When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, his administration had one overriding foreign policy objective: to keep the Soviet Union from gaining influence and possibly drawing countries away from the U.S. orbit. To that end, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, crafted a policy the primary principle of which was the impossibility of neutrality in the cold war. In the Dulles world view, there was no such thing as an independent course; a country was either with the United States or against it. That principle helps explain much of the Eisenhower administration’s conduct in the Middle East, for if there was one region in which the United States strove to prevent what it called Soviet penetration, it was the Middle East.
The earliest direct U.S. involvement occurred in Iran. Even before Eisenhower took office, political turbulence in that country was on the rise, prompted by discontent over Iran’s oil royalty arrangement with the British-owned AngloIranian Oil Company. A highly nationalist faction (the National Front) of the Majlis, or parliament, led by Moham med Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry. (Nationalization was considered a symbol of freedom from foreign influence.) Mossadegh, whom the shah reluctantly made prime minister after the nationalization, opposed all foreign aid, including U.S. assistance to the army. He also refused to negotiate with the British about oil, and in late 1952 he broke off relations with Great Britain. The turmoil associated with nationalization stimulated activity by Iranian Communists and the outlawed Tudeh party. At a rally attended by 30,000 people, the Communists hoisted anti- Western, pro-Soviet signs, including ones that accused Mossadegh of being an American puppet.
In the United States, officials feared that loss of Iranian oil would harm the European Recovery Program and concluded that the communist activity in Iran was a bad omen, although the Soviets did not intervene beyond giving moral support. The Mossadegh government hoped that the United States would continue to deal with Iran and prevent economic collapse, but the Truman administration put its relations with Great Britain first and participated in an international boycott of Iranian oil–although Washington did give Tehran a small amount of aid. U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated, as did the Iranian economy. Under that pressure, Mossadegh resorted to undemocratic methods to forestall the election of anti-government deputies to the Majlis. When he tried to control the Ministry of Defense, he was forced to resign, but he soon returned to power when his successor’s policies triggered virulent criticism from Mossadegh’s supporters. Mossadegh came through the crisis with increased, and in some ways authoritarian, powers. On August 10, 1953, the shah, unable to dominate Mossadegh, left Tehran for a long “vacation” on the Caspian Sea and then in Baghdad. But he did not leave until he knew that a U.S. operation was under way to save him.
As author James A. Bill has written: “The American intervention of August 1953 was a momentous event in the
history of Iranian-American relations. [It] left a running wound that bled for twenty-five years and contaminated relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran following the revolution of 1978-79.” London had first suggested a covert operation to Washington about a year earlier. The British were mainly concerned about their loss of the Anglo- Iranian Oil Company, but in appealing to the United States, they emphasized the communist threat, “not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire.”
The British need not have invoked the Soviet threat to win over John Foster Dulles or his brother Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency; both were former members of the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, which represented the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Besides, there was ample evidence that Mossadegh was neither a Communist nor a communist sympathizer. Nevertheless, Operation Ajax was hatched–the brainchild of the CIA’s Middle East chief, Kermit Roosevelt, who directed it from Tehran. Also sent there was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose job was to recruit anti-Mossadegh forces with CIA money. The objective of Operation Ajax was to help the shah get rid of Mossadegh and replace him with the shah’s choice for prime minister, Gen. Fazlollas Zahedi, who had been jailed by the British during World War II for pro-Nazi activities.
The covert operation began, appropriately enough, with assurances to Mossadegh from the U.S. ambassador, Loy Henderson, that the United States did not plan to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs. The operation then filled the streets of Tehran with mobs of people–many of them thugs– who were loyal to the shah or who had been recipients of CIA largess. In the ensuing turmoil, which included fighting in the streets that killed 300 Iranians, Mossadegh fled and was arrested. On August 22, 12 days after he had fled, the shah returned to Tehran. Mossadegh was sentenced to three years in prison and then house arrest on his country estate.
Later, in his memoirs, Eisenhower claimed that Mossadegh had been moving toward the Communists and that the Tudeh party supported him over the shah. Yet a January 1953 State Department intelligence report said that the prime minister was not a Communist or communist sympathizer and that the Tudeh party sought his overthrow. Indeed, Mossadegh had opposed the Soviet occupation after the war. Author Leonard Mosely has written that “the masses were with him, even if the army, police, and landowners were not.” Eight years after his overthrow, Mossadegh, about 80 years of age, appeared before a throng of 80,000 supporters shouting his name.
Once restored to power, the shah entered into an agreement with an international consortium, 40 percent of which was held by American oil companies, for the purchase of Iranian oil. It was symptomatic of the postwar displacement of British by U.S. interests that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was not restored to its previous dominance. In succeeding years the United States regarded the shah as a key ally in the Middle East and provided his repressive and corrupt government with billions of dollars in aid and arms.
The restoration of the shah to the Peacock Throne engendered immense hostility toward the United States and had cataclysmic consequences. The revolutionary torrent that built up was ultimately too much for even the United States to handle. By the late 1970s the shah and his poor record on human rights had become so repugnant to the State Department under Cyrus Vance that almost any alternative was deemed preferable to the shah’s rule. But the shah had his defenders at the Pentagon and on the National Security Council who still thought he was important to regional stability and who favored his taking decisive action to restore order. President Carter at first was ambivalent. U.S. policy evolved from a suggestion that the shah gradually relinquish power to a call for him to leave the country. On January 16, 1979, the shah, as he had in 1953, took leave of his country–this time for good.
When the monarchy was finally overthrown in the 1978-79 revolution, which was inspired by Islamic fundamentalism and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranians held Americans hostage for over a year at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the United States suffered a humiliating repudiation of its foreign policy in the Middle East. Iran and Israel had been built up over the years into the chief U.S. security agents in the region. Now Iran would no longer perform that function, and more of the burden had to be shifted to Israel.