Book Review

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shaw’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, John Wiley and Sons, 2008

In 1953, there was an interesting and tragic event that occurred in Iran that hardly any Americans know anything about, but yet almost every Iranian does.  The year before the tragedy, the very popular Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister.  Not only was Mossadegh strong enough to take on the Shaw and implement democratic reforms he also took on the British who had been exploiting Iran for years by making millions from Iranian oil while the Iranians remained in poverty.  When Mossadegh took office, he made the popular decision to nationalize the oil industry and kick out the British.  While most of the nation cheered him, the British were furious.  They claimed the oil was theirs and took them to the World Court and the UN.  Both venues tried to get Britain to compromise with Iran, giving the nation a more equal share in the prophets and day to day operations.  The British refused and both the UN and the Court sided with Iran.  With their golden goose about to be lost forever the only option left for the British was to overthrow the Democratically elected government and strengthen the power of the Shaw.  The only problem is after they were kicked out, they could not pull off the coup alone, so they turned to their American friends. 

In an exceptionally written narrative, Kinzer gives the history of modern Iran and its struggle with democracy, the British, and the Shaw.  He details the fight to achieve a constitutional government and the rise of Mossadegh, a man who finally put Iran’s interest above his own.  He also details the British attitude of supremacy, including from one of my personal favorites, Winston Churchill, who believed all other nations’ interests were secondary to their own.  Their exploitation of the Iranian people and their resources was deplorable. 

What I found most tragic is how easily the British were able to use America to do their bidding.  While Truman tried to convince the British to end their colonial practices in Iran, once Ike was elected, he and the Dulles brothers organized the coup.  Once the British told them falsely that Mossadegh was a communist they were in. 

The tragedy was compounded, according to Kinzer, because the Iranians actually looked to America as their ally and the nation that would come to their defense of democracy.  He claims America’s betrayal set up a series of issues, some that last to today.  First, it allowed the Shaw back in the nation and for him to become more tyrannical than he was before the coup.  Secondly, being that the coup was orchestrated out of the American embassy, it led directly to the American hostage situation in the 1979 revolution.  The revolutionaries were not going to be betrayed again.  This time however the revolution was not a democratic one but an Islamic fundamentalist one.  This revolution drove Iran and America even further apart causing the US to support Iraq in the war between the two nations, strengthening the power of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  This only strengthened the fundamentalist who began to support world terrorists’ groups like Hezbollah. 

Kinzer wrote, “The world has paid a heavy price for the lack of democracy in most of the Middle East.  Operation Ajax taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants there that the world’s most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and the Western oil companies.  That helped tilt the political balance in a vast region away from freedom and towards dictatorship.” 

Today Iran is one of the strongest nations in the Middle East.  It is also one of the least known about by Americans.  Most in the US today know of the hostages and Iran’s repressive regime.  But to truly understand Iran and everything that has happened over the past 60 years I would recommend reading All the Shaw’s Men

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