When the Shah of Iran died in Egypt after a long battle with cancer on July 27, 1980, commentators lined up to assess his legacy. And from the shadows emerged a man who had, unbeknownst to many, played a key role in the life of the Shah and his rise to absolute power — Kermit Roosevelt, Jr..
A major player in the CIA scheme to install the young Shah as ruler of Iran in 1953, Kermit (aka Kim) Roosevelt had kept a low profile for most of the Shah’s 26 year reign, but now he had a book to promote, and wished to weigh in on the closing of this hugely significant chapter in Iran’s history. The Los Angeles Times gave him the forum to explain his version of the Shah’s rise and fall. That rarely seen article, heretofore unknown to most historians, is reproduced here by the Mossadegh Project in its entirety.
For over a year, the world’s attention had been fixated on the turmoil in Iran. Yet amid the hostage crisis, the ailing and exiled Shah, the rise of the Islamists and their glowering leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, the media virtually ignored the origins of these events in their reporting. It was no accident that most Americans had little context for what was unfolding — so uncool was it to mention the 1953 coup, that then President Jimmy Carter snippily dismissed the crime as “ancient history” when it was brought up at a press conference. The American people, by in large, knew nothing of Iran’s nascent democratic beginnings, crushed in a US-British conspiracy in favor of a pliable autocratic regime, which was finally overturned in a massive, popular revolution. To talk of such things, the sentiment went, would be insensitive to the plight of the kidnapped Americans.
So there’s a special kind of irony in Kermit Roosevelt stepping forward to take credit for creating the “mess” (as he put it), which resulted in the ascent of a virulently anti-American Islamic regime and the hostile takeover of the U.S. embassy. The 52 hostages themselves, whose fate was still up in the air, were enduring “sheer hell” — to quote one former captive — while their worried families and loved ones were living out an absolute nightmare.
In spite of himself, Roosevelt’s efforts to uphold the reputation of the late Shah were just as careless. Coup apologists have long been known for justifying Mossadegh’s overthrow by emphasizing ‘modernization’ that ocurred during the Shah’s reign. Roosevelt inadvertently undercuts that argument, writing that the revolution “undid” most of the Shah’s accomplishments.
Black propaganda was, by his own admission, a major tool in the coup plot, and Roosevelt acted no differently in his analysis of the last three decades of history. Painting a seriously gloomy picture of Iran under Mossadegh, Roosevelt claimed that the highly regarded Prime Minister was “stealing Iran little by little”, and was under the spell of the Communist Tudeh Party, whom he would, for some unexplained reason, willingly cede power to. Pouring on the chutzpah, Roosevelt added that Dr. Mossadegh had been working to “take over Iran”. Is this the same Iran he wanted to hand over to the Soviets?
Similiarly peculiar was Roosevelt’s theory on how the Shah and the U.S. were caught blindsided by the revolution. SAVAK, the Shah’s own CIA-trained secret police, is portrayed as some sort of shadow government, hoarding control of all intelligence and communications within Iran. If we are to follow this reasoning, SAVAK had by this time become a Frankenstein-like monster that had turned against its creator, acting to undermine, if not conspire against, the Shah and America. Considering the fact that many SAVAK agents, including its chief Nematollah Nassiri, were executed after the revolution, it’s hard to imagine them being the willing architects of their own demise.
One individual was particularly taken with Roosevelt’s skewed narrative. On August 7, The Los Angeles Times printed a reaction by David M. Fein praising Roosevelt’s July 30th editorial as “ingenuous”. It “amply demonstrates how difficult it is for cold warriors to learn from experience”, wrote Fein. Indeed.
Iran: How the Mess Came About
CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt Describes America’s Role and Its Ties With the Shah
The Los Angeles Times — July 30, 1980
(Kermit Roosevelt Jr, a CIA assistant deputy director of overseas clandestine operations during the 1950s, is the author of "Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran," recently published by McGraw-Hill.)
Amid all the post-mortems that are now being written on the occasion of the death of deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the original reasons for Washington’s support of the shah have been easily overlooked.
In the early spring of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the entire National Security Council were confronted with a most alarming situation. There was a grave danger that the Iranian prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, would, for lack of other support in his struggle against the shah, rely on — and ultimately surrender power to — the Iranian Tudeh Party and its backer, the Soviet Union.
Mossadegh’s nationalization of the billion-dollar oil holdings of Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., a British consortium later renamed British Petroleum, had aroused concern. The possibility of major damage not only to British but also to American, Western European and Japanese interests was real. The shah was the figure around whom resistance to Mossadegh, the Tudeh Party and the Soviets was centered.
As the CIA’s Mideast bureau chief, I had been sent to Iran several times in the preceding months to assess the situation. My conclusion: Mossadegh was “stealing” Iran little by little, and the Soviet Union would gain control unless the Iranian army and people could be dramatically warned of what was happening. They were, in my opinion, overwhelmingly loyal to the shah, and would rally to his support.
With essential help from our Iranian allies, we were able to expose Mossadegh’s effort to take over Iran. As the army and Iranian people became aware of this threat, they mobilized to support the shah. All that the United States contributed to this was the “trigger”, which consisted of myself and three other Americans and less than $100,000, although we had 10 times that amount available to us stashed in a safe the size of a large closet.
The coup, called Project Ajax by the CIA, took only three weeks. The shah regained his throne, and the United States was able to safeguard its security. For the next three decades, stability reigned. The shah — despite the corruption endemic in Iran, as in its neighboring countries — carried out a successful program of economic reforms.
But as this program grew ever more successful, it also grew ever more dangerous, for reasons that the shah and his advisers failed to understand. Historically, it has been demonstrated that economic improvement creates demand for advancement in the political arena. In modern times this has always been true — the French, American and Russian revolutions are good examples. It proved true in Iran, also.
The shah, taken by surprise by the mounting discontent in Iran in the 1970s, was puzzled at what seemed to be happening, and did what he had always done since 1953 when he had felt himself to be in trouble. He asked for advice from the U.S. government. Up to this moment the United States had always understood the request for such advice; Washington also had been in close enough touch with Iran to know what was wrong. It could give meaningful and useful advice.
This was no longer so in 1979. More and more, our embassy in Tehran lacked free access to informed Iranians. Savak, the security service originally trained by the United States after 1953, had established a tight and discreet control over all U.S. Embassy contact with Iranians. Our embassy heard only what Savak wanted it to hear, though private Americans — businessmen and tourists — would often hear quite different stories from their own contacts.
Unfortunately, the shah, who was growing increasingly ill and isolated, knew no more than our embassy did. Savak controlled his sources as it did ours. It wanted “nothing to disturb the peace.”
By the time the U.S. government became aware of the danger, its response was naturally uneven, confused and confusing to the shah. A more or less irrelevant adviser, Gen. Robert Huyser, lacking knowledge of Iran and what to do in “revolutionary” circumstances, was sent to Tehran. He contributed more confusion to an already confused situation. So the mess drew to its messy conclusion.
Loyal, reliable leaders were arrested and brought to trial — essentially for loyalty to their emperor. A few were smart enough and lucky enough to escape, but the rest were executed. The painfully ludicrous way in which most of the executions were carried out made the whole affair a mocking travesty of justice.
The shah for some reason was spared this ultimate ignominy, and was sent with his family into exile. There he received much the same kind of treatment from those who had been, and presumably still were, his friends. The United States, in my opinion, behaved particularly badly — one might even say abominably. The only friend who acted like a friend was President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who received him warmly and did his best to provide circumstances in which the shah could, at last and at least, die in dignity.
Despite an ending that undid most of what good he had been able to accomplish in his own country, I believe that history will judge him to be a man who tried his best, a man who may have made some valuable contributions that will survive.