by Bruce L. Brager
Blowback is an interesting term. Apparently the term was created to describe
the unintended results of covert operations, by implication the unpleasant
unintended results. This is just particularizing a more general and much older
concept -- the law of unexpected consequences. "Be careful what you ask for
(pray for, for those more religious) you might get it." In science, perhaps the
most basic law of physics is that to every action there is an equal and
opposite reaction. In life, reactions tend to be neither equal nor opposite.
Blowback is more updated, more self-directed, perhaps more deserved, unexpected
consequences. If I knew then what I sure as hell should have known then. . .
Blowback is cost, and everything has a cost.
Blowback with Iran may actually have started February 22, 1946, in the American
embassy in Moscow. Embassy staffer George Kennan sent a "long telegram," back
to the State Department in Washington, D.C., answering an inquiry as to why the
Soviets seemed so reluctant to join the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund. Kennan's "telegram", actually five telegrams for a total of
about 8,000 words, explained a lot more than why the Soviets did not like
multi-national lending institutions.
Kennan began by stating that "Soviet leaders are driven by necessities of their
own past and present positions to put forward a dogma which pictures the
outside world as evil, hostile and menacing. . . " The Soviets, Kennan
wrote, expected no permanent co-existence with the West, particularly with the
West's strongest power, the United States. The Soviets would compete with the
west by what Kennan called "official" and "unofficial" means. Official means
would focus militarily by building up Soviet strength and dominating the
countries bordering the Soviet Union, including, significantly, Iran.
Unofficial means meant, basically, quiet subversion.
Kennan dealt with ways to handle the Soviets. He pointed out that the Soviets
did not like to take unnecessary risks and did not work by set timetables, in
both cases unlike Adolf Hitler. When they met resistance they would withdraw.
(At about the same time Kennan was writing the telegram, Western resistance led
to the Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran and dropping of Soviet demands for
bases in Turkey, seemingly proving Kennan's point). The West would have to
stand up to the Soviet Union, but should try to do so in ways that Soviet
prestige was not put on the line, allowing the Soviets to back down. The West
would have to provide nations a better alternative to the future the Soviets
could provide them. The West would also have to provide political and economic
Kennan's Long Telegram was a statement of this view for government. The views
were advanced to the public, and the concept of "containment" expressed, in a
paper written at the end of 1946 and published the next year in Foreign Affairs
magazine. Kennan would later state that he was speaking politically when he
". . . it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward to
the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant
containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however,
that such a policy has nothing to do with . . . threats or blustering. . .
While the Kremlin is basically flexible to its reaction to political realities,
it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any
other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a
position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by
its sense of realism. . .
It would be an exaggeration to stay that American behavior unassisted and alone
could . . . bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the
United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under
which the Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater
degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent
years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their
outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet Power."
A far less well know corollary to containment was proposed by Kennan in April
1948. Kennan, now back in Washington, proposed that the Policy Planning
Committee of the State Department, which he was now running, begin a program of
covert action against the Soviets. A less well known part of Kennan's "X"
article than the basic containment idea had called for "counter-force" at
shifting points. This was a call for specific action and, since Kennan did not
want to provoke a full-scale war, covert action.
Kennan wrote up a plan for what he proposed, which was adopted by President
Harry S. Truman as NSC 10/2. Kennan stated that it was not "our primary aim
in time of peace to set the stage for a war regarded as inevitable [but] . . .
we are aiming at the creation of circumstances and situations which would be
difficult for the present Soviet leaders to stomach, and which they would not
like. It is possible. . . that they would not be able to retain their power in
Russia." Secretary of State George Marshall opposed the State Department
engaging in covert operations, so the work was given to the CIA.
The first action under this program, secret American involvement to try and
sway the Italian elections of 1948, can be considered successful, since a
feared Communist electoral victory did not occur. A second effort had more
uncertain results. Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin's post war purges may have at
least partly resulted from active American and British covert action. The
purges are usually credited to Stalin's paranoid reaction to Yugoslavia's break
with the Soviet bloc in 1948 and its pursuit of an independent foreign policy.
The desire to find scapegoats for economic problems is also credited with a
British and American efforts at infiltration of active saboteurs behind the
Iron Curtain were badly done, and were betrayed by Soviet moles within American
and British intelligence. The Soviets were quickly able to round up all they
knew about. But Stalin might well have considered that perhaps Soviet moles in
the West did not know about all the Western agents in the Soviet bloc.
Individuals arrested during the purges were usually denounced in the Communist
press as being in league with the West. The United States and its allies,
including Britain, were directly denounced.
The Western intelligence services were delighted by the purges and the damage
they were doing to Soviet bloc leadership. If they did not cause the purges
they certainly tried to contribute. September 1949 National Security Council
policy papers included the statement that "The propensity of the revolution to
devour its own, the suspicions of the Kremlin regarding its agents and the
institutions of denunciation, purge and liquidation are grave defects in the
Soviet system which have never been adequately exploited."
A recent analysis of the history of American and British anti-Soviet
intelligence puts things well in writing that "Stalin's fantastic paranoia was
the central factor in the extraordinary wave of arrests and executions that
swept over the Eastern block between 1948 and 1953. But the purges had more
than one cause and Western intelligence played its part – after 1949 quite
intentionally. . ." The purges were targets of opportunity for the Western
nations, and they seem to have taken advantage.
Different unexpected consequences occurred as the result of another active CIA
operation. About the time the Korean War started, in 1950, Iran first burst
onto the world scene as a trouble spot. Then, as now, Iran was one of the
world's largest producers of oil. However, in 1950 Iran did not control its own
oil. Iranian oil drilling and production was under the control of a company
called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, AIOC, 51% percent owned by the British
government. The British had been involved in Iran since the 1800s, for its
strategic location on the route to British-controlled India, and for its oil.
In 1950 AIOC was working under an agreement signed back in 1932 with Reza Shah,
the then ruler of Iran. This agreement gave most of the profits of the oil
company to the company, though Iran was supposed to receive a minimum payment
of 975,000 British pounds per year, very roughly $30,000,000 in 2005 American
dollars. For comparison, a July 2006 article in the Boston Globe reported
that the Iranians expected to earn $54 billion from oil exports in the year
ending March 21, 2007. One does have to have the slightest sympathy for the
current Iranian regime to notice the gross disparity.
In 1941 Reza Shah, considered pro-German by the British, was forced to abdicate
the Iranian throne. The British did not want a leader they did not trust to be
in charge of a country as strategic as Iran. His 21-year-old son, Mohammed
Reza, replaced Reza.
In 1949, AIOC and Iran signed a supplemental agreement that barely improved the
Iranian share of the oil profits. With the support of the British government,
AIOC refused to negotiate a better deal with the Iranian government. (The
British government was getting 100 million pounds per year in taxes from AIOC,
and low cost oil for the Royal Navy, which inclined them to support the
company.) AIOC also refused to let any Iranians audit the company's books.
By 1949, political sentiment within Iran for nationalizing the oil industry was
growing. The oil issue was key in the elections that year for the Majlis, the
Iranian parliament. Nationalists in the Majlis were determined to renegotiate
the agreement. However, negotiations in 1950 resulted in only minor
improvements for the Iranians. The Majlis committee on oil matters, headed by a
veteran politician named Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the agreement.
A second try at an agreement failed. General Ali Razmara had become prime
minister in June 1950, but he failed to convey to the oil company the strength
of the nationalist feeling in the country and the Majlis. The company still did
not offer the Iranians satisfactory terms. On March 7, 1951, Razmara was
assassinated by an Islamic militant. On March 15, 1951, the Majlis voted to
nationalize the Iranian oil industry. When last ditch talks between the United
States and Britain failed to budge the British, on May 1, 1951 the Shah signed
the nationalization law. On May 6, 1951, the Majlis approved Mossadegh and his
cabinet and Mossadegh became Prime Minister.
British oil technicians left the country, and Britain imposed a worldwide
embargo on Iranian oil. In at least one case, an Italian oil tanker with
Iranian oil was intercepted and forced to turn back and unload the oil. Britain
took the case to the International Court of Justice, which issued a
recommendation, with no force of law, that Iran allow the British company to
keep running the oil industry while negotiations were under way. Mossadegh
announced that Iran would ignore the ruling, since the dispute in question was
between what was technically a private company and a government. The
International Court, set up to try to settle disputes between governments, had
no jurisdiction, Mossadegh said.
The United States began to pressure AIOC to improve its offer to Iran. However,
by this time anti-British feeling in Iran was so strong that the government
refused all offers. Mossadegh grew more powerful, and in the summer of 1952 got
into a political dispute with the Shah. Under Iranian law, the Prime Minister,
with the consent of the Majlis, appointed all members of the cabinet except the
Minister of War. The Shah's appointment of this minister gave him, at least in
theory, control of the military. Mossadegh demanded the right to appoint the
Minister of War.
When the Shah refused, Mossadegh resigned, but did not stay out of office for
long. Three days of pro-Mossadegh rioting followed Mossadegh's departure. The
Shah was forced to restore Mossadegh as Prime Minister, and to give Mossadegh
the power to appoint the Minister of War. Economic conditions in Iran, due to
the British embargo, worsened. Mossadegh responded by getting the Majlis to
give him full powers of government for a six-month period, and then for six
months after that. Mossadegh also got the term of office of the pro-Shah
Senate, the upper house of the Majlis ("Majlis" referred to both the lower
house and the entire parliament) reduced from six to two years. Since the
Senate had been established in 1950, it was effectively dissolved.
On August 3, 1953, responding to a decline in support in the Majlis, Mossadeqh
held a plebiscite on whether to dissolve the Majlis and plan new elections.
Mossadeqh claimed victory and dissolved the Majlis.
American and British opposition to Mossadeqh now began catch up to him. The
British government had wanted to get him out of office almost from the time he
came into office. Winston Churchill, back in office since 1951, was unable to
convince the Democratic administration of Harry Truman, sympathetic to
nationalism and anti-colonialism, to support the British. This changed when
Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in January 1953.
The British changed their argument to that of anti-Communism. Mossadegh, though
not a communist himself, had been working with the Iranian communist party, the
Tudeh. The British convinced Eisenhower and his senior administration officials
that this was making it possible, even probable, that the Tudeh would take
power in Iran. This would give the Soviets control of Iranian oil, and of the
main trade and communication routes to India.
In June 1953 Eisenhower approved Operation Ajax, a plan to overthrow Mossadegh.
CIA case officer Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt,
went to Iran to begin to carry out the plan. Roosevelt spent the next two
months lining up support among key members of the Iranian government, through
use of the argument that Mossadegh was a danger to Iran, and through the use of
bribes. By August Roosevelt was ready to act.
In early August the Shah agreed to sign two firmans, the Iranian term
for royal decrees, dismissing Mossadeqh and appointing as prime minister a
retired army general, Fazlollah Zahedi. The decrees were not entirely legal,
since the prime minister had to be confirmed by the Majlis. The Shah was not
entirely confidant, and told Roosevelt "If by any horrible chance things go
wrong, the Empress and I will take our plane straight to Baghdad."
The plan was for the firmans to be prepared and brought to the Shah on
August 10 at his palace in Tehran. The Shah and his wife would then fly to a
refuge in rural Iran. The courier arrived late at the Shah's palace, and the
Shah had gone. It took about a day to get the Shah's signature. And then
Roosevelt ran into the Iranian weekend, Thursday and Friday. (The Islamic
Sabbath is Friday.) The coup would have to wait for Saturday night, August 15,
The coup began with a pro-Shah colonel, Nematollah Nasiri, taking a column of
soldiers for the first step, to arrest Army Chief of Staff General Taqi Rahi.
Nasiri found that Rahi was not home, so he headed to Mossadegh's house to
present the firmans firing him and replacing him with Zahedi. However,
Nasiri himself was arrested, taken to general staff headquarters, and ordered
imprisoned by Rahi. Roosevelt knew the first effort at a coup had failed when
Mossadeqh himself went on Radio Tehran the next morning to announce its
failure. The Shah and his wife quickly flew to Baghdad. As a trained pilot, the
Shah flew his own aircraft. Roosevelt reported failure to CIA headquarters, and
was authorized to leave Iran if he was in danger. However, Roosevelt decided to
On Monday, August 17, Roosevelt sent his agents into the street to stir up
riots. Anyone who might be able to organize a pro-Shah or anti-Mossadeqh crowd
would be asked to do so, bribed if necessary. Others would be bribed to riot
destructively in Mossadegh's name. Roosevelt also placed reports in friendly
newspapers that Mossadegh had staged a coup against the Shah, but had been
thwarted by loyal military officers.
Mossadegh and his senior ministers responded too mildly to the coup attempt.
They spent the next day or two debating whether the Shah had staged the coup,
and the meaning of the Shah's flight to Iraq. Had the Shah abdicated his
thrown? Troops loyal to Mossadegh were taken off the streets.
Two days of demonstrations and rioting followed. Mossadegh had initially
ordered police not to interfere with demonstrations, not wanting to curb the
right of freedom of expression. But on Tuesday, he was forced to order a
crackdown and to ban further demonstrations. Neither order worked. Excessive
force was used in the crackdown, which turned people against Mossadegh. By
Wednesday, pro-Mossadegh demonstrators were staying home while pro-Shah forces
were demonstrating. Tudeh party members were taking no action. Soviet leader
Joseph Stalin had died a few months before. The members of the Tudeh were not
getting instructions from Moscow and did not want to act on their own.
By the end of Wednesday, August 19, Mossadegh had been forced to flee his own
house and was effectively out of power. Zahedi had declared himself the lawful
prime minister. His forces were taking control of Tehran and quieting the
streets. The next day Mossadegh called to arrange his surrender. Two days later
the Shah arrived back in Iran. Mossadegh was tried for treason, but was allowed
to remain under house arrest in his village until his death in 1967. Hundreds
of his supporters in government were arrested, with a few sentenced to death.
The Shah quickly moved to secure his power. Roosevelt left Iran quietly on
Sunday August 23, 1953. He wanted to avoid an American "signature" on the coup
and the Shah being restored to power. The Shah would remain an ally of the
Americans as long as he remained in power. But efforts to keep American
involvement quiet failed. The Iranians would eventually learn that the United
States was involved in overthrowing a lawful Iranian government.
Actions have consequences. These consequences can come many years later. When
the Mossadegh government was overthrown, the American government thought the
CIA "signature" was not on the success. The government also thought it had a
strong and secure American ally in the Shah.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was far more decisive after 1953 than he had been in
the early years of his rule. With the open assistance of the United States, the
Shah would remain in power until 1979. A few years later, the Robert Huyser,
deputy commander of NATO, stated that Iran, in words echoing the British after
World War One, "from a military standpoint, was a key strategic area for the
United States. If Iran could establish a significant defense capability, as it
was in the process of doing, we could save our country millions of
dollars." Britain, whatever its many policy errors in dealing with Iran in
the late 1940s and early 1950s, had been right about Iran's importance.
The United States government, and the CIA, assumed that the Shah was securely
in power. Even when serious trouble began in 1978, they assumed the Shah would
stick it out. They failed to anticipate the degree of popular opposition to the
Shah, and the effects of the Shah having come down with the cancer that would
kill him in 1980. In August 1978, in fact, a CIA analyst reported to President
Jimmy Carter "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-Revolutionary
Accurate reports were coming in from case officers in Iran, but CIA analysts
were ignoring them. The CIA assumed that the Shah would crush the opposition,
as he had done in the past. Stansfield Turner, DCI at the time, later
commented, "We were aware that the shah had opposition. One difficulty was it
was hard to appreciate that a man with the military and SAVAK [Shah's secret
police] would be toppled by people parading in the streets. When you make an
intelligence forecast, you make an assumption. We thought he would use the
powers he had, but he didn't."
Within two years the Shah was out of power and dead of cancer, over fifty
American diplomats were being held hostage in the American embassy, and Iran
and Iraq were at war. The United States "tilted," in the phrase of that time,
towards Iraq, feeling that Iranian covert support for terrorism made it the
An equally important event occurred on December 25, 1979. The Soviet Union
intervened in Afghanistan, its neighbor to the southwest, to prop up a
communist regime facing armed revolts, some of them led by Islamic radicals.
This was the first use of Soviet troops for military action outside of Eastern
Europe or the Soviet border with China. The Soviet timing may have been
influenced by the United States involvement with the Iranian hostage crisis,
making it a second level unexpected consequence from Mossadegh's overthrow.
This invasion provides an opportunity for the United States to aid, secretly,
active military resistance to the Soviet Union. During the last year of the
Jimmy Carter administration – not under President Ronald Reagan, as most people
think -- the decision was made to secretly aid the anti-Soviet rebels in
Afghanistan. Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzesinski, wrote in
a memo to the President, "It is essential that Afghanistan's resistance
continues. This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and
some technical advice." DCI Stansfield Turner worried about using American
arms in direct combat with Soviet troops, but in the end decided to support the
operation. The ten year effort, greatly expanded under President Ronald Reagan,
seemed to pay off on February 15, 1989. After suffering at least 10,000
casualties, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Lieutenant-General Boris
Gromov, clad in combat fatigues, walked over a bridge back onto Soviet soil,
symbolically the last Soviet combat soldier in Afghanistan. Less then three
years later, the Soviet Union faded into history.
Whatever the ultimate advantages of confronting the Soviets in Afghanistan,
William Casey, chief of the CIA under Reagan, came up with an unfortunate idea
for a source of manpower for this opposition. Casey himself was a religious
Catholic. He thought that religious Muslims would be natural allies of the
Christian West in confronting the atheistic communists. In 1986, an independent
group appeared in Pakistan for the purpose of recruiting dedicated religious
Arab volunteers to fight the Soviets. This group, the Islamic Salvation
Foundation, had one particularly rich and ardent supporter, a young Saudi
businessman named Osama bin Laden.
Afghanistan faded from governmental radar screens when the Soviets left. Most
were satisfied to look for other issues. George H. W. Bush was concerned about
Iraq and Kuwait, after Saddam's 1990 invasion. Bill Clinton came into office
promising to focus on domestic affairs, particularly the economy. The CIA
pretty much withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving the field open for the Pakistani
intelligence service, the ISI, with its own agenda. The Pakistanis were
motivated by some religious sympathy for the ardent Muslims, and a strong
desire to build an ally in their continuing disputes with India.
The United States paid little attention when, in 1995, the communist regime was
overthrown by a coalition led by a rural group known as the Taliban. The
Taliban attracted attention in the years that followed, when it instituted a
series of harshly repressive measures, a high percentage of which were aimed at
women. Failure to follow these rules, or any other opposition to the Taliban,
could earn a series of harsh penalties, such as amputation of the hand, up to
The United States protested the Taliban's behavior, but took little direct
action. American attention more closely focused on the Taliban when they became
closely associated with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda,
started to come up in reports of anti-American terrorism around the world. By
1998 there were serious discussions among the various parts of the American
government about what to do about Bin Laden and his organization, but little
The CIA planners noted that time was not on their side in getting Bin Laden.
"Sooner or later," one briefing paper stated," Bin Laden will attack U.S.
interests, perhaps using WMD [Weapons of Mass destruction]." But this did
not cut through the bureaucratic discussions. The State Department, for
example, on several occasions raised legal objections to kidnapping Bin Laden,
particularly when it became clear that the CIA was not totally concerned that
Bin Laden might be killed.
In October 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists killed 17 American sailors when suicide
bombers blew up a small boat near the destroyer USS Cole. This was
near the end of President Clinton's term, and no action was taken. When George
W. Bush took over as President on January 20, 2001, he needed time to get fully
up to speed on all issues. Bush also seemed not to be convinced that terrorism
was a major issue. His staff took time to study action against Bin Laden and Al
Quada. Despite warnings from DCI George Tenet, though not expressed as urgently
and as strongly as they might have been, Bush and his people seemed to think
time was on their side. It was not.
Afghanistan was probably – the law of unexpected consequences requires the use
of such modifiers -- settled as an immediate problem by a quick military
campaign in October 2001. Al Qaeda remains an uncertain quantity, though
probably very damaged. Saddam Hussein, the entertaining side issue in the
Middle East, is dead – though Iraq is gradually becoming, if it has become
already, a no-win situation. The quality of United States intelligence
analysis, if not its collection, remains uncertain four years after 9/11.
Understanding at least one historical motivation for Iranian behavior, the
overthrown of Mossadegh, is only a tool for dealing with this behavior. We also
have to look at how the Iranian leadership might view interesting recent
dichotomy. Saddam Hussein denies having nuclear weapons, and gets invade and
overthrown. Kim Sung Ill claims to have nuclear weapons, and gets negotiations.
Cold War historical studies frequently comment on how Western behavior and
inconsistency could sometimes confuse the Soviets.
Show Footnotes and
. Quoted Don Cook, Forging the Alliance: NATO, 1945-1950 , New York:
Arbor House/William Morrow, 1989, page 59.
. “X”, (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs
, July 1947., found www.historyguide.org
. Curtis Peebles, Twilight Warriors , Annapolis, Maryland: Naval
Institute Press, 2005, page 20.
. Richard J. Aldrich, The Hidden Hand , Woodstock and New York: The
Overlook Press, 2001, page 148.
. Thomas H. Etzold and John Louis Gaddis, editors, Containment: Documents on
American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950 , New York: Columbia University
Press, 1978, pages 220-221.
. Aldrich, 179.
. Figures calculated using www.measuringworth.com. This web site warns that
such pure mathematical comparisons can only give a rough idea of what different
currencies were worth at different times.
Reuters report of July 9, 2006.
. Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men , Hoboken, New Jersey: John
Wiley & Sons, 2003, page 11.
. General Robert E. Huyser, Mission to Tehran , New York: Harper
& Row, Publishers, 1997, Page 7.
. Loch K. Johnston, America’s Secret Power , New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989, page 85.
. Kessler, Ronald, The CIA at War , New York: St. Martin’s Press,
2003, page 14.
. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars , New York: Penguin Press, 2004, Page 51.
. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States , New York and London: W. W. North & Company, 2004, Quoted Page 112.
Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 05/20/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.