Friday, June 02, 2006

Book Recap: All The Shah's Men

For those who came in late, in 1953 Britain and the United States organized a coup in Iran which brought down a democratically elected prime minister and reinstated a western-friendly monarch. This coup was the fledgling CIA's first successful "outing" and was officially under wraps till the 1990s.

This is the key theme of All the Shah's Men - An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003) by Stephen Kinzer. Whether you like broad-brush political drama or the nuts-and-bolts of spy intrigue, this book has juicy chunks of both. I enjoy the former more, and the first half of the book had me captivated. Kinzer takes great pains to take his readers back to 559 BC when Cyrus reigned over what is present-day Iran(Cyrus founded the 'Pars' empire, from which came Persia and India's Parsis) and then guide them back to the day in 1953 when protestors broke down the door's of the prime minister's apartment in a bid to capture him. He has a really interesting take on Shia philosophy and how it affects the worldview and politics of contemporary Iran (which is 89% Shia).

The prime minister in question was Mohammad Mosaddeq and those who overthrew him were supporters of the ousted king Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Conditions for the coup arose after Mosaddeq nationalized Iran's oil, the rights to which lay since 1908 with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the present-day British Petroleum) threatening the vital supply of oil and oil-profits to Britain. To their credit, the Americans weren't initially enthusiastic about the regime change; it was the British who sold them the idea by packaging it as being necesary to keep the Soviets off Iran. The book has some fascinating description of how the CIA exploited the spy- and informer-network in Iran to destabilize the country and eventually facilitate the violent grab for power.

The one place where Kinzer fails is his single-minded approach to representing the entire episode as being influenced by the Americans and Brits. As his own descriptions reveal, there were other significant powers working in the country, not least the Communist and Islamic movements. I get a sense that Mosaddeq was as much hassled by Islamic fundamentalism in Iran as by British attempts to derail him. Unfortunately, Kinzer seems to give only cursory mention to and dismiss any factors other those related to the CIA. If you are very enchanted with the internal combustion engine, it is easy to forget that you also need a transmission and wheels to run an automobile.

This book (or others on that period in Iranian history) would be essential reading for anyone to form an opinion on what is happening in Iran today. One need only have half a brain to connect the dots from 1953 to 9/11 and Kinzer doesnt dissapoint. To quote him: "The crucial question of whether the American coup was necessary...cannot be conclusively answered. The coup certainly had disastrous aftereffects. What might have been the effects of not carrying it out must remain forever in the realm of speculation".

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