What Kermit Roosevelt Didn’t Say

“‘I owe my throne to God, my people, my army and to you!’ By ‘you’ he [the shah] meant me and the two countries-Great Britain and the United States-I was representing. We were all heroes.”

Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, Kermit Roosevelt, 1979

It is ironic that CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, published his book on the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and the return of the shah in the same year that “his majesty’s government” was overthrown. An American friend gave a copy of the book to me shortly after its publication in 1979. I skimmed through the book and put it on my bookshelf. The CIA coup appeared irrelevant when the old and decadent institution of monarchy in Iran seemed to be finished once and for all.

More importantly, however, I, along with many other Iranians of my generation, knew the story full well and did not need Kermit to repeat it. We knew that the shah owed his throne to the likes of Kermit. But we also knew something that Kermit didn’t know, or didn’t say. We knew that we owe to the Kermits of the world our tortured past: years of being forced as students to stand in the hot sun of Tehran in lines, waving his majesty’s picture or flag as his entourage passed by in fast moving, shiny, big black cars with darkened-glass windows; years of being forced to rise and stay standing in every public event, including movie theaters, while his majesty’s national anthem was being played; years of watching a dense megalomaniac try to imitate “Cyrus the Great” by wearing ridiculous ceremonial robes in extravagant celebration of his birthdays or crowning of his queens; years of being hushed by our parents, fearful of being arrested, if we uttered a critical word about his majesty’s government or his American advisors; years of worrying about secret police (SAVAK) informants, who were smartly, but ruthlessly, trained by the best of the US’s CIA and Israeli’s Mossad; years of witnessing our friends and acquaintances being taken to jail, some never heard from again; years of passing by buildings in which, we were told, people were being tormented; years of hearing about people dying under torture or quietly executed; years of being exiled in a foreign country, which ironically was the belly of the beast, the metropolis, the center which masterminded much of our misfortune in the first place; years of spending our precious youth to free or save thousands of political prisoners by marching in the streets of the metropolis, wearing masks to hide our identities and looking bizarre to those who knew nothing about our story; and, finally, years of trying to prove to the American people that the 1953 CIA coup was not a fig-leaf of our imagination or a conspiracy theory, that it indeed happened and that they, whether they like it or not, have a certain culpability in what their government does around the world.

Most Americans, however, did not believe our story or did not care about it until the 1979 Revolution in Iran and the subsequent storming of the US Embassy in Tehran by the “students following the line of Imam.” Once 52 Americans were blindfolded and held by the students in what they called the “nest of spies,” questions began to be raised: Who lost Iran? How did we lose it? Why are the Iranians so insanely agitated? Why do they burn our flag? Why do they hate us so much? In the midst of the hysteria, of course, no intelligent answer was sought and none was given. Surely, no meaningful answer was ever offered by the US government then or in the next two decades.

It was not until the US corporations-which, as a result of the US’s economic sanctions and executive orders, were prevented from making lucrative deals with Iran-put pressure on the US government in the late 1990s that we saw the first admissions of guilt about the events of 1953. On April 12, 1999, in an offhand remark in front of the captains of industry, President Clinton said:

Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance over time, has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago.

(The Washington Post, May 1, 1999)

Of course, had the President, who was now apparently “feeling our pain,” devoted some of his extracurricular activities to reading Kermit’s book, he might have given a better speech in terms of who did what to whom and when. But given his limitations, this was the best that he could do to please the corporate crowd.

But the greatest admission of guilt came from former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who in a meeting of corporate lobbyists in March 2000 stated:

In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh…the coup was clearly a set back for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see why so many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affair.

(US Department of State, March 17, 2000)

Unfortunately, this opaque confession did not console us much, since it was not a genuine expression of sorrow but merely an attempt to improve relations with the Iranian clergy in order to open the floodgates of corporate profit.

After Albright’s speech, on April 16, 2000, The New York Times broke what its writer, James Risen, called the US’s “stony silence” by devoting a number of pages to publishing parts of a still classified document on the “secret history” of the 1953 coup. The history was written by one Donald N. Wilbur, an expert in Persian architecture and one of the “leading planners” of the operation “TP-Ajax.” The report chronicled gruesome details of the events in 1953: how, by spending a meager sum of $1 million, the CIA “stirred up considerable unrest in Iran, giving Iranians a clear choice between instability and supporting the shah”; how it brought “the largest mobs” into the street; how it “began disseminating ‘gray propaganda’ passing out anti-Mossadegh cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering articles in local press”; how the CIA’s “Iranian operatives pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim leaders with ‘savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh'”; how the “house of at least one prominent Muslim was bombed by CIA agents posing as Communists”; how the CIA tried to “orchestrate a call for a holy war against Communism”; how on August 19 “a journalist who was one of the agency’s most important Iranian agents led a crowd toward Parliament, inciting people to set fire to the offices of a newspaper owned by Dr. Mossadegh’s foreign minister”; how American agents swung “security forces to the side of the demonstrators”; how the shah’s disbanded “Imperial Guard seized trucks and drove through the street”; how by “10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military personnel at all main squares”; how the “pro-shah speakers went on the air, broadcasting the coups’ success and reading royal decrees”; how at the US embassy, “CIA officers were elated, and Mr. Roosevelt got General Zahedi out of hiding” and found him a tank that “drove him to the radio station, where he spoke to the nation”; and, finally, how “Dr. Mossadegh and other government officials were rounded up, while officers supporting General Zahedi placed ‘unknown supports of TP-Ajax’ in command of all units of Tehran garrison.” “It was a day that should have never ended,” Risen quotes Wilbur as saying, for “it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it.”

To those who still believe in the fairytale of a righteous US government wanting to spread democracy around the world such revelations might sound shocking. But to us, whose lives were forever changed as a result of this cheap, “$1 million” coup, none of this was news. Like bedtime stories, we had heard them all a hundred times from our parents. The only difference was that where Wilbur saw a glorious day, we saw a day of infamy; where he wished the day had never ended, we wished it had never begun; and where he saw a dazzling picture of his majesty’s restoration to power, we saw grotesque pictures of a brutal dictatorship, informants, dungeons, torture, executions and 52 blindfolded Americans marching up and down the steps of the “nest of spies.” Perhaps Wilbur did not see what we saw or, perhaps, he just did not say.

It is, of course, meaningless to write an iffy history. However, one can’t help but imagine how things might have been different had it not been for the Kermits and Wilburs of the world. Would the Islamic Revolution of 1979 have taken place? Would Americans have been held hostage for 444 days in exchange for the shah and frozen assets? Would the US have helped Saddam start the Iraq-Iran war? Would over a million people have died as a result of the war? Would the US have imposed numerous unilateral sanctions against Iran for over two decades and made the captains of industry lose billions of dollars? Would Saddam have invaded Kuwait? Would the US have invaded Iraq twice and be in the mess that it is in right now? I guess a better question is this: Will the US ever learn that the Kermits and Wilburs of the world are not that clever, have no foresight, and, in the long-run, do more damage to this country than good? Or, to put it differently, will there ever be an enlightened US government in which there is no room for the likes of Kermits and Wilburs?

On August 19, 2003, I will read Kermit once again and think of what he did not say. I will reflect on my years in exile and dream of someday returning home, a home which by then will be as foreign to me as the one in which I presently reside.

SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Associate Professor of Economics
at California State University in Fresno. He can be reached at: sasanf@csufresno.edu


Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.