11 December 2009

Book review: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Stephen Kinzer. Wiley 2003, 2008 (additional preface)

When Kinzer first published this book in 2003, GW Bush had started a pre-emptive war in Afghanistan and was preparing to start a second pre-emptive war cum nation-building exercise in Iraq. The average American couldn't have told you then that the US had aided Saddam Hussein in the early 80s, during the Iran-Iraq war. They probably still couldn't, today.

This book is a history of the 1953 US- and British-led coup in Iran that overthrew the first democratically-elected ruler of the country, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstated a corrupt Shah. The average American doesn't even know this happened. It wasn't covered in my history classes in high school. The US government didn't even acknowledge their part in it until 2000: almost 50 years after it happened (and, for the record, 2 years after I graduated from college.)

Kinzer begins with a brief overview of Iranian & Persian history, starting with Darius, touching on Mohammed and the Arabic/Islamic conquests, and discussing the unique version of Islam practiced in Iran, Shi'ism, which combines some aspects of Zoroastrianism into Mohammed's teachings. (The differences between Sunni and Shia Islam are more complex than that. I'm not qualified to go into detail on it.) There was a fight over succession, between Mohammed's grandson Ali and someone else. The Shia believed that Ali was the rightful successor, and he fought -- and died -- to maintain his position.

Ali's sacrifice, going against overwhelming odds, to fight a corrupt regime is a cornerstone of Iranian culture (which stems from Zoroastrian belief, I believe). Iranian history is filled with revolutions against corrupt dynasties.

He goes into great detail on the story of the coup itself. He begins with Mossadegh's fight to nationalize the oil company. Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was controlled by England, and they gave a meager fraction of the profits to Iran. Mossadegh wanted to see the books, and he went to the world court in the Hague to get England to treat them fairly. It didn't work. Then he was elected prime minister, and he decreed AIOC to be fully Iranian.

The British treated them horribly, as they did all their colonies. The Iranian workers at Abadan refinery lives in squalor, while the British had luxurious houses and servants. The colonialist attitude they expressed is appalling.

The British didn't want to lose their oil, so Churchill pestered Truman to help them overthrow the government. Truman thought it was a really bad idea and refused. Then Eisenhower was elected, and the Dulles brothers because CIA chief and Secretary of State. They had a Goal, and they wanted to overthrow Mossadegh, damn the consequences. They used the spectre of the 1950s - communism - to convince Eisenhower that it was necessary (because the USSR bordered Iran, and there was an active communist party there.)

Western politics in the Middle East are a sordid tale of nation building and colonialism, founded on access to oil. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

After a year of politicking in Iran, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy's grandson) instigated a coup. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but a second attempt several days later worked. The Shah was reinstated, and he became increasingly dictatorial, until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters declared the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The CIA's success in Iran (they were warned that it was a bad idea, but the Dulles brothers were single-minded) led them to believe that coups and nation-building exercises carried out covertly were a good idea, and the US went on to overthrow governments around the world.

Iran has been in the news recently, especially since the election in June. For anyone who wants to understand better what's happening there now, and why they took the American embassy hostage in 1979, and why we're the Great Satan, I recommend this book. Actually, everyone should read this book.

I knew a couple guys in high school who came from Iran. One of them, Sepehr N, must have come fairly young, because he didn't have an accent at all. The other, Soheil M, came in 8th or 9th grade, and he had ESL classes for all of 9th grade. (They both graduated at the top of our class.) I vaguely remember Soheil mentioning why he'd left; I want to say he had family in the military? I don't know. I wish I did. I wish there had been some class where history other than the Glorious American Society was discussed. That would be a good thing.

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