‘Operation Ajax’ Illustrates How the CIA Destroyed Democracy in Iran

The extent of US involvement in undermining Middle Eastern democracy is gradually coming to light, and being told through a variety of genres.

The US role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leadership and reinstalled the country’s autocratic monarch (Shah Reza Pahlavi) has been much disputed over the years. The gradual emergence of previously classified CIA documents have helped to reveal the scale – and depravity – of US involvement, although much still remains classified and up for debate. According to James Risen’s investigation into the coup published in The New York Times in 2000, CIA operatives “pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim leaders with savage punishment if they opposed [Iranian prime minister] Mossadegh, seeking to stir anti-Communist sentiment in the religious community… the house of at least one prominent Muslim was bombed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists.” (“The C.I.A. in Iran“, by James Risen)

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, was the farthest thing from a Communist, but painting him as reliant on Communist support was pivotal to turning public support against him and to building support at home in the US for his overthrow. But to what end? Why did the US turn from a supporter of Iranian democracy under President Truman, to plotting its destruction and imposing a dictatorship under President Eisenhower? Was it simply a paranoid (and wholly inaccurate) fear of Communism? Was it the ambitious, power-seeking aspirations of US intelligence agencies, keen on building their power-base and budgets by engineering the perception of fake threats to the US? Was it US corporate desire to control Iranian oil, in the face of efforts by Iran’s democratic government to nationalize its own resources (long plundered by western countries)?

Even those involved in the coup at the time – some of them still today unrepentant champions of US imperialism – disagree. What most scholars do agree on is that the moment was a fatal one for America’s relationship with the Middle East. In the words of US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed. We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.”

Historical Re-enactments

Daniel Burwen and Mike De Seve’s Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East offers a graphic novel presentation of this history, introduced by journalist and historian Stephen Kinzer, on whose bestselling study, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, the graphic novel is in part based.

The story, as presented in this telling, is a poignant and bittersweet one. Following the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908, the British moved quickly to secure control over the turbulent and divided nation, propping up and securing its influence over the nation’s monarch, the Shah (Reza Khan). Their primary goal was to ensure British control over oil supplies, which had now become of strategic importance for fuelling military and commercial interests across the modernizing world.

When the Shah began acting unreliably – demanding greater resource wealth and playing the Allies against the Nazis during the Second World War — Britain promptly invaded and engineered his abdication in favour of his more pliable son, Reza Pahlavi. This helped ensure continued British control over Iranian oil.

What the British were ill-prepared to contend with, however, was the reformist politician Mohammed Mossadegh and his supporters, keen on modernizing and democratizing Iran along the lines of other decolonizing nations. Mossadegh opposed both the autocratic rule of the Shah and the immense quantities of resource wealth pouring out of Iran and into British coffers, and under his leadership Iranian civil society flexed its muscles and fought for change. More and more political power was gradually wrested out of the hands of the Shah – reducing the monarchy to a symbolic figurehead – and democratizing the country, arousing the ire of the British in the process.

Britain’s efforts to crush the fledgling democratic movement backfired spectacularly, and without support in the region – the US under President Truman refused to help, despite Britain’s pleas – the British were gradually forced out. Determined to protect their commercial interests, they established a blockade and leveled devastating sanctions against the country, which only achieved the result of destabilizing the country’s nascent political institutions.

Meanwhile, a confluence of events in the US – the election of President Eisenhower, the rise of McCarthyism and intensification of the Cold War, the appointment of the rabidly pro-corporate, pro-imperialist, anti-communist Dulles brothers to positions of prominence in the new US administration and their expansion of intelligence agencies like the CIA – led the US to begin taking a more active role in the geopolitical situation. Seeking ways to further the growth of their own power and influence, the Dulles brothers entered into alliance with the British and engineered a fake Communist threat in Iran in order to push the US government toward intervention in support of British efforts to overthrow Iran’s democracy and re-install the Shah.

The result of these efforts was Operation Ajax: a coup organized around the overthrow of Mossadegh’s government with the support of corrupt military units and Islamic activists like the Ayatollah Kashani (predecessor to the Ayatollah Khomeini), many of whom were bribed by US agents.

Operation Ajax offers a riveting narrative that is at times hagiographic in its treatment of Mossadegh. Like any political leader, the man was not without controversy, but his fate as a victim of US and British conspiracy guaranteed him a martyr status which lingers to this day in the Middle East. Deservedly so: his consummate skills as a politician and diplomat steered Iran well on the road to modern and democratic reforms, failing only in the face of combined US and British determination – and budgets – to overthrow his elected government. The complicated story is presented with a fervent passion and attention to detail, and from the perspective of several of the key actors. It’s an excellent introduction to an important moment in the history of both Iran and the West.

Reflections on the Historical Genre in Graphic Novels

The graphic novel form offers useful advantages for historical storytelling. The use of snapshots to illustrate key thematic turning-points in a sequence of historical events, and the visual reinforcement of history as a teleological sequence of events leading to an inevitable outcome, are reinforced by the integration of art and prose. In graphic novels, unlike written histories, it’s accepted and even expected that the telling is by nature a partial one; omissions are stock of the trade.

Unlike written histories – popular and academic alike – the question with graphic novel histories becomes not ‘What did you leave out?’ but ‘What do you put in?’ In other words, graphic novels are not merely an abbreviated version of history in which history is told from a particular perspective because there’s no other way to do it. Rather, graphic novels reinforce an approach to history and historical story-telling which is polemical – unabashedly so. Operation Ajax is not a history of Iran in which the possible motivations and varying interpretations for historical events are presented and weighted for the reader to judge; this is a history of how Britain and the US colluded with self-serving elites to destroy Iranian democracy.

An unabashedly polemical telling like this isn’t wrong; it’s refreshing. In graphic novel histories, interpretations of historical events are conveyed as much by the glint in a character’s eye, the smirk on their face, as by the more prosaic layering of evidence that would build a case in academic prose histories. Indeed, it’s possible to convey possibilities and arguments using this method in ways that prose cannot. Characters can be constructed in far more complex ways than prose non-fiction histories often allow. A simple sequence of facial sketches – furrowed brows, sweaty foreheads, anguished looks – can depict the complexity of a historical actor with even greater nuance than historical prose offers, and in far less space. It is this combination of visual cues with historical narration that forms the strength of the historical genre in graphic novels.

But it comes at a price. Telling history through graphic narrative, necessarily told through particular and specific perspectives – can render it difficult to depict the broader historical sequence and backdrop. Difficult, but not impossible. Shigeru Mizuki is a master of this art. In his multi-volume history of Showa-era Japan, the narrative focuses on specific characters but is always interspersed with broader historical narration told from an omniscient perspective. However, Showa runs to the thousands of pages, and several volumes (the original Japanese version was 13 volumes; the English translation has been envisaged as four large collections). In a single book, it’s harder to do this.

This reveals a growing problem with the historical graphic novel genre. As graphic novel histories become more commonplace – and perhaps more commercially desirable – the single volume history is also becoming more commonplace. This is a problem, insofar as there is a growing tendency to render incredibly complex historical periods in single volumes. This doesn’t do justice to the genre. While beautiful single-volume histories have been produced, they often focus on much smaller, specialized events. Depicting the modern history of Iran in a single volume is much more difficult.

The most successful historical graphic novels covering broad periods or complex events are those which approach them as extended, multi-volume series. A good example, again, is Mizuki’s Showa, in which a chronologically short segment of the overall series – World War Two – encompasses no less than three volumes and over 1,000 pages. Likewise, Jason Lutes’ Berlin, depicting the rise of Nazism in Weimar-era Berlin, has been envisaged as a trilogy of graphic novels, allowing for character development in addition to (and in support of) the telling of an important history (sadly, only the first two collections of this excellent series have yet appeared). Congressman John Lewis is presenting his personal memoirs of the civil rights struggle, March, in a graphic novel trilogy. Osama Tezuka told the life of Buddha in 14 volumes (eight in the American translation).

This is not to say that all graphic novel histories must comprise extended series; however, it is to say that publishers need to be more open and encouraging of the format. Instead of publishing histories in single-volume format, publishers that have traditionally operated as single book publishers (for instance, academic publishers) ought to be more open to multi-volume series. The Japanese manga industry, which has been dealing in complex graphic novel histories for decades, offers a useful model. It’s a model North American and European publishers ought to be more open to.

In a single volume history of 20th century Iran up to the CIA coup, a lot does get lost and glossed over; other parts of the story can be confusing. When characters are all depicted in angular shades of grey, it can even be confusing at times to discern key historical figures from each other, especially when their appearance in the book only spans one or two chapters. A history like Operation Ajax is precisely the sort which would have benefited from being spun out into multiple volumes, enabling the historical nuances and range of characters to be developed in greater depth and complexity. All the seeds of such a telling are here – the American agents, the British agents, the oil companies, the trade union organizers, the politicians, the journalists – and seeing the characters fleshed out in greater detail would have done even greater justice to the complexity of Iranian society during this pivotal historical period. In a single volume, these different angles and perspectives can sometimes appear rushed and disjointed.

That said, Operation Ajax is still an absorbing and important book, and despite its overly ambitious gambit of telling this complex story in a single volume, it’s well constructed and achieves its aim with a satisfying sense of virtuosity. It’s an excellent introduction to this pivotal moment in modern history, and an important contribution to a fraught historical record.