Philosopher Slavoj Žižek is fond of bringing up the following hypothetical situation in his lectures. A man learns his wife has been cheating on him. He has suspected this to be the case for some time, and, through much sadness and soul-searching, has already come to terms with it in the abstract. Thus, being a tolerant, modern husband, he resolves to confront his wife and—in spite of his outrage—discuss his feelings with her rationally. This he does, and the crisis in his marriage appears to be resolved for the moment—until he is finally afforded pictures of his wife caught in the act. Then he explodes. The moral of the story has to do with the workings of psychoanalytic disavowal. Knowing the unpleasant—and disavowed—fact abstractly is one thing. (Truth be told, such isn’t really knowing it!) Being confronted with concrete evidence of what actually took place—that is quite another matter. “This is how ideology functions…” says Žižek.
So where is this story relevant to a discussion of TPAJAX—Operation Ajax—the CIA orchestrated removal of the democratically elected government of Iran, completed 60 years ago today? Are we, the American public, the jealous husband in this case? If so, what kind of evidence are we looking at?
We’ve known this dirty little secret for ages, it seems. The documents released today were made available in 1981, albeit in a highly redacted form. Public knowledge of the operation in the United States was achieved well before the Shah fell in 1979 (When he finally did—and we started in earnest to consider the reason for the Iranian animus—it was common knowledge.) It has been admitted to by Presidents, the latest being President Obama who gave it a “Yeah, but…” acknowledgement in his Cairo Speech of June 2009.
“For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known.”
Yeah, we overthrew a democracy—but… it was the Cold War… Commies everywhere… taking the hostages wasn’t very nice either… (Excuses are largely self-propagating.)
No less cagey an acknowledgement of TPAJAX came in 2012, from a less official source: Ben Affleck’s sleeper propaganda film Argo. In Argo, it will be remembered, TPAJAX is indeed given passing mention in the first few minutes of the film. But with an angle. Recall the opening 50 scenes. Here, the film’s creators, knowing only too well that preterition of the specter of Mossadegh would look like mindless Chauvinism, resort to a canny public relations trick. Rather than omitting mention, they put it out there. This is to say, they bluntly state the unpleasant truth of the matter—right from the outset—in order to inoculate the rest of the film from the need to reflect upon it. Thus inoculated, the film makers are free to crush the memory of the TPAJAX, both with the rhetorical weight of the narrative (the situation of six Americans, the menace of Muslim extremism, the film’s glaring thematic contrasts: Hollywood vs. Tehran; B-movie extras vs. wild-eyed revolutionaries; the humor of actors Goodman an Arkin vs. the forbidding mug of the Ayatollah) and the orgasm of fist-pumping and jingoistic sentiment with which the film concludes (with a wink and a nod to the CIA’s clandestine naughtiness). In particular they inoculate Mr. Affleck’s character from having to brood wistfully on both the plight of his charges and the Spirit of ’53 (clearly, a stretch for Big Ben). It is the rhetorical opposite of poisoning the well. I quote the comically hard-boiled text of Chris Terrio’s script:
BATES: These fucks can hit us, we can’t hit back?
MALICK: Mossadeq. We did it to them first.
BATES: You think the Russians would put up with this? They’d fucking invade --
ROBERT PENDER, 40s, joins them heading down the hall. They’ve all gotten the same call to get to the Secretary’s office. PETER GENCO, late 20s, behind.
MALICK: What did you expect? We helped a guy torture and de-ball an entire population --
PENDER: (turning behind him) Schafer! Schafer!
BRICE: At least 60. Could be a hundred.
GENCO: (catching up to them) You still haven’t found Schafer?
PENDER: (to Genco) No, I was screaming his name ‘cause I was fucking him.
Vigor and gratuitous profanity, brisk steps in corridors, terse but peppery, ‘hard-nosed’ dialogue… Notice how the dirt is slipped in? This is vintage American propaganda—it is fed to us through the profanity in order to qualify it with the rugged quasi-ethos of the Hollywood G-man.
Argo is Hollywood’s “Yeah, but…” on the Iranian question.
So acknowledgement of the fact has even made its way into our propaganda. It has been echoed by presidents. It is part of the public discourse, i.e. we know it on an abstract level. But do we have evidence like that which is provided to Žižek’s aggrieved cuckold? Do we have the dirty pictures? In the (mostly) unredacted CIA documents, I would suggest we do. Much as is the case with the Wikileaks cables, what we have in these documents is stark proof of—what we’ve known all along to be—the willingness of the United States Government (and, to some extent, that of Great Britain) to skirt rule of law and democratic principles to achieve its own problematic strategic objectives. They show us the blue print for engineering regime change in unstable nations whose leaders will not play ball (a blue print used liberally by the CIA in countries as far apart—politically and geographically—as Guatemala and Australia). They show the extent to which business interests—in the case of the ’53 Coup, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, (now BP)—dictate the terms of Western foreign policy. They catch us, not our dreaded enemy, the Soviet Union, in the act of cheating an entire people out of its sovereignty and promoting a dictatorship. They reveal the public posture we assumed in the Cold War to be regrettably fraudulent.
“Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
Students of American presidential history will recall this astoundingly inappropriate line. President Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah thus, in Tehran on New Year’s Eve in 1977. (It may—justly—have made him a one term president.) If the Iranian Revolution was well underway by the time of Carter’s visit in December of 1977, this incident likely sparked its dénouement. Why? Why—of all the insults and injuries suffered by the Iranians by our hand thitherto—was this one so egregious?
However profound, in itself, the hypocrisy it symbolized could not have been the reason. (Read the Wikileaks cables… hypocrisy is fundamental to geopolitics!)
For all Iranian people of the time—not just the revolutionaries—it was an epiphany, one that unleashed the kind of explosive reaction alluded to in the case of the jealous husband. (Indeed—at least temporarily—I suspect said ‘explosion’ so radically disrupted the ability of the Iranian people to normalize the reality of their situation, they were susceptible to the kinds of staggering false choices that tend to be provided by opportunistic partisans: the Shah or the Ayatollah? radical Shiism or U.S. hegemony?) The epiphany? Here, at long last, is a U.S. President with an express concern for human rights, who appears willing to take steps to end the abuses of the Shah’s regime—which are longstanding and considerable—who, nonetheless, brought to a moment of truth, merely echoes the policy of his predecessors.
Which is this: as long as he can suppress democracy, you back the dictator in the name of ‘stability’; you have the UN cut him slack on human rights abuses and continue to fund his apparatus.
Carter is at the liberal, ‘ethical’ end of the limits of discourse in the United States; for an Iranian circa 1978—for an El Salvador or a Guatemala, for that matter—he is as good as it gets. In January of 1978 (days after Carter’s toast), the demonstrations began. A year later (16 January 1979) the Shah—his “great leadership” notwithstanding—was compelled to flee Iran. Is it any wonder what happened next? The only too predictable explosion. Zealous partisans who recalled the 1953 coup (an event that also caused the Shah to flee) immediately went on the offensive. With massive public support on their side, they brought about their answer to the ’53 coup: they fired the Shah and replaced him with the Ayatollah. (The taking of the embassy and the hostages and the demand for the Shah’s return was, essentially, a coup de grâce.)
Regrettably, the Iranian people have had to deal with a repressive theocratic government ever since. (Of course, incurring the wrath of a vengeful superpower hasn’t helped their cause much.) But stick a finger in the eye of neo-colonialism they did.
So, the unredacted TPAJAX documents, what do they tell us? What do they neglect to, or simply cannot tell us?
Let’s start with the former. What do the documents reveal? (What they reveal often exceeds what they say.)
To begin with, oil was top of mind in the decision to boot Mossadegh. Let’s not kid ourselves. Through the first half of the 20th Century, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (AIOC) had made a killing in Iran. What is a killing? Roughly, 15-85 in favor of the British. (To put that ratio in perspective, American companies at the time went 50-50 with the Saudis. AIOC would eventually try to meet 50-50—with qualifications—but literally as a last resort.) Nationalization of the Iranian oil industry threatened the future of said killing. As soon as the Oil Nationalization Act was approved by the Majlis in May of 1951, the AIOC and its hand-maidens in the British Government proceeded to undermine it. As early as August of that year, there was talk of the threat of Iran “falling behind the Iron Curtain”—much as there was talk of Guatemala becoming “increasingly communistic” before the CIA coup that removed the government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. Like the government of Mossadegh, that of Árbenz made the cardinal political mistake of crossing a powerful multinational (the United Fruit Company) with close ties to important officials in said company’s home government. (Allen Dulles, who was Director of Central Intelligence in 1954, was on the board of United Fruit.) Like Mossadegh, Árbenz was accused of advancing “irresponsible policies based on emotion” to the extent that he’d nationalized local resources (in his case, land) in the attempt to improve the lot of the poor in his country. And, like Mossadegh’s Iran, Guatemala under Árbenz was ultimately subjected to regime change in the name of anti-communism.
Here’s where we smell false pretenses.
If the relationship of Mohammed Mossadegh with the leftist (and arguably communist) Tudeh Party was, for the most part, tenuous, his rapport with the U.S.S.R. was decidedly frosty. Mossadegh had fought giving the Soviets free rein to search for oil Northern Iran. In 1944, during a session of the Majlis, Mossadegh made the following remark (directed at pro-Soviet activists from the Tudeh Party):
If you claim to be Socialist, then why are you ready to sacrifice the interest of your own country for the sake of Soviet Russia?
The Iranians, circa 1951, were clearly mistrustful of the Soviets and their intentions and had complained to the UN about their slow withdrawal from the northern territories in 1946. NSC documents of the time downplay the possibility of the Soviets making inroads into Iran. The Tudeh Party itself doubted the notion that solidly Muslim Iran was ready for communism anytime in the near future, preferring to advance an idealistic human rights platform rather than one that included specific Marxist positions. The Russians weren’t coming…
On the other hand, if accusations of as it were, ‘going red’ were dubious in the case of Mossadegh’s Iran, in the case of Guatemala under Árbenz, they were patently ridiculous. (After all, Guatemala in 1954 had no official relations with the Soviet Union.) And yet, in both cases, accusations were made. Why? And on what grounds?
The ‘Why?’ is easy. Money. In both cases—both coups—a number of highly wealthy and highly influential individuals who were rather fond of money stood to lose proven sources of it. What is more, in addition to having friends like Sir Richard Stokes and the Brothers Dulles—and enough money to bribe the Sultan of Brunei—they had the wind at their backs… the spirit of anti-communism, that is. As Senator McCarthy proved in the Second Red Scare, visceral fear of the Commie was not only alive and well, it was a potent weapon. In the United States, the mere accusation of being a Commie, or even—as was the case with Ike and the military establishment—of being a little too diplomatic with communists, this was reason enough for one to be targeted by a red-baiter. The accusation was enough to get the ball rolling. Did wealthy individuals like the Rockefellers and companies like United Fruit legitimately fear communism? Absolutely. In a communist society, much of their wealth stood to be expropriated and their privileged positions reduced to those of the general public. (Egads!) Their “irrational fear of expropriation”, as J.K. Galbraith called it, I suggest, fueled the repressive First Red Scare and, by extension (note, fear trickles down more surely than does wealth) the public’s fear of the ‘Enemy Within’. And, though arguably exaggerated by we in the West, the repressive excesses of Stalin and Mao clearly exacerbated this condition. But what these businesses and these individuals understood even better than the notion ‘Lenin is the Devil’ was the proclivity of their governments to buy into anti-communism—much as these same governments buy into counter-terrorism today. In a word, they grasped the notion of the ‘dog-whistle’.
And the grounds? Well, if by ‘grounds’ we mean evidence—i.e. that either of these governments advancing strictly communist agendas—there are none to be had. None. And those who petitioned the CIA to remove these governments knew that. In the TPAJAX documents, the issue of oil is described as being of “secondary importance” to all other stated reasons for the action—preventing Iran from going red chief among them—but this something on the order of a tell. It’s the apophatic avowal of the high stakes geopolitical player: oil—money—is the alpha and omega.
So what else do the TPAJAX documents tell us?
They tell us why the United States had to be involved. British Intelligence was no less capable than the CIA of the kind of operation that brought down Mossadegh. It faced an obstacle, however. The Shah was integral to the plan. The planners needed his assent—and his signature—and the Shah was wary of British machinations.
Given that the public and Majlis were both solidly behind nationalization, the Shah was unwilling to do what we wanted done—sign decrees removing Mossadegh and appointing a puppet, General Zahedi, in his place—without a motion of no confidence from the Maglis. (In fact, doing so was a violation of the Iranian Constitution of 1908.) We were ready to procure such a motion—for the operation’s “quasi-legal” route, 41 votes and a quorum of 53 were needed (we counted on having to “purchase” 20 votes)—but wanted the firmans signed before the fact, this in event of the need to pursue ‘plan b’. I quote from Appendix A of the TPAJAX documents:
Quasi-legal method to be tried first. If successful at least part of machinery for military coup will be brought into action. If it fails military coup will follow in a matter of hours.
The plot hinged on getting the Shah to sign off beforehand. Thus, the Shah needed persuading. And, truth be told, getting the Shah to sign was the hardest part of the operation. He wasn’t convinced he would have the army if the operation came down to a military coup, and had qualms about undermining the democratic process. At the same time he feared being ostracized by the United States and Great Britain. Like many heads of failed regimes, he was notoriously diffident and weak-willed. (In the years following the 1953 coup, the Shah allowed his security apparatus—including SAVAK, the regime’s American trained secret police—to become what is known as a ‘state within a state’. A notoriously repressive one at that. Of course, the brutality of said apparatus he would attempt to ‘undo’ with periods of public appeasement, which largely made matters worse. During his reign, dissidence was steeled in times of repression and expanded during times of relative appeasement. By the late 1970s it had grown too large—and too committed—to contain. The Shah’s remarkably poor stewardship of his nation clearly stemmed from his personality.) In the middle of the coup he fled for Italy. By no means was he the kind of useful strongman the United States came to see in Saddam.
The basic thrust of our efforts at persuasion was to be guilt—as well as a veiled threat. I quote Appendix B of the memos:
If the Shah fails to go along with these forces, he will be solely responsible for the collapse of his country and the loss of its independence.
In spite of the Shah’s previous misconceptions, the United States and the United Kingdom have been supporting him, but if the Shah fails now, this support will be withdrawn.
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (yes, Stormin’ Norman Sr.), Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s strong-willed, more politically minded twin sister, and Queen Soraya herself… all were involved in efforts to steel the Shah to task of signing off on the coup. Ultimately, it was a power play by CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt that seems to have done the trick. From the memo “Mounting Pressure on the Shah”:
Roosevelt finally said that he would remain at hand a few days longer in expectation of an affirmative decision and then would leave the country; in the latter case the Shah should realize that failure to act could only lead to a Communist Iran or a second Korea.
Of course, the Shah signed, the puppet was installed, and the CIA notched its first Cold War coup.
Another thing the TPAJAX documents indicate… grey propaganda works. If getting the Shah to sign off on Mossadegh’s removal was undeniably the heart of the operation the PR/PSYOPS campaign—involving, among other things, “cartoons and broadsheets”, black leaflets, and paid demonstrators—was both instrumental in turning the public against its Prime Minister and… well, cheap. The budget for the coup itself was $1 million: peanuts for an oil bearing nation of strategic interest.
What is more, TPAJAX made regime-change seem easy—too easy… which may have been one of its more regrettable consequences. (That which was most regrettable was, of course, the Imperial police state, which no less a person than General Schwarzkopf helped to kick off.) There was (relatively) little bloodshed, no U.S. casualties to speak of, and—at the time—we were able to rationalize that we had won hearts and minds. From the efforts at regime change that followed TPAJAX—Guatemala in 1954, Syria in 1957, Congo in 1960, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Brazil in 1964, Greece in 1967, Suharto’s ‘New Order’ in Indonesia 1967-1998, the Chilean 9-11 (in 1973), the Australian “Dismissal” (1975), Argentina in 1976, the Turkish ‘Night of the Generals’ and the ‘Deep State’ (1980), El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada (the mess the Reagan Administration made of Central America 1981-1987), Afghanistan 2001-present, Venezuela 2002, Iraq 2003-present, Honduras 2009—we didn’t always emerge so unsullied and unscathed.
So what don’t the TPAJAX documents tell us? What is left out?
Obviously what their authors can’t tell us, i.e. the dreadful future the coup created for the Iranian people (who still don’t have anything like the democracy they had before August of 1953); the dreadful legacy of TPAJAX: the umpteen ill-advised and questionably motivated attempts at regime change undertaken by the United States Government, all of which have eroded its reputation as an honest broker in world affairs (Kermit Roosevelt himself, in 1979, lamented the terrible precedent set by the operation); the hubris the success of the operation would engender in the American intelligence community. One might add to this bitter truth that—being loyal and duly indoctrinated CIA officials—these authors weren’t allowed to see (or admit to themselves): that the Domino Theory was always a myth, one arguably crafted by those with a vested interest in the industry it spawned. (Anti-communism was, as counter-terrorism is today, a booming industry.) To whatever extent the Soviet Union was inclined to pursue a worldwide neocolonial enterprise, in the wake of WWII, it was too weak militarily and economically to do anything more than hold the territories allotted to it at Yalta. (For the Soviets, the space race and the nuclear arms race essentially broke the bank; there was no way they could compete with the United States in the Third World.) Even as American Cold War planners of the 50s were promoting a strategy of containment, they knew very well that, since Yalta, Soviet foreign policy had remained less than ambitious—and for a reason. As to Soviet designs on the Middle East, Ambassador Loy Henderson, in 1957—referring to Syria in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis—fairly well summed up what they all knew:
“The USSR has shown no intention of direct intervention in any of the previous Mid-Eastern crises, and we believe it is unlikely that they would intervene, directly, to assure the success of a leftist coup in Syria.”
What these authors don’t say, but likely knew? Moving forward, operations like TPAJAX—involving the sabotage of Third World democracy—were almost certainly going have to incorporate what TPAJAX lacked: plausible deniability.
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