Mossadegh and 1953 coup d'etat

18 May, 2016 John Flint Iran History 4776 Views 30 Shares
Mossadegh and 1953 coup d'etat

Perhaps the CIA are the best travelers of all. The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran slowed political development and strengthened Iran's solidarity in the world. The political overthrow came before mysterious events that occured in Guatemala, Indonesia,  Brazil, Chile (the list goes on). But maybe no other nation state has found it more difficult to recover from than the Iranian people. The result? One thing is for sure, the string of foreign policies towards Iran has haunted the West like no other.


Persian Gulf Energy and the Rise of Mossadegh

When the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh' (1882-1967) came to power in 1951, he could only think about bringing democracy to the Iran. How could he not, when an assassination attempt was made on the King (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah) in 1949 only a few years prior. Mossadegh stepped up to respond to Shah's increasingly authoritarian regime, quickly rose through the Parliament (Majlis), and negotiated many civil rights for the Iranian people. Including a large share of the Monarch's executive powers.

His flagship policy was to get a better economic deal for Iran's hugely profitable oil fields. Until this time they were run by the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC/ now British Petroleum). Under the original financial agreement Iran had a 20% share, without auditing rights, and had grossly unjust labor rights. While this was similar to other colonial deals around the world, perhaps none were quite as rewarding for Britain as Iranian oil. So much so that some scholars have suggested without Iranian oil, the allies would never have defeated the Third Reich in WW2. Maybe a stretch, but Gulf oil was certainly strategic in the war.


iran-oil massadegh-crowd-iran


Mossadegh's Early Fame

Mossadegh passionately wanted to lift the welfare of the Iranian people, he would later be branded as the 'weeping, acting, and melodramatic leader'  by western mainstream media. However the public scene Mossadegh created went far beyond the borders of Iran and Britain. He received so much global attention, encouraging developing nations to shake off colonial yolk, he would later be given 'Times Man of the Year' in 1951. 

During Harry Truman's Presidency-D between 1945 and 1953, America maintained good relations with Iran without any desire to get caught up in old-colonial feuds. Originally America had even tried to broker the energy deal, and the Iranian people not only respected America for supporting Iran's civil rights, but also admired America's own pathway towards independence only two centuries earlier. However, the situation quickly changed behind closed doors. 




Churchill and British Game Theory

During negotiations Britain refused to give Iran a fairer share. So Mossadegh nationalized the AIOC and expelled British diplomats from Iran, whom he rightly suspected of plotting to overthrow him. Naturally in response Britain encouraged a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil, and work very hard to muddy the reputation of Mossadegh's administration both internationally and inside Iran. But this wasn't enough to win global public opinion. 

The government of Conservative British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1951-1955), had only just started strategising Britain's response. Until this point Churchill had previously been decorated for serving as a military officer in British India, Anglo-Sudan War, and the Second Boer War. So perhaps his racehorse named "Colonist II" was more than just a euphemism. Leading up until the 1953 US presidential election, Churchill quickly moved to convinced the newly elected administration of Dwight Eisenhower-R (1953-1961) that the Mossadegh supporters had to go. 

The Great Game just found a new stakeholder - America.



Colonialism vs. Rights of Man = Espionage 

The 1953 coup d'état was soon in motion, orchestrated by the United Kingdom under the code name "Operation Boot" and the United States under "Operation AJAX." Sharpshooter Allen Dulles and young Kermit Roosevelt Jr, grandson of former president Teddy Roosevelt, were soon placed at the helm of the CIA operations in Iran. The 'covert intelligence' and "covert actions" were orchestrated from a bunker beneath the oversized US embassy in Tehran, the perfect location for 'diplomatic' immunity. Well, so they thought.




Failed Coup Attempt in Iran

The secret operatives establish a large network throughout Iran. Firsly by buying off the Monarch and it's army, but also senior Islamic clerics (also anti-democratic), military officers, newspaper editors, radio broadcasters, traders, and street thugs in many cities.

Mossadegh indeed foiled the plot, however the Americans learned game theory quickly.  

When a royal decree with an arrest warrant was being delivered to Mossadegh, the police arrested them instead. By this time the Shah feared for his life, from his own people, so fled to Rome the very next day. A radio announcement of the failed coup attempt was broadcasted loudly to the Iranian people. 

On the 16th August 1953, police and security forces were ordered to round up all the coup plotters, many arrests were made, and Mossadegh believed he had succeeded. Assuming the coup attempt failed, he asked the public to return to their homes and calm the streets. However the Shah's army general declared he was the rightful prime minister at this point, while shuttling himself between multiple safe houses to avoid arrest, and the next few days proved Mossadegh was wrong.



All or Nothing

While some arrests were made, the widespread preparation for the coup was still in flight. The majority of Iranians had understandably grown frustrated and confused with waves of negative media, economic uncertainty, and political backstabbing. 

The propaganda and finance targeting specific groups had far reaching influence. Some of the Iran's most feared mobsters overwhelmed the country with chaos and fear.

Perhaps the United States embassy staff and young Kermit Roosevelt had the highest stakes in the game, and Iranians were naive to modern espionage at the time. Kermit had a very difficult decisions to make, finding it difficult to debrief, he was required to act very quickly. Over the next four days until 19th August, he played his last hand. CIA-paid men were brought into Tehran by buses and trucks, and began taking over vital streets in the Capital City. Between 300-800 people were killed trying to quell the artificial conflict, until the hawkish moves payed dividends. Eventually Mossadegh was arrested, trialed in Shah's court and convicted of treason.

The Shah finally returned to Iran, Mossadegh went under house arrest to avoid publicity, and the Shah reinstated his royal powers and more. However with NATO's full backing this time, including large American defence deals and SAVAK, Iran's Gestapo-like security service.

This oil based security agreement would prove a useful model for the entire Gulf region for decades to come.  



What Happened to Mossadegh?

Mossadegh enjoyed gardening, but eventually died in 1967 while under house arrest.

Challenging western colonialism and Iran's authoritarian regime proved to be Mossadegh's biggest mistake. Mossadegh has since been recorded into history as a melodramatic populist and socialist.

It's not in the interest of western powers, or the current Islamic Republic of Iran, to decorate Mossadegh as Iran's democratic patriot. Perhaps this is the only congenial topic America and Iran's current Islamic regime can agree upon.




In the year 2000, some five decades after the 1953 coup, US Secretary of State Madeleine K Albright became the first senior American official to formally acknowledge the CIA's involvement. 

Albright made the following statement in March 2000:

"In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. 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."

Regardless  of your opinion of Mossadegh's movement, the foriegn influenced events in 1953 slowed Iran's political development and strengthened Iran's solidarity in the world. And when new sanctions followed, Iran had further distanced itself from the world.



The best selling book 'All the Shah's Men' is a must read if you want to read more about the events of the 1953 CIA coup d'etat.



About Author


John Flint

Tehran Sfiran Writing Editor

I'm John, I'm based in Tehran doing freelance writing, editing and marketing.

Leave a Comment