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Twenty-Twenty Hindsight Part II: A Historical Assessment of Operation Ajax

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Dubbed “Operation Ajax” by the American intelligence community, the CIA orchestrated coup d’état of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq epitomizes a crucially necessary course of covert action required to limit the expansion of the Soviet Union’s geopolitical sphere. Indeed, while the initial phase of the operation encountered myriad shortcomings—mostly due to the loose-knit organization of the CIA-backed Iranian dissidents—Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt’s masterful execution of a complex black propaganda scheme and subsequent paramilitary uprising proved crucial in establishing a pro-Western regime in Iran. In doing so, the United States effectively managed, for the time being, to halt the Soviet’s pivot toward the Islamic world. Despite the subsequent disintegration of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1978, intervention aimed at usurping the Mossadeq regime and crushing the influence of the communist Tudeh party proved necessary in deterring Soviet expansionism into oil-laden Iran.

Indeed, despite the United States’ initial goal of ensuring British control over major oil interests in Iran, Soviet forays into the Middle East necessitated a more decisive response to halt the proliferation of Marxist factions in the Islamic world. In the post-war years, Iranian oil fields accounted for nearly sixty percent of the West’s oil imports which constituted a significant strategic and military interest. Oil not only represented a key to dominating international markets, but also served as a crucial resource in the production of both durable military and civilian goods. While Allen Dulles may well have embellished the significance of a potential Soviet push into Iran’s oil fields (i.e. the U.S. would “need to ration gas”), the loss of direct access to Iranian oil reserves certainly would limit the West’s long term control over petro markets. In other words, security via a pro-West regime in Iran would offer considerably better odds for continued Western economic and military development, as opposed to the potential blowback of allowing a Soviet sympathetic government to take hold.

Aside from the primary risk of the West losing its market share of petroleum via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Iran’s southern shores offered direct access to the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf. Soviet access to warm water ports would have drastically altered the calculus of U.S. strategy in that Washington would now have to contend with more sophisticated naval and trade networks that would have asymmetrically benefited the Soviet Union and its satellite states. While perhaps this assessment errs on the side of the “zero-sum game” philosophy in international relations, a more sophisticated network of Soviet naval routes would have expanded the reach of the Kremlin to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Consider further the fact that direct access to the Persian Gulf, and the greater Indian Ocean, would have also meant better naval access and supply to the ports of Southeast Asia where Marxist factions had begun to gain footholds in nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. While the USSR had access to China’s northern and western borders via communist satellite states (Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), direct naval access would have allowed for more extensive military and naval coordination which would have limited Western naval access to the South China Sea. Indeed, joint Sino-Soviet cooperation in the South China Sea (prior to the Sino-Soviet split of 1960) could have drastically limited the United States and its allies’ capacity to establish effective supply lines to anti-communist factions throughout Southeast Asia.

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In considering all options available to President Eisenhower, the overthrow of Mossadeq offered a greater degree of assurance that Iran would not succumb to Soviet influence, whether through military or diplomatic means. For instance, consider the alternative course of action in which the United States would issue a $100 million “stability” loan to augment Mossadeq’s right-leaning sympathies. This course of action runs into several problems. Firstly, as Allen Dulles noted to the National Security Council, unlike the British, the United States had very primitive intelligence networks in Iran that narrowed their long term view of the Iranian establishment’s behavior. While a loan (in the ethos of the Marshall Plan era of state rebuilding) could temporarily assuage political unrest (especially among the proletariat), long term stability would necessitate greater institutional reform—a feat not politically tenable for the fragile Iranian establishment. Secondly, as evinced by mounting anti-colonialist sentiment among Iranians, coupled with a move to nationalize the energy sector, Iran would be particularly susceptible to the influence of communist ideologues aligned closely with Soviet interests. Indeed, mounting support for the Tudeh faction would certainly pressure the Iranian establishment to crackdown on pro-Western factions in opposition to the colonial exploits of the West. As such, ensuring long term strategic interests with a veritable degree of certainty would necessitate the complete overhaul of the political establishment in Iran in favor of quasi-puppet regime that would function as a buffer between the West in the Middle East and the Soviet Union.

As previously mentioned, the initial coup attempt to install the pro-West General Fazlollah Zahedi as prime minister faced numerous obstacles. The operation’s shortcomings likely stemmed from weak cohesion among the paramilitary leadership tasked with launching the coup. That said, the logistical shortcomings of the operation itself should not constitute a reason for inaction. In other words, while the initial phase might have failed, the U.S. should have (and rightly did) utilized every tool at its disposal to successfully execute the mission in order to ensure the aforementioned strategic interests at stake. Fortunately, Roosevelt’s subsequent reorganization of the operation (via black propaganda against Mossadeq and the galvanization of political dissidents and Shia Islamists) would successfully manage to eviscerate Iran’s political establishment in exchange for a pro-West regime. Importantly, the CIA successfully managed to ensure plausible deniability by using black propaganda to paint the failed insurrection as a thwarted attempt by Mossadeq to install a leftist government in Tehran. Using this as a cover story, the CIA now had a plausible casus belli to sell to the Iranian people.

In assessing the long term implications of Operation Ajax, it is important to distinguish between the strategic interests that informed covert action versus the indirect consequences it yielded down the line. Opponents of the above analysis will likely point to the subsequent revolution against the weak and unpopular Shah as an unwelcome result of U.S. intervention. Put bluntly, the United States still should have intervened in Iran despite the Iranian Revolution that ensued in 1978. While hindsight is “twenty-twenty”, so to speak, the uncertainty of the Iranian political establishment’s long term behavior and the strategic interests at stake certainly justified direct action by the United States.

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Indeed, it is important to note that intervention against Mossadeq would certainly, directly or indirectly, benefit the corporate interests of the United Kingdom and prolong the trend of Western colonialism in developing economies. However, the credible risk of a potential “pivot to the left” in Iran could have had drastic implications with regard to Soviet political and economic expansion; especially with regard to dominating the petro markets and exporting political influence abroad via access to warm water ports (i.e. supply shipments, naval support, military capital, etc.). As such, the United States faced a crucial trade-off: preservation of strategic and geopolitical interests in exchange for enabling Western colonialism to endure. Indeed, the United States’ betting on the solvency of the newly installed pro-West Zahedi government offered considerably better prospects than merely standing idle in hopes of an amicable Mossadeq regime.

In assessing whether Operation Ajax was ultimately justified, a consideration of the long term strategic interests must take precedence over all other ancillary concerns. Given the credible threat posed by Soviet influence in Iran, coupled with the risk of losing dominance in the oil market, U.S. intervention coincided directly with a legitimate threat to long term security. Indeed, while the initial cause for U.S. involvement revolved around the colonial and corporate interests of the United Kingdom, independent security concerns merited the ouster of the Mossadeq regime in exchange for a pro-West government with shared geopolitical goals. At the end of the day, despite the eventual unfurling of the Zahedi government in the late 1970s, the immediate risks necessitated a decisive response from the U.S. in order to curtail the continued proliferation of the Soviet Union and its ilk. Alas, in the long term, all the Shah’s horses and all the CIA’s men could not put Iran back together again. But they were right to try.

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