The Iranian Shah and Underestimating Islam: A Case Study in Failed Puppetry

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Some of us will be familiar with, even if not by name, Operation Cyclone; it was the CIA operation that armed and trained the Mujahideen in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The operation was successful in its primary objective, to help drive the USSR out of Afghanistan and therefore reduce or eliminate the communist threat in the Middle East. Many more of us will be familiar with the events of September 11th 2001, yet unaware of the link between Operation Cyclone and the World Trade Center bombings. The progression from the former to the latter is one of many examples of the ‘blowback’ effect of unintended consequences; put simply, certain cells of the US-backed mujahideen went on to establish Al Qaeda [1].

The purpose of this article is to highlight another important, and perhaps more dangerous, example of ‘blowback’ in the Middle East as a result of Western counter-communist activities in the region, that of Iran. In 1951, newly elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his parliament voted to nationalise the Iranian oil industry, much to the despair of Britain since this shut out the massive profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and diminished British political clout within the region. It took the inauguration of President Eisenhower in January 1953 for Britain to find the support of the US, whose new administration believed that Iran could become the next victim of the communist domino effect. The proposed solution was the deposition of Prime Minister Mossadegh and the restoration of full power to the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After one failed attempt, the coup d’état succeeded in August 1953; it was named Operation Ajax after the mighty Greek warrior, a fitting name in retrospect since both were violent, underestimated the power of their opponents, and were eventually brought down by their own hands.

Pahlavi proved to be an autocratic yet modernising force whom was popular amongst Western fans of the ‘Washington consensus.’ As Madeleine Albright notes, “his ‘white revolution’ won plaudits from the West for reforming education, building roads, improving health care, and expanding opportunities for women” [2]. This was a great success in the eyes of Western leaders: trade with Britain was widened, the US arms industry profited from selling all types of non-nuclear weapons to Iran, and the Iranian oil industry led to sky-high profits that funded the further modernisation of the country. Furthermore, with a Western-friendly, anti-communist regime installed in one of the Middle East’s primary powers, the West had a stabilising ally in the region; this goes some way to explain why, even during the Carter administration’s more moralistic approach to regime-support, the Shah was deemed too important to touch, while restrictions were placed on allied-yet-authoritarian governments in the Philippines, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala [2].

While Pahlavi was popular in the West, his actions and demeanour were not as widely appreciated in Iran. He was considered a puppet of the West, widely disregarded Islamic tradition both in practice and policy, repressed and heavily monitored political opposition, exiled religious leaders, and displayed extravagance paid for by corruption; all of this, along with the economic downturn in the late 1970s led to the widespread protests which heralded the Islamic Revolution in 1979. While the communist threat to Iran had significantly waned by this point, a Western-hostile state rose from the ashes of revolution; this theocracy/democracy hybrid was particularly dangerous, since the anti-Western message of the state is given both divine and electoral legitimacy.

Iran is a story of misestimating. Firstly, the overestimation of the Shah’s power; well in to 1979, the American ambassadors in Iran believed he could, and should, hold on to power. The second was an underestimation of the power of Muslim clerics and of Islam in general. Western politicians believed that Islam’s influence was waning; it was presumed that those in the Middle East were “preoccupied with the practical problems of economics and modernization” [2]. As a result, America’s support of the Shah and dismissal of opposing forces during the 1979 revolution helped foster an anti-Western sentiment amongst Iranians, and more importantly, amongst the religious leaders, those trusted with providing divine guidance to the masses. There might not be an obvious link between the deposition of Prime Minister Mossadegh and 9/11, but the installation of Pahlavi as Shah certainly watered the seeds of Islamic extremism. Not so tenuous is the segue from Operation Ajax to the current Iran, which is hostile, unpredictable, and potentially nuclear.

History, to run against Fukuyama, certainly hasn’t ended, especially when so many of the remnants of the Cold War still affect international relations today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: perhaps Iran would be more stable if the Carter administration had, in fact, required more of the Shah, or even opened talks with his political opponents in the 1970s. Perhaps this outcome was not plausible in the early 1950s, perhaps we should not expect foreign policy leaders to possess clairvoyant foresight. Operations Ajax and Cyclone gave purpose and power respectively to those who might attack the West. The best thing the West can do is learn from these fatal mistakes and not repeat them in an attempt to fix them.

Article by Alexander Titcomb. Edited by George Richards.


[1] The USA’s Role in Creating Al Qaeda:

[2] Albright, Madeleine – The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs (2006)