In the summer of 1953, James Lockridge slipped across the Iranian border with a tennis racket, a fake passport, and lots of cash. The tennis racket was part of his cover: Once in Iran, he played for hours on the courts of the Turkish embassy, where he had the easiest access to British intelligence officers who could open doors in Tehran. The fake passport allowed him to present himself as the proxy of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, even though Lockridge was really Kermit Roosevelt, a CIA officer. The cash was for funding Operation TPAJAX, the CIA mission approved by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to restore the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power.
Mohammad Reza had met Roosevelt before and knew him by his real name. Although there were, in fact, no guarantees that the shah could regain his throne, which was under threat by the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, Roosevelt told the shah that he had Washington’s and London’s unquestioned support. He was right. The U.S.-backed coup that pushed Mossadeq out in August 1953 has cast a long shadow over U.S.-Iranian relations and sowed mistrust in the region ever since.
The recent disclosure that a CIA contractor, Robert Levinson, was captured in Iran has all the elements of Roosevelt’s tale gone wrong. Levinson went missing after a 2007 trip to Kish Island, an Iranian tourist destination in the Persian Gulf. The CIA reportedly sent him there to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program through a potential U.S. informant. Seven years later, Levinson has been in captivity longer than any other U.S. citizen, including the Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson, who was held hostage by Hezbollah for more than six years during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s.
The Levinson incident is a barometer for what the future holds if the United States does not reach a permanent and enforceable agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Washington could spend