The Iranian 1953 Coup d'état and the CIA’s Involvement

The relationship between the United States and Iran has been one roller coaster ride after another. In the past, our economic ties enriched a strong yet unique friendship between the U.S. and Iran, but today, the U.S. has branded Iran as part of an axis of evil and a country which has snubbed its nose to the international demands to stop the research and development of nuclear technology. 1953 Iran was no exception.

One of those roller coasters did an entire 360 degrees around the once Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddeq in mid August, 1953. It is a fact that a coup d'état occurred, and that coup d'état was assisted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Anyone might conclude that this is basic knowledge of the 1953 incident. So how did the sentiment leak into the minds of the Left that we “trained his [the Shah’s] own personal secret police” or that the government which followed after the coup “was installed by the west”?

While I could dive into a diatribe of the low standards some Americans have for their own country, a historical perspective and a rekindled enlightenment of the situation that was the 1953 Iranian coup d'état are required and would be more suitable.

Events surrounding the Iranian coup are important and like many other historical issues and concepts, any discussion should start with the context of the situation. While it is odd that anyone would defend a self-proclaimed communist, it nevertheless should be established that Mosaddeq was no innocent bystander that just so happened to be trampled by the immoral CIA machine. Some like to claim Mosaddeq was democratically elected, yet this is certainly not the case. To replace the Prime Minister Ali Razmara, who was assassinated thirty-nine days before his term was over, Mosaddeq was appointed on April 27th, 1952 by Iran’s legislative assembly, the Majlis. At the end of those thirty-nine days, against the consent of the Shah, and certainly undemocratically, Mosaddeq was appointed. With a clear horizon in front of him, his quest for power was ready to begin.

Almost immediately after his second appointment, Mosaddeq demanded ultimate power over all economic, financial, and personnel aspects of the government. The Majlis refused, and Mosaddeq childishly resigned on July 16th. General Zahedi was to be the new Prime Minister but after much political unrest and even riots, Mosaddeq came back to power on the 22nd, and his bill to give him dictatorial powers over Iran for a time period of six months was passed. The Mosaddeq regime was now in place.

In complete control of his future, things only went downhill for the Iranian people. Twenty days later, not only were economic, financial, and personnel powers in the hands of Mosaddeq, but so was every aspect of Iranian life. In a failed attempt to stop Mosaddeq’s consolidation of power, fifteen Iranian generals were dismissed from service or were forced to retire. Dissent would not to be tolerated by the new regime. As the socialist he was, the dictator enacted communistic economic reform which burdened small villages and farmers to surrender 20% of their land of which would then be divided up into equal parts for the better good. Along came tax increases and the specific targeting of wealthy Iranians. If they refused to pay, they were imprisoned and their property confiscated. It was the decree of the regime that all funds gained were to be redistributed equally to the masses.

Mosaddeq’s stern nationalistic approach to his governing not only ran counter to the Shah’s wishes, but to the United Kingdom’s interests in the region. Mosaddeq’s illegal seizure of western assets spurred even more unrest. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) fiasco led Iran down an extremely difficult path of trying to stimulate its own economy. The UK oil trade was calculated in to Mosaddeq’s economic development plan, but due to Mosaddeq’s personal ego, and his lack of ability to do what was right for his country and his people, UK-Iranian relations, for the first time since 1859, were severed.

Mosaddeq quickly lost support from the military to the religious figures in Iran. The United States also saw this situation as a problem. The early stages of the Cold War were in full swing at this time, and to the U.S.-led Western bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc, any political moves made around the world were considered “wins” or “losses.” With Iran’s failed economy, and severed ties with their leading foreign trade dealer the UK, Iran was left with only once choice – do business with the Soviets and thus, be engulfed into the Soviet sphere of influence.

Because the U.S. did not want to “lose” Iran, Kermit Roosevelt, a senior agent for the CIA, developed a plan to assist the Shah and opposition parties of the Mosaddeq regime in a coup. The operation was dubbed Operation Ajax and a total of $1 million was set aside for the project.

And we’re off to the races!

Operation Ajax had international support. British MI6 agents and CIA operatives made up the operating group. The Qashqai tribal leaders arranged for the two governments, the UK and the U.S., to operate in secrecy in their part of southern Iran. With a footing in place, and the objective clear, it was time to act.

Unexpectedly and only a mere hours before the coup was to take place, Mosaddeq was tipped off. Iranian troops loyal to Mosaddeq spread across Tehran intercepting pro-Shah soldiers in their tracks. Despite what seemed to be a huge setback, CIA agents on the ground as well as General Zahedi himself thought otherwise. Kermit Roosevelt and Zahedi agreed that if the Shah sent a decree detailing the removal of Mosaddeq and the appointment of the lawful Prime Minister, General Zahedi.

The CIA made the arrangements, but before there was any implementation, another decisive blow to the operation came about when the Shah was reported to have fled to Baghdad. Kermit and CIA operatives on the ground now had no communication with the Shah to inquire him for the two decrees needed. In a last ditch effort to instigate the coup, and taking advantage of Mosaddeq’s premature removal of Iranian troops in Tehran, the CIA contacted the Associated Press in New York as well as some Tehran newspapers and told them the coup leaders were armed with the two decrees hoping the Shah would get the message and follow through.

On August 17th, the Shah got the message, and made an announcement that he had signed the decrees however some feared that it was too late. Pro-Mosaddeq newspapers declared the end of the Pahlevi dynasty and the Communist Party’s central committee attributed the coup had failed. Just as the CIA were packing their things to go home, heads hung low, word on the street changed and pro-Shah rallies raged through the avenues of Tehran. Iranian CIA agents, without specific orders, led the crowds to vandalize and overrun pro-Mosaddeq newspaper publishing buildings. Things were moving far more quickly than even the CIA had anticipated. An Iranian general that helped with the original coup days before showed up in front of the Parliament with a tank. Truckloads of military personnel were at every large intersection. In light of the situation, Mr. Roosevelt personally brought General Zahedi to one of the radio stations which were already broadcasting the success of the coup and the decrees from the Shah. Zahedi addressed the nation for the first time as Prime Minister.

Well, let’s hold on a second here. What did the CIA do again? Did they amass the crowds, arm them with AK-47s and point them in the right direction? Actually no, they didn’t. The will of the people and Mosaddeq’s totalitarian and communistic views and policies is what triggered the movement. While the CIA was packing their things due to their failure, the Iranian people stepped up. The full $1 million wasn’t even spent. A measly $75,000 was spent on only mobilizing personnel.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and in light of the aftermath of the 1953 coup, blatant blaming and condemnation of the CIA expectedly follow, but the question still remains; how did the sentiment leak into the minds of the Left that we “trained his [the Shah’s] own personal secret police” or that the government which followed after the coup “was installed by the west”? The CIA surly did not set up any training camps, nor was their any installation of a leader. The Iranian people followed the will of their legal leader, the Shah. Simply and honestly put, the CIA set an already strong movement in motion, and made room for General Zahedi to take his rightful position.

It is in the wish of history, that accurate perspective and informed conclusions remain potent. In 1953, Mosaddeq’s regime was one of brutality, social, and economic unrest brought about by communism. The United States, being the beacon of freedom and prosperity that it is, assisted little in the removal a dictatorship, and that is simply all.