For years after Operation Ajax, statesmen in Washington and London considered it to have been a great success. They had reason to be pleased. In place of Mossadegh they had reinstalled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was eager to do their bidding. From the perspective of history, however, the coup hardly seems a success. In fact, it is one of the episodes that sent the Middle East careening into its present instability.
The Shah’s increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the explosive revolution of 1979, which brought to power a militantly anti-Western clique of mullahs. That revolution and its consequences panicked the United States and led it to form the partnership with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that ultimately led both parties to much grief. The revolution also terrified the Soviet Union, which decided it had to stop the spread of Islamic radicalism by invading Afghanistan. Religious power in Iran inspired a host of violent militants around the Islamic world. All of this has roots in Operation Ajax.
So, it turns out, did the hostage crisis. Years afterward, hostage-takers wrote memoirs explaining why they had stormed the US embassy in 1979. It was all about 1953, they explained. In 1953 Iranians had forced the Shah to flee, but CIA officers working in the embassy staged Operation Ajax to bring him back. A quarter-century later, the same Shah had been forced to flee again, and had been received in the United States. Militants overran the embassy not out of nihilism, but to prevent a repeat of Operation Ajax. Westerners didn’t realize this because we had no idea Operation Ajax had ever happened.
If the West had decided to live with Mossadegh rather than deposing him in 1953, we might have had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East for the last three generations. It is difficult even to imagine how that would have changed the region’s history. By crushing Mossadegh, the West taught rising leaders in the Middle East that championing democracy and nationalism would bring outside powers down upon them, while collaborating with Western oil companies would bring rich bounty. That lesson has gravely deformed the region.
Given the shattering importance of Operation Ajax, why do Westerners know so little about it? Part of the reason is that nations, like individuals, prefer to recall aspects of their past that evoke good feelings. We are endlessly proud of the times we liberated the oppressed. Episodes when we have crashed into a democratic country and consigned it to dictatorship are less comforting. Rather than confront those misjudgments and try to learn from them, we consign them to footnotes or forget them entirely.
This book is a blow against that historical amnesia.
Stephen Kinzer, 2015