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It is impossible to read this book without feeling sympathy for the Iranians and their leader, Mossadegh Mohammad, for whom Stephen Kinzer has special affection, and without developing a sense of distaste first at the British, and then at their accomplices, the Americans. All the same, it is also impossible not to cast a doubt on the book's main conclusion-that the US-led coup in Iran in 1953 lies at the root of Middle East terror.
Stephen Kinzer, a veteran reporter for the New York Times, is no stranger to American coups, having contributed to the writing of the history of the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954. In "All the Shah's Men," Mr. Kinzer chronicles another coup, one that preceded Guatemala and laid the foundation for America's thinking that coups can be a useful and effective tool of foreign policy.
The book narrates the history of foreign involvement in Iran that culminated in the toppling of Mossadegh Mohammad and the re-coronation of Reza Shah as Iran's leader. Mr. Kinzer goes back centuries to choreograph the details of foreign involvement in Iranian politics, and pays particular attention to the last century and a half: in 1872, for example, Nasir al-Din Shah offered a most sweeping concession to Baron Julius de Reuter to, among others, exploit Iran's natural resources, a privilege revoked a year later. After that came other concessions, extended and then revoked, agreed and then renegotiated, on oil and other business.
What made the landscape explosive was the resignation, in 1941, of Reza Shah, Iran's king, and the subsequent emergence of Mossadegh, and a person who rested much of his political fortune on the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (in 1951). His passionate belief that his country had been exploited by the British, and his unwillingness to compromise, coupled with the intransigence of the British created a perfect setting for confrontation.
Perfect, yes. But not inevitable. For that, one has to credit the re-election of Winston Churchill, an ardent Empire enthusiast, who was much keener on resolving the dispute between Iran and the AIOC, by force if necessary, than was his predecessor. Equally important was the election of Dwight Eisenhower, who replaced the skeptical and sympathetic to Iran Harry Truman, and adopted a more assertive pro-British line (courtesy of the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, who ran the CIA and State Department, and who feared Iran might turn communist).
The narrative is eloquent, with enough attention on detail as to offer a vivid account of what happened and why. Mr. Kinzer has an eye for drama, building up the sequence of events with a novel-like quality (including the details of the coup, and Mossadegh's visit to the USA and UN). No doubt, the reader will feel rather conversant on the details of the foreign involvement in Iran leading up to the 1953 coup.
What is less obvious, however, is Mr. Kinzer grand conclusion: "It is not far-fetched," he writes, "to draw a line from Operation Ajax [the coup codename] through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York." As a history book, "All the Shah's" has many attractions; and, no doubt, there are lessons in 1953 to be learned today about meddling in other countries' businesses. But to link the 1953 with September 11 feels more like authoring overstretched, and should be best left at that.