America, Iran, and Operation Ajax: The Burden of the Past

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The news has been abuzz recently with stories about President Bush’s alleged plans for "regime change" in Iran. Just last week, rumors were reported of US Air Force fighters violating Iranian air space for the purposes of testing their air defense system. As the nuclear crisis continues to simmer, the next incursions may be of a more belligerent nature.

Obviously, America’s relationship with Iran has been extremely hostile over the past several decades. From the perspective of most Americans, the seminal event of US-Iranian relations was the siege of the US embassy in Tehran and the subsequent holding of its staff as hostages back in the 1970s.

Although that hostage-taking was brutal and unjustified, many Americans lack a more global perspective of the history of American interactions with Persia. One of the most critical events in that relationship occurred over 50 years ago during the Eisenhower Administration. While Americans may know little about Operation Ajax, its memory still evokes intense anger from nearly every Iranian.

The brief version (for a more thorough history of the events surrounding Operation Ajax, I refer the reader to Sandra Mackey’s excellent book The Iranians) concerns the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadeq’s short-lived, democratic government by the CIA in 1953 and the reinstallation of the Shah to the throne of Iran.

In 1951, the control of Iran’s oil fields by a British company (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, or AIOC) became a hot political topic. The Iranian people believed, with some justification, that the existing deal between the Iranian government and AIOC unfairly benefited the company. Muhammad Mossadeq, then a member of the Iranian parliament, took the lead in demanding a renegotiation of the pact. The masses of the Iranian people rallied to his standard and quickly made him the most revered leader in the land. The Shah, who then ruled as an authoritarian monarch, lost control of events as his previously powerless parliament (the Majlis) took on a life of its own.

As Mackay notes:

With Mossadeq leading the charge against Iran’s economic master, the Majlis, on March 15, boldly nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company…On April 29, the same Majlis elected Muhammad Mossadeq prime minister. While the shah sat on the throne as a mere shadow, Muhammad Mossadeq basked in the acclaim of the vast majority of Iranians, who for the first time in decades gave their genuine respect, devotion, and loyalty to their recognized leader.

While I certainly don’t condone his socialistic tendencies or his seizure of the oilfields, it is undeniable that by the time of his elevation to prime minister, Mossadeq had the backing of the overwhelming majority of the Iranian population. For the first time in its long history, Iran had a democratically elected leader.

By 1953, Mossadeq was in an increasingly difficult situation. Oil revenues had plummeted due to a boycott of Iranian oil and the economy slumped. The Soviet-backed Iranian communist party was becoming increasingly aggressive, and Washington began to worry. Iran was a vital chess piece in the Cold War and the American oil companies had their eyes on future concessions there. Mossadeq had become an "issue" for some very powerful people.

Eventually, the decision was made in Washington that Mossadeq had to go. Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the Gulf War commander) and CIA guru Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy) were ordered to begin a covert operation designed to remove Mossadeq and restore the Shah to absolute authority. A complex plot, codenamed Operation Ajax, was conceived and executed from the US Embassy in Tehran.

Using CIA assets in the Iranian military and various minor political parties, an uprising was staged.

Mackey describes the climax:

For nine hours, the pro-shah army, utilizing American-style military strategy and logistics, battled pro-Mossadeq demonstrators. At least 300 people died. By nightfall, the Mossadeq partisans had drawn into a tight cordon around the premier’s palace. Inside, the aged and always ailing prime minister threw a coat over his pajamas, leaped over the garden wall, and went into hiding. Forty-eight hours later he was arrested. The brief euphoric moment when the followers of Mossadeq believed that he held Iran’s destiny in his hands evaporated.

The Shah, who had fled to Rome at the first whiff of gunpowder, rode back to power on the tip of American bayonets.

In essence, the United States had engaged in a massive covert operation designed to remove a democratically elected leader from power and reinstall an authoritarian monarch (a move which makes a mockery of our currently stated desire to "spread democracy" in the Middle East).

This affair had several disastrous ramifications for the future of American-Iranian relations. First, the Shah, from that point forward, was viewed as a creature of America. Consequently, America became an accessory to his every oppressive act during the subsequent 26 years of his rule. Second, the American embassy in Tehran was permanently marked as a "nest of spies" in the eyes of the Iranian populace. And third, Iranian democracy was strangled in its crib.

The next time the populace rose to overthrow the Shah (in the 1970s), they viewed America as their enemy and were cheering a leader who was significantly less democratic than Mossadeq. When rumors began circulating that the Americans were going to bring the Shah back via yet another covert operation, the Iranian mobs responded by seizing the US embassy in Tehran and holding its workers hostage.

If Mossadeq’s regime had been permitted to continue, it is entirely possible that Iran could have evolved into an authentic democracy. American interventionism destroyed that opportunity and set the stage for many of the tragedies currently haunting the Middle East.

If America is ever to have even remotely cordial relations with Iran, we must accept responsibility for the terrible effects of Operation Ajax and admit that we had no right to intervene in a controversy that was wholly the business of the Iranian people. That exploit was unworthy of the Land of Washington and Jefferson.

While the American public often quickly forgets the interventions and mischievous actions of its government, our overseas victims seldom do. The current climate of international terrorism should prompt the American people to take a more active interest, since these transgressions often come back to haunt us in the most unexpected ways.

Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.

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