For years, Britain had a spiffy trade deal with Iran regarding their prodigious oil fields. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was basically a giant money machine for the Anglo half, while the Iranian half got shafted. That all changed in 1951 when Iran nationalized the AIOC and the Iranian parliament elected Mohammed Mossadegh as Prime Minister. Mossadegh was relatively secular, something that pissed of Iranian clerics, but he was also very nationalistic.
He was a democratically elected, pro American figure but the West saw his nationalizing of the oil fields a communist move (something Mossadegh thought was the right of the people to profit and pay for services in the country with). Those oil fields were under the control of British Petroleum, but unfortunately Mossadegh overruled this long standing business control.
The United States sent Kermit Roosevelt, FDR’s nephew and CIA coordinator in to figure out the mess. The best he could come up with was to confront Mossadegh and have him overthrown and this was accomplished by bringing in what the agency refers to as “jackals.” The United States backed the return of the Shah of Iran, one of the most brutal dictators the country had ever seen and intentionally overthrew years before with the democratic leader, Mossadegh. Until 1979, that is, when a pissed off Iranian populace finally revolted and replaced the monarchy with an anti-West Islamic Republic.
The result was a violently anti-American revolution lead by the Ayatollah Khomeini which overthrew the Shah and took hostage US Embassy workers, many of whom were involved in the plot with Kermit Roosevelt that installed the Shah. The planning for the Coup took place largely in that embassy, but Americans were told this was due to the rise of radical Islam and rise of democracy hating Muslims, which of course was far from the truth.
The 1953 Iranian coup d'état
(known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup) - ( 1 )
was the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran, and its head of government Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh on 19 August 1953, orchestrated by the United Kingdom (under the name 'Operation Boot') and the United States (under the name TPAJAX Project).
The coup saw the transition of Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi from a constitutional monarch to an authoritarian one who relied heavily on United States support to hold on to power until his own overthrow in February 1979.
In 1951, Iran's oil industry was nationalized with near-unanimous support of Iran's parliament in a bill introduced by Mossadegh who led the nationalist parliamentarian faction. Iran's oil had been controlled by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), now known as BP.
Popular discontent with the AIOC began in the late 1940s, a large segment of Iran's public and a number of politicians saw the company as exploitative and a vestige of British imperialism.
Despite Mosaddegh's popular support, Britain was unwilling to negotiate its single most valuable foreign asset, and instigated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil to pressure Iran economically. Initially, Britain mobilized its military to seize control of the Abadan oil refinery, the world's largest, but Prime Minister Clement Attlee opted instead to tighten the economic boycott while using Iranian agents to undermine Mosaddegh's government.
With a change to more conservative governments in both Britain and the United States, Churchill and the U.S.Eisenhower administration decided to overthrow Iran's government though the predecessor U.S. Truman administration had opposed a coup.
Classified documents show British intelligence officials played a pivotal role in initiating and planning the coup, and that Washington and London shared an interest in maintaining control over Iranian oil.
Britain and the U.S. selected Fazlollah Zahedi to be the prime minister of a military junta that was to replace Mosaddegh's government. Subsequently, a royal decree dismissing Mosaddegh and appointing Zahedi was drawn up by the putsch plotters and signed by the Shah. The Central Intelligence Agency had successfully pressured the weak monarch to participate in the coup, while bribing street thugs, clergy, politicians and Iranian army officers to take part in a propaganda campaign against Mosaddegh and his government.
At first, the coup appeared to be a failure when on the night of 15–16 August, Imperial Guard ColonelNematollah Nassiri was arrested while attempting to arrest Mosaddegh. The Shah fled the country the next day. On 19 August, a pro-Shah mob, paid by the CIA, marched on Mosaddegh's residence.
According to the CIA's declassified documents and records, some of the most feared mobsters in Tehran were hired by the CIA to stage pro-Shah riots on 19 August. Other CIA-paid men were brought into Tehran in buses and trucks, and took over the streets of the city.
Between 300 and 800 people were killed during and as a direct result of the conflict. Mosaddegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason by the Shah's military court. On 21 December 1953, he was sentenced to three years in jail, then placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Mosaddegh's supporters were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured or executed.
After the coup, Pahlavi ruled as an authoritarian monarch for the next 26 years, until he was overthrown in a popular revolt in 1979. The tangible benefits the United States reaped from overthrowing Iran's elected government included a share of Iran's oil wealth as well as resolute prevention of the possibility that the Iranian government might align itself with the Soviet Union, although the latter motivation produces controversy among historians. Washington continually supplied arms to the unpopular Shah, and the CIA-trained SAVAK, his repressive secret police force. The coup is widely believed to have significantly contributed toanti-American sentiment in Iran and the Middle East. The 1979 Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah and replaced the pro-Western royal dictatorship with the largely anti-Western Islamic Republic of Iran.
Throughout the 19th century, Iran was caught between two advancing imperial powers, Russia, which was expanding southward into the Caucasus and central Asia, and Britain, which sought to dominate the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and India. Between 1801 and 1814 Iran signed treaties with Britain and France with an eye toward blocking Russian expansion. After two wars with czarist Russia, from 1804–13 and 1826–28, Iran ceded large tracts of territory to Russia, establishing the modern boundaries between those countries. Britain fought a war with Iran over Afghanistan in 1856–57 after which Afghanistan became independent. In 1892, the British diplomat George Curzon described Iran as "pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.
In 1872, a representative of Baron Paul Reuter, founder of the news agency, met with Naser al-Din Shah Qajar and agreed to fund the Persian monarch's upcoming lavish visit to Europe in return for broadly worded concessions in Persia, which was the country name through the centuries until 1935 when Reza Shah renamed it Iran. The concession the Shah had given to Reuter was never put into effect because of violent opposition from the Persian people and from Russia.
Early petroleum development
Further information: Anglo-Persian Oil Company
In 1901, Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia, granted a 60-year petroleum search concession to William Knox D'Arcy. D'Arcy paid £20,000, according to journalist-turned-historian Stephen Kinzer, and promised equal ownership shares, with 16% of any future net profit, as calculated by the company. However, the historian L.P. Elwell-Sutton wrote, in 1955, that "Persia's share was "hardly spectacular" and no money changed hands.
The (Persian) government was promised 20,000 British pounds in cash and 20,000 in shares in the first company to be formed by the concessionaire. In addition it was to receive 16 per cent of the profits made by this or any other company concerned in the concession. As it turned out D'Arcy did not even have to put his hand in his pocket. The First Exploitation Company was duly formed on 21 May 1903, with an issued capital of 500,000 British pounds in 1 pound shares, 30,000 of which were presented to the Shah and 20,000 to other "leading personalities". The additional 30,000 in shares was felt to be adequate to take the place of the promised 20,000 pounds in cash, and so no cash payment was ever made. The remainder of the shares were issued in London.
On 31 July 1907, D'Arcy withdrew from his private holdings in Persia. "A new agreement was signed under which he transferred to theBurmah Oil Company all his shares in the First Exploitation Company, and with them his last direct interest in the exploitation of oil in Persia." D'Arcy received 203,067 British pounds in cash (more than ten times what the Persian monarch was supposed to have received in cash for the concession) and D'Arcy received 900,000 shares in the Burmah Oil Company, which the historian Elwell-Sutton declared was "a large sum."
In early 1908, the British-owned Burmah Oil Company decided to end its exploration for oil in Persia but on 26 May, oil came in at a depth of 1,180 feet (360 m), "a gusher that shot fifty feet or more above the top of the rig," Elwell-Sutton wrote. "So began the industry that was to see the Royal Navy through two world wars, and to cause Persia more trouble than all the political manoeuvrings of the great powers put together."
The company grew slowly until World War I, when Persia's strategic importance led the British government to buy a controlling share in the company, essentially nationalizing British oil production in Iran. It became the Royal Navy's chief fuel source during the war.
The British angered Iranians by intervening in Iranian domestic affairs including in the Persian Constitutional Revolution (the transition from dynastic to parliamentary government).
Post-World War I
The Persians were dissatisfied with the royalty terms of the British petroleum concession, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), whereby Persia received 16% of net profits.
In 1921, a military coup d'état—"widely believed to be a British attempt to enforce, at least, the spirit of the Anglo-Persian agreement" effected with the "financial and logistical support of British military personnel"—permitted the political emergence of Reza Pahlavi, whom they enthroned as the "Shah of Iran" in 1925. The Shah modernized Persia to the advantage of the British; one result was the Persian Corridor railroad for British military and civil transport during World War II.
In the 1930s, the Shah tried to terminate the APOC concession, but Britain would not allow it. The concession was renegotiated on terms again favorable to the British. On 21 March 1935, Pahlavi changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was then renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).
World War II
In 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the British and Commonwealth of Nations forces and the Red Army invaded Iran, to secure petroleum (cf. Persian Corridor) for the Soviet Union's effort against the Nazis on the Eastern Front and for the British elsewhere. Britain and the USSR deposed and exiled the pro-Nazi Shah Reza, and enthroned his 22-year-old son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as the Shah of Iran.
The British secured the oilfields and the seaports.
During the war, Iran was used as a conduit for materiel to the USSR. US forces also entered the country replacing the British in operating the southern part of the Trans-Iranian Railway.
Post-World War II
The western Allies withdrew from Iran after the end of the war. The Soviet Union remained and sponsored two "People's Democratic Republic"s within Iran's borders. The resulting crisis was resolved through diplomatic efforts in the new United Nations and US support for the Iranian army to reassert control over the breakaway areas. The Soviet-Iranian oil agreement was not ratified.
After the war, nationalist leaders in Iran became influential by seeking a reduction in long-term foreign interventions in their country—especially the oil concession which was very profitable for Britain and not very profitable to Iran. The British-controlled AIOC refused to allow its books to be audited to determine whether the Iranian government was being paid what had been promised. British intransigence irked the Iranian population.
U.S. objectives in the Middle East remained the same between 1947 and 1952 but its strategy changed. Washington remained "publicly in solidarity and privately at odds" with Britain, its World War II ally. Britain's empire was steadily weakening, and with an eye on international crises, the U.S. re-appraised its interests and the risks of being identified with British colonial interests. "In Saudi Arabia, to Britain's extreme disapproval, Washington endorsed the arrangement between ARAMCO and Saudi Arabia in the 50/50 accord that had reverberations throughout the region."
Britain faced the newly elected nationalist government in Iran where Mossadegh, with strong backing of the Iranian parliament, demanded more favorable concessionary arrangements, which Britain vigorously opposed.
The U.S. State Department not only rejected Britain's demand that it continue to be the primary beneficiary of Iranian oil reserves but "U.S. international oil interests were among the beneficiaries of the concessionary arrangements that followed nationalization."
U.S. reluctance to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1951, when he was elected, faded 28 months later when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and John Foster Dulles took the helm at the State Department. "Anglo-American cooperation on that occasion brought down the Iranian prime minister and reinstated a U.S.-backed shah."
Further information: Abadan Crisis and Abadan Crisis timeline
Prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeghshaking hands with Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi
In 1951, the AIOC's resistance to re-negotiating their petroleum concession—and increasing the royalty paid to Iran—created popular support for nationalising the company. In March, the pro-Western PM Ali Razmara was assassinated; the next month, the parliament legislated the petroleum industry's nationalisation, by creating the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). This legislation was guided by the Western-educated Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, then a member of the Iranian parliament and leader of the nationalisation movement; by May, the Shah had appointed Mosaddegh Prime Minister.
Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to negotiate with the AIOC, but the company rejected his proposed compromise. Mosaddegh's plan, based on the 1948 compromise between the Venezuelan Government of Romulo Gallegos and Creole Petroleum, would divide the profits from oil 50/50 between Iran and Britain. Against the recommendation of the United States, Britain refused this proposal and began planning to undermine and overthrow the Iranian government.
That summer, American diplomat Averell Harriman went to Iran to negotiate an Anglo-Iranian compromise, asking the Shah's help; his reply was that "in the face of public opinion, there was no way he could say a word against nationalisation". Harriman held a press conference in Tehran, calling for reason and enthusiasm in confronting the "nationalisation crisis". As soon as he spoke, a journalist rose and shouted: "We and the Iranian people all support Premier Mosaddegh and oil nationalisation!" Everyone present began cheering and then marched out of the room; the abandoned Harriman shook his head in dismay.
The National Iranian Oil Company suffered decreased production, because of Iranian inexperience and the AIOC's orders that British technicians not work with them, thus provoking the Abadan Crisis that was aggravated by the Royal Navy's blockading its export markets to pressure Iran to not nationalise its petroleum. The Iranian revenues were greater, because the profits went to Iran's national treasury rather than to private, foreign oil companies. By September 1951, the British had virtually ceased Abadan oil field production, forbidden British export to Iran of key British commodities (including sugar and steel), and had frozen Iran's hard currency accounts in British banks.
The United Kingdom took its anti-nationalisation case against Iran to the International Court of Justice at The Hague; PM Mosaddegh said the world would learn of a "cruel and imperialistic country" stealing from a "needy and naked people". Representing the AIOC, the UK lost its case. In August 1952, Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh invited an American oil executive to visit Iran and the Truman administration welcomed the invitation. However, the suggestion upset British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who insisted that the U.S. not undermine his campaign to isolate Mosaddegh: "Britain was supporting the Americans in Korea, he reminded Truman, and had a right to expect Anglo-American unity on Iran."
In mid-1952, Britain's boycott of Iranian oil was devastatingly effective. British agents in Tehran "worked to subvert" the government of Mosaddegh, who sought help from President Truman and then the World Bank but to no avail. "Iranians were becoming poorer and unhappier by the day" and Mosaddegh's political coalition was fraying.
In the Majlis election in the spring of 1952, Mosaddegh "had little to fear from a free vote, since despite the country's problems, he was widely admired as a hero. A free vote, however, was not what others were planning. British agents had fanned out across the country, bribing candidates, and the regional bosses who controlled them. They hoped to fill the Majlis with deputies who would vote to depose Mosaddegh. It would be a coup carried out by seemingly legal means."
While the National Front, which often supported Mosaddegh won handily in the big cities, there was no one to monitor voting in the rural areas. Violence broke out in Abadan and other parts of the country where elections were hotly contested. Faced with having to leave Iran for The Hague where Britain was suing for control of Iranian oil, Mossadegh's cabinet voted to postpone the remainder of the election until after the return of the Iranian delegation from The Hague.
By mid-1953 a mass of resignations by Mossadegh's parliamentary supporters reduced parliament below its quorum. A referendum to dissolve parliament and give the prime minister power to make law was submitted to voters, and it passed with 99.9 percent approval, 2,043,300 votes to 1300 votes against.
While Mosaddegh dealt with political challenge, he faced another that most Iranians considered far more urgent. The British blockade of Iranian seaports meant that Iran was left without access to markets where it could sell its oil. The embargo had the effect of causing Iran to spiral into bankruptcy. Tens of thousands had lost their jobs at the Abadan refinery, and although most understood and passionately supported the idea of nationalisation, they naturally hoped that Mosaddegh would find a way to put them back to work. The only way he could do that was to sell oil."
Worried about Britain's other interests in Iran, and believing that Iran's nationalism was Soviet-backed, Britain persuaded Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Iran was falling to the Soviets—effectively exploiting the American Cold War mindset. While PresidentHarry S. Truman was busy fighting a war in Korea, he did not agree to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. However, in 1953, when Dwight D. Eisenhower became president, the UK convinced him to a joint coup d'état.
Execution of Operation Ajax
Having obtained the Shah's concurrence, the CIA executed the coup. Firmans (royal decrees) dismissing Mosaddegh and appointing Zahedi were drawn up by the coup plotters and signed by the Shah. On Saturday 15 August, Colonel Nematollah Nassiri, the commander of the Imperial Guard, delivered to Mosaddegh a firman from the Shah dismissing him. Mosaddegh, who had been warned of the plot (probably by the Tudeh party) rejected the firman as a forgery and had Nassiri arrested. Mosaddegh argued at his trial after the coup that under the Iranian constitutional monarchy, the Shah had no constitutional right to issue an order for the elected Prime Minister's dismissal without Parliament's consent. The action was publicized within Iran by the CIA and in the United States by The New York Times. The Shah, fearing a popular backlash, fled to Rome, Italy. After a short exile in Italy, the CIA completed the coup against Mossadegh, and returned the Shah to Iran. Alan Dulles, the director of the CIA, flew back with the Shah from Rome to Teheran. Gen. Zahedi replaced the deposed Prime Minister Mosaddegh, who was arrested, tried, and originally sentenced to death. Mosaddegh's sentence was commuted to three years' solitary confinement in a military prison, followed by house arrest until his death.
As a condition for restoring the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the U.S. required removal of the AIOC's monopoly; five American petroleum companies, Royal Dutch Shell, and the Compagnie Française des Pétroles, were to draw Iran's petroleum after the successful coup d'état—Operation Ajax.
As part of that, the CIA organized anti-Communist guerrillas to fight the Tudeh Party if they seized power in the chaos of Operation Ajax. Per released National Security Archive documents, Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith reported that the CIA had agreed with Qashqai tribal leaders, in south Iran, to establish a clandestine safe haven from which U.S.-funded guerrillas and spies could operate.
Operation Ajax's formal leader was senior CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., while career agent Donald Wilber was the operational leader, planner, and executor of the deposition of PM Mosaddegh. The coup d'état depended on the impotent Shah's dismissing the popular and powerful Prime Minister and replacing him with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, with help from Col. Abbas Farzanegan—a man agreed upon by the British and Americans after determining his anti-Soviet politics.
The CIA sent Major general Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. to persuade the exiled Shah to return to rule Iran. Schwarzkopf trained the security forces that would become known as SAVAK to secure the shah's hold on power.
The coup and CIA records
The coup was carried out by the U.S. administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in a covert action advocated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and implemented under the supervision of his brother Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence. The coup was organized by the United States' CIA and the United Kingdom's MI6, two spy agencies that aided royalists and royalist elements of theIranian army.
According to a heavily redacted CIA document released to the National Security Archive in response to a Freedom of Informationrequest, "Available documents do not indicate who authorized CIA to begin planning the operation, but it almost certainly was PresidentEisenhower himself. Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose has written that the absence of documentation reflected the President's style."
The CIA document then quotes from the Ambrose biography of Eisenhower:
Before going into the operation, Ajax had to have the approval of the President. Eisenhower participated in none of the meetings that set up Ajax; he received only oral reports on the plan; and he did not discuss it with his Cabinet or the NSC. Establishing a pattern he would hold to throughout his Presidency, he kept his distance and left no documents behind that could implicate the President in any projected coup. But in the privacy of the Oval Office, over cocktails, he was kept informed by Foster Dulles, and he maintained a tight control over the activities of the CIA.
CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt, carried out the operation planned by CIA agentDonald Wilber. One version of the CIA history, written by Wilber, referred to the operation as TPAJAX.
During the coup, Roosevelt and Wilber, representatives of the Eisenhower administration, bribed Iranian government officials, reporters, and businessmen. They also bribed street thugs to support the Shah and oppose Mosaddegh. The deposed Iranian leader, Mosaddegh, was taken to jail and Iranian General Fazlollah Zahedi named himself prime minister in the new, pro-western government.
Iranian fascists and Nazis played prominent roles in the coup regime. Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, who had been arrested and imprisoned by the British during World War II for his attempt to establish a pro-Nazi government, was made Prime Minister on 19 August 1953. The CIA gave Zahedi about $100,000 before the coup and an additional $5 million the day after the coup to help consolidate support for the coup. Bahram Shahrokh, a trainee of Joseph Goebbels and Berlin Radio's Persian-language program announcer during the Nazi rule, became director of propaganda. Mr. Sharif-Emami, who also had spent some time in jail for his pro-Nazi activities in the 1940s, assumed several positions after 1953 coup, including Secretary General of the Oil Industry, President of the Senate, and Prime Minister (twice).
The British and American spy agencies returned the monarchy to Iran by installing the pro-western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the throne where his rule lasted 26 years. Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979. Masoud Kazemzadeh, associate professor of political science at the Sam Houston State University, wrote that Pahlavi was directed by the CIA and MI6, and assisted by high-ranking Shia clerics. He wrote that the coup employed mercenaries including "prostitutes and thugs" from Tehran's red light district.
The overthrow of Iran's elected government in 1953 ensured Western control of Iran's petroleum resources and prevented the Soviet Union from competing for Iranian oil. Some Iranian clerics cooperated with the western spy agencies because they were dissatisfied with Mosaddegh's secular government.
While the broad outlines of the Iran operation are known: the agency led a coup in 1953 that re-installed the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne, where he remained until overthrown in 1979. "But the C.I.A.'s records were widely thought by historians to have the potential to add depth and clarity to a famous but little-documented intelligence operation," reporter Tim Weiner wrote in The New York Times 29 May 1997
"The Central Intelligence Agency, which has repeatedly pledged for more than five years to make public the files from its secret mission to overthrow the government of Iran in 1953, said today that it had destroyed or lost almost all the documents decades ago."
"A historian who was a member of the C.I.A. staff in 1992 and 1993 said in an interview today that the records were obliterated by 'a culture of destruction' at the agency. The historian, Nick Cullather, said he believed that records on other major cold war covert operations had been burned, including those on secret missions in Indonesia in the 1950s and a successful C.I.A.-sponsored coup in Guyana in the early 1960s. 'Iran—there's nothing', Mr. Cullather said. 'Indonesia—very little. Guyana—that was burned.'"
Donald Wilber, one of the CIA officers who planned the 1953 coup in Iran, wrote an account titled, Clandestine Service History Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 – August 1953. Wilber said one goal of the coup was to strengthen the Shah.
In 2000, James Risen at The New York Times obtained the previously secret CIA version of the coup written by Wilber and summarized its contents, which includes the following.
In early August, the C.I.A. stepped up the pressure. Iranian operatives pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim leaders with savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh, seeking to stir anti-Communist sentiment in the religious community. In addition, the secret history says, the house of at least one prominent Muslim was bombed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists. It does not say whether anyone was hurt in this attack. The agency was also intensifying its propaganda campaign. A leading newspaper owner was granted a personal loan of about $45,000, in the belief that this would make his organ amenable to our purposes. But the shah remained intransigent. In an 1 August meeting with General Norman Schwarzkopf, he refused to sign the C.I.A.-written decrees firing Mr. Mossadegh and appointing General Zahedi. He said he doubted that the army would support him in a showdown.
The National Security Archive at George Washington University contains the full account by Wilber, along with many other coup-related documents and analysis.
In a January 1973 telephone conversation made public in 2009, U.S. President Richard Nixon told CIA Director Richard Helms, who was awaiting Senate confirmation to become the new U.S. Ambassador to Iran, that Nixon wanted Helms to be a "regional ambassador" to Persian Gulf oil states, and noted that Helms had been a schoolmate of Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Historians disagree on what motivated the United States to change its policy towards Iran and stage the coup. Middle East historian Ervand Abrahamian identified the coup d'état as "a classic case of nationalism clashing with imperialism in the Third World". He states that Secretary of State Dean Acheson admitted the "'Communist threat' was a smokescreen" in responding to President Eisenhower's claim that the Tudeh party was about to assume power.
Throughout the crisis, the "communist danger" was more of a rhetorical device than a real issue—i.e. it was part of the cold-war discourse ...The Tudeh was no match for the armed tribes and the 129,000-man military. What is more, the British and Americans had enough inside information to be confident that the party had no plans to initiate armed insurrection. At the beginning of the crisis, when the Truman administration was under the impression a compromise was possible, Acheson had stressed the communist danger, and warned if Mosaddegh was not helped, the Tudeh would take over. The (British) Foreign Office had retorted that the Tudeh was no real threat. But, in August 1953, when the Foreign Office echoed the Eisenhower administration's claim that the Tudeh was about to take over, Acheson now retorted that there was no such communist danger. Acheson was honest enough to admit that the issue of the Tudeh was a smokescreen.
Abrahamian states that Iran's oil was the central focus of the coup, for both the British and the Americans, though "much of the discourse at the time linked it to the Cold War". Abrahamian wrote, "If Mosaddegh had succeeded in nationalizing the British oil industry in Iran, that would have set an example and was seen at that time by the Americans as a threat to U.S. oil interests throughout the world, because other countries would do the same." Mosaddegh did not want any compromise solution that allowed a degree of foreign control. Abrahamian said that Mosaddegh "wanted real nationalization, both in theory and practice".
Tirman points out that agricultural land owners were politically dominant in Iran, well into the 1960s and the monarch, Reza Pahlevi's aggressive land expropriation policies—to the benefit of himself and his supporters—resulted in the Iranian government being Iran's largest land owner. "The landlords and oil producers had new backing, moreover, as American interests were for the first time exerted in Iran. The Cold War was starting, and Soviet challenges were seen in every leftist movement. But the reformers were at root nationalists, not communists, and the issue that galvanized them above all others was the control of oil." The belief that oil was the central motivator behind the coup has been echoed in the popular media by authors such as Robert Byrd,Alan Greenspan, and Ted Koppel.
However, Middle East political scientist Mark Gasiorowski states that while, on the face of it, there is considerable merit to the argument that U.S. policymakers helped U.S. oil companies gain a share in Iranian oil production after the coup, "it seems more plausible to argue that U.S. policymakers were motivated mainly by fears of a communist takeover in Iran, and that the involvement of U.S. companies was sought mainly to prevent this from occurring. The Cold War was at its height in the early 1950s, and the Soviet Union was viewed as an expansionist power seeking world domination. Eisenhower had made the Soviet threat a key issue in the 1952 elections, accusing the Democrats of being soft on communism and of having "lost China." Once in power, the new administration quickly sought to put its views into practice."
Gasiorowski further states "the major U.S. oil companies were not interested in Iran at this time. A glut existed in the world oil market. The U.S. majors had increased their production in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1951 in order to make up for the loss of Iranian production; operating in Iran would force them to cut back production in these countries which would create tensions with Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders. Furthermore, if nationalist sentiments remained high in Iran, production there would be risky. U.S. oil companies had shown no interest in Iran in 1951 and 1952. By late 1952, the Truman administration had come to believe that participation by U.S. companies in the production of Iranian oil was essential to maintain stability in Iran and keep Iran out of Soviet hands. In order to gain the participation of the major U.S. oil companies, Truman offered to scale back a large anti-trust case then being brought against them. The Eisenhower administration shared Truman's views on the participation of U.S. companies in Iran and also agreed to scale back the anti-trust case. Thus, not only did U.S. majors not want to participate in Iran at this time, it took a major effort by U.S. policymakers to persuade them to become involved."
In 2004, Gasiorowski edited a book on the coup arguing that "the climate of intense cold war rivalry between the superpowers, together with Iran's strategic vital location between the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf oil fields, led U.S. officials to believe that they had to take whatever steps were necessary to prevent Iran from falling into Soviet hands." While "these concerns seem vastly overblown today" the pattern of "the 1945–46 Azerbaijan crisis, the consolidation of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, the communist triumph in China, and the Korean War—and with the Red Scare at its height in the United States" would not allow U.S. officials to risk allowing the Tudeh Party to gain power in Iran.
Furthermore, "U.S. officials believed that resolving the oil dispute was essential for restoring stability in Iran, and after March 1953 it appeared that the dispute could be resolved only at the expense either of Britain or of Mosaddeq." He concludes "it was geostrategic considerations, rather than a desire to destroy Mosaddeq's movement, to establish a dictatorship in Iran or to gain control over Iran's oil, that persuaded U.S. officials to undertake the coup."
Faced with choosing between British interests and Iran, the U.S. chose Britain, Gasiorowski said. "Britain was the closest ally of the United States, and the two countries were working as partners on a wide range of vitally important matters throughout the world at this time. Preserving this close relationship was more important to U.S. officials than saving Mosaddeq's tottering regime." A year earlier, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used Britain's support for the U.S. in the Cold War to insist the United States not undermine his campaign to isolate Mosaddegh. "Britain was supporting the Americans in Korea, he reminded Truman, and had a right to expect `Anglo-American unity` on Iran."
The two main winners of World War II who had been Allies during the war became superpowers and competitors as soon as the war ended, each with their own spheres of influence and client states. After the 1953 coup, Iran became one of the client states of the United States. In his earlier book, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran Gasiorowski identifies the client states of the United States and of the Soviet Union between 1954–1977. Gasiorowski identified Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Cambodia, Iran, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan as strong client states of the United States and identified those that were moderately important to the U.S. as Greece, Turkey, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Liberia, Zaire, Israel, Jordan, Tunisia, Pakistan and Thailand. He identified Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ethiopia and Japan as "weak" client states of the United States.
Gasiorowski identified Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Cuba, Mongolia and North Vietnam as "strong client states" of the Soviet Union, and he identified Guinea, Somalia, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea as moderately important client states. Mali and South Yemen were classified as weak client states of the Soviet Union.
According to Kinzer, for most Americans, the crisis in Iran became just part of the conflict between Communism and "the Free world."
"A great sense of fear, particularly the fear of encirclement, shaped American consciousness during this period. ... Soviet power had already subdued Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. Communist governments were imposed on Bulgaria and Romania in 1946, Hungary and Poland in 1947, and Czechoslovakia in 1948. Albania and Yugoslavia also turned to communism. Greek communists made a violent bid for power. Soviet soldiers blocked land routes to Berlin for sixteen months. In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon. That same year, pro-Western forces in China lost their civil war to communists led by Mao Zedong. From Washington, it seemed that enemies were on the march everywhere."
Consequently, "the United States, challenged by what most Americans saw as a relentless communist advance, slowly ceased to view Iran as a country with a unique history that faced a unique political challenge."
Some historians including Douglas Little,Abbas Milani and George Lenczowski have echoed the view that fears of a communist takeover or Soviet influence motivated the U.S. to intervene.
Shortly before the overthrow of Mossadegh, Adolf A. Berle warned the U.S. State Department that U.S. "control of the Middle East was at stake, which, with its Persian Gulf oil, meant 'substantial control of the world.'"
U.S. media coverage
When Mossadegh called for the dissolution of the Majlis in August 1953, the editors of the New York Times gave the opinion that: "A plebiscite more fantastic and farcical than any ever held under Hitler or Stalin is now being staged in Iran by Premier Mossadegh in an effort to make himself unchallenged dictator of the country."
A year after the coup, the New York Times wrote on 6 August 1954, that a new oil "agreement between Iran and a consortium of foreign oil companies" was "good news indeed".
"Costly as the dispute over Iranian oil has been to all concerned, the affair may yet be proved worthwhile if lessons are learned from it: Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran's experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders. In some circles in Great Britain the charge will be pushed that American 'imperialism'—in the shape of the American oil firms in the consortium!—has once again elbowed Britain from a historic stronghold."
Role of BBC's Persian service
Main article: BBC Persian
The British government used the BBC's Persian service for advancing its propaganda against Mosaddegh. Anti-Mosaddegh material were repeatedly aired on the radio channel to the extent that Iranian staff at the BBC Persian radio went on strike to protest the move. The documentary Cinematograph aired on 18 August 2011 on the anniversary of the coup. In it, BBC admitted for the first time to the role of BBC Persian radio as the propaganda arm of the British government in Iran. The Cinematograph narrator said:
The British government used the BBC Persian radio for advancing its propaganda against Mosaddegh and anti-Mosaddegh material were repeatedly aired on the radio channel to the extent that Iranian staff at the BBC Persian radio went on strike to protest the move.
The documentary quoted a 21 July 1951 classified document in which a Foreign Office official thanked the British ambassador for his proposals that were precisely followed by the BBC Persian radio to strengthen its propaganda against Mosaddegh:
The BBC had already made most of the points which you listed, but they were very glad to have an indication from you of what was likely to be most effective and will arrange their programme accordingly... We should also avoid direct attacks on the 'ruling classes' since it seems probable that we may want to deal with a government drawn from those classes should Mosaddegh fall.
The document further stressed that the Foreign Office "shall be grateful for [the ambassador's] comments on the propaganda line we have proposed".
The coup has been said to have "left a profound and long-lasting legacy."
According to the history based on documents released to the National Security Archive and reflected in the book Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, edited by Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, the coup caused long-lasting damage to the U.S. reputation.
"The '28 Mordad' coup, as it is known by its Persian date, was a watershed for Iran, for the Middle East and for the standing of the United States in the region. The joint U.S.-British operation ended Iran's drive to assert sovereign control over its own resources and helped put an end to a vibrant chapter in the history of the country's nationalist and democratic movements. These consequences resonated with dramatic effect in later years. When the Shah finally fell in 1979, memories of the U.S. intervention in 1953, which made possible the monarch's subsequent, and increasingly unpopular, 25-year reign intensified the anti-American character of the revolution in the minds of many Iranians."
The authoritarian monarch installed in the coup appreciated the coup, Kermit Roosevelt wrote in his account of the affair. "'I owe my throne to God, my people, my army and to you!' By 'you' he [the shah] meant me and the two countries—Great Britain and the United States—I was representing. We were all heroes."
On 16 June 2000, The New York Times published the secret CIA report, "Clandestine Service History, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, November 1952 – August 1953," partly explaining the coup from CIA agent Wilber's perspective. In a related story, The New York Times reporter James Risen penned a story revealing that Wilber's report, hidden for nearly five decades, had recently come to light.
In the summer of 2001, Ervand Abrahamian wrote in the journal Science & Society that Wilber's version of the coup was missing key information some of which was available elsewhere.
The New York Times recently leaked a CIA report on the 1953 American-British overthrow of Mosaddeq, Iran's Prime Minister. It billed the report as a secret history of the secret coup, and treated it as an invaluable substitute for the U.S. files that remain inaccessible. But a reconstruction of the coup from other sources, especially from the archives of the British Foreign Office, indicates that this report is highly sanitized. It glosses over such sensitive issues as the crucial participation of the U.S. ambassador in the actual overthrow; the role of U.S. military advisers; the harnessing of local Nazis and Muslim terrorists; and the use of assassinations to destabilize the government. What is more, it places the coup in the context of the Cold War rather than that of the Anglo-Iranian oil crisis—a classic case of nationalism clashing with imperialism in the Third World.
In a review of Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, historian Michael Beschloss wrote, "Mr. Weiner argues that a bad C.I.A. track record has encouraged many of our gravest contemporary problems... A generation of Iranians grew up knowing that the C.I.A. had installed the shah," Mr. Weiner notes. "In time, the chaos that the agency had created in the streets of Tehran would return to haunt the United States."
The administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the coup a success, but, given its blowback, that opinion is no longer generally held, because of its "haunting and terrible legacy".
In 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State, said that intervention by the U.S. in the internal affairs of Iran was a setback for democratic government. The coup d'état was "a critical event in post-war world history" that destroyed Iran's secular parliamentary democracy, by re-installing the monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as an authoritarian ruler. The coup is widely believed to have significantly contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which deposed the "pro-Western" Shah and replaced the monarchy with an "anti-Western" Islamic Republic.
"For many Iranians, the coup demonstrated duplicity by the United States, which presented itself as a defender of freedom but did not hesitate to use underhanded methods to overthrow a democratically elected government to suit its own economic and strategic interests", the Agence France-Presse reported.
"The world has paid a heavy price for the lack of democracy in most of the Middle East. Operation Ajax taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants that the world's most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and to Western oil companies. That helped tilt the political balance in a vast region away from freedom and toward dictatorship."
The United States initially considered the coup to be a triumph of Cold War covert action, but given its blowback, Kinzer wrote that it is difficult to imagine an outcome "that would have produced as much pain and horror over the next half century as that produced by Operation Ajax" had "American and British intelligence officers not meddled so shamelessly in (Iran"s) domestic affairs."
Front cover of the weekly MagazineTehran Mosavar, dated 21 August 1953, depicting armed men and soldiers standing on a tank.
United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who visited Iran both before and after the coup, wrote that "When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed. We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East."
An immediate consequence of the coup d'état was the repression of all political dissent, especially the liberal and nationalist opposition umbrella group National Front as well as the (Communist) Tudeh party, and concentration of political power in the Shah and his courtiers.
The minister of Foreign Affairs and the closest associate of Mosaddegh, Hossein Fatemi, was executed by order of the Shah's military court by firing squad on 10 November 1954. According to Kinzer, "The triumphant Shah [Pahlavi] ordered the execution of several dozen military officers and student leaders who had been closely associated with Mohammad Mossadegh"
As part of the post-coup d'état political repression between 1953–1958, the Shah outlawed the National Front, and arrested most of its leaders. The Tudeh, however, bore the main brunt of the repression. The Shah's security forces arrested 4,121 Tudeh political activists including 386 civil servants, 201 college students, 165 teachers, 125 skilled workers, 80 textile workers, 60 cobblers, and 11 housewives .
Forty were executed, another 14 died under torture and over 200 were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Shah's post-coup dragnet also captured 477 Tudeh members ("22 colonels, 69 majors, 100 captains, 193 lieutenants, 19 noncommissioned officers, and 63 military cadets") who were in the Iranian armed forces.
After their presence was revealed, some National Front supporters complained that this Tudeh military network could have saved Mosaddegh. However, few Tudeh officers commanded powerful field units, especially tank divisions that might have countered the coup. Most of the captured Tudeh officers came from the military academies, police and medical corps. At least eleven of the captured army officers were tortured to death between 1953 and 1958.
After the 1953 coup, the Shah's government formed the SAVAK (secret police), many of whose agents were trained in the United States. The SAVAK was given a "loose leash" to torture suspected dissidents with "brute force" that, over the years, "increased dramatically".
Another effect was sharp improvement of Iran's economy; the British-led oil embargo against Iran ended, and oil revenue increased significantly beyond the pre-nationalisation level. Despite Iran not controlling its national oil, the Shah agreed to replacing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with a consortium—British Petroleum and eight European and American oil companies; in result, oil revenues increased from $34 million in 1954–1955 to $181 million in 1956–1957, and continued increasing, and the United States sent development aid and advisors.
In the 1970s the Shah's government increased taxes that foreign companies were obliged to pay from 50% to 80% and royalty payments from 12.5% to 20%. At the same time the price of oil reverted to Iranian control. Oil companies now only earned 22 cents per barrel of oil.
Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president, of The Future of Freedom Foundation, said, "U.S. officials, not surprisingly, considered the operation one of their greatest foreign policy successes—until, that is, the enormous convulsion that rocked Iranian society with the violent ouster of the Shah and the installation of a virulently anti-American Islamic regime in 1979". According to him, "the coup, in essence, paved the way for the rise to power of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and all the rest that's happened right up to 9/11 and beyond".
Kinzer wrote that the 1953 coup d'état was the first time the U.S. used the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected, civil government.[ The Eisenhower administration viewed Operation Ajax as a success, with "immediate and far-reaching effect. Overnight, the CIA became a central part of the American foreign policy apparatus, and covert action came to be regarded as a cheap and effective way to shape the course of world events"—a coup engineered by the CIA called Operation PBSUCCESS toppling the duly elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, which had nationalised farm land owned by the United Fruit Company, followed the next year.
A pro-American government in Iran doubled the United States' geographic and strategic advantage in the Middle East, as Turkey, also bordering the USSR, was part of NATO.
In 2000 U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, acknowledged the coup's pivotal role in the troubled relationship and "came closer to apologizing than any American official ever has before".
The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. ... But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.
In June 2009, the U.S. President Barack Obama in a speech in Cairo, Egypt, talked about the United States' relationship with Iran, mentioning the role of the U.S. in 1953 Iranian coup saying:
This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.
Historical viewpoint in the Islamic Republic
Men associated with Mossadegh and his ideals dominated Iran's first post-revolutionary government. The first prime minister after the Iranian revolution was Mehdi Bazargan, a close associate of Mossadegh. But with the subsequent rift between the conservative Islamic establishment and the secular liberal forces, Mossadegh's work and legacy has been largely ignored by the Islamic Republic establishment.
However, Mosaddegh remains a popular historical figure among Iranian opposition factions. Mosaddegh's image is one of the symbols of Iran's opposition movement, also known as the Green Movement. Kinzer writes that Mosaddegh "for most Iranians" is "the most vivid symbol of Iran's long struggle for democracy" and that modern protesters carrying a picture of Mosaddegh is the equivalent of saying "We want democracy" and "No foreign intervention".
In the Islamic Republic, remembrance of the coup is quite different than that of history books published in the West, and follows the precepts of Ayatollah Khomeini that Islamic jurists must guide the country to prevent "the influence of foreign powers". According to historian Ervand Abrahamian, the government tries to ignore Mosaddegh as much as possible and allocates him only two pages in high school textbooks. "The mass media elevate Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani as the real leader of the oil nationalization campaign, depicting Mosaddegh as merely the ayatollah's hanger-on." This is despite the fact that Kashani came out against Mosaddegh by mid-1953 and "told a foreign correspondent that Mosaddegh had fallen because he had forgotten that the shah enjoyed extensive popular support."
A month later, Kashani "went even further and declared that Mosaddegh deserved to be executed because he had committed the ultimate offense: rebelling against the shah, 'betraying' the country, and repeatedly violating the sacred law."
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kinzer's book All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror has been censored of descriptions of Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani's activities during the Anglo-American coup d'état. Mahmood Kashani, the son of Abol-Ghasem Kashani, "one of the top members of the current, ruling élite" whom the Iranian Council of Guardians has twice approved to run for the presidency, denies there was a coup d'état in 1953, saying Mosaddegh was obeying British plans to undermine the role of Shia clerics.
This allegation also is posited in the book Khaterat-e Arteshbod-e Baznesheshteh Hossein Fardoust (The Memoirs of Retired General Hossein Fardoust), published in the Islamic Republic and allegedly written by Hossein Fardoust, a former SAVAK officer. It claims that rather than being a mortal enemy of the British, Mohammad Mosaddegh always favored them, and his nationalisation campaign of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was inspired by "the British themselves". Scholar Ervand Abrahamian suggests that the fact that Fardoust's death was announced before publication of the book may be significant, as the Islamic Republic authorities may have forced him into writing such statements under duress.
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