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Authors: Stephen Kinzer

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The officer Roosevelt had chosen to arrest the chief of staff and the prime minister that night, Colonel Nasiri, seemed ideal for the operation. He believed in the primacy of royal power and loathed Mossadegh. His command of the seven-hundred-man Imperial Guard gave him control of considerable resources. By successfully obtaining the vital
at a crucial moment, he seemed to have proven his reliability.

On the night of August 15, however, Nasiri was not thinking clearly enough. It was well after eleven o’clock when he arrived at General Riahi’s home and found it abandoned. He was untroubled and simply ordered his men to proceed toward Mossadegh’s residence. Unbeknownst to him, another military column was also on its way there. General Riahi had learned of the coup and sent troops to foil it.

The precise identity of the informant has never been established. Most guesses center on a military officer who belonged to a secret communist cell. There may have been more than one informant. In the end, what happened was precisely what Roosevelt feared. Too many people knew about the plot for too long. A leak was all but inevitable.

In the confusing hours around midnight, Tehran was bursting with plots and counterplots. Some rebellious officers learned of the betrayal in time to abort their missions. Others, not realizing that they were compromised, went ahead. One seized the telephone office at the bazaar. Another roused Foreign Minister Hussein Fatemi from bed and dragged him away barefoot and shouting.

The future of constitutional rule in Iran depended on which column of soldiers reached Mossadegh’s house first. Shortly before one o’clock in the morning, the rebel column drove up Kakh Street, passed the corner of Heshmatdowleh, and stopped. Here Mossadegh lived with his wife in a small apartment, part of a larger complex that his family had owned for many years. The gate was closed. Colonel Nasiri stepped out to demand entry. In his hand he held the
dismissing Mossadegh from office. Behind him stood several files of soldiers.

Colonel Nasiri had arrived too late. Moments after he appeared at the gate, several loyal commanders stepped from the shadows. They escorted him into a jeep and drove him to general staff headquarters. There General Riahi denounced him as a traitor, ordered him stripped of his uniform, and sent him to a cell. The man who was to have arrested Mossadegh was now himself a prisoner.

Roosevelt, who had no way of knowing that any of this was happening, was at his embassy command post, waiting for Colonel Nasiri to call. Tanks clattered by several times, but the telephone never rang. Roosevelt’s apprehensions deepened as dawn broke. Radio Tehran did not begin its transmissions at six o’clock as normal. Then, an hour later, it crackled to life with a burst of military music, followed by the reading of an official communiqué. Roosevelt did not speak Persian but feared the worst when he heard the announcer use the word
. Then Mossadegh himself came on the air, announcing victory over a coup attempt organized by the Shah and “foreign elements.”

The Shah, cowering at his seaside villa, was also listening. As soon as he grasped what had happened, he roused his wife and told her it was time to run. They quickly packed two small briefcases, grabbed what clothes they could carry in their arms, and walked briskly out toward their twin-engine Beechcraft. The Shah, a trained pilot, took the controls and set a course for Baghdad. After arriving there, he told the American ambassador that he “would be looking for work shortly as he has a large family and very small means outside of Iran.”

While the Shah was fleeing, military units loyal to the government were fanning out through Tehran. City life quickly returned to normal. Several conspirators were arrested and others went into hiding. A reward was offered for the capture of General Zahedi. CIA operatives made mad dashes back to the security of the American embassy or safe houses. Jubilant crowds took to the streets chanting, “Victory to the Nation!” and “Mossadegh Has Won!”

Inside his embassy compound, Roosevelt felt himself “close to despair.” He had no choice but to send a cable to Washington saying that things had gone terribly wrong. John Waller, the head of the CIA’s Iran desk, read it with great disappointment. Waller feared for the lives of his agents, and he sent Roosevelt an urgent reply. No copy of it is known to exist. According to CIA lore, it was an order that Roosevelt leave Iran immediately. Many years later, though, Waller said that it was not so categorical. Its message, he recalled, was: “If you’re in a jam, get out so you don’t get killed. But if you’re not in a jam, go ahead and do what you have to do.”

Things looked bleak for the plotters. They had lost the advantage of surprise. Several of their key agents were out of action. Their anointed prime minister, General Zahedi, was in hiding. The Shah had fled. Foreign Minister Fatemi, free after several hours in rebel custody, was making fiery speeches denouncing the Shah for his collaboration with foreign agents.

“O Traitor!” Fatemi railed before one crowd. “The moment you heard by Tehran Radio that your foreign plot had been defeated, you fled to the nearest country where Britain has an embassy!”

Operation Ajax had failed. Radio Tehran reported that the situation was “well under control,” and so it seemed. Shock waves reverberated through CIA headquarters in Washington.

Then suddenly, around midevening, Roosevelt cabled a most unexpected message. He had decided to stay in Tehran and improvise another stab at Mossadegh. The CIA had sent him to overthrow the government of Iran, and he was determined not to leave until he had done it.


Curse This Fate

Rising dramatically from the desert of southern Iran, with distant mountains adding to the majesty of the scene, the spectacular ruins of Persepolis testify to the grandeur that was Persia. This was the ceremonial and spiritual capital of a vast empire, built by Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, titans whose names still echo through history. Giant statues of winged bulls guard the Gate of All Nations, through which princes from vassal states passed once each year to pay homage to their Persian masters. The great Apadana, or Hall of Audience, where these princes knelt together before their dead sovereign, was the length of three football fields. Its roof was supported by thirty-six towering columns, some of which still stand. Two monumental staircases leading up to the hall are decorated with intricately detailed carvings depicting the annual ritual of obedience, which was held on the day of the vernal equinox. Today they offer a vivid picture of how completely Persian emperors once dominated the richest lands on earth.

The carvings show rulers of subject states filing past their supreme leader, each bearing gifts symbolizing the wealth of his province. Archaeologists have managed to identify most of them, and the very names of their cultures evoke the richness of antiquity. The warlike Elamites, who lived east of the Tigris River, bring a lion to symbolize their ferocity. Arachosians from Central Asia offer camels and rich furs, Armenians a horse and a delicately crafted vase, Ethiopians a giraffe and an elephant’s tusk, Somalis an antelope and a chariot, Thracians shields and spears, and Ionians bolts of cloth and ceramic plates. Arabs lead a camel, Assyrians a bull, Indians a donkey laden with woven baskets. All these tributes were laid before the King of Kings, a monarch whose reign spread Persian power to the edges of the known world.

Many countries in the Middle East are artificial creations. European colonialists drew their national borders in the nineteenth or twentieth century, often with little regard for local history and tradition, and their leaders have had to concoct outlandish myths in order to give citizens a sense of nationhood. Just the opposite is true of Iran. This is one of the world’s oldest nations, heir to a tradition that reaches back thousands of years, to periods when great conquerors extended their rule across continents, poets and artists created works of exquisite beauty, and one of the world’s most extraordinary religious traditions took root and flowered. Even in modern times, which have been marked by long periods of anarchy, repression, and suffering, Iranians are passionately inspired by their heritage.

Great themes run through Iranian history and shape it to this day. One is the continuing and often frustrating effort to find a synthesis between Islam, which was imposed on the country by Arab conquerors, and the rich heritage of pre-Islamic times. Another, fueled by the Shiite Muslim tradition to which most Iranians now belong, is the thirst for just leadership, of which they have enjoyed precious little. A third, also sharpened by Shiite beliefs, is a tragic view of life rooted in a sense of martyrdom and communal pain. Finally, Iran has since time immemorial been a target of foreign invaders, victim of a geography that places it astride some of the world’s most important trading routes and atop an ocean of oil, and it has struggled to find a way to live with powerful outsiders. All these strains combined in the middle of the twentieth century to produce and then destroy the towering figure of Mohammad Mossadegh.

Migrants from Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent began arriving in what is now Iran nearly four thousand years ago, pushed out by a combination of resource depletion and marauding tribes from the north and east. Among them were the Aryans, from whose name the word
is taken. The emperor who united these migrant bands for the first time was Cyrus, one of history’s most gifted visionaries and the figure who first conceived the idea of an empire based in the region known as Pars (later Fars).

After rising to power in 559 B.C., Cyrus launched a brilliant campaign that brought other leaders on the vast Iranian plateau under his sway. Some he conquered, but many he won to his side by persuasion and compromise. Today he is remembered for his conquests but also for the relative gentleness with which he treated his subjects. He understood that this was an even surer way to build a durable empire than the more common means of oppression, terror, and slaughter.

In 547 Cyrus marched into Asia Minor and captured the majestic Lydian capital of Sardis. Seven years later he subdued the other great regional power, Babylon. Over the decades that followed, he and his successors went on to more great victories, including one by Xerxes in which Macedon, Thermopylae, and Athens were taken by an army of 180,000 men, by far the largest seen in Europe up to that time. This dynasty, known as the Achaemenians, built the greatest empire of its era. By 500 B.C. it embraced the eastern Mediterranean from Greece through modern-day Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Libya and stretched eastward across the Caucasus to the banks of the Indus. Cyrus called it Persia because it sprang from his own base in Pars.

The tolerant and all-embracing approach to life and politics for which Achaemenian emperors were known sprang in part from their connection to the Zoroastrian faith, which holds that the sacred responsibility of every human being is to work toward establishing social justice on earth. Zoroastrians believe that humanity is locked in an eternal struggle between good and evil. Theirs is said to have been the first revealed religion to preach that people must face judgment after death, and that each soul will spend eternity in either paradise or perdition. According to its precepts, God makes his judgment according to how virtuous one has been in life, measured by one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. The prophet Zoroaster, later known to Europeans as Zarathustra, lived sometime between the tenth and seventh centuries B.C. in what is now northeastern Iran, and preached this creed after a series of divine visions. Zoroastrianism has had a profound effect on Persian history not simply because Cyrus used it in his audaciously successful campaign of empire-building, but because it has captured the hearts of so many believers over the course of so many centuries.

The Zoroastrian religion taught Iranians that citizens have an inalienable right to enlightened leadership and that the duty of subjects is not simply to obey wise kings but also to rise up against those who are wicked. Leaders are seen as representatives of God on earth, but they deserve allegiance only as long as they have
a kind of divine blessing that they must earn by moral behavior. To pray for it, generations of Persian leaders visited Zoroastrian temples where holy flames burned perpetually, symbolizing the importance of constant vigilance against iniquity.

Cyrus and the other kings of his line bound their vast empire together with roads, bridges, uniform coinage, an efficient system of taxation, and the world’s first long-range postal service. But eventually and inevitably, the tide of history turned against them. Their empire began to shake after Darius, Persia’s last great leader, lost the decisive Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The death blow came from no less a conqueror than Alexander, who marched into Persia in 334 B.C. and, in a rampage of destruction, sacked and burned Persepolis.

For the next ten centuries, through periods of rule by three dynasties, Persians nurtured and deepened their strong feelings of pride and nobility. They flourished by assimilating influences from the lands around them, especially Greece, Egypt, and India, reshaping them to fit within the framework of their Zoroastrian faith. In the third century A.D. they began returning to the peak of world power on a scale that recalled the glory of the early emperors, capturing Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria and pushing to the walls of Constantinople. Persian armies suffered a reverse at the hands of Byzantines in 626, but the great defeat was yet to come. A few years later, an army arose on the barren Arabian peninsula and turned toward Persia. These Arabs came armed not only with the traditional weapons of war, but with a new religion, Islam.

The invasion by the Arabs, who to the cultivated Persians seemed no more than barbarians, was a decisive turning point in the nation’s history. Persia’s fate paralleled that of many empires. Its army had been worn down by long campaigns, its leaders had slipped from what Zoroastrian priests would call the realm of light into that of darkness, and the priests themselves had become divorced from the masses. People fell into poverty as the greedy court imposed ever-increasing taxes. Tyranny tore apart the social contract between ruler and ruled that Zoroastrian doctrine holds to be the basis of organized life. By both political and religious standards, the last of the pre-Islamic dynasties in Persia, the Sassanians, lost the right to rule. The merciless logic of history dictated that it be overrun by an ascendant people fired by passionate belief in its leaders, its cause, and its faith.

Sassanian power was centered in Ctesiphon, the luxurious capital of Mesopotamia. This was not a city of stately columns like Persepolis but one bathed in excess. Its royal palace housed fabulous collections of jewels and was guarded by statuary of solid gold and silver. The centerpiece was the king’s cavernous audience hall, which featured a ninety-foot-square silk carpet depicting a flowering garden and, metaphorically, the empire’s wealth and power. Rubies, pearls, and diamonds were sewn into it with golden threads. When Arab conquerors reached Ctesiphon in 638, they looted the palace and sent the magnificent carpet to Mecca, where Muslim leaders ordered it cut to pieces to show their contempt for worldly wealth. They destroyed countless treasures, including the entire royal library. In an account of this conquest written by the tenth-century Persian poet Ferdowsi, a general laments: “Curse this world, curse this time, curse this fate / That uncivilized Arabs have come to force me to be Muslim.”

Later in the same epic, the
which is four times as long as the
and took thirty-five years to compose, Ferdowsi portrays the losing Persian commander, Rustam, lamenting the misfortune he sees ahead:

O Iran! Where are all those kings, who adorned you
With justice, equity and munificence, who decorated
You with pomp and splendor, gone?
From that date when the barbarian, savage, coarse
Bedouin Arabs sold your king’s daughter in the street
And cattle market, you have not seen a bright day, and
Have lain hid in darkness.

By the time of the Arab conquest, Persians already had long experience in assimilating foreign cultures, and whenever they did so, they shaped those cultures to their liking or took certain parts while resisting others. So it was when they were forced to adopt Islam. They had no choice but to accept Mohammad as God’s prophet and the Koran as God’s word, but over a period of centuries they fashioned an interpretation of Islam quite different from that of their Arab conquerors. This interpretation, called Shiism, is based on a particular reading of Islamic history, and it has the ingenious effect of using Islam to reinforce long-standing Iranian beliefs.

About 90 percent of the one billion Muslims in the world today identify with the Sunni tradition. Of the remainder, most are Shiites, the largest number of whom are in Iran. The split between these two groups springs from differing interpretations of who deserved to succeed the prophet Mohammad as caliph, or leader of the Islamic world, after his death in 632. Shiites believe that his legitimate successor was Ali, a cousin whom he raised from childhood and who married one of his daughters. Ali was one of those to whom Mohammad dictated his revelations, which became known as the Koran, and he once slept in Mohammad’s bed as a decoy to foil a murder plot. But another man was chosen as caliph, and soon Ali found himself in the position of a dissident. He criticized the religious establishment for seeking worldly power and diluting the purity of its spiritual inheritance. Economic discontent brought many to his side, and ultimately the conflict turned violent.

Ali was passed over twice more when caliphs died, and he devoted himself to preaching a doctrine of piety and social justice that won him many followers, especially among the lower classes. He finally won the supreme post in 656, but the conflict only intensified, and less than five years later he was assassinated while praying inside the mosque at Kufa, a Mesopotamian garrison town that was a cauldron of religious conflict. According to tradition, he knew he was to be murdered that day but refused to flee because “one cannot stop death.” After being stabbed, he cried out, “O God, most fortunate am I!”

The mantle of resistance passed to Ali’s son, Hussein, who was himself killed while leading seventy-two followers against an army of thousands in a suicidal revolt at Karbala in 680. Determined to suppress Hussein’s legacy, the authorities ordered most of his family slain afterward. His body was trampled in the mud and his severed head taken to Damascus, where Shiites believe that it continued to chant the Koran even as the caliph beat it with a stick. Retelling these stories and others about Hussein, “the lord among martyrs,” is what provokes the paroxysm of passion that spreads through Qom and other sacred Iranian cities every year on the anniversary of his death.

Hussein’s embrace of death in a sacred cause has shaped the collective psyche of Iranians. To visit Qom during the mourning that commemorates his martyrdom is to be caught up in a wave of emotion so intense that it is hard for an outsider to comprehend. Processions of men and boys dressed in black move slowly, as if in a trance, toward the gate of the main shrine. All the while, they chant funereal verses lamenting Hussein’s fate and flog themselves with metal-studded whips until their shoulders and backs are streaked with blood. In storefront mosques, holy men recount the sad tale with such passion that soon after they begin, worshipers fall prostrate with grief, weeping uncontrollably as if the most intimate personal tragedy had just crushed them. The breathtaking authenticity of this scene testifies to the success Iranian Shiites have had in formulating a set of religious beliefs that is within the Islamic tradition but still distinctly native.

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