Authors: Stephen Kinzer
As the morning wore on, crowds surging out of Tehran’s southern slums filled the air with chants of “Death to Mossadegh!” and “Long live the Shah!” Hundreds of soldiers joined in, some of them in trucks or atop tanks. So did tribesmen from outside the city, mobilized by chiefs who had been paid by Kermit Roosevelt’s agents. Groups of rioters attacked and burned eight government buildings and the offices of three pro-government newspapers, including one,
that was owned by Foreign Minister Fatemi. Others attacked the foreign ministry, the general staff headquarters, and the central police station. They raked all three buildings with gunfire and were met with withering volleys in return. Men fell by the dozen.
Roosevelt’s agents kept bringing him good news. Late in the morning, one of them reported that the “huge mob” had occupied every one of the city’s main squares. Another told him that the garrison commander in Kermanshah, four hundred miles to the west, had joined the cause and was leading his men toward the capital. A squad led by Ali Jalili captured the military police headquarters and freed plotters who had been arrested after Saturday’s coup attempt. Among them was Colonel Nasiri, who immediately began marshaling his Imperial Guard to help the insurgents.
Some of the tens of thousands of people who took over the streets that day had always opposed Mossadegh for one reason or another. Others were former supporters who had turned against him during the political conflict of recent months. Many were what the
New York Times
called “bazaar thugs and bully-boys” who had no political convictions at all and marched because they had been paid a good day’s wage to do so.
“That mob that came into north Tehran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob,” asserted Richard Cottam, who was on the Operation Ajax staff in Washington. “It had no ideology, and that mob was paid with American dollars.”
Mobs, however, need leadership to be effective, and while gang leaders like Shaban the Brainless were big and strong, they were by no means clever. Most of the leaders who emerged over the course of that Wednesday were midranking military officers. Like their civilian counterparts, they were a mixture of the committed and the suborned. A goodly number had been persuaded to join the coup by the authority of the
naming Zahedi as prime minister. If the Shah had spoken, they reasoned, the army was bound to obey.
These soldiers lent the uprising an air of legality. They also brought considerable firepower, including tanks and artillery, and they led the attacks on many government buildings. Without their moral authority and combat skills, the coup might well have failed.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan when, just before midday, the door to Roosevelt’s command post burst open. He looked up, in hope of seeing another agent with reports from the front line, but instead saw his radio operator, distraught and on the verge of tears. In his hand he held an urgent message from Beedle Smith in Washington. Smith had sent it twenty-four hours earlier, but there had been a delay passing it through the relay station in Cyprus. It was another order, in stronger language than the two previous ones, for Roosevelt to flee immediately.
This message could not have arrived at a more absurdly inappropriate moment. Roosevelt, who could sense that victory was at hand, broke out laughing when he read it. “Never mind, chum,” he told the confused radio man. “Buried underground as you are, you have no way of knowing. But the tide has turned! Things are going our way! Right will triumph! All for the best, in the best of all possible worlds!”
Roosevelt sent the radio man back to his burrow with a reply for General Smith. It said: “Yours of 18 August received. Happy to report R. N. Ziegler [Zahedi] safely installed and KGSAVOY [the Shah] will be returning to Tehran in triumph shortly. Love and kisses from all the team.”
That was, of course, premature, but it reflected the supreme confidence that Roosevelt now felt. By his own account, he was “grinning from ear to ear.” He had not eaten a proper meal in days and suddenly he felt hungry. An acquaintance of his who was a counselor to Ambassador Henderson maintained a home in the embassy compound, and he strolled over for lunch and a drink.
Outside, Tehran was in upheaval. Cheers and rhythmic chants echoed through the air, punctuated by the sound of gunfire and exploding mortar shells. Squads of soldiers and police surged past the embassy gate every few minutes. Yet Roosevelt’s host and his wife were paragons of discretion, asking not a single question about what was happening.
A radio was on. Although the announcer was reading nothing more interesting than grain prices, Roosevelt listened carefully. He had sent one of his Iranian teams to storm the station. If things went well, the programming would soon change.
As the three Americans ate in silence, the radio announcer started speaking ever more slowly, as if he were falling asleep. After a time, he stopped altogether. Obviously something unusual was happening at the station. Roosevelt smiled knowingly at his baffled luncheon partners. There were several minutes of dead air, followed by the sounds of men arguing. “It doesn’t matter who reads it, the important thing is that it be read!” one finally shouted with an air of authority. Then, in loudly emotional tones, he began shouting what Roosevelt called “well-intended lies, or pre-truths.”
“The government of Mossadegh has been defeated!” the man cried. “The new prime minister, Fazlollah Zahedi, is now in office. And His Imperial Majesty is on his way home!”
Roosevelt did not recognize the voice—an army officer had beaten his agent to the microphone—but the message was just as he had wished: “The government of Mossadegh was a government of rebellion, and it has fallen.” Roosevelt rose from the table, thanked his hosts for their hospitality, and withdrew.
It was shortly after two o’clock as Roosevelt made his way back to the command post. His comrades, who had also been listening to Radio Tehran, were in ecstasy. When Roosevelt appeared, they looked up, and for a silent moment all shared the delicious realization that the day was theirs. A moment later they were dancing around the narrow room. Roosevelt remembered them “literally bubbling over with joy.”
What should they do next? One agent, surmising that the mob was now at its peak of enthusiasm, suggested that it was time to produce Zahedi. Roosevelt said no, it was still too soon.
“There is nothing to be gained by rushing,” he said. “Let’s wait till the crowd gets to Mossadegh’s house. That should be a good moment for our hero to make his appearance.”
Military units led by anti-Mossadegh officers had already begun converging on the house. Inside, loyal soldiers built fortifications and prepared for battle. They were armed with rifles, machine guns, and Sherman tanks mounted with 75-millimeter cannons. Late in the afternoon the assault began. Defenders beat back wave after wave, leaving the sidewalks littered with bodies. Then, after an hour of one-sided combat, the assailants gave a great cheer. Friendly army units had arrived with tanks of their own. A close-quarters artillery duel soon broke out. Operation Ajax was approaching its climax.
Once Roosevelt learned that the assault had begun, he decided to fetch General Zahedi from the hideout where he had been closeted for two days. Before leaving, he summoned General Guilanshah, who, like Zahedi, was at a CIA safe house impatiently awaiting instructions. Roosevelt asked the general to find a tank and bring it to Zahedi’s hideout. He scribbled the address on a scrap of paper and then drove there himself.
When Roosevelt arrived, Zahedi was sitting in a basement room wearing only underwear. He was thrilled to hear that his moment had finally come. As he was buttoning the tunic of his dress uniform, there was a rumble outside. General Guilanshah had arrived with two tanks and a cheering throng.
In later years, perhaps inevitably given his grandfather’s fame as a swashbuckler, a story took hold that Roosevelt had ridden triumphantly atop the lead tank as it crashed through the streets of Tehran toward Mossadegh’s house. In fact, Roosevelt realized as soon as he heard the crowd accompanying General Guilanshah that he should not even be seen in Zahedi’s presence. As the door to the basement burst open, he jumped into a small cavity behind the furnace. From there, he watched the jubilant crowd embrace Zahedi, lift him high, and carry him out.
After the column departed, Roosevelt crept out of his hiding place, walked back to his car, and drove through the tumultuous streets toward the embassy. There he and his aides toasted impending victory. “Actually, to all intents and purposes it was no longer impending but won,” he wrote afterward. “Our colonel from the west [Kermanshah] would not reach Tehran until evening, but the rumor of his movement had given us all we needed. The actual arrival of his troops simply added more enthusiasm to a town already drunk with victory.”
The tank on which Zahedi was riding turned first toward Radio Tehran. There, surrounded by delirious admirers, he made his way toward the upstairs studio. It had been decided that martial music should be played before Zahedi spoke to the nation, and one of Roosevelt’s agents had brought along a likely-looking record from the embassy library. As Zahedi approached, a technician played the first song. To everyone’s embarrassment, it turned out to be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Another, more anonymous tune was quickly chosen and played. Zahedi then stepped to the microphone. He declared himself “the lawful prime minister by the Shah’s order” and promised that his new regime would do everything good: build roads, provide free health care, raise wages, and guarantee both freedom and security. About oil he said nothing at all.
Military and police units loyal to Zahedi were taking control of Tehran. One seized the telegraph office and sent messages across the country declaring that Mossadegh had been deposed. Another found and captured General Riahi, the army chief of staff. Several joined the battle outside Mossadegh’s home.
At this moment, completely unaware of these events, the dejected Mohammad Reza Shah was dining at his Rome hotel, accompanied by his wife and two aides. Suddenly, a handful of news correspondents burst into the dining room, pushed their way to the Shah’s table, and thrust wire service reports from Tehran into his hands. At first he was incredulous. “Can it be true?” he blurted. The color drained from his face. His hands began shaking violently. Finally he jumped to his feet.
“I knew it!” he cried out. “I knew it! They love me!”
Empress Soraya, less moved, rose and placed her hand on her husband’s arm to steady him. “How exciting,” she murmured.
After the shock passed, the Shah regained his composure. He turned to the correspondents and told them, “This is not an insurrection. Now we have a legal government. General Zahedi is premier. I appointed him.” After a pause he added, “Ninety-nine percent of the population is for me. I knew it all the time.”
Still in something of a daze, the young monarch made his way to the hotel lounge, where a throng of reporters and curious tourists was gathering. His first desire, he told them, was to return home. “It is a cause of grief to me that I did not play an important part in my people’s and my army’s struggle for freedom and, on the contrary, was away and safe,” he said. “But if I left my country, it was solely because of my anxiety to avoid bloodshed.”
Although the coup was now on the brink of success, Mossadegh still resisted. As fighting raged around his house, he sat with remarkable calm in his bedroom. Bodyguards had covered most of the window with a steel plate, so he could hear but not see what was happening outside. When his personal aide, Ali Reza Saheb, urged him to flee, he shook his head and replied, “If it’s going to happen, if it’s going to be a coup d’etat, I think it is better that I stay in this room and I die in this room.”
The attackers outside felt momentum on their side. They had heard Zahedi proclaim his victory over the radio, and they knew that a friendly column of soldiers from Kermanshah was approaching. As ammunition supplies inside the house began to dwindle, they tightened their circle.
Loyal military officers might have rushed to defend Mossadegh if they had known what was happening. They did not, largely because General Riahi, who would have called them into action, was under arrest. Before being arrested, however, Riahi managed to call his deputy, General Ataollah Kiani, who commanded the Ishrat Abad barracks in what was then an outlying Tehran neighborhood. Kiani immediately ordered an infantry battalion and a tank battalion to assemble and follow him toward the city center. Before he had gone far, he ran into a rebel column commanded by General Daftary. Of the two men, Daftary was by far the more sophisticated and persuasive.
“We are colleagues and brothers, all faithful to the Shah,” he told Kiani. “We should not fire at each other.”
After a few more minutes of honeyed words, Kiani was won over. The two generals and their aides embraced in what Iranians call a “kissing party.” Kiani’s men, who might have saved Mossadegh, returned to their barracks.
Fighting at Mossadegh’s house raged for two hours. After the firing from inside stopped, a platoon of soldiers stormed in. They found the house empty. Mossadegh had escaped at the last moment, pushed over a back garden wall by fleeing aides. Officers poked around the house for an hour or so, packed the best pieces of Mossadegh’s furniture onto waiting trucks, and drove off. They had chased the old man away, and even though they did not have him, they knew they had done well.
As the victorious soldiers melted into the night, rioters who had cheered them on swarmed into the house to loot and destroy. Some set fires. Others pulled doors, windows, and appliances onto the sidewalk and began selling them, haggling over prices as flames lit up the night behind them. Mossadegh’s refrigerator went for the equivalent of thirty-six dollars.
Back at the embassy compound, the handful of covert agents who had planned the coup were, in Roosevelt’s words, “full of jubilation, celebration, and occasional totally unpredictable whacks on the back as one or the other of us was suddenly overcome with enthusiasm.” Diplomats on the embassy staff looked on curiously. They asked nothing and Roosevelt told them nothing.