A very happy group of men convened at the White House on Sept. 4, 1953, to hear a cloak-and-dagger story that would resonate through all of subsequent American history. Two weeks before, the Central Intelligence Agency had overthrown Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran. It was the first time the CIA had deposed a foreign leader, and on this day the agent who ran the operation, Kermit Roosevelt, was to explain how he did it.
Roosevelt's account of bribes, staged riots and artillery duels was almost too hair-raising to believe. It transfixed everyone in the room, including President Dwight Eisenhower, who later wrote that it "seemed more like a dime novel than historical facts." If there was a single moment when the United States can be said to have entered the modern era of covert action and regime change, this was it.
"One of my audience seemed almost alarmingly enthusiastic," Roosevelt later recalled. "John Foster Dulles was leaning back in his chair. Despite his posture, he was anything but sleepy. His eyes were gleaming; he seemed to be purring like a giant cat. Clearly he was not only enjoying what he was hearing, but my instinct told me that he was planning as well."
Roosevelt's instinct was true. Soon after his triumphant White House briefing, his CIA superiors approached him with a new offer. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wished to be rid of troublesome Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Seeing as Roosevelt had already shown his skill at toppling elected governments, would he like to try again? He demurred, but the project went ahead anyway. It was another brilliant success, as Arbenz was forced from power and replaced by a pliant colonel. In the space of less than a year, the CIA had deposed two popular leaders whose nationalism and refusal to accommodate foreign capital had made them anathema in Washington.
These two "regime change" operations set the United States on a course to which it still holds. Over the 50 years that have followed, driven by a combination of idealism and arrogance, successive American administrations have assumed the right to topple governments around the world. Only now, in the wake of the shocks that the world system has suffered in the last few years, is the full aftereffect of those operations being felt.
The coups of the 1950s in Iran and Guatemala, like the recent Iraq invasion, were planned with a stubborn insistence that everything would turn out all right in the end. This relentlessly naive optimism, this unbounded faith in the ability of the United States to work its will in the world, has become a guiding principle of American foreign policy. It has led some in Washington to conclude that the United States represents such a unique combination of lofty principles and great power that it can triumph even over history itself.
During the Cold War, the United States could depose foreign governments only through covert action. Armed invasions were out of the question because they had the potential to set off global cataclysm. Today, however, invasion is once again considered a realistic option. With no Red Army to fear, regime change is now a job for the CIA if possible, the military if necessary.
There are obvious differences between the recent Iraq War and the coups that brought down the leaders of Iran and Guatemala half a century ago. One was a full-scale military campaign, while the others were covert operations. The target in Iraq was a monstrous tyrant, while those in Iran and Guatemala were democratically elected leaders. But the Iraq War resembles those first two CIA coups in important ways.
Economic factors have often played a crucial role in American decisions to plot regime change. The target country almost always has a valuable resource that it is refusing to share on terms that the West considers fair. Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized Britain's fabulously lucrative Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and American leaders feared that if the nationalization were allowed to stand, it would set a dangerous precedent that could undermine corporate power around the world. President Arbenz's offense was his campaign to force the United Fruit Company to sell off its vast unused lands so they could be distributed to Guatemalan peasants. Similarly, Saddam Hussein was sitting atop a huge reserve of oil and was decidedly hostile to U.S. companies eager to extract, refine and sell it. In all three of these countries, regime-change operations were designed in part to show that the United States does not tolerate foreign leaders who restrict the ability of Western corporations to make money.
The drive to control the world's most valuable resources is not the only factor that pushes the United States into action abroad. Eagerness to strike against global enemies is also a strong motivation. During the Cold War, the enemy was communism. An alarming series of communist advances in the late 1940s and early 1950s terrified many Americans. Secretary of State Dulles and his brother, Allen, who ran the CIA during the Eisenhower administration, took office eager to demonstrate their determination to fight this enemy.
British leaders tried to overthrow Mossadegh in 1952, but he learned of their plot and foiled it by expelling all British diplomats from Iran, among them secret agents assigned to stage the coup. Desperate to remove their tormenter, the British asked Washington for help. President Harry Truman refused, worrying quite rightly that such a violent interruption of Iranian political life would have unpredictable and perhaps disastrous consequences. That left the British angry and frustrated. But when news came of Eisenhower's election in November 1952, they were thrilled. Kermit Roosevelt stirred their hopes by visiting London soon after the election and telling his friends in the Secret Intelligence Service that the new administration's approach to Iran might be "quite different" from Truman's.
This prospect so excited the British that they could not even wait until Eisenhower was inaugurated to make their appeal to his incoming team. They sent one of their top agents, Christopher Montague Woodhouse, to Washington to present the case for a coup. Woodhouse realized that the Americans would not swing into action simply to recover Britain's oil company, so he shrewdly came up with another argument. "Not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire," he wrote later, "I decided to emphasize the communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry." The Dulles brothers leaped at that argument, just as Woodhouse knew they would.
A similar confluence of economic and political factors drove the decision to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz was a figure much like Mossadegh. Both were nationalists who wished to improve daily life for their countries' suffering masses. Neither saw why his government's dispute with a foreign corporation should throw him into the vortex of the great East-West confrontation. The Dulles brothers, however, saw every local conflict through the lens of that confrontation. In their eyes, every leader not explicitly tied to the United States was a potential enemy. Arbenz's sin, like Mossadegh's, was his insistence on embracing the domestic challenge of alleviating poverty rather than the global one of supporting Washington's anti-communist crusade.
Neither Mossadegh nor Arbenz was a communist, but that didn't matter. In fact, it helped. Not even the Dulles brothers would have risked nuclear conflagration by attacking China, the Soviet Union or one of their satellites. Yet their desire to strike back against communism was so intense that almost any target would do. Iran and Guatemala were ideal because, by subduing them, the United States would not only remove a perceived enemy but also acquire a strategic platform from which it could project its power across an entire region of the world.
Precisely the same impulse fueled the operation against Saddam Hussein. Once again, the United States felt threatened by a ruthless global enemy, in this case terrorism and its most deadly practitioners, the leaders of al-Qaeda. Once again, finding and destroying the real enemy was too difficult, so some other enemy had to be found. Iraq was chosen, even though it was no more responsible for terrorist attacks on the United States than Iran or Guatemala had been responsible for the spread of communism during the 1950s. With Iran long since lost to U.S. influence and Saudi Arabia looking ever shakier, the Bush administration envisions Iraq as the new center of American power in the Middle East.
This combination of economic and political motivations is not the only way in which the template set in Iran and Guatemala during the 1950s shaped this year's Iraq operation. Neither Iran in 1953 nor Guatemala in 1954 posed an imminent danger to the United States. Those early coups were operations of choice, warnings to the world that no regime is safe if it defies the United States. So was the Iraq War.
Planners of those early CIA operations distorted intelligence data to make their case. The Dulles brothers fed Eisenhower a series of highly exaggerated reports suggesting that Iran was about to turn communist. At a National Security Council meeting in March 1953, they gave him one asserting that communists "might easily take over" in Iran and deprive the West of "the enormous assets represented by Iranian oil production and reserves." Years later, however, retired American officials who were posted in Iran in 1953 told an American scholar, Mark J. Gasiorowski, that Iran's communist party "was really not very powerful, and that higher-level U.S. officials routinely exaggerated its strength and Mossadegh's reliance on it."
This manipulation of intelligence was repeated in 1954 as the CIA sought to portray the Guatemalan government as a captive of communism. From those two operations, American spymasters around the world learned an insidious lesson: that intelligence should be shaped to meet the political needs of the White House. So it was in the case of Iraq, as American leaders justified their invasion plan on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was sponsoring terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction.
Washington's failure or refusal to think seriously about the long-term consequences of intervention is the most disturbing factor that binds the CIA's early covert operations to the Iraq War. In seeking regime change in Iran and Guatemala (and later in the Congo, Indonesia, Chile and elsewhere), American planners sought to achieve short-term victories against what they considered intolerable regimes. They did the same thing when they plotted this year's invasion of Iraq. In each case, those who warned about the effects that these operations might have years or decades later were dismissed as wimps or, in one of the most memorable phrases to emerge from the Iraq War, "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."
From the perspective of 50 years of history, the horrific aftereffects of the 1953 Iran coup are becoming clear. That coup showed emerging leaders throughout the Middle East that the United States preferred strongman rule to democracy, a message that encouraged budding tyrants including Saddam Hussein. It also placed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi back on his throne, leading to 25 years of dictatorship that finally produced the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That revolution brought to power a band of militantly anti-Western clerics who not only sponsored acts of murderous terrorism against the United States but also inspired fundamentalist sects in other countries. Among those sects was the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, which gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and other violent fanatics.
Until the Eisenhower administration staged Operation Ajax, as the coup was code-named, most Iranians felt great admiration for the United States. Hundreds of altruistic Americans had worked selflessly in Iran as doctors, teachers and development specialists, and none had ever sought to exploit the country's resources or intervene in its political life. The coup changed all that. It turned countless Iranians bitterly against the United States and led growing numbers of them to embrace radical Islam, the ideology most closely associated with anti-Americanism. Iranian militants who seized American diplomats as hostages in 1979, an act that brought down Jimmy Carter's presidency and permanently poisoned Iranian-American relations, struck because they feared the CIA was plotting a second Operation Ajax that would once again bring the hated shah back to his "Peacock Throne."
It is always dangerous to draw cause-and-effect lines through history, but the impact of the 1953 coup in Iran on Middle Eastern history, and even on the United States itself, is today impossible to ignore. "With hindsight, can anybody say the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was inevitable?" one Iranian intellectual mused in a recent article. "Or did it only become so once the aspirations of the Iranian people were temporarily expunged in 1953?"
The 1954 coup in Guatemala also led to a terrible tragedy, the apocalyptic civil war that lasted for three decades and killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. Like the Iran coup, the one in Guatemala led to the establishment of a brutal military regime that not only oppressed its people but also served as a model for nearby countries.
President Truman refused to sponsor a coup in Iran not because he was a Middle East expert and believed he could predict the long-term results, but for precisely the opposite reason. He realized how little he and most Americans knew about matters Middle Eastern, and common sense made him fear the consequences of intervening there. Eisenhower had no such reservations. Neither did presidents who followed him, most notably George W. Bush.
With a confidence born of ignorance, millenarian vision and boundless faith in military power, President Bush plunged the United States into an operation that was not urgently necessary but that satisfied the desire for revenge against someone for the losses of September 11. He turned aside the advice of many friends and deeply divided a nation that had come together in the depths of its grief. Perhaps he has even set in motion a series of processes that will not only further destabilize Iraq and the Middle East but also weaken America's national security.
Those who predict a good outcome in Iraq should not look to the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala. The legacy of those operations is too frightening. If the long-term results of the Iraq invasion are anything like what has happened in Iran and Guatemala since the United States deposed their governments half a century ago, the world is in for a new wave of horrors. That would confirm the truth of Truman's dictum, "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know."