The first actual CIA intervention in Iran took place in 1953.
A coup attempt against Prime Minister Mosaddegh began on August 16, 1953, but failed when the prime minister was warned ahead of time that he was to be ousted.
[As soon as the failed attempt became known, the shah rushed out of the country. While the events of August 1953 are always described as a coup, the shah had, in fact, issued a decree dismissing Mosaddegh and appointing Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. Neither the shah’s actions nor Mosaddegh’s were in any way democratic.]
As news of the attempted coup became public
Communist mobs with red flags tore down statues of the shah and his father, pillaged shops, attacked the offices of opposition groups, and threatened Americans. In Isfahan, demonstrators marched outside the United States consulate chanting ‘Yankees, go home!
In the days to follow, street protests continued with the Tudeh warning the government to break with the United States.
On August 18, the American ambassador met with Mosaddegh and demanded that Americans in Iran be protected and that public spaces be cleared of protesters.
The next day men organized with $100,000 worth of CIA funds marched out of south Tehran, eventually crashing the gates of the prime minister’s home and later taking the Foreign Office and other government buildings.
Meanwhile, Kermit Roosevelt (a CIA officer who later became vice-president of Gulf Oil) decided to go ahead with his plans to move paid mobs into the street along with royalist military officers.
Soon shouts of “long live America” were heard in the street. Mobs continued to rule, but now they were pro shah mobs that many observers say were demonstrating only because they were paid by the CIA.
The protesters created quite a disturbance, leading some to assert that there remained a great deal of support for the shah. According to Barry Rubin in his book Paved with Good Intentions:
Gangs with clubs, knives, and rocks controlled the streets, overturning Tudeh trucks and beating up anti-shah activists. Quick-witted entrepreneurs sauntered up and down Tehran’s streets selling full-color pictures of the shah. One embassy political officer later recalled how his car, flying American flags for protection, was cheered along the entire nine-mile route from the embassy to his home in the northern suburbs. The CIA payments alone could not explain the rapidity of the movement’s spread and the enthusiasm that greeted the shah’s return to power. Roosevelt had been correct: there was still a reservoir of support for the shah among tens of thousands of Iranians either tired of the chaos of the Mosaddegh regime or fearful of the Tudeh.
Accounts of the coup in the academic and policy literature remain contradictory. Still, it is clear that the CIA and the British played a defining role. At the same time, domestic factors are central — particularly the active involvement of Ayatollah Kashani. ( See our previous post on Gaming Cold War Iran.)
In actuality, while the idea that external powers conspired to destroy democracy is provocative, Mosaddegh fails as a democratic champion. So does the shah.
In fact, the scholar Richard Cottam in his book Nationalism in Iran argues that “liberal democracy does not merit the predominance it has often been given.” He goes on to say that “nothing is easier than to exaggerate the role of liberal democracy in Iran.”
At any rate, in July 1952, Mosaddegh demanded dictatorial power for six months along with a War Ministry portfolio which would give him control over the armed forcers.
When Kashani became president of the Majles, Mosaddegh dismissed first the Senate and later the entire parliament.
In January 1953 when the prime minister’s special powers were extended for an additional 12 months, his demands and prerogatives alienated many in his coalition and, as we have seen, Kashani (who did not presume to be a democrat) went over to the opposition. Subsequently Mosaddegh’s base eroded and the prime minister decided to dissolve parliament and call a national referendum.
A vote to dissolve the Majles was held on August 3, 1953, in the midst of mounting Tudeh demonstrations supporting Mosaddegh. Since the Tudeh had become the best organized and most disciplined for in the country, Mosaddegh’s only option was to rely on them for continued support. The shah was the only other political force with a political base.
Nationwide, 2,043,380 voted to dismiss the parliament, while only 1,207 voted to retain it.
The shah was required to adhere to the election results and order a new election, even though most accounts agree that the count was manipulated.
Despite evidence that Mosaddegh’s support had faded and that he had become increasingly autocratic, in the end, perception is what matters and it is essential to acknowledge that the CIA’s role in the affair ended the American “honeymoon” with the Iranian populace.
The US was now seen by most Iranians as an imperial power intent on manipulating Iran for its own benefit, ignoring the political rights and constitutional integrity of the nation by returning an unpopular shah to the Peacock throne.
Both the Tudeh Party and the Ayatollah Kashani condemned America’s actions, equating them with the former distasteful activities of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. In fact, according to James Bill in The Eagle and the Lion:
After the fall of Musaddiq the acronym CIA became the most pejorative political term in the vocabulary of Iranian nationalists. It implied a particularly vulgar type of imperialism that was increasingly associated with US policy.
Moreover, the newly established US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) played an objectionable role in the coup attempt. A participant stated:
Now when this crisis came on and the thing was about to collapse, we violated our normal criteria and among the other things we did, we provided the army immediately on an emergency basis blankets, boots, uniforms, electric generators, and medical supplies that permitted and created an atmosphere in which they could support the Shah . . . . The guns that they had in their hands, the trucks that they rode in, the armored cars that they drove through the streets, and the radio communications that permitted their control, were all furnished through the military defense assistance program . . . had it not been for this program, a government unfriendly to the United States would now be in power.
These actions became of overriding importance in the 1970s when three Iranian brothers who had taken part in the 1953 coup operation, the Rashidian brothers, received payoffs from agents for the Long Island based Grumman Corporation in return for their efforts to cement the firm’s sale of F-14 fighter planes to the Iranian government.