The Coup's Brief History
Mosaddeq came to prominence in Iran in 1951 when he was appointed premier. A fierce nationalist, Mosaddeq immediately began attacks on British oil companies operating in his country, calling for expropriation and nationalization of the oil fields. His actions brought him into conflict with the pro-Western elites of Iran and the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. Indeed, the Shah dismissed Mossadeq in mid-1952, but massive public riots condemning the action forced the Shah to reinstate Mossadeq a short time later. U.S. officials watched events in Iran with growing suspicion. British intelligence sources, working with the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), came to the conclusion that Mossadeq had communist leanings and would move Iran into the Soviet orbit if allowed to stay in power. Working with Shah, the CIA and British intelligence began to engineer a plot to overthrow Mossadeq.
The Iranian premier, however, got wind of the plan and called his supporters to take to the streets in protest. At this point, the Shah left the country for "medical reasons.” While British intelligence backed away from the debacle, the CIA continued its covert operations in Iran. Working with pro-Shah forces and, most importantly, the Iranian military, the CIA cajoled, threatened, and bribed its way into influence and helped to organize another coup attempt against Mossadeq. On August 19, 1953, the military, backed by street protests organized and financed by the CIA, overthrew Mossadeq. The Shah quickly returned to take power and, as thanks for the American help, signed over 40 percent of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies.
Mossadeq was arrested, served three years in prison, and died under house arrest in 1967. The Shah became one of America’s most trusted Cold War allies, and U.S. economic and military aid poured into Iran during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In 1978, however, anti-Shah and anti-American protests broke out in Iran and the Shah was toppled from power in 1979.
1953 Iranian coup d'état (detailed)
The 1953 Iranian coup d'état, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup, was the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran 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).
Mossadegh had sought to audit the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a British corporation (now BP) and to change the terms of the company's access to Iranian petroleum reserves. Upon the refusal of the AIOC to co-operate with the Iranian government, the parliament (Majlis) voted to nationalize the assets of the company and expel their representatives from the country. Following the coup in 1953, a government under General Fazlollah Zahedi was formed which allowed Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran (Persian for king), to rule the country more firmly as monarch. He relied heavily on United States support to hold on to power until his own overthrow in February 1979. In August 2013, 60 years after, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it was involved in both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out "under CIA direction" and "as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government."
Iran's oil had been discovered and later controlled by the British-owned AIOC. 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 central tool of continued British imperialism in Iran. Despite Mosaddegh's popular support, the AIOC was unwilling to allow Iranian authorities to audit the company accounts or to renegotiate the terms of its access to Iranian petroleum. In 1951, Iran's petroleum industry was nationalized with near-unanimous support of the Majlis in a bill introduced by Mossadegh who led the Iranian nationalist party, the National Front. In response, Britain instigated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil to pressure Iran economically.
Initially, Britain mobilized its military to seize control of the British-built Abadan oil refinery, then 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, Winston Churchill and the Eisenhower administration decided to overthrow Iran's government, though the predecessor Truman administration had opposed a coup. Classified documents show that British intelligence officials played a pivotal role in initiating and planning the coup, and that the AIOC contributed $25,000 towards the expense of bribing officials.
Britain and the US selected General Zahedi to be the prime minister of a government that was to replace Mosaddegh's. Subsequently, a royal decree dismissing Mosaddegh and appointing Zahedi was drawn up by the coup plotters and signed by the Shah. The CIA 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 Colonel Nematollah 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 because 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. Other Mosaddegh supporters were imprisoned, and several received the death penalty.
After the coup, the Shah ruled as an monarch for the next 26 years while modernizing the country using oil revenues, until he was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.The tangible benefits the United States reaped from overthrowing Iran's elected government included a share of Iran's oil wealth and ensuring the Iranian nation remained under the control of an allied dictator. Washington continually supplied arms to the increasingly unpopular Shah and the CIA-trained SAVAK, his repressive secret police force;however by the 1979 revolution, his increasingly independent policies resulted in his effective abandonment by his American allies, hastening his downfall. The coup is widely believed to have significantly contributed to anti-American and anti-British sentiment in Iran and in the Middle East. The 1979 revolution deposed the Shah and replaced the pro-Western monarchy with a largely anti-Western theocracy.
But a copy of the agency's secret history of the coup has surfaced, revealing the inner workings of a plot that set the stage for the Islamic revolution in 1979, and for a generation of anti-American hatred in one of the Middle East's most powerful countries. The document, which remains classified, discloses the pivotal role British intelligence officials played in initiating and planning the coup, and it shows that Washington and London shared an interest in maintaining the West's control over Iranian oil.
Dr. Donald N. Wilber, a CIA spy, with the cover of archeologist and authority on ancient Persia, who planned the coup in Iran along with British SIS officer Norman Darbyshire.
The secret history, written by the CIA's chief coup planner, says the operation's success was mostly a matter of chance. The document shows that the agency had almost complete contempt for the man it was empowering, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. And it recounts, for the first time, the agency's badly tried to seduce and force the shah into taking part in his own coup.
The operation, code-named TP-AJAX, was the blueprint for a succession of CIA plots to foment coups and destabilize governments during the cold war - including the agency's successful coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the disastrous Cuban intervention known as the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In more than one instance, such operations led to the same kind of long-term animosity toward the United States that occurred in Iran.
The history says agency officers orchestrating the Iran coup worked directly with royalist Iranian military officers, handpicked the prime minister's replacement, sent a stream of envoys to bolster the shah's courage, directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers.
But on the night set for Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq's overthrow, almost nothing went according to the meticulously drawn plans, the secret history says. In fact, CIA officials were poised to flee the country when several Iranian officers recruited by the agency, acting on their own, took command of a pro-shah demonstration in Tehran and seized the government.
Two days after the coup, the history discloses, agency officials funneled $5 million to Iran to help the government they had installed consolidate power.
Dr. Donald N. Wilber, an expert in Persian architecture, who as one of the leading planners believed that covert operatives had much to learn from history, wrote the secret history, along with operational assessments in March 1954.
In less expansive memoirs published in 1986, Dr. Wilber asserted that the Iran coup was different from later CIA efforts. Its American planners, he said, had stirred up considerable unrest in Iran, giving Iranians a clear choice between instability and supporting the shah. The move to oust the prime minister, he wrote, thus gained substantial popular support.
Dr. Wilber's memoirs were heavily censored by the agency, but he was allowed to refer to the existence of his secret history. "If this history had been read by the planners of the Bay of Pigs," he wrote, "there would have been no such operation."
"From time to time," he continued, "I gave talks on the operation to various groups within the agency, and, in hindsight, one might wonder why no one from the Cuban desk ever came or read the history."
The coup was a turning point in modern Iranian history and remains a persistent irritant in Tehran-Washington relations. It consolidated the power of the shah, who ruled with an iron hand for 26 more years in close contact with the United States. He was toppled by Iranian Revolution of 1979. many Iranians still resent the United States' role in the coup and its support of the shah.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in an address, 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," she said. "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."
The history spells out the calculations to which Dr. Albright referred in her speech. Britain, it says, initiated the plot in 1952. The Truman administration rejected it, but President Eisenhower approved it shortly after taking office in 1953, because of fears about oil and Communism.
The document pulls few punches, acknowledging at one point that the agency baldly lied to its British allies. Dr. Wilber reserves his most withering asides for the agency's local allies, referring to "the recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner."
Britain Fights Oil Nationalism
The coup had its roots in a British showdown with Iran, restive under decades of near-colonial British domination.
The prize was Iran's oil fields. Britain occupied Iran in World War II to protect a supply route to its ally, the Soviet Union, and to prevent the oil from falling into the hands of the Nazis - ousting the shah's father, whom it regarded as unmanageable. It retained control over Iran's oil after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
In 1951, Iran's Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Mosaddeq, as prime minister. Britain responded with threats and sanctions.
Dr. Mosaddeq, a European-educated lawyer then in his early 70's, prone to tears and outbursts, refused to back down. In meetings in November and December 1952, the secret history says, British intelligence officials startled their American counterparts with a plan for a joint operation to oust the nettlesome prime minister.