United States

Blood for oil

Print edition : September 20, 2013

A general view of a part of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's refinery at Abadan, showing some of the storage tanks in the foreground in a 1951 photograph. This was the centre of the vast concern that controlled the oil flowing from the wells in Iran. Muhammed Mossadegh's government was toppled after he decided to nationalise the oil company. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Mohammed Mossadegh (right) speaking to C.G.K. Reddy, visiting Rajya Sabha member from India, in Tehran shortly before he was overthrown in a military coup on August 19, 1953. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Documents discovered in 2004 reveal a joint CIA-MI6 plan approved by Dwight D. Eisenhower (left) and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (right) to overthrow the Syrian government in 1957. Photo: AP/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Duncan Sandys, who was Macmillan's Defence Secretary. The plan, whose details were found in his private papers, included the assassination of three key leaders. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Newly declassified CIA documents reveal that the CIA operated clandestine U-2 surveillance flights from an Indian base in Odisha. Photo: AP/CIA

Declassified CIA papers establish that the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 was carried out under CIA direction as part of U.S. foreign policy. The West has a similar plan in Syria.

Newly declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents have now conclusively revealed the role of American and British secret services in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran 60 years ago. Another set of unconnected declassified CIA documents released around the same time has also revealed that the CIA had operated clandestine American U-2 surveillance flights from an Indian base in Odisha. Permission to do so was given by none other than the redoubtable Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, after his meeting with the American President, John F. Kennedy. Nehru was reeling from the debacle of the 1962 war with China and, according to declassified documents accessed some years ago, had even sent two desperate letters to Kennedy asking for military help in the wake of the 1962 war.

The revelations about the secret ties between the Indian and American Intelligence agencies since the early 1960s did not get much traction in the international media. The bigger story was about the CIA’s documents that focussed on its role in ensuring regime change in Iran. The events in 1953 dramatically changed the course of history in West Asia. From the very beginning it was evident that the CIA was in the forefront of the destabilisation programme that was launched against Iran in the early 1950s after the government under Mohammed Mossadegh tried to gain full control over its energy resources. Mossadegh was overthrown in a military coup on August 19, 1953, and the Shah of Iran, who became the West’s poster boy in the region, went on to rule until 1979. A popular revolt against the Shah led to his ouster and the Islamic Republic took the place of the despised monarchy. Mossadegh was a secular nationalist with strong ties with the Iranian “Tudeh” Left Party.

According to the declassified document, the Western media had, at the CIA’s instigation, demonised Mossadegh as an “unstable, intemperate and unreliable” ally of the West in the Cold War. The internal CIA documents tell the real story. “The target of this policy of operation, Muhammad Mossadeq [ sic] was neither a mad man nor an emotional bundle of senility as he was so often pictured in the foreign press; however he had become so committed to the ideals of nationalism that he did things that could not have conceivably helped his people even in the best and most altruistic of worlds. In refusing to bargain—except on his own uncompromising terms—with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, he was in fact defying the professional politicians of the British government. These politicians believed with good reason that cheap oil for Britain and high profits for the company were vital to their national interests,” according to an excerpt from the recently released declassified document. The rapacious Western attitude towards the region has evidently not changed. The “blood for oil” wars staged to secure Kuwait in the 1990s and Iraq in 2003 are illustrations.

The CIA report underlines the fact that the much-vaunted Western media were putty in its hands. It said that most of the media glossed over the key fact that the coup that overthrew Mossadegh “was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”. This is the first time that the CIA has openly admitted to using propaganda, bribing officials and organising anti-government demonstrations to undermine a legitimately elected government.

Washington tried similar tactics in other countries in the region before it succeeded in bringing about a regime change in Iran. For instance, the U.S. had a role in ensuring Syria’s independence in 1946. The U.S. thwarted France’s move to reclaim its colonial legacy in the region after the Second World War. But relations between Damascus and Washington started deteriorating almost immediately after the Syrian parliament vetoed the passage rights for the Arabian American Oil Company pipeline through its territory. The Americans had wanted oil from Saudi Arabia to be transported to the Mediterranean through Syria. Syrian lawmakers were angry with the U.S. for its prompt recognition of the state of Israel. The U.S. President, Harry Truman, retaliated by authorising the staging of a military coup in Syria by the CIA, the very first coup in the region, in March 1949. The Syrian Prime Minister, Shukri al-Quwaitli, was overthrown by the army’s Chief of Staff, General Husni al-Zaim. Another coup followed in the same year, resulting in the assassination of General Zaim.

Civilian rule was restored in 1955 with al-Quwaitli again heading the government. The Syrian nationalists had ensured that the coveted American pipeline did not materialise. They instead steered the country to a very close relationship with Egypt. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had already emerged as the hero of pan-Arabism by then. The Dwight Eisenhower administration in Washington once again got busy plotting against Syria. A destabilisation plan, code-named “Operation Straggle”, was formed. It involved the staging of armed incidents along the border with Turkey and the arming of tribes to fight alongside right-wing groups opposed to the nationalistic goals espoused by Arab socialists.

The second attempt at regime change also failed as the British, the French and the Israelis, who were supposed to help in the efforts to overthrow the Syrian government, were too preoccupied with the 1957 Suez Canal crisis. However, the most important reason, as Eisenhower noted in 1958, was the high level of suspicion the Syrian public had exhibited towards the U.S. and other Western powers. “The trouble is that we have a campaign of hatred against us, not by the government but by the people,” Eisenhower is quoted as saying in recently declassified official papers. According to the declassified reports, there is a “consensus narrative” that is widely held among the Syrian people that “foreign conspiracies have sought to undermine Syria in the past”.

Documents discovered in 2004 reveal a joint CIA-MI6 plan approved by Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to overthrow the Syrian government in 1957. The documents were unearthed by a British academic, Mathew Jones, who teaches international history at the University of London. The details of the plan were found in the private papers of Duncan Sandys, who had served as Defence Secretary under Macmillan. The plan included staging border incidents and the assassination of three key leaders. A coalition government consisting of Communists and Baathists had come to power in Damascus, overthrowing a pro-Western military dictatorship. The plan called for the setting up of a “Free Syria Committee” and the “arming of political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities”. The “preferred plan” to overthrow the Syrian government of the time was specific in its details.

“In order to facilitate the action of the liberative forces, reduce the capabilities of the Syrian regime to organise and direct its military actions, to hold losses and destruction to the minimum, and to bring about desired results in the shortest possible time, a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals. Their removal should be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention and in the light of the circumstances existing at the time,” the Sandys papers revealed. The three leaders officially targeted for assassination by Washington and London were Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, the head of Syrian military intelligence, Afif al-Bizri, chief of the Syrian general staff, and Khalid Bakhdash, the leader of the Syrian Communist Party.

The “preferred plan” spelt out other covert actions that had to be undertaken to achieve the goal of regime change. “Once a political decision is taken to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria, the CIA is prepared and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount more sabotage and ‘coup de main’ incidents within Syria working through contacts and individuals.”

The report went on to add that if the coup plotters were successful in carrying out their mission and the necessary degree of chaos was achieved, then frontier incidents and border skirmishes would be staged with the help of friendly governments like neighbouring Jordan and Iraq. Syria had to be made to “appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments”. The blueprint for action against the Syrian regime called on the CIA and the SIS “to use their capabilities in both the psychological and action fields to augment tension”. The document spelt out what this meant in actual terms. The territories of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq would be used as staging posts to mount “sabotage, national conspiracies and various strong arm activities” inside Syria.

Interestingly, the plan also called for the formation of a “Free Syria Committee” along with the arming of “political factions with paramilitary and other actionable capabilities” within Syria. The CIA and the MI6 would coordinate to instigate internal uprisings, focussing on the minorities like the Druze and the Kurds, and stir up the Muslim Brotherhood in the rest of the country. The report conceded that the plan to replace the Communist/Baath government would not be welcomed domestically in Syria and that any pro-Western government that would replace it “would probably need to rely first upon repressive measures and arbitrary exercise of power”. It is another matter that the plan could not fructify. The Jordanian and Iraqi governments refused to come fully on board.

In the thick of the action to overthrow the progressive government in Syria was the notorious CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt. He was the point man in the successful move to remove the government led by Mossadegh in Iran and reinstall the pro-Western Shah. The West feared that a pro-Soviet government in Syria would destabilise the neighbourhood, whose countries at the time were all under friendly regimes. The important pipeline which delivered oil from Iraq to Turkey passed only through Syria in the 1950s and the 1960s. It was one of the main arteries controlling the flow of oil in those days. Roosevelt, in his memoirs, had written that the influential Secretary of State at the time, John Foster Dulles, was so enthused with its success in Iran that he wanted to replicate similar scenarios in other countries that had governments that the West found inimical to its interests. Dulles, one of the architects of the Cold War, had once described the ideology of non-alignment as an “immoral” concept.

The West is trying to implement a blueprint eerily similar to the one they had tried 60 years ago in Syria. The Americans have set up a front organisation, the Syrian National Council (SNC), that purports to speak for the Syrian people. Border and terror incidents have been manipulated to put the blame on the Syrian government. American planes have moved in fighters and arms from neighbouring countries to be trained in Turkey.

In the first year of the conflict, the West did successfully implement many of the tactics they had envisaged in the 1957 plan. Many top decision-makers in the government, including the Syrian Defence Minister, were assassinated. Tribal militias and the Muslim Brotherhood were strengthened. However, as the West had discovered in the 1950s, the move to impose regime change has not been a popular one. The majority of the Syrian people, especially now, after the carnage they have witnessed, seem to have rallied behind the government.

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