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With Sten guns and sovereigns Britain and US saved Iran's throne for the Shah

In the third of a series of articles, Robert Fisk writes about the fall of prime minister Mossadeq
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Monty Woodhouse personally flew the guns into Iran from Baghdad aboard an RAF aircraft to prepare for war with the Soviet Union. He bought Iranian "riyals" for sovereigns and - at a secret rendezvous in the Tehran suburbs - handed the cash to one of two mysterious Iranian brothers to help finance plans for the overthrow of Mohamed Mossadeq.

To this day, Operation Boot - the original British intelligence plot to get rid of the democratically elected Mossadeq and restore the Shah of Iran to his throne in 1953 - fascinates Colonel Monty Woodhouse, now 79 but with a mind as alert as that of a man half his age. "I've sometimes been told that I was responsible for opening the door to the ayatollahs," he says. "But we delayed Khomeini's return to Tehran by a quarter of a century."

The Iran of the early Fifties had some remarkable parallels with the revolution of 1979. The young Shah - "a nice, rather weak man ... always waiting to be advised", in Col Woodhouse's words - was dominated by his sister Ashraf but opposed by a vocal opposition that included Ayatollah Sayed Abolghassem Kashani, an influential Shia cleric, the communist Tudeh party and the nationalists led by the 70-year-old landowner Mossadeq. His government voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) whose profits were safeguarded by London executives whom Col Woodhouse now describes as "stupid, boring, pigheaded and tiresome".

In August 1951, Monty Woodhouse arrived at the British embassy in Tehran, the imposing pseudo-Greek edifice in which Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt had met to decide the post-war world only eight years earlier. "My employers were SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] but my cover was the Foreign Office and I was on the embassy staff," Woodhouse says. "I think I was officially called `information officer'."

The Central Intelligence Agency's Middle East chief, Kim Roosevelt - grandson of Theodore - finally saw the plot to fruition, organising the Tehran street mobs and the Iranian army against Mossadeq. But Col Woodhouse, fresh from his role as a Special Operations Executive officer in German- occupied Greece, was an enthusiastic proponent of Operation Boot and eagerly sold the idea to the Americans as a shield against Soviet subversion. "When we knew what the prejudices of our collaborators were, we played all the more on these prejudices," Woodhouse admits in his retirement home in Oxford.

When Mossadeq was about to break diplomatic relations with Britain in the summer of 1952 - and when Iran seemed to be on the verge of anarchy - Col Woodhouse was ordered to arm tribal leaders in northern Iran who could be relied on to oppose a possible Soviet invasion.

"I collected the light arms in an RAF plane from Habbaniyah, an RAF station in Iraq, and eventually landed at Tehran after losing our way over the Zagros mountains. They were mostly rifles and Sten guns. We drove north in a truck, avoiding check-points by using by-roads. Getting stopped was the sort of thing one never thinks about. We buried the weapons - I think my underlings dug the holes. And for all I know these weapons are still hidden somewhere in northern Iran. It was all predicated on the assumption that war would break out with the Soviet Union."

At this time, the plot to overthrow Mossadeq was in the hands of a British embassy official called Robin Zaehner - later Professor of Eastern Religions at Oxford. Zaehner, who is now dead, had culti- vated two wealthy Iranian merchants, known as "the Brothers", each of whom had worked against German influence in Iran during the Second World War.

When the British were about to be thrown out of Iran, Col Woodhouse turned to Roger Goiran, the Tehran CIA station chief. "He was a really admirable colleague. He came from a French family, was bilingual, extremely intelligent and likable and had a charming wife and we all got on famously together; he was an invaluable ally to me when Mossadeq was throwing us out because I was able to hand on to him the contacts I had."

Col Woodhouse visited Washington after Eisenhower's presidential election victory and outlined his plan to the Americans: Operation Boot was to use the Brothers and an organisation of disenchanted army and police officers, parliamentary deputies, mullahs, editors and mob leaders to seize control of Tehran while tribal leaders would take over big cities, no doubt with the weapons the colonel had dumped in northern Iran.

Despite initial reluctance by the United States, Mossadeq's rejection of a set of Anglo-American proposals to solve the oil dispute - and the danger which he represented to the Shah - sealed his fate. While Kim Roosevelt travelled secretly to Iran, Col Woodhouse met with Princess Ashraf in Switzerland; she travelled to Tehran to try and persuade her brother that he should remain on his throne. A second emissary to visit the Shah with the same message was Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the man who later commanded US forces against Iraq in 1991. After Roosevelt himself spoke to the Shah, the latter issued a decree dismissing Mossadeq as prime minister.

Col Woodhouse was in Japan when he heard how the mobs took to the streets against Mossadeq and of how the subsequent street fighting cost the lives of 300 people. "It was all Mossadeq's fault," he says now. "He was ordered by the Shah's `firman' to leave. He called out his own thugs and he caused all the bloodbath. Our lot didn't - they behaved according to plan.

"What if we'd done nothing? It's a very difficult question to answer. What would relations have been between Mossadeq and the mullahs? Things would have got steadily worse. There would have been no restoration of BP - or AIOC as it then was. And the Shah would have been overthrown immediately, instead of 35 years later.

"It's quite remarkable that a quarter of a century passed between Operation Boot and the fall of the Shah. In the end, it was Khomeini who came out on top - but not until years later. I suppose some better use could have been made of the time that elapsed."

Col Woodhouse was already in retirement when the Islamic revolution changed Iran forever. "I felt very depressed," he says. "I felt that the work we had done was wasted, that a sort of complacency had taken over once the Shah had been restored. Things were taken for granted too easily."

Cut off from the intelligence world in which he once lived, Col Woodhouse, who was elected Tory MP for Oxford in 1959, is now translating a work of modern Greek history by his late wartime friend Panayotis Kanellopoulos. But he has not forgotten what Allen Dulles, the CIA director, said to him on his return to Washington in 1953. "That was a nice little egg you laid when you were here last time!" he told Woodhouse. It was the first such operation carried out by the Americans in the Cold War - and the last by the British.