Review: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
Stephen Kinzer
Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003

Review Copyright © 2003 Garret Wilson — 31 December 2003 2:13pm

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000:

In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs." (212).

Albright's statement didn't seem to make big news at the time. Indeed, most of the information in Stephen Kinzer's All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror is as unknown as it at first glance seems unlikely. But many of the events are public. The others Kinzer documents from biographies, journals, memoirs, newspapers, and official CIA service history. It all seems truthful enough. But other things than Americans overthrowing democratically elected Iranian leaders seem to make the news, such as Iranians holding Americans hostage almost 25 years later.

Kinzer's story in a nutshell: Many Persian rulers have exploited the Persian people. At one point, to fund their lavish lifestyle, rulers sold oil rights or concessions to foreigners for next to nothing. By the early twentieth century, Britain owned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which provided paltry payment to Iran, yet kept its Iranian workers in miserable conditions. Britain consistently failed to negotiate with Iran for a more fair arrangement. Elected as a popular nationalist, in response to the Shah's courting of foreigners, Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister of Iran and immediately nationalized the oil company, claiming that, like its mountains and its rivers, Iran's oil was a natural feature over which it held sovereignty.

Britain still refused to negotiate, and instead hinted at military action and tried to set the stage for a coup. Mossadegh expelled British diplomats, so the British convinced the Americans, who feared communist influence on the Iranians from the Soviets, to stage the coup in their place. The CIA was successful, through secret meetings and payments, to succefully stage a coup that ousted Mossadegh as prime minister and brought back Mohammed Reza Shah as monarch. The Shah was supported by America but treated his subject badly, leading to an Islamic revolution in 1979 along with hostage-taking at the American embassy.

Kinzer's story is readable—in fact, at times it feels less than academic because its writing style is so simplistic. (Mr. Kinzer writes for the New York Times, and the style is reminiscent of that intended for a newspaper audience.) Because of the low writing level, the reading may be less than enjoyable—even if the material is nonetheless complete. Kinzer seems to claim that the CIA's actions in 1953 were the impetus for all later Middle Eastern terrorism, but this premise seems hard to justify. His contention that self-serving unilateral American action, in disregard for international law or territorial sovereignty, doesn't help American popularity one whit, is spot on, though. The story of the CIA in 1953 organizing a coup to overthrow a democratically elected leader in the Middle East, along with its negative effects on the region for decades, is a story that should be told many times. All the Shah's Men probably makes a good first telling of the tale. I'd like to see the publication of a more academic, annotated version, though.