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The CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East


Operation Ajax: the Story of the CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East. By Daniel Burwen and Mike De Seve. Foreword by Stephen Kinzer. New York : Verso. Unpaged (248pp), $25.95

This is a four-color shocker and a fine present to a youngster. The facts are hardly unknown—a recent Guardian report, based on British intelligence records, reconfirmed the CIA role in overthrowing the elected and beloved Iranian leader—or even untreated in previous comic art. (Reviewer disclosure: the coverage of the same coup, in A People’s History of American Empire, aka the Howard Zinn adaptation, is brief but excellent.) Rather, because of the current state of the Middle East: the US/British intelligence operation more than a half-century old remains, like the more recent US invasion of Iraq, remains so much at the center of the disorder in the region today.

And also because this book is professional-looking in the mainstream “noir” comic style a la Alan Moore that runs second to superhero comics and far above most nonfiction works. Success may bring more projects like this closer to the local comic-book-store addict of various ages, mostly male and mostly seeking “action” as well as story and drawing styles. We hope so.

Some time ago, President Barack Obama actually came close to apologizing or at least admitting that a wrong had been done to the Iranian people–but without specifically pointing to the perpetrators. (Potential candidate Hillary Clinton has, for her part, offered not a single apology.) Democratically elected Iranian president Mohammed Mossadegh, seeking to chart an independent course between the Superpowers, as Marshal Tito had already managed in Yugoslavia, ruled over a sea of oil that the US and Britain had planned to exploit. In ways that most careful readers of diplomatic, military and intelligence history now find familiar and even obvious, with help from the Snowden revelations, the furious plotting, carefully planned and funded uprising met with splendid imperial success in 1953. The Shah, once installed, ruled as a bone-crushing potentate for a quarter century, largely thanks in no small part to Shavak one of the most feared and brutal intelligence agencies in the world, widely rumored to have been heavily infiltrated not only by the CIA but also by Mossad, its Israeli variant.

The book in hand was published as an app (by Cognito Comics) in 2011, making this a unique object in another sense. Is this perhaps a new form of marketing time-lapse? The Foreword and afterword by erstwhile New York Times reporter–and sometime avid journalistic supporter of US Regime Change projects in Central America, back in the eighties—on which the book is based, makes the comic still more unique. Kinzer is here, in the 2015 version, to report the findings that impelled him to write the book. He closes by highlighting the importance of “Operation Ajax” as the “first time the CIA set out to destroy a foreign government. “

Not so or not quite so, and this detail happens to be an important point. From its Cold War origins, the CIA had such purposes every bit as much as ”intelligence gathering.” Indeed, one of the chief reasons for intelligence to be gathered can be summarized in a phrase returned to the lexicon by Hillary Clinton in regard to Syria: the “regime change opportunity.” Leaping into the “Grand Game,” as the strategies of competing empires came be known in the nineteenth century, the CIA took over the older US role treating the Caribbean as the “American Lake” and all of Latin America as “protected” from other world powers and likewise from the citizens themselves, who now and then showed signs of dumping the opajaxsupporters of US corporate interests. Close in time to the Iranian action, as the comic notes at its close, comes Guatemala, where a CIA plot overthrew another elected president, this time inaugurating a military campaign against indigenous peoples resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. But by 1953 the CIA had repeatedly dropped nationals into the Eastern Bloc, seeking to promote uprisings, with the same logic that it defended Greek royalists, erstwhile collaborators with the Axis, against the Communist-inclined successors to the Wartime partisans. For the same reasons, it had aided the scorched earth counterinsurgency in the Philippines against rebel uprisings by erstwhile anti-Japanese partisans, and purchased loyal European labor leaders for American use. Communism was the enemy, “neutralism” not much better, and direct or indirect control of the entire planet the constant purpose of US policies. Both former president Herbert Hoover and “Mister Republican” Robert Taft vainly warned Truman against creating a global, military empire and the security state that went with it. Harry left office the most unpopular president of the twentieth century, and for good reasons.

Let us not be deterred, however, by these details. Operation Ajax is quite a fine book in its own respect. The narrative is sharp and unrelenting, the art equal to the task of presenting a dark (or fallen) world where greed of the powerful is the one constant, and thus we advance across the first half of the twentieth century step by grim step.

The Old Empire (not, actually, quite so old in this part of the world) of European might and purported romantic adventure came to a new point, early in the century, with the discovery of oil and the growing reliance of the British economy and empire at large upon control of that oil. The measured collapse of the royal regime gave a veteran Iranian politician his chance. Mohammed Mossadegh was already past sixty in 1941, no radical, but pushed forward by the direct action of the oil workers, as badly treated as they were necessary for extraction of “black gold.” Mossadegh had one more crucial if untrustworthy ally: the Ayatollah of that time. Together, the two schemed at something downright unholy, a favorable split of oil revenues with the British, en route to outright nationalization. Riots and near uprisings gripped the country in the nationalist wave moving through the region.

There’s an exceptionally odd narrative moment here, as a thoughtful Harry Truman ponders helping the Shah, and then some pages later, embraces Mossadegh as leverage against the British. Thus, an opening for the US. Truman frets, the UN discusses the issues, the Shah takes cover in the US and Winston Churchill, in the twilight of his career, reassures himself that action speaks and the Iranians would cave in to a British show of force.

This is high drama, and comics action at its best. And yet there is a strangeness: the 1952 American elections bring in Eisenhower, with him the Dulles Brothers at the center of both the CIA and State Department, and a national political climate described as “Fear” (the title of Chapter 6). We see Cold War propaganda accelerating along with CIA sneakiness. But wait a minute. The allegedly liberal wing of the CIA had conspired with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., several years earlier to create covert funding for intellectuals and artists who would take the State Department line to the world, and enjoy large personal benefits in return, prestige and publishing contracts to luxury global junkets. The revelations by Ramparts magazine in 1967 proved so embarrassing that Isaiah Berlin pleaded with fellow schemers not to write tell-all memoirs. The Dulles Brothers certainly added something, but the CIA operation was well underway, and liberals as well as conservatives had their hands dirty up to their armpits.

Operation Ajax rushes toward a conclusion with a stark revelation. The Shah, installed by the British and Americans against the will of ordinary Iranians, was considered in Washington to be proof of a great foreign policy. “History, however, has delivered another verdict.” Well said. Kinzer argues in the Afterword that a different US policy might have produced a starkly different Middle East. Yes, indeed, but judging from other experiences, not very likely. A side glance at Latin America, where the US has promoted formal democracy only when it seem to benefit investors and allies, and where the “Good Neighbor Policy,” mixing good with less-than-good, was transitory, we come to more grim conclusions. Empires act as they always did. And rarely act wisely or benevolently.

Ignore this reviewer’s complaints and find the book for yourself and other potential readers.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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