Oil”: CIA & MI6 Staged Coup in Iran 70 Years Ago, Destroying Democracy in Iran

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