Book Review: All the Shah’s Men – An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer
The book All the Shah’s Men was written by American journalist Stephen Kinzer. The subject matter of the book is the America backed coup-de-tat carried out in Iran in 1953, in which its incumbent Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was forcefully replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The latter was loyal to Western interests and it was institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which masterminded his ascendency.
The book is a reliable source of historical information concerning the Middle East, especially that of 20th century Iran. Much of the West’s interest in the region springs from the abundant natural resources found there, especially that of oil. Starting in the year 1931, when Britain supported and installed the Shah in power, it has had commercial contracts pertaining to extraction and supply of oil. In the early 1930s, the Shah signed a contract that sold Iranian oil pumping rights to the Anglo Persian Oil Company (later rechristened British Petroleum). This favorable business relationship with Britain took a nosedive when the Shah sided with the Third Reich later in the decade. This compelled Britain to sever its ties with the Shah and he was summarily dismissed.
Ever since the United States replaced Britain as the leading global superpower, it has attracted several enemies. It’s relationship with Iran is no exception to the rule, as the relationship between the two countries has taken a downturn with the re-emergence of radical Islam in recent decades. Author Stephen Kinzer attempts to give an explanation for America’s tendency to make enemies. In other words, the author does a satisfactory job of answering President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous lamentation that “it was a matter of great distress to him that we seemed unable to get some of these down-trodden countries to like us instead of hating us.” (Robarge, 2007) In the book, Kinzer suggests that America itself is to blame for much of its tattered reputation. For example,
“the explanation may lie next door in Iran, where the CIA carried out its first successful regime-change operation over half a century ago. The target was not an oppressive Soviet puppet but a democratically elected government whose populist ideology and nationalist fervor threatened Western economic and geopolitical interests. The CIA’s covert intervention—codenamed TPAJAX—preserved the Shah’s power and protected Western control of a hugely lucrative oil infrastructure. It also transformed a turbulent constitutional monarchy into an absolutist kingship and induced a succession of unintended consequences at least as far ahead as the Islamic revolution of 1979—and, Kinzer argues in his breezily written, well-researched popular history, perhaps to today.” (Robarge, 2007)
Stephen Kinzer also does an excellent job of referring and cross-referring various sorts of primary and secondary sources for this research project. He’s drawn on previously published accounts of Iranian political history, declassified records from American government archives, direct interviews with key personnel as well as a bootleg copy of CIA’s history of its operations. Kinzer has succeeded in realistically capturing the day-to-day operations of TPAJAX, which includes its propaganda campaigns, provocative statements in the media, public demonstrations to garner support, and even its underhanded activities like bribing officials, etc. Through Kinzer’s account we even learn that the TPAJAX has employed “agents of influence, false-flag operatives, dissident military leaders and paid protestors”. (Robarge, 2007)
Comprehensive and detailed as his scholarship is, Kinzer at times makes some generalized conclusions, which don’t always accompany substantiating proof. Talking about the 51-year-old coup, Kinzer notes in page 203 that
“With their devotion to radical Islam and their eagerness to embrace even the most horrific kinds of violence, Iran’s revolutionary leaders became heroes to fanatics in many countries. Among those who were inspired by their example were Afghans who founded the Taliban, led it to power in Kabul, and gave Osama bin-Laden the base from which he launched devastating terror attacks. It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.” (Kinzer, 2003, p.203)
The above assertion is too sweeping and simplistic when we consider that it has made several unwarranted assumptions about history. It also acquits many former American presidents who could have forced the Shah to institute reforms, and discards the key internal equations between the Shias and Sunni’s in the Middle East (including Iran).
Barring such rare blemishes in the book, there are several salient points that are raised by the author. Firstly, Kinzer makes it clear that the 1953 coup was instigated by America and not a spontaneous revolt by the citizens of Iran, although much western propaganda has projected this myth. Kinzer also scores in paying great attention to detail. He illustrates in an elaborate fashion all the events surrounding the coup and the integral role played by the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service MI6. Through his scholarship, Kinzer comes across as someone who is sympathetic to the overthrown Mossadegh. The author goes as far as to compare this aggrieved figure to the great American Founding Fathers as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Kinzer has to be credited and appreciated for this stand, for he is a lone figure among American authors in supporting the dethroned leader. The irony lies in the fact that Mossadegh was a legitimate and democratically elected leader with significant popular support. Yet he was seen as an enemy by the intelligentsia of the leading democracy in the world. Hence, overall, the book All the Shah’s Men is a worthy addition to the corpus of scholarship on Middle East political affairs. Despite the few blemishes pointed to above, the book stands for quality research and objective presentation.
Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003. 258 pages.
David S. Robarge, A review of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, CSI publications, retrieved from < https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol48no2/article10.html#rfn13> on 7th November, 2011
Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D., REVIEW ESSAY OF STEPHEN KINZER’S ALL THE SHAH’S MEN, MIDDLE EAST POLICY, VOL. XI, NO. 4, WINTER 2004, retrieved from