KERMIT ROOSEVELT was the Roosevelt who took the illustrious American political family into a starring role in one of the Central Intelligence Agency's most infamous and spectacular operations - the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the first successful ouster of a foreign ruler in CIA history.
Full details of the plot, which turned the young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from constitutional monarch to absolute ruler, only emerged this year with publication of the agency's own secret account of the coup. Roosevelt, then head of the agency's Near East and Africa division, was the designated "field commander" of the entire operation.
The Iran crisis was sparked by Mossadegh's nationalisation in 1952 of Britain's vast oil interests in Persia. However, as the Cold War approached its height, the Americans were by then at least as alarmed as the British by the left-wing Mossadegh, who ruled with the support of the Iranian Communist Party. In November 1952, British intelligence approached Roosevelt about organising the Prime Minister's overthrow, and a final plan was approved in Washington on 25 June 1953. Four weeks later, Roosevelt arrived in Iran to persuade the Shah and the army to remove Mossadegh from power.
According to the CIA history, on 3 August Roosevelt had a "long and inconclusive" meeting with a frightened and reluctant Shah, who "stated he was not an adventurer and could not take the chances of one". But Roosevelt warned that it was now a case of Mossadegh and his forces against the Shah and an army, "which was still with him but which would soon slip away".
The coup had its lighter aspects: everyone involved had a CIA nickname: the Shah's was "Boy Scout", while Mossadegh was known as "Old Bugger". Roosevelt, in best traditions of his trade, was insouciant coolness personified. As the operation began, he later recounted, he poured himself a drink and turned on the gramophone to play "Luck be a Lady Tonight" from Guys and Dolls, "which became our theme song for the occasion".
In fact, the coup was a very close-run thing - so much so that on 16 August the Shah fled to Baghdad, convinced that it had failed. Only when Roosevelt smuggled General Fazlollah Zahedi, one of the key army commanders, out of hiding to make a crucial radio address to the country, did the tide turn. When victory was sure, Roosevelt cabled CIA headquarters in Washington that "the Shah will be returning shortly to Tehran in triumph. Love and kisses from all the team." It was a CIA success which lasted over 25 years, until the Shah in his turn was toppled by the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. …