In the sweltering late summer heat of 1953, a fifteen-year-old boy who would, a few decades and thousands of miles later, become my father, walked to his older brother’s shop near the center of Tehran, Iran. The streets of the densely-populated capital city were eerily empty. It was a Wednesday.
As he reached the edge of Baharestan Square, facing Iran’s majestic parliament building, and moved to cross the wide boulevard then called Cyrus Street, a convoy of trucks nearly ran him over. Dozens of scantily-clad young women, fists pumping in the air, filled the open cargo areas. In unison, they chanted support for the nation’s king, who had recently fled to Rome.
Three days earlier, a plot to remove the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, by dubious royal decree had failed spectacularly. But now, new payouts had been made, mobs assembled and deployed, chaos and confusion successfully sowed.
It was August 19th, or 28 Mordad on the Persian calendar. This was the final, desperate phase of Operation Ajax. Iran’s nascent democratic movement wouldn’t last the night.
In most international espionage thrillers, you’re expected to root for the spies. Their clandestine meetings, coded messages, secret plans and covert actions are presented as ingenious and courageous; their dirty deeds are justified for the greater good; their bloodied hands a reminder of what it really takes for patriots to resist tyranny, exact extrajudicial justice, and safeguard democracy and freedom. The spies in the shadows are depicted as our secret saviors, our hidden heroes. They’re drawn in our cultural narratives and national mythologies as the sexy, suave, and surreptitious agents of positive change.
The reality, of course, is quite different. Not only is truth often stranger than fiction, but when it comes to the cloak-and-dagger tales of U.S. foreign policy and spy games, it’s also far uglier, messier, and infinitely more illegal and imperial.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the U.S.- and British-backed coup d’etat that overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. Considered by many the first successful CIA-led regime change operation and Cold War victory against the advance of communism in the resource-rich Middle East, the coup toppled an embattled popular democratic movement in Iran, disemboweled constitutionalism and entrenched the absolute monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East, a graphic novel by author Mike De Seve and artist Daniel Burwen, seeks to illustrate this little-known and oft-forgotten history in highly cinematic fashion. Lines are sharp, shadows dark and stark. Colors are inked in high-contrast, while the panel perspectives are often off-kilter and skewed in Dutch angles, reminiscent not only of legendary cinematographers like Gregg Toland, Robert Burks, and Robert Krasker, but also the violent mid-1980s comic illustration of Marvel’s Mike Zeck and DC’s Dave Gibbons.
The artwork is stylized without being overwrought; accessible and attractive, yet efficient and evocative. Scenery is rendered more strikingly than the huge cast of characters themselves. Cigar smoke wafts off the pages as thickly as the omnipresent dread that lingers in the air and the cynical depravity of officials and operatives at the highest levels of the ascendant American government, the waning British Empire and the unstable Persian monarchy. Sly glances and sideways sneers signal the devious plots to back despotism over democracy, hatched everywhere from the corridors of Whitehall and the White House to the back rooms of Foggy Bottom bars and Tehran safe houses.
A CIA Coup in Graphic Form
Published by Verso Books in 2015, Operation Ajax includes an introduction and epilogue by journalist Stephen Kinzer, and is based on his book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, a popular history of the 1953 coup. The nearly 250-page paperback is the physical companion to the award-winning interactive iPad app of the same name, released by Cognito Comics to great acclaim in 2011.
Indeed, the backdrop to the Iranian coup was made for a film noir storyboard.
In 1908, two years after Iran’s first ever Constitutional Revolution, English contractor William D’Arcy struck oil under the Khuzestan sand in Western Iran. It was the first time the Middle East’s rich fuel reserves had been tapped and it changed history. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was soon founded and a pipeline laid to a new refinery at the strategic port city of Abadan on the Persian Gulf.
British corporations soon established near-monopolistic control over Persian petroleum. Iranian oil fueled the machinery of the vast British Empire, upon which the sun never set, driving its military and industrial power farther and farther. Shortly before World War I, Great Britain’s Royal Navy was modernized at the behest of and through the business dealings of then-First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and running on Iranian oil instead of UK coal.
Iranian deference to British interests was extreme. The Iranian government lacked control over its nation’s own oil industry, receiving a mere 16% of net profit from British petroleum companies. Over time, popular opposition to this exploitation grew, and the ever-entitled colonial power fought back. At one point, after being voted out of parliament, Churchill himself was even hired as a lobbyist by British oil companies to press their Middle Eastern interests to the UK government. He was successful: in 1923, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was granted exclusive rights to Iranian oil resources.
By 1925, Iran had a new king – Reza Shah Pahlavi, former commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade. Oil concession and royalty terms were renegotiated, giving Iran 25% of British proceeds. Reza Shah, however, proved increasingly disloyal to Western interests during World War II, when he sought more resource revenue by triangulating between the Allied and Axis powers. The British (and Russians) responded by invading and occupying Iran, forcing his abdication in 1941 and replacing him with his more pliant son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The move paid off in spades. By the end of the decade, the British were reaping at least $100 million a year from Iranian oil – more than what Iran had recouped in total over the past half-century.
The new Shah was the perfect puppet, but ill-equipped to deal with the rising tide of anti-colonialism, nationalism, and democratization in Iran, led by the charismatic – and at times, melodramatic – parliamentarian Mohammad Mossadegh. When Mossadegh was popularly elected by his fellow representatives (and begrudgingly appointed by Pahlavi) as Iran’s new prime minister in 1951, the young Shah and his Western backers realized they were in trouble.
Under Mossadegh’s leadership, the power of the monarch was minimized, natural resources secured, and democratic reforms implemented. In an act of brazen defiance to imperial interests, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the now-renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, after the British refused to renegotiate terms to ensure an equitable share of profits that would benefit the Iranian people.
Incredulous at the affront, the British froze Iranian assets and imposed crippling sanctions, banning all trade. The Royal Navy blockaded Iranian ports, threatening outright war if British control over Iranian oil was not restored. London even took its case against AIOC’s nationalization to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. This backfired, with the court finding in Iran’s favor. Meanwhile, English pleas for American support fell on deaf ears, as President Harry Truman refused to participate in crushing the fledgling democratic movement in Iran.
The Coup and Its Aftermath
Then, almost in the blink of an eye, things changed, putting Iran’s burgeoning independence from imperial influence in the crosshairs of one of the world’s emerging superpowers. The early 1950s saw the rise of McCarthyism and the revitalization of the right-wing in both the United States and United Kingdom. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, Churchill was again prime minister, and the Cold War was heating up, thanks in large part to Eisenhower’s appointment of a rabidly anti-Communist duo: John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and his brother Allen as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Together with the British government, the Dulles boys manufactured the notion that the populist Mossadegh government constituted an imminent Soviet threat that required immediate action. CIA operatives Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of celebrated adventurer and American president Theodore) and Don Wilbur, with approval from Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, covertly engineered a coup d’etat to oust Mossadegh, preserve the Shah’s authority, and protect Western interests. They bribed army commanders and police captains, planted anti-Mossadegh propaganda in the press and pulpit, and paid prostitutes and pimps by the truckload to shout pro-Shah messages. CIA agents and street gangs pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim clerics, bombed private homes, and rampaged through the city. The mission was codenamed TPAJAX, or Operation Ajax.
Navigating numerous setbacks and surprises, Kermit Roosevelt guided the operation to success in the eleventh hour. Mossadegh was imprisoned and eventually sentenced to lifelong house arrest. The Shah was re-installed as an absolute monarch, backed by the United States and its arms industry. American oil companies – along with French fuel giant CFP (later renamed Total), Royal Dutch Shell and, of course, the AIOC itself (renamed British Petroleum in 1954 and now known simply as BP) – claimed massive shares of Iranian oil.
The graphic novel Operation Ajax covers all this history and more, framed as the regretful, disillusioned recollections of a now-retired CIA spook haunted by his participation in the coup that changed the course of history in so many ways.
The consequences of the coup are legion. Armed with the lessons learned from the coup, the CIA spread its regime change agenda across countless other countries that dared defy American interests and geopolitical strategy, from Guatemala to Laos, Indonesia to Haiti, in the decades that followed.
By 1957, with the help of American and Israeli intelligence agencies, the Shah had established the SAVAK, a secret police force dedicated to brutal suppression of any and all dissent or opposition to his tyrannical reign.
In his Afterword to Operation Ajax, Stephen Kinzer reiterates the main thrust of All The Shah’s Men. As he wrote, after twenty-five years of dictatorship, “the Shah’s increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the explosive revolution of 1979, which brought to power a militantly anti-Western clique of mullahs.” The coup also laid the groundwork for, among other things, the United States’ support for Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Kinzer explained:
Years afterward, hostage-takers wrote memoirs explaining why they had stormed the US embassy in 1979. It was all about 1953, they explained. In 1953 Iranians had forced the Shah to flee, but CIA officers working in the embassy staged Operation Ajax to bring him back. A quarter-century later, the same Shah had been forced to flee again, and had been received in the United States. Militants overran the embassy not out of nihilism, but to prevent a repeat of Operation Ajax. Westerners didn’t realize this because we had no idea Operation Ajax had ever happened.
Setting the Record Straight on American Complicity
Despite the tireless (and tedious) efforts of agenda-driven, anti-Iran commentators to rewrite history, there is no question of ultimate responsibility when it comes to the Iranian coup. Reflecting on this episode, Eisenhower noted in his personal journal, “Throughout the crisis the United States government had done everything it possibly could to back up the Shah. Indeed, reports from observers on the spot in Teheran during the critical days sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact.” The president added that upon “the Shah’s triumphant return, I cabled him,” to extend “congratulations.”
“The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” according to the internal CIA history of the operation, entitled The Battle for Iran, written in the mid-1970s. Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA point man who orchestrated the coup, published a memoir about the operation in 1979.
Despite being one of the worst-kept secrets in the history of covert operations, the full story has yet to be revealed, despite episodic British and U.S. government declassifications of critical documents.
Malcolm Byrne of The George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a nongovernmental transparency project, has reiterated that the State Department is still “declining to publish the relevant volume [regarding the coup] in its venerable series, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the ‘official documentary historical record’ of U.S. foreign policy.”
“There is no longer good reason to keep secrets about such a critical episode in our recent past. The basic facts are widely known to every school child in Iran,” Byrne has pointed out. “Suppressing the details only distorts the history, and feeds into myth-making on all sides.”
Nevertheless, based as it is on available open-source evidence, Operation Ajax is a welcome corrective to the mainstream’s ubiquitous ignorance of U.S.-Iranian history, “a blow against that historical amnesia,” as Kinzer has called it.
Dichotomies and Drawbacks
Though colorfully drawn, the story is fairly black and white. It is a veritable hagiography for Mossadegh, who is presented as a nearly superhuman anti-imperial hero. His habit of holding court in pajamas, along with his infamous fits and faints, add flavor to his character. But the graphic novel never depicts Mossadegh as anything but noble and righteous. His opponents, on the other hand, are painted as invariably vainglorious and villainous, and perhaps rightly so. The dichotomy is stark. It’s clear whose side the authors are on. This isn’t necessarily a drawback, however, as it is indeed refreshing and rare to see American and British statesmen and spies so harshly rendered.
Despite this admirable effort to fill gaps in the historical record and illuminate the truth, throughout the book, there is a frustrating crisis of credibility and, perhaps even authority, due to a number of seemingly small, but intellectually egregious, errors.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran – the antagonist of the story, the puppet of Western powers and private interests, the preening playboy, the foil to Mossadegh’s principled pathos and passion – is referred to in the dramatis personae and throughout the book as “Reza Pahlavi.” This is no minor copy-editing oversight; this confuses the Shah with his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who is referred to in Operation Ajax only as “Reza Khan.”
Here’s the problem: Khan is not an Iranian surname and it surely wasn’t Reza’s. Rather, it was an honorific often associated with military rank, akin in English to the title “Sir.” In fact, Iranians had no surnames until 1919, when the acquisition of a last name was mandated by the government. (That’s why so many Iranian surnames reflect piety – like Mohammadi – or places of origin – Tehrani, Esfahani, Shirazi, Khomeini.)
When Reza ascended to the throne after leading a military coup that overthrew the 140-year-old Qajar dynasty in 1925, he took the title Shah and aristocratic surname Pahlavi, thus ridding himself of the pedestrian trappings of his lower-class background. So intent was Reza Shah on reinventing himself that, during his reign as monarch, anyone overheard referring to him as “Reza Khan” risked being beaten, arrested, or worse. Indeed, “Khan” was used by his critics (namely the religious working-class ignored by his modernization schemes and disgusted by the rampant corruption), as a derisive epithet along with the dismissive taunt “stable boy.”
Referring to Reza Shah Pahlavi as “Reza Khan” and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as “Reza Shah” is not merely sloppy (like the book’s misspelling of Mohammad with a very un-Persian “e”), it unfortunately demonstrates a certain lack of mastery of the material and familiarity with its subjects. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the comic-style storyboard intro to the Oscar-winning film Argo made the same mistake.)
Beyond this, Operation Ajax suffers most when it tries to do too much. The scope of history it recounts is wide, the cast extensive, and the web of context, accomplices, interests, intrigue, and entanglements is unwieldy. While most characters are readily recognizable from chapter to chapter, others are not as deftly drawn – in ink or personality – and mixing them up and losing the thread becomes frustratingly easy to do.
In a way, publishing Operation Ajax in print is a step backwards, as much is lost in translation from the tablet to the coffee table. A triumph of interactive technology, the original 2011 iPad application was beautiful and haunting, rich with meticulous detail drawn not only from Kinzer’s book, but also backed-up by original source material, historical newsreels, period photography, character dossiers, and declassified documents, all readily accessible with the flick of a finger. Sound effects, music, and animation enhanced the storytelling experience, helping history come alive as something not only annotated, but immersive, astonishing and calamitous. On paper, unfortunately, the tale appears confined to the annals of foreign policy, as a historical comic rather than a historic tragedy.
Learning from History
Correcting the historical record, in order to learn from the past and make informed decisions for the future, is more necessary now than ever before. False narratives continue to permeate our politics, while the willfully ignorant and viciously ideological wield more and more power. Bluster and bullying reign; reductive and regressive reactionaries envision and enact reckless policies that will reverberate for generations to come.
And history, even if it doesn’t precisely repeat, still rhymes. Take, for instance, the dangers posed by the new American administration. Mike Pompeo, who is positioned to become CIA director, is a far-right, Islamophobic religious fanatic who opposes any diplomacy with Iran and favors overthrowing the country’s government. As reported by the Huffington Post, this past summer, Pompeo demanded that “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” The new national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, is an anti-Iran ideologue who actually told a House subcommittee in 2015 that he supported regime change in Iran because “we, the United States of America, must comprehend that evil doesn’t recognize diplomacy.” Other administration advisers, like John Bolton, have been calling for regime change for decades, encouraging airstrikes and supporting exiled terrorist groups.
On his very first full day in office, Trump addressed three hundred CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”There is nobody who feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” he told the crowd, adding, “I am so behind you. I am with you one thousand percent.” Opining on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, Trump lamented the missed opportunity for imperial plunder. “To the victor belong the spoils,” he declared. “We should have kept the oil.”
“Maybe,” he said, “we’ll have another chance,” suggesting that a re-invasion and full scale theft of Middle Eastern natural resources might yet be on the table.
Trump concluded his remarks by telling the CIA, “I love you. I respect you. We’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to be leading the charge.”
The history and repercussions of the 1953 coup persist today. If the release of Operation Ajax as a print comic will expose a wider audience to this little known but seminal episode, that’s certainly a good thing. Of course, the book probably won’t grace the president’s gilded bedside table any time soon. With Barack Obama out of the Oval Office, U.S.-Iran relations are likely to become fraught again, and whatever minute progress made over the past few years will surely dissipate. And perhaps that is what makes this graphic novel even more important now. It is vital not only to admit the mistakes of our past, as Malcolm Byrne suggests in Politico, “on the basis of historical fact rather than self-serving partisan invention,” but also to correct them. Operation Ajax is a step in the right direction, even if the strokes with which it’s drawn are, at times, a bit too broad.