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Operation Ajax: The story of the CIA coup that remade the Middle East

July 9, 2015 at 2:24 pm

  • Book Author(s): Mike Seve & artwork by Daniel Burwen
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Paperback: 248 pages pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781689233

On a trip to Iran in 1977 a bazaar vendor told Stephen Kinzer: “we used to have a democracy here but then you came and took it away from us.” As an American, Kinzer explains, a democracy in Iran did not fit with his preconceived ideas about the country so he set about investigating the vendor’s comments. He found that very little had been written on the subject of its downfall in 1953.

A new graphic novel Operation Ajax, to which he has contributed the foreword, helps to fill this information gap. In a series of comic strips author Mark Seve and illustrator Daniel Burwen reconstruct events that led up to the CIA’s first successful regime-change operation – removing Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister and reinstating power to the authoritarian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

It’s 1951 and an ocean of oil is sitting under Iran. Britain may have controlled Iranian oil exports for years but now Mohammed Mossadegh is Prime Minister, the Ayatollah is his ally, and they both agree that Iran should be for Iranians. Nationalist sentiment prevails and Mossadegh nationalises Iran’s oil but not without bringing about the wrath of the UK who are on the brink of invasion to get back their share.

It’s not difficult to see why. A closer look at the revenue produced in 1948 offers some idea of what London has to lose: in that year alone they took home the same revenue as Iran collected over 50 years of oil production – $100,000,000. For their part America are keen to roll back the influence of the Soviet Union in the region and accuse Mossadegh of being a Communist; hence a plot is hatched by Britain and America to overthrow the Prime Minister through a secret operation codenamed Ajax.

Operation Ajax joins a growing list of high-quality graphic novels that have been inspired by events in the Middle East; among the most famous are Marianne Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution and Joe Saaco’s Palestine and Footnotes on Gaza. Besides being pleasing to the eye the comic form allows the reader to digest a complex chain of events with ease.

For a more in-depth look at events surrounding the 1953 coup iPhone users can download the Operation Ajax app where they will find detailed profiles of the actors involved. Amongst the cast is Eisenhower, Churchill, the Dulles brothers and Mossadegh himself. There are also real, scanned copies of top-secret documents that have only recently been declassified; including a coup post-mortem that ascertains the Mossadegh’s replacement is establishing a western-orientated government and the operational plan for Ajax as cabled from Nicosia to headquarters.

There are also black and white newsreels from the era including a report on the possibility of the oil refinery Abadan passing to Iranian control, Mossadegh arriving in New York to plead his case at the United Nations and images of British technicians being evacuated from Iran.

Operation Ajax may have been the first time the CIA overthrew a democratically elected leader but it was certainly not the last. Just one year later they overthrew the President of Guatemala, Jacob Árbenz, and replaced him with a military dictator. They made further attempts at regime change in Cuba, Indonesia, South Vietnam and more; recently, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they even sent their army in.

Ultimately, Operation Ajax helps refute western claims that they are liberating foreign lands by exporting their democracy and instead brings to light the fact that they are simply protecting their own interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.