Authors: Stephen Kinzer
Next Roosevelt turned to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had spent most of the 1940s in Iran leading an elite military regiment and to whom the Shah felt deeply indebted. The CIA gave Schwarzkopf a “cover mission” of meetings and inspections in Lebanon, Pakistan, and Egypt so that his visit to Iran could be explained as a simple stopover. According to one account, he arrived there carrying “a couple of large bags” into which were stuffed several million dollars in cash. He met first with Roosevelt and then with Iranian principals in the operation, to whom he distributed much money. On the first day of August he called on the Shah at Saad Abad Palace.
It was a bizarre encounter. At first the Shah refused to say a word to his guest, indicating with gestures that he suspected hidden microphones. Then he led Schwarzkopf into a large ballroom, pulled a table into the center of the room, sat down on top of it, and invited the general to join him. There he whispered that he had still not decided whether to sign the decrees Roosevelt wanted. He doubted that the army would obey any order he signed, and he did not want to be on the losing side in such a risky operation.
Even as Schwarzkopf listened, he sensed the Shah’s resistance weakening. One more visitor might be enough to bring the desired result, but it would have to be Roosevelt himself. This was a dangerous proposition. If Roosevelt was seen at the palace, news of his presence in Iran might leak out and compromise the entire operation. Schwarzkopf, however, told him there was no alternative.
Roosevelt expected this advice. “I had been sure from the beginning that a personal meeting would be necessary,” he wrote afterward. “Securely and alone, the Shah and I could resolve the many difficult problems confronting us. This could only be done on a person-to-person basis. In all likelihood we would have to meet not once but several times. So the sooner we got to it, the better.”
To prepare the way for his visit, Roosevelt sent his trusted agent Assadollah Rashidian to see the Shah on August 2. Rashidian’s message was simple: the British and the Americans were planning a coup and would not be deterred. Under these circumstances, Rashidian observed tartly, the Shah had little choice but to cooperate. The Shah nodded in silent agreement.
Only Roosevelt, however, could close the deal. He asked an agent in the royal court who was known by the code name Rosenkrantz to approach the Shah and say that “an American authorized to speak for Eisenhower
Churchill desired a secret audience.” In a matter of hours the overture was made, and the Shah accepted it. He would send a car to Roosevelt’s villa that night at midnight.
“Two hours to wait!” Roosevelt thought to himself after receiving the message. “I considered my costume. If not appropriate for a royal audience, it did seem good for these rather peculiar circumstances. I had on a dark turtleneck shirt, Oxford-gray slacks, and a pair of black-topped
rope-soled cloth-covered Persian footwear somewhere between shoes and bedroom slippers. Not exactly smart but suitably unobtrusive.”
Roosevelt, who had interviewed the Shah six years earlier while researching a book called
Arabs, Oil and History
and had met him again during subsequent visits to Iran, waited for the appointed hour with a handful of his agents. He thought it best not to drink, though his comrades had no such scruples. When midnight finally came, he walked through the front gate and out onto the street. A car was waiting. He climbed into the back seat.
Nothing stirred on the streets as Roosevelt was driven toward the stately palace. As his car began to climb the hill on which the palace sits, he decided that he should duck out of sight. His hosts had thoughtfully left a folded blanket on the car seat, and he put it to good use, lying down on the floor and pulling it over him.
There was no trouble at the sentry’s gate, just a perfunctory wave. The car continued on for a few moments and then pulled to a stop well short of the palace’s broad limestone steps. Roosevelt pulled off his blanket and sat up. A slim figure was walking down the steps toward him. The man, whom he recognized immediately as the Shah, approached his car, opened the door, and slid in beside him. Discreetly, the driver withdrew into the shadows.
“Good evening, Mr. Roosevelt,” the monarch said, extending his hand. “I cannot say that I expected to see you, but this is a pleasure.”
Roosevelt told the Shah that he was in Iran on behalf of the American and British secret services, and that this would be confirmed by a code word the Shah would be able to hear on the BBC the next night. Churchill had arranged that the BBC would end its broadcast day by saying not “It is now midnight,” as usual, but “It is now
midnight.” Such assurances were hardly necessary, the Shah replied. The two men understood each other.
Still, however, the Shah was hesitant to join the plot. He was no adventurer, he told Roosevelt, and could not take the chances of one. Roosevelt’s tone sharpened. He told the Shah that leaving Mossadegh in power would “lead only to a Communist Iran or to a second Korea,” which Western leaders were not prepared to accept. To avoid it, they had approved a plot to overthrow Mossadegh—and, incidentally, to increase the power of the Shah. He must embrace it within a few days; if he refused, Roosevelt would leave the country and devise “some other plan.”
The Shah made no direct reply. Let them meet again the following night, he suggested. Then he turned to open the car door. Before stepping out into the darkness, he looked back at Roosevelt and said, “I am glad to welcome you once again to my country.”
From then on, Roosevelt met with the Shah almost every midnight, entering the palace compound under the same blanket in the back seat of the same car. Before and after each session, he conferred with his Iranian operatives. When local police became suspicious of the villa he was using, he stopped conducting business there and devised another way to hold his conferences. He obtained a Tehran taxi, and at appointed times he would drive it to a quiet corner, always with the “On Call” sign showing. There he would park and begin walking until one or another of his agents, usually hyperactive and pumped on the adrenaline of the operation, picked him up in a Chrysler or a Buick. They planned their day-to-day tactics while careening through the hilly outskirts of town.
In his conversations with the Shah, Roosevelt said he had at his disposal “the equivalent of about $1 million” and several “extremely competent, professional organizers” who could “distribute pamphlets, organize mobs, keep track of the opposition—you name it, they’ll do it.” He described Operation Ajax as based on “four lines of attack.” First, a campaign in mosques, the press, and the streets would undermine Mossadegh’s popularity. Second, royalist military officers would deliver the decree dismissing him. Third, mobs would take control of the streets. Fourth, General Zahedi would emerge triumphantly and accept the Shah’s nomination as prime minister.
It was an appealing but not entirely convincing plan, and the Shah continued to agonize. His mood turned to what Roosevelt called “stubborn irresolution.” But it was “hopeless to proceed without the Shah,” Roosevelt cabled to his CIA superiors, so he continued turning up the pressure. Finally, inevitably, the Shah’s resistance broke. He agreed to sign the
as the royal decrees were called, but only on condition that he be allowed to leave Tehran for some safer place immediately afterward.
Mohammad Reza Shah had never been known as a courageous man, so this latest show of prudence did not surprise Roosevelt. The two men decided that the safest place for the Shah to hide was a hunting lodge that the royal family maintained near Ramsar on the Caspian coast. There was an airstrip nearby, which the Shah found reassuring.
“If by any horrible chance things go wrong,” he indelicately told Roosevelt, “the Empress and I will take our plane straight to Baghdad.”
The two men met for the last time in the predawn of August 9. Before bidding the Shah farewell, Roosevelt felt it correct to thank him for his decision to cooperate, reluctant though it had been. This was a historic moment, and something beyond the ordinary was appropriate. Roosevelt came up with a wonderful way to embellish his message.
“Your Majesty, I received earlier this evening a cable from Washington,” he prevaricated. “President Eisenhower had asked that I convey to you this word: ‘I wish Your Imperial Majesty godspeed. If the Pahlavis and the Roosevelts working together cannot solve this little problem, then there is no hope anywhere. I have complete faith that you will get this done.’”
It was agreed that a CIA courier would bring the vital
to the palace early the next morning. The Shah would sign them and then fly immediately to his refuge at Ramsar. All seemed perfectly arranged.
When Roosevelt returned to his villa with the good news, he and his agents celebrated with an exuberant drinking binge. He finally made it to bed at five o’clock. A few hours later he was awakened by the cursing of an aide. There had been a last-minute failure. The courier who was to obtain the Shah’s signature had turned up late at the palace. When he arrived, the royal couple was gone.
Whether this was a simple missed connection or a last-minute attempt by the Shah to run from signing the
Roosevelt was determined that it not be allowed to upset his plan. These
played an indispensable role in the coup he had designed. They provided not just a fig leaf of legality but the operation’s central organizing principle. If the Shah was not in Tehran to sign them, they would have to be brought to wherever he was.
The man best equipped to help at this moment, Roosevelt quickly realized, was Colonel Nasiri of the Imperial Guard. He was a strong royalist, could find and fly a plane, and was on intimate terms with the Shah. The arrangements were quickly made, and this time the connection worked. Nasiri flew to Ramsar, obtained the Shah’s scribbled signature on both
and then, because bad weather prevented him from taking off, sent them to Tehran by car.
Roosevelt and his comrades spent the day waiting impatiently around their pool, with no idea of what was taking Nasiri so long. When night fell, they took to smoking, playing cards, and drinking vodka with lime. Tehran was under a nine o’clock curfew, but after that hour passed, they still hoped someone would turn up. It was almost midnight when they heard shouts at the gate. They ran to open it. Outside was a small throng of unshaven and very excited Iranians, most of whom they did not recognize. They pushed a packet to Roosevelt, who opened it gingerly. Inside were the two
duly signed by His Imperial Majesty.
After jubilantly embracing his new friends, Roosevelt considered how quickly he could now move. He was much dismayed when his agents told him there would have to be one more delay. The weekend, which Iranians observe on Thursday and Friday, was about to begin, and Iranians do not like to conduct business, much less overthrow governments, on weekends. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to postpone the coup until Saturday night, August 15.
Confident of their plan but acutely aware that each passing hour increased the chance of betrayal, Roosevelt and his comrades spent three excruciating days at poolside. Saturday was the hardest to bear because the moment of truth was so near. Roosevelt later wrote that on that day, time moved “more slowly than anything we had ever before lived through.”
By now Roosevelt had moved his command post to a basement in the American embassy compound. His Iranian agents visited him less frequently, but they were busier than ever at their subversive work, as a CIA report on the coup makes clear:
At this same time the psychological campaign against Mossadegh was reaching its climax. The controllable press was going all out against Mossadegh, while [DELETED] under station direction was printing material which the station considered to be helpful. CIA agents gave serious attention to alarming the religious leaders at Tehran by issuing black propaganda in the name of the [Communist] Tudeh party, threatening these leaders with savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh. Threatening phone calls were also made to them, in the name of the Tudeh, and one of several sham bombings of the houses of these leaders was carried out.
The word that the Shah would support direct action in his behalf spread rapidly through the “colonel’s conspiracy” fostered by the station. Zahedi saw station principal agent, Colonel [DELETED], and named him as liaison officer with the Americans and as his choice to supervise the staff planning for the action….
On 14 August the station cabled that upon the conclusion of TPAJAX the Zahedi government, in view of the empty treasury of the country, would be in urgent need of funds. The sum of $5,000,000 was suggested, and CIA was asked to produce this sum almost within hours after the conclusion of the operation.
Now, in the words of that CIA report, “there was nothing that either the station or Headquarters could do except wait for action to begin.” When dusk finally began falling over Tehran on August 15, Roosevelt climbed into his Hillman-Minx taxi, flipped down the “On Call” sign, and drove to a nearby safe house where his agents had gathered to await the news of victory. As vodka flowed, they sang along with records of Broadway show tunes. Their favorite was “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from the musical
Guys and Dolls.
By acclimation, they adopted it as the official Operation Ajax theme song:
They call you lady luck, but there is room for doubt;
At times you have a very un-ladylike way of running out.
You’re on this date with me, the pickings have been lush,
And yet before the evening is over you might give me the brush.
You might forget your manners, you might refuse to stay
And so the best that I can do is pray:
Luck, be a lady tonight.
As Roosevelt drove back to the American embassy later that evening, his route took him past the residence of General Riahi, the military chief of staff. He enjoyed the coincidence. If his plan worked, General Riahi would be behind bars in a few hours.