The following piece was written on the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-instigated 1953 coup in Iran. Today marks the 70th anniversary. The only editing I have done is to change 60 to 70 and update the age of Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. For those interested, NPR conducted an interview on the coup Friday.
To disseminate [views of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq as a fanatic], the British press attaché in Tehran sent his counterpart in Washington "a steady supply of suitable poison too venomous for the BBC." The Washington attaché reported American columnists made "good use of this poison." He boasted he even helped them write some their pieces on Iran. Drew Pearson—the venerable dean of American journalism and lead columnist for the Washington Post—circulated a completely fabricated story about how Fastemi, Mossadeq's right hand, had multiple convictions of embezzlement and jury tampering. [...] Stewart Alsop and his brother Joseph—both leading columnists for The New York Herald—warned that unless the United States took a firm stand, "all the little Musaddiqs would be tempted to cause trouble."—Ervand Abrahamian in The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations.
It would make a great movie. Characters bigger than life. Stunning success against difficult odds after initial failure.
At the behest of two of the most powerful brothers in U.S. history, the aristocratic grandson of a famous president engineers a coup d'etat against a secular, democratically minded reformist leader and replaces him with a pro-Nazi prime minister overseen by a spoiled, craven monarch who proceeds to keep democracy at bay, the oil flowing, and the torture chambers full for the next quarter century, after which he is ousted only to be replaced by a theocratic regime.
From this flows the most devastating example of blowback America has ever felt. Blowback that continues today. Blowback that has contributed to internal wrangling within three U.S. administrations between those who choose not to make war beyond sanctions and assassinations, and those who want to go full out.
Unfortunately, all this is not a script being pitched to a Hollywood studio. It is history. Operation Ajax. Planning and control: CIA. Partner: MI-6. Target: Iran. The date: Aug. 19, 1953. Objective: Its oil, its near-Soviet locale, and the overthrow of its democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, to be replaced by a weak-willed wastrel, the hereditary monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
No short commentary can possibly do justice to any complex subject, and the Iranian coup and its fall-out is no exception. Condensing inevitably damages nuance. Interpretation across cultural divides cannot help but get many little matters and some essential ones wrong. Despite these pitfalls, however, it's important for Americans to understand how the policies conducted before 85 percent of the U.S. population and 95 percent of the Iranian population were born still has a serious impact and creates perils today. After all, it's a rare month that goes by without saber-rattling from some high-up U.S. politicians about the need to use U.S. firepower to "fix" Iran.
Tactics aside, there is bipartisan consensus in the heights of U.S. foreign policy circles for curtailing Iran, particularly what is usually labeled its "nuclear ambitions." While conventional war, the bomb-bomb-bomb Iran approach, has been so far avoided because that still remains a last resort of the bipartisan consensus, other attacks on Iran have continued, including by means of Stuxnet, the cyber-weapon built by the National Security Agency together with CIA and Israeli intelligence and used to temporarily cripple the uranium enrichment operations in Natanz, Iran.
There are, in addition, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by the Iranian terrorist organization Mojahedin-e-Khalq assisted with funding and training assistance of America's ally Israel.
You can still find the most outrageous rightwing apologia for what happened in 1953 in Iran. Like this one from a book review in the Middle East Quarterly:
In fact, Mussadiq fell not because of CIA actions but because he had alienated large segments of the Iranian population, including the devoutly religious. He was no democrat: when they were sympathetic to him, he was happy to rely on crowds, mobilized by the communist Tudeh party, to pressure parliament. And the famous coup to overthrow him consisted simply of the shah exercising his constitutional power to dismiss the prime minister. Readers must look elsewhere for a balanced analysis of the overthrow of Mussadiq.
Since I wouldn't want to be accused of what the late neo-imperialist Jeane Kirkpatrick so often called the "blame America first" crowd, let me first say a word about the British. Without their unbendable colonial mentality, without Winston Churchill's insufferable superiority complex, the CIA might never have had the chance to put together Operation Ajax, which, in fact, was just a takeover of the Brits' Operation Boot. And without the amoral arrogance of the Dulles Brothers, the imprimatur of Dwight Eisenhower, the enthusiastic spookery of Theodore Roosevelt's grandson Kermit and the collaboration of many Iranians, including the vain and insecure and heavily nudged and bribed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's governance today might be more authentically democratic instead of the crabbed version large portions of the Iranian people oppose.
Instead, one can draw a straight line from that CIA coup  years ago to the government that now alternates between hard-liners and reformers, all of them hamstrung by the extensive authority of the Supreme Leader of the Assembly of Experts, currently the -year-old Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who has ruled since 1989.
If you want the details, journalist Steven Kinzer is a good place to start. Thirty-one years ago, he co-wrote with Stephen Schlesinger Bitter Fruit, the story of the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala that eventually led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Maya Indians. Ten years ago, Kinzer wrote All the Shah's Men, the story of the coup which had given the Dulles brothers the hubris and experience to engineer the Guatemalan coup.
National Review wasn't fond of Kinzer's take on what happened in 1953 and headlined its sneering and highly inaccurate review, A Very Elegant Coup. Scarcely a surprise from editors of a publication that still considers Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet saviors. CIA staff historian David S. Robarge had objections, too, but generally gave Kinzer high marks.
For an officially sanctioned Iranian side of the matter, you might check out Mostafa T. Zahrani's article The Coup That Changed the Middle East. The CIA's own 200-page history of the coup, written by Donald Wilber, one of the operation's chief planners in 1954, only came to light in April 2000. A book published just this year is that of City University of New York History Professor Ervand Abrahamiam, The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. That one will leave a mark that apologists for six decades of U.S.-Iranian policy will not be able to scrub.
The British Empire Loves Persian Oil
British interests had paid a brazenly cheap price to a lavishly corrupt Iranian king, Muzzafir al-Din Shah, in 1901 for an exclusive concession to seek, develop, and distribute the oil resources of Iran. In a treaty Iranian officials were told about after it was signed, Britain and Russia split control of Iran in 1907, and in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company started a trickle of black gold that over the years grew to a river. In 1913, spurred by Winston Churchill, who saw war coming, the British government bought 51 percent of the company for ₤2 million. Anglo-Persian built Iran's petroleum infrastructure, including the giant refinery town on the northwest tip of the Persian Gulf at Abadan, where tens of thousands of impoverished workers and their families lived under appalling circumstances.
There were a few hiccups, but nothing the imperial Brits couldn't handle. In 1932, the new shah, Reza Khan, upset over the vast income of Anglo-Persian, demanded a rewriting of the concession that gave the country only 16 percent of company profits and no auditing rights. But Reza Khan settled for an annual revenue floor of ₤975,000 and agreed to extend the concession to 1993. In 1941, the British forced him to abdicate in favor of his vacillating playboy son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Oil production in Iran nearly tripled during World War II. But workers' lives didn't improve. The Brits ignored their promises to build hospitals, roads, schools, and a telephone system, or to provide Iranians with the high-end skills to run what was then the largest oil refinery in the world. When workers went on strike in 1946, their British overseers opted for the divide-and-conquer routine that had worked so well in so many other parts of the empire. They hired ethnic Arabs, created for them a phony union, and sent them to battle—literally—against the strikers. In Blood and Oil: Inside the Shah's Iran, Manucher Farmanfarmaian, who became director of Iran's petroleum institute in 1949, wrote:
Wages were fifty cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shanty-town called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity, let alone such luxuries as iceboxes or fans. In winter the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and canoes ran alongside the roadways for transport. When the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant waters to fill the nostrils, collecting in black mounds along the rims of cooking pots and jamming the fans at the refinery with an unctuous glue. [...] To the management of AIOC in their pressed ecru shirts and air-conditioned offices, the workers were faceless drones. [...] In the British section of Abadan there were lawns, rose beds, tennis courts, swimming pools and clubs; in Kaghazabad there was nothing, not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town, no matter how poor or dry, were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats. The man in the grocery store sold his wares while sitting in a barrel of water to avoid the heat. Only the shriveled, mud-brick mosque in the old quarter offered hope in the form of divine redemption.
Meanwhile, in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament heretofore ignored by both the shah and the British, a stalwart, aging man with a reputation for searing honesty and Iranian patriotism wrote and pushed a new law banning the granting of any more foreign concessions and requiring renegotiation of the existing Anglo-Iranian concession. His name was Mohammad Mossadeq.
If the British had, right then and there, seen the handwriting on the wall, and chosen to bargain in good faith, they might not only have kept their concession, but the world might never have heard the name Ruhollah Khomeini a quarter-century later. Instead they made a few piddling improvements to their one-sided deal and refused to negotiate further, doing so in a self-caricature of pigheaded aristocratic hauteur, which inflamed Iranian sentiment and pushed Mossadeq in a direction he was not unhappy to go. With the Brits so far removed from reality, and only the puppet shah in favor of their offer, nationalization of Anglo-Iranian became the war cry of the nationalists.
Mossadeq soon found himself accepting the prime ministership. The company was nationalized. The British began planning an invasion to institute regime change, which President Harry Truman refused to support, and then a coup, which Truman refused to countenance. They might still have gone ahead, except that Mossadeq suddenly kicked out all the British, including many of its conniving spooks.
On their way out, the Brits sabotaged Abadan, claimed all oil moving on tankers out of Iran was theirs, and, to encourage everybody to observe their embargo, seized the tanker Rose Mary, forcing it into the port at Aden, and began a covert campaign to cripple the economy. Needless to say, the oil revenues Iran depended upon dried up, and anger among many previous supporters weakened Mossadeq. But he refused to give in to the British, and most Iranians still backed him. When he spoke in Europe and, later, America, he won a great deal of sympathy for eloquently delivering what many observers considered the perfectly obvious truth: Britain had screwed Iran and was prepared to continue doing so. In October 1951, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he accused the British of trying ...
... "to persuade world opinion that the lamb has devoured the wolf. [...] The government of the United Kingdom has made abundantly clear that it has no interest in negotiating, and has instead used every illegitimate means of economic, psychological and military pressure that it could lay its hands on to break our will. Having first concentrated its warships along our coasts and paratroopers at nearby bases, it makes a great parade of its love for peace."
The British lost the ICJ case.
Like all leaders, Mossadeq was no saint. But even his toughest foes have conceded that he was incorruptible and implacably committed to reforms, everything from pest control to unemployment compensation, from agricultural reform to housing, from women's rights to religious freedom. Educated in France and Switzerland, he was no enemy of "western values," but rather a great believer in secular democracy, something which put him at odds with many of this fellow citizens, particularly in government.
He was also a shrewd diplomat. On his way from the United Nations in New York to meet Truman in D.C., Mossadeq stopped off in Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall, which he told a cheering crowd represented the principles of liberty that united Americans and Iranians.
Although Truman and his deputies urged Mossadeq to give some ground in his dispute with Anglo-Iranian, they were sandbagged by London, which repeatedly couched its original offer in new language. In Truman's view, the "blockheaded" British were at least as much to blame for the tension as Mossadeq, and the president was therefore unwilling to give the green-light to a coup or invasion by the British, who were now once again being governed by that wily old imperialist Churchill in his final stint as prime minister.
Ike Says Yes to Coup
When Eisenhower was elected, however, U.S. opposition to a coup not only melted away but became something top-level officials felt they should take on as their own project. And that's exactly what they did, with John Foster Dulles at the State Department and brother Allen Dulles at the CIA enthusiastically getting the operation under way.
Their rationale was simple. Iran bordered the Soviet Union and Moscow had had designs on the place since far back in the czarist period. The nationalist turmoil in Iran might give the communists in the Tudeh party the opportunity to give the country away to the Reds. (British Foreign Office documents declassified some years ago prove that U.S. and U.K. intelligence agents knew the Tudeh was marginal, and, more importantly, not connected with Mossadeq. But that wasn't how their propagandists portrayed him.)
Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Theodore, linked up with his MI-6 counterparts to make use of Britain's "assets" in Iran. These included men who knew, among other things, which newspaper editors, army generals, police captains, mullahs and merchants should be bribed. Men who knew where to find street thugs who could pretend to be rampaging communists. Men who could not have cared less about prying their country from foreign clutches as long as they could pry some political clout or cash out of the deal. In a flurry of activity worthy of a Le Carré novel, Roosevelt met secretly in the back seat of an automobile with the shah and with General Fazlollah Zahedi to set Operation Ajax into motion. Scarcely a more cynical choice for replacing Mossadeq could be imagined. A grain profiteer, the general had been imprisoned by the British during the war for working with Nazi agents to organize a tribal revolt that was to have coincided with a German thrust into Iran. The epitome of a traitor.
Elements of the 1953 coup would be repeated 20 years later against Salvador Allende in Chile. Iranian newspaper editors were paid to spread lies that Mossadeq was pro-communist and out to destroy the armed forces. Religious leaders were attacked by CIA-funded street thugs who would make it appear they were ordered into action by Mossadeq or his secular supporters. General Zahedi bribed fellow officers to gain the needed military support against any resistance. Thousands of people were paid to participate in anti-government rallies. Members of parliament were bribed to—when the word was given—push a vote to dismiss the prime minister in order to "rescue" Iran from chaos. All through July and early August, the CIA's presses poured out a steady stream of vitriol against Mossadeq. The prime minister, firm believer in democracy that he was, ordered the police not to take action against street protesters and made no attempt to censor the newspapers, many of which were calling for his head on a platter. As Don Wilber wrote in the CIA history of the coup:
At this same time the psychological campaign against Mossadeq was reaching its climax. The controllable press was going all out against Mossadeq, while [DELETED] under station direction was printing material which the station considered to be helpful. CIA agents gave serious attention to alarming the religious leaders at Tehran by issuing black propaganda in the name of the Tudeh party, threatening these leaders with save punishment if they opposed Mossadegh. Threatening phone calls were also made to them, in the name of the Tudeh, and one of several sham bombings of the houses of these leaders was carried out. .. On 14 August the station cabled that upon the conclusion of TPAJAX the Zahedi government, in view of the empty treasury of the country, would be in urgent need of funds. The sum of $5,000,000 was suggested, and CIA was asked to produce this sum almost within hours after the conclusion of the operation.
Not everyone thought the coup was a good idea, including Roger Goiran, the CIA's Tehran station chief. According to Kinzer, Goiran quite presciently:
... believed that this would be a great mistake and warned that if the coup was carried out, Iranians would forever view the United States as a supporter of what he called "Anglo-French colonialism." His opposition was so resolute that Allen Dulles had to remove him from his post.
On August 15, the go-ahead for coup was given. It failed in its first hours. Warned by some still-unknown informant, loyal army commanders arrested several of the conspirators, and had them in jail shortly after midnight. Zahedi went into hiding.
Kermit Roosevelt Jr. Makes Second Attempt
Roosevelt's supervisors in Washington urged him to flee if he was at risk. But he chose to stay and try again. While despising his efforts, one can still be awed by his audacity and cleverness. Compliant newspapers published stories saying the coup had actually been an attempt by Mossadeq to get rid of the shah, commanders of small military outposts in the capital were bribed, more "black" street protests were organized (with communist chants, attacks on bystanders and gunshots at mosques all part of their menu).
On August 17, groups of toughs pretending to be Mossadeq supporters marched through the streets, ending at Parliament Square, where they toppled a bronze equestrian statue of Reza Khan. Roosevelt wrote in his highly selective book with the deliciously upside-down title,Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran:
"This was the best thing we could have hoped for. The more they shouted against the Shah, the more the army and the people recognized them as the enemy. If they hated the Shah, the army and the people hated them. And the more they ravaged the city, the more they angered the great bulk of its inhabitants. Nothing could have dramatized the guts of the conflict more effectively or more rapidly. On Sunday there had been some rioting and pillaging, but Monday put frosting on the cake."
On Tuesday, August 18, the rioting spread. At the request of the lying U.S. ambassador, who told Mossedeq Americans were being insulted and intimidated in the streets, the prime minister called in the cops, who stopped the demonstrators in a frenzy of violence. Mossadeq then banned further protests, even calling his allies to tell them to keep their people off the streets. Thus did he disarm himself.
The next day, Zahedi's bribed officers began seizing key points around Tehran and moved on Mossadeq's home, where loyal army units exchanged machine-gun and tank rounds with the CIA-backed rebels for two hours before surrendering. Mossadeq fled and a reward was put up for his capture.
Having gotten word of their success, the conspirators brought a record from the U.S. embassy so as to have some appropriate martial music to play over Tehran's official radio before Zahedi spoke to the nation. When they discovered the first song was "The Star-Spangled Banner," they quickly lifted the needle and placed it in the groove of something less obvious. (For the coup in Guatemala in 1954, the U.S. embassy played the recorded sounds of bombs exploding over its loudspeaker system to terrorize the population.)
Mossadeq soon surrendered, was tried and confined first to his home and then to his village for the rest of his life. Savak, the soon-to-be-notorious secret police trained by CIA and Mossad agents with the help of the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, would station several of its agents with Mossadeq for the rest of his life, allowing him few visits with anyone other than relatives. It was to be one of Savak's more benign activities.
When he died in 1967, no expression of public mourning was permitted. The cowardly Shah, who had, typically, fled to Rome with his wife as soon as the August 15 coup went sour, returned to thank Roosevelt. Immediately, he began a 26-year dictatorial reign, westernization, and modernization replete with imprisonment, torture, and slaughter of dissidents.
As for the British, their hopes were dashed that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company—renamed British Petroleum in 1954—would return to its old glory. While Ike and Churchill had both signed off on Operation Ajax, the Americans had done the heavy lifting, and they demanded a fat share of the spoils. Hence, Anglo-American got 40 percent of the oil concession, five U.S. companies got 40 percent, and 20 percent went to Shell and the French-owned CFP. It was agreed that the consortium would share profits with the National Iranian Oil Company 50-50, but it would neither open its books to Iranian auditors nor its board to Iranian directors.
When President Jimmy Carter permitted the shah to come to the United States in late 1979 for cancer treatment, months after the Islamic revolution, many of the Iranian students who subsequently stormed the U.S. embassy and took hostages in Tehran justified themselves on the grounds that Washington was preparing to reinstall that dying man to power. Most of those students were hardly philosophical successors to Mossadeq, but they were imbued with the legacy of the '53 coup: They and their parents had lived with its horrific consequences. In a 1987 article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, The 1953 Coup d'Etat in Iran, historian Mark J. Gasiorowski wrote from a distinctly super-power point of view:
In retrospect, the United States-sponsored coup d'etat in Iran of August 19, 1953, has emerged as a critical event in postwar world history. The government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which was ousted in the coup, was the last popular, democratically oriented government to hold office in Iran. The regime replacing it was a dictatorship that suppressed all forms of popular political activity, producing tensions that contributed greatly to the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution. If Mosaddeq had not been overthrown, the revolution might not have occurred. ... Had the coup not occurred, Iran's future would undoubtedly have been vastly different. Similarly, the U.S. role in the coup and in the subsequent consolidation of the Shah's dictatorship was decisive for the future of U.S. relations with Iran. U.S. complicity in these events figured prominently in the terrorist attacks on American citizens and installations that occurred in Iran in the early 1970s, in the anti American character of the 1978-1979 revolution, and in the many anti-American incidents that emanated from Iran after the revolution, including, most notably, the embassy hostage crisis. Latter-day supporters of the coup frequently argue that it purchased twenty-five years of stability in Iran under a pro-American regime. As the dire consequences of the revolution for U.S. interests continue to unfold, one can only wonder whether this has been worth the long-term cost.
These CIA men and their bosses were international outlaws who never repented or even, as Roosevelt's memoirs prove, came clean on what they actually did in Iran, and later, elsewhere. Obviously, the nature of the current regime in Iran is only partially a product of those know-it-all men of [seven] decades ago. The mullahs have plenty of crimes of their own for which they will unlikely ever be called to account even when reform finally transforms Iran into a real democracy instead of its currently truncated form.
These days, when Americans are learning for the umpteenth time that the CIA and other intelligence agencies regularly lie to their alleged overseers in Congress and for their overseers in the executive branch, it is well to remember what happened  years ago and how its echoes still influence U.S. foreign policy.