The 1953 CIA-led Coup d’état against Iran


the-1953-cia-led-coup-d’etat-against-iran

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Just last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described the American commitment to Israel as “enduring and ironclad” while the Biden administration attempts to revitalize nuclear negotiations “with Israel’s archenemy, Iran.” Defense Minister of Israel Benny Gantz noted next to Austin after their meeting in Tel Aviv that Israel perceives the United States as a “full partner” against threats such as but certainly “not the least, Iran.” Austin also took to Twitter late last Sunday, “I’m committed to continuing our close consultations on threats posed by Iran and to strengthening Israel’s security.” This comes just after Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear facility lost power to a cyber-attack perpetrated by Mossad.

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi called for the International Atomic Energy Agency, of which both Iran and Israel are members, to act in response to this nuclear terrorism and warned that Iran reserves the right to take action against its perpetrators. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif further elaborated:

“The political and military officials of the Zionist regime had explicitly stated that they would not allow progress in lifting the oppressive sanctions and now they think they will achieve their goal, but the Zionists will get their answer in further nuclear progress. Natanz will be stronger than ever with more advanced machines, and if they think our hand in negotiation is weak, this act will strengthen our position in the negotiations.”

Despite the United States’ own arsenal of nuclear weapons alongside Israel’s own chemical and biological capabilities— the latter having been illegally obtained through clandestine operations involving theft of highly enriched uranium— these hawkish, almost obsessive accusations over the nuclear weapons development of Iran only further exemplify and exacerbate the hostile history between the United States and Iran, stretching back to the 1953 coup d’état directed by the CIA against Iran.

After the end of the World War II and the subsequent launch of the Cold War, the Middle East became a strategic target of the West and Soviet Union partially for the presence of vast oil reserves. Iran was no exception. Iran’s oil was discovered in 1908 by the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company (renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or AIOC in 1935) and purchased majority share of the company while Iran received only 16% of the oil profits. Iranians were not even permitted to review these accounting figures. In June 1950, General Ali Razmara became Iran’s Prime Minister when the call for Iran’s oil industry to be nationalized was amplifying.

For years, it was cheap Iranian oil that fueled Britain’s standard of living including its cars, trucks, and buses with Iranian employees were faced with poor wages and working conditions. Even after promises by the AIOC head Sir William Fraser to improve these dreadful circumstances, Razmara’s request for “greater voice in company’s management” was denied. In February 1951, the AIOC finally offered 50-50 profit sharing with Iran. By this time, the Iranian Prime Minister’s stance had changed. He took a public stance against nationalization, citing technical arguments despite its already wild popular support among the Iranian people and was subsequently assassinated the following month by a member of the militant Shia Islamic Warriors (“Fadayan-e Islam”).

In comes Mohammed Mosaddegh. Born to a prominent Persian family and educated at the University of Neuchâtel, Mosaddegh became the first Iranian to receive a doctorate in law from a European university and thus was a desirable choice by parliament to become Iran’s next prime minister. His election was analyzed suspiciously by American newspapers, even making the Man of the Year cover of TIME magazine.  Mossadegh had long been a champion of nationalizing Iran’s oil industry to such a degree that he proposed a nationalization law before taking office which passed unanimously in both houses of parliament, known as the Majlis. When the Soviet Union expressed interest in exploring and harnessing oil in northern Iran, Mossadegh led the opposition against granting the Kremlin its acquiescence.

After Parliament’s nomination and the Shah’s appointment of Mosaddegh on April 28, 1951 as the Prime Minister of Iran, he immediately set about introducing and championing reforms to benefit Iranians ranging from unemployment compensation to freeing Iranian peasants from forced labor on their landlords’ estates. He opposed measures intended to restrict freedom of assembly, press, and speech. In 1952, he passed the Land Reform Act, stipulating that landlords were to turn over approximately 20% of their revenues to their tenants which would be set aside to fund public projects including rural housing. His greatest accomplishment lay in asserting Iran’s national sovereignty by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and its holdings before formally breaking off negotiations with AIOC in July 1951 in reaction to the company’s threats to pull its employees.

Even as corruption saturated the Iranian government, Mosaddegh stood apart from the rest as honest and resilient, a stirring symbol of the people’s struggle against foreign control over their industries. The Shah was well aware of the growing popularity that surrounded the Prime Minister as was western foreign intelligence. In fact, a May 1951 CIA Special Estimate report was reviewed at an Intelligence Advisory Committee meeting, detailing the “clash of interests” between Iran and the UK regarding its oil resource further exasperated by Mohammad Mossadegh. Even as tensions mounted, the report goes on to state:

“The UK has indicated that it will not employ force in Iran without prior consultation with the US. It is unlikely that the UK would attempt by force to forestall or counter physical occupation of the of the oil installations by the Iranian Government, but the UK could and might land troops in Iran for the actual or alleged purpose of safeguarding British lives in the event of further violence or sabotage.”

Mossadegh’s popularity was permanently sealed and he could finally lead the way in fighting the widespread poverty of Iran. But western sabotage would not make it easy. After Western companies were expelled from oil refineries in the city of Abadan, British warships blockaded the city and a series of economic sanctions were imposed by the British cabinet against Iran including access to hard currency accounts in British banks. An initial plan was set out to hire non-British technicians to run Iran’s oil industry before promptly training their own nationals to replace them. However, the United States, the Netherlands, Pakistan, West Germany, Belgium, and Sweden all repudiated Iran’s request. Italy was the exception but in July 1952, the Royal Navy intercepted Italy’s Rose Mary carrying Iranian petroleum and deemed it stolen, forcibly directing the tanker to a British port. This successfully intimidated other tankers into discontinuing oil transfers from Iran and effectively shut down Iran’s oil exports. British-owned oil companies based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq amplified their oil production to compensate for Iranian losses so the effect was not felt in Britain. Sister oil companies were encouraged not to do business with Iran.

The resultant economic damage bestowed severe obstacles for Mossadegh to implement his domestic reforms. The Iranian nationalist figure was nevertheless not deferred. In June 1952, he traveled to The Hague, arguing the International Court had no right or jurisdiction to decide on the recent filed complaint by the British over Iran’s decision to nationalize its own oil. By this time, relations between the Shah and Mossadegh had soured. He tried reasoning to the Shah that he should be lend more executive power involving control of the armed forced in order to effectively deal with the illegal dangers against the Iranian government both foreign and domestic. This was permitted in accordance with the Constitution. The Shah refused and Mossadegh resigned in July 1952, being promptly replaced with Ahmad Ghavam, known to have western ties, and therefore sympathetic interests. Rioting throughout Iranian cities ensued for three days against a “servant of the British,” proclaiming loudly in the streets: “Death or Mossadegh!” The Shah immediately reversed his decision and Mossadegh was reinstated with control of armed forces as requested.

To further invigorate Mossadegh’s cause, the International Court at The Hague voted in favor of Iran instead of Britain in their clash followed by the U.N. Security Council’s rejection of the British claim of contract breech. In October 1952, Mossadegh publicly declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic relations with them. By 1953, Mossadegh’s public image started to alter. His popularity was waning as the effects of Britain’s embargos were continuously taking its economic toll on the people. This correlated with Mossadegh becoming increasingly autocratic which further incensed the population and swelling his crowd of enemies.

Beginning in 1953, Mossadegh was pining for the United States to sway Britain in settling for terms favorable to Iran but these hopes were dashed even though the Prime Minister admitted to the Indian Ambassador in Tehran that he didn’t blame the United States for supporting Britain in the oil dispute because the “two countries were compelled to cooperate for global reasons.” That same month, the American Embassy reported the arrest of retired Iranian General Zahedi by the Tehran Police Chief for “anti-government activity.” The same declassified CIA documents note that Zahedi was often mentioned as a possible successor to the Iranian Prime Minister. He and another general named Hejazi were arrested briefly in September 1952 for involvement in a plot to overthrow Mossadegh.

On June 23, 1953, eleven men—including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, his brother Allen Dulles, and Kermit Roosevelt who was a CIA operative at the time—collected in the Secretary of State’s office to discuss the twenty-two-page document assembled by British and American intelligence operatives in Cyprus. The goal of the meeting according to Allen Dulles: “So that is how we get rid of that madman Mossadeq.” Of course, given the intensifying Cold War and the proximity of Iran to the Soviet Union, the domineering topic of interest was the Iranian Prime Minister’s possible alliance with the communist-leaning Tudeh Party within Iran. Newly elected President Eisenhower denied Mossadegh’s repeated pleas for desperately needed economic aid. What the Iranian Prime Minister had not yet known was Eisenhower already gave the green light to launch a CIA-directed coup d’état against the democratically-elected Mossadegh, known as Operation Ajax.

Even though Mossadegh was equipped with new emergency powers thereby limiting the monarch’s own power, even transferring royal lands to state ownership and forbidding him to speak to foreign diplomats, the Shah opposed the concept of a coup against his prime minister despite past dealings with British officials in order to weaken Mossadegh’s position. Now that the planned coup for August 1953 was underway, the Shah was warned to cooperate on pain of being deposed alongside Mossadegh, successfully coercing him.

More declassified CIA documents disclose that “whether it be General Zahedi or anyone else in the role of leader of the Government of Iran, we still seek an independent Iran, not dominated by the USSR.” Who was General Zahedi? Known formally as General Fazlollah Zahedi, he attained the rank of brigadier-general after squashing a Kurdish rebellion and became head of the national police service in Iran. During World War II, he was arrested by the British for pro-Nazi sympathies and possible profiteering. After the war, he was released and restored to his former position as police chief until he was appointed to the Senate.

He eventually became interior minister for Mossadegh’s government but was discharged after ordering police to shoot on rioters protesting a visit from US Commerce Secretary Averell W. Harriman sent to act as mediator in Britain and Iran’s oil dispute. The Shah, CIA, and MI6 all agreed to replace Mossadegh with Zahedi. The coup began the evening of August 15, 1953 but plans were botched when a chatty Iranian Army officer made Dr. Mossadegh’s chief of staff, Gen. Taghi Riahi aware of the plot. Pro-shah soldiers were arrested and the Tehran radio announced the next morning that a coup against Mossadegh’s government failed, ensuing mass protests.

On August 19th, a second coup d’état attempt was launched. The Prime Minister relaxed once the Shah had fled to Baghdad after the first failed ousting so he dissolved parliament and recalled most troops he had stationed around Tehran for his protection. What Mossadegh did not realize was how convenient these chess pieces had moved in the CIA’s favor. First, besides loyal military personnel, Mossadegh’s political opponents in the Majlis as well as the conservative Islamic clerics constituted the base of support for Mossadegh’s replacement, thereby guaranteeing a smooth transition of power. Since Mossadegh was still immensely popular with the common man, General Zahedi gathered with Shah supporters in secret to capitulate on the upper class fear-stricken at their Shah’s untimely departure, Mossadegh’s arrest of dissidents, and a perceived spread of communism against Iran’s religious sectors.  A propaganda campaign from newspapers to leaflet circulation was financed by the CIA to turn popular opinion against Mossadegh. Many pro-Shah and anti-Mossadegh protestors were paid by CIA operatives with “Behbahani dollars,” to pose as Tudeh Party members and instigate a “communist revolution” designed to encourage real Tudeh members to join and attack any publicly visible signs of capitalism on the streets of Tehran such as small businesses.

The goal was to incite mass public repulsion before a second group of infiltrators posing this time as Shah supporters organized angry crowds of ordinary Iranians terrified and resistant of this “communist revolution.” The actual coup consisted of crowds of regular citizens armed with clubs that took to the streets to repel the “Tudeh” party members. Then under Zahedi’s authority, the army drove off Tudeh and stormed all government buildings with the support of the demonstrators.

Mossadegh fled when his house was fired upon. He later turned himself into the army’s custody with Zahedi emerging at the victor and his replacement. Prior to the second coup d’état, the CIA had arranged for Major General Norman Schwarzkopf to train security forces known as SAVAK to secure the Shah’s hold on power and go on to become Iran’s police state to monitor dissidents and implement censorship. Mossadegh, 71, was put on trial and initially sentenced to death on the grounds of “attempted rebellion” but the Shah personally ordered that his sentence be commuted to three years’ solitary confinement in a military prison and then remain on house arrest until his death in 1967. Many of the deposed prime minister’s supporters were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured with many executed. Even his last will to be buried with the victims of the 1952 protests in which many of his supporters died was refused by the Shah.

Upon receiving his sentence Mossadegh remarked in a calm, sarcastic tone, “The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories. I am extremely grateful you convicted me. Truly tonight the Iranian nation understood the meaning of constitutionalism.”

After the overthrow of Mossadegh, the United States replaced Britain’s AIOC monopoly and quelled their fears of a faltering economic state being absorbed by the Soviet Union, the latter of which took priority in US foreign policy above all else. It is worthy to note Eisenhower’s predecessor Harry S. Truman is credited for founding the Central Intelligence Agency despite later misgivings about its direction in 1963: “There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” Later decades, even after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, imperialist objectives barely altered.

Professor Nader Hashmi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies summarized to Equal Times, “Once again Iran’s internal political development is being thwarted by the policies of the Great Powers. In 1953, it was the British who put an economic blockade on Iran and supported the CIA coup that ended Iran’s nascent experiment with democracy. Today it is United States, with critical support from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are seeking regime change in Iran.”

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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