Another fine mess

It began as a quiet plot to protect UK and US interests in Iran. Fifty years on, the fall-out of Operation Boot can still be felt through the Middle East. Robert Fisk, who knew the British classical scholar who helped mastermind it, reflects on a saga of unintended consequences and unlearnt lessons

Monday 30 September 2013 05:31

Not long before he died, old "Monty" Woodhouse asked himself if his role in the 1953 coup d'état in Iran had led, indirectly, to Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic. "Regime change" hadn't attracted President Truman, but when Eisenhower arrived at the White House in 1953, the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq's democratically elected government was concocted by the CIA with the help of Woodhouse, an urbane Greek scholar and ex-guerrilla fighter and Britain's top spy in Tehran. America was fearful that Mossadeq would hand his country over to the Soviets; Woodhouse was far more concerned to return Iran's newly nationalised oil fields to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The restoration of the young Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi - our policeman in the Gulf - was the ultimate goal. It cost a couple of million dollars, a plane-load of weapons and 300 lives. And 26 years later, it all turned to dust.

The Americans called their plot to restore the Shah Operation Ajax. The MI6 plan, dreamt up by Woodhouse, had the more prosaic title of Operation Boot. It was all a long way from Operation Iraqi Freedom, although there must be a few conservatives in the Pentagon now wishing that they'd dusted off their archives of the early Fifties to see how to topple Middle East leaders without an invasion. But then Operation Ajax/Boot - though it was undeniably about oil - was never intended to change the map of the Middle East, let alone bring "democracy" to Iran. Democracy, in the shape of the popular, effete Mossadeq, was the one thing Washington and London were not interested in cultivating. This was to be regime change on the cheap.

The CIA end of the operation was run by the splendidly named Kermit Roosevelt (the grandson of the buccaneering ex-president Theodore), and his victim was the very opposite of Saddam Hussein. "No nation goes anywhere under the shadow of dictatorship," Mossadeq once said - words that might have come from today's President George Bush. But Mossadeq did have one thing in common with the Iraqi dictator: he was the victim of a long campaign of personal abuse by his international opponents. They talked about his "yellow" face, of how his nose was always running, and the French writer Gérard de Villiers described Mossadeq as "a pint-sized trouble-maker" with the "agility of a goat". On his death, The New York Times claimed that he had "held cabinet meetings while propped up in bed by three pillows and nourished by transfusions of American blood plasma". True, Mossadeq had a habit of dressing in pink pyjamas and of breaking down in tears in parliament. But he appears to have been a genuine democrat - he had been a renowned diplomat and parliamentarian - whose condemnation of the Shah's tyranny and refusal to sanction further oil concessions gave his National Front coalition a mass popular support.

Woodhouse was practised in the art of subversion. He had distinguished himself as an SOE leader with the Greek partisans during the Second World War, and his vigorous pursuit of his opposite number in the Wehrmacht, a certain Oberleutnant Kurt Waldheim, continued to the day of his death. My own investigations into Waldheim's activities as intelligence officer for the Wehrmacht's Army Group "E" in Bosnia had unearthed Waldheim's familiar "W" initial on the bottom of a report of the interrogation of one of Woodhouse's young officers - a man who was subsequently executed by the Nazis - and this brought Woodhouse and myself together. But the war had cast a dark shadow over Woodhouse, who to his death was haunted by the image of a young collaborator whom he had hanged in the mountains of Greece.

When he arrived in Tehran - officially he was the British embassy's "information officer" - Iran was already on the brink of catastrophe. Negotiations had broken down with the AIOC. The British ambassador was, according to Woodhouse, "a dispirited bachelor dominated by his widowed sister", and his opposite number an American business tycoon who was being rewarded for his donations to the Democratic Party. "One of the first things I had to do was fly a plane-load of guns into Iran," Woodhouse told me late in his life. He travelled on the aircraft from the Iraqi airbase at RAF Habbaniya west of Baghdad - decades later, it would be one of Saddam Hussein's fighter-bomber stations - and then bought millions of Iranian riyals with gold sovereigns, handing them over at a secret Tehran location to two brothers called Rashidian. They were to be organisers of the mobs that would stage the coup. The guns were to serve a similar purpose - unless the Soviet Union invaded Iran, in which case they were to be used to fight the Russians.

"We landed in Tehran after losing our way over the Zagros Mountains," Woodhouse was to recall. "They were mostly rifles and Sten guns. We drove north in a truck, avoiding checkpoints by using by-roads. Getting stopped was the sort of thing one never thought about. We buried the weapons - I think my underlings dug the holes. And for all I know those weapons are still hidden somewhere in northern Iran. It was all predicated on the assumption that war would break out with the Soviet Union."

When Woodhouse took up his job at the embassy, the plot to overthrow Mossadeq and give the oil fields back to the AIOC was in the hands of a British diplomat called Robin Zaehner, later a professor of Eastern religions at Oxford. It was Zaehner who had cultivated the Rashidian brothers, each of whom had worked against German influence in Iran during the Second World War. Iran was on the point of throwing the British embassy staff out of Tehran; so Woodhouse made contact with the CIA station chief in the city, Roger Goiran. "He was a really admirable colleague," Woodhouse said. "He came from a French family, was bilingual and extremely intelligent and likeable... an invaluable ally to me when Mossadeq was throwing us out."

Once back in London, Woodhouse took his plans to Washington: the Rashidians, along with an organisation of disenchanted army and police officers, parliamentary deputies, mullahs, editors and mob leaders, would seize control of Tehran, while tribal leaders would take over the big cities with the weapons that Woodhouse had buried. Mossadeq rejected the last proposals for a settlement by the AIOC and threatened the Shah - who had already left Iran. His fate was sealed. Kermit Roosevelt travelled secretly to Tehran, while Woodhouse met the Shah's sister in Switzerland in an attempt to persuade her brother to stay on the throne. The Shah himself received a secret American emissary bent on the same purpose, a certain General Norman Schwarzkopf - father of the Norman Schwarzkopf who led US forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

The Shah went along with the wishes of his superpower allies. He issued a "firman" dismissing Mossadeq as prime minister and, when Mossadeq refused to obey, the mobs that Roosevelt and Woodhouse had organisedduly took to the streets of Tehran. Woodhouse never changed his view of Mossadeq. "It was all Mossadeq's fault. He was ordered by the Shah's firman to leave. He called out his own thugs and he caused the bloodbath. Our lot didn't - they behaved according to plan. What if we'd done nothing? What would relations have been between Mossadeq and the mullahs? Things would have got steadily worse. There would have been no restoration of AIOC. And the Shah would have been overthrown immediately, instead of 25 years later."

History might not regard the coup quite so kindly. The first street violence actually failed to topple Mossadeq and Roosevelt had to summon the mobs for a second attempt. The Iranian army initially obeyed the Prime Minister's orders to attack the crowds. Along with the 300 dead, many thousands of Iranians were wounded. When the US ambassador approached Roosevelt to seek his advice on what he should say to Mossadeq after the first coup attempt had failed, Roosevelt persuaded him to lie. "I will make it quite plain that we have no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of a friendly country." Roosevelt was later to write that "to this noble sentiment I made no comment. Diplomats are expected, if not required, to say such things."

But if American intervention "saved" Iran from communism - Stalin had just died and the Russians were, in fact, in no mood to invade Iran - it also ended a century of American-Iranian friendship. The Shah would henceforth always be seen as a tool of the US and Britain. As James A Bill wrote in his excellent book The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, "the fall of Mossadeq... began a new era of intervention and groping hostility to the US among the awakened forces of Iranian nationalism". Another American author warned after Mossadeq's overthrow that the new US-installed Iranian government "won't be with us long unless it can prove that being nice to the West is more profitable for Iran than being as consistently nasty as old Mossy was".

Woodhouse was more phlegmatic. "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 that some better use could have been made of the time that elapsed."

Khomeini's 1979 revolution left Woodhouse deeply depressed. "I felt that the work we had done was wasted, that a sort of complacency had taken over once the Shah had been restored in 1953. Things were taken for granted." Woodhouse went on to become an Oxford MP, but always remembered what Allen Dulles, the CIA director, told him when he returned to Washington: "That was a nice little egg you laid when you were here last time!"

But we don't go in for "little eggs" any more. More ambitious ideological projects, vast armies - and bigger egos - are involved in regime change today. Maybe that's why they fail so quickly and, in the case of Iraq, so bloodily. The coup against Mossadeq was the first such operation carried out by the Americans in the Cold War - and the last by the British. At least we never claimed that Mossadeq had weapons of mass destruction. But the final word must go to Kermit Roosevelt. "If we are ever going to try something like this again," he wrote with great prescience, "we must be absolutely sure that (the) people and army want what we want."

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