A book from 2003 that I read recently, Steven Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men is a history of the CIA’s 1953 coup in Iran. It was the CIA’s first successful regime change, toppling Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected prime minister. However, Kinzer argues that the near-term win was a long-term loss, planting the seeds of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the virulent anti-U.S. sentiments that came with it.
It was about oil. Mossadegh incurred the wrath of the British by nationalizing the British-run company that had the exclusive franchise on Iran’s oil. The British, in turn, packaged their frustrations with Mossadegh into scary scenarios about Iranian instability, baiting the Cold Warriors in the Eisenhower administration. The British wanted their oil franchise back, and the Americans wanted to ensure that Iranian oil didn’t somehow end up under Soviet influence.
The British could not let go of the colonial mindset. As Iran’s overlord in the early 20th century, the British had cut oil deals that left little for Iran. Before and during Mossadegh’s reign, Britain had opportunities to correct this imbalance and defuse tensions. Yet even when American companies began doing 50/50 partnerships with oil-producing countries, Britain refused to go beyond modest concessions from its original deal. The British reasoning was that its involvement in Iran was a noble act of modernization, duly compensated by a long-term contract, and that the ungrateful Iranians needed to be kept in line. These rationalizations of the colonial order, even as its foundations were crumbling, precluded a true British partnership with Iran.
Mossadegh also had trouble letting go of the colonial mindset. Having gained his fame—and, at some level, his identity—as the opposition, he had trouble envisioning solutions that involved the British. While this single-mindedness was instrumental in bringing him to power, it was an obstacle later, as it confirmed for the British that they were dealing with (in their view) ungrateful and irrational natives.
A key enabler for the coup was the relative openness of Iranian society at the time. Mossadegh’s reign had, by Middle East standards, relatively broad freedom of the press and assembly, factors the CIA exploited. The Agency bought-off newspaper editors to plant articles aimed at destabilizing Mossadegh’s rule. And in the critical moments of the coup itself, the CIA hired thugs to mount violent demonstrations in favor of Mossadegh, with the purpose of provoking violent counter-demonstrations and clashes to deepen the chaos. The clerics of the Iranian revolution would later point to this exploitation of freedoms as reasons against granting them.
The coup’s result was to make Iran’s monarch, the Shah, its absolute ruler for the next quarter century. In that time, the Shah was suitably pro-Western albeit increasingly repressive at home. His crushing of political dissent radicalized the opposition, which eventually broke through in the 1979 revolution, rallying a significant vanguard of the population against the Shah and his main backer, the United States.
Meanwhile, within the CIA of the Cold War era, the Iran operation’s perceived success was taken as a model for getting things done. Or as another review of All the Shah’s Men put it, the Iran operation...
...got the CIA into the regime-change business for good—similar efforts would soon follow in Guatemala, Indonesia, and Cuba—but that the Agency has had little success at that enterprise, while bringing itself and the United States more political ill will, and breeding more untoward results, than any other of its activities.
This point of view fairly represents the book’s bigger-picture perspective about unintended consequences. And if you didn’t follow the link, you might be surprised to find that the quote comes from a historian on staff at the CIA, writing in the CIA’s official journal.