According to Foreign Policy, the ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq is the earliest Cold War coup involvement that the US government has acknowledged.
Mosaddeq, known affectionately as ‘the grand old man,’ took office as Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and promptly led a movement to nationalize the British controlled Iranian oil industry. For many Iranians Mosaddeq is a revered figure, a symbol of nationalism, constitutionalism, and democracy.
The nationalization of Iranian oil was a blow to Britain’s economic interests in Iran as well as a threat to the survival of the British Empire in the Middle East.
The 1985 End of Empire documentary series (Chapter 7: Iran) provides the background and context you’ll want to have to understand the coup. You can watch it for free on YouTube. But first, take a look at the trailer below.
According to a declassified CIA-authored history of the operation, the potential that Iran could be open to Soviet aggression spurred the US to plan and execute the coup operation called TPAJAX.
US President Harry Truman encouraged British Prime Ministers Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill to compromise with Mosaddeq. The US lost patience when Anglo-Iranian negotiations failed.
Fearing a takeover by Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, the newly elected American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, authorized the CIA to remove Mosaddeq.
CIA personnel, working with the British, planned and financed the 1953 coup in Iran that removed Mohammad Mossadeq as Iran’s Prime Minister.
A CIA team led by Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of the US President Theodore Roosevelt, organized military units for the coup.
Several large networks of Iranian agents (paid by the United States) engaged in propaganda and political action in the months before the coup.
A first coup attempt on the night of August 15-16, 1953, was a failure. After more unrest, military units seized control of Tehran on August 19, forcing Mosaddeq into hiding. He surrendered to US backed forces on August 20.
The coup transformed Iran’s constitutional monarchy (under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) into a royal dictatorship. The Shah was later displaced in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The United States didn’t act alone. British officials helped plan and finance the August 1953 coup, playing a crucial but supporting role to the Americans. They’ve been reluctant to draw attention to their actions, and are quite happy for Washington to take the blame. Various Iranians were also involved.
Although the shah initially opposed a coup, he later agreed, issuing a series of decrees under US leadership.
Some revisionist historians downplay the US role, instead blaming Shiite clerics for Mosaddeq’s downfall. There is, in fact, some evidence that two Shiite clerics were involved, but they were funded and encouraged by the US government.
A document written by British officials in early September 1953 states that Ayatollah Mohammad Behbahani received a large amount of money from US Embassy personnel and then organized crowds that helped carry out the coup.
A CIA history states that Ayatollah Kashani also helped organize the crowds. It is not clear whether he received US support. However, these two clerics were maverick political activists, not representative of the mainstream Shiite clergy.
Acknowledging the role of Iranian actors, including some Shiite clergy, doesn’t absolve the United States of responsibility for the coup. The Americans organized and led the overthrow, mobilizing and directing the Iranians who were involved.
The CIA’s covert operation to topple Mosaddeq, codenamed TPAJAX was one of the worst kept secrets of the Cold War. According to Foreign Policy:
For decades, both Britain and the United States publicly denied their roles in the 1953 coup so as not to embarrass the shah or endanger their close political and economic ties with Iran. With the overthrow of the shah in 1979, U.S. and British intelligence officers published memoirs . . . boasting of their roles in toppling Mosaddeq.
. . . it was not until March 2000, in the midst of a brief detente between Iran and the United States, that then- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright officially acknowledged that the ‘United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq.’ She described the coup as a ‘setback for Iran’s political development’ and empathized with Iranians who ‘continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.’
In August 2013, the CIA officially declassified a document acknowledging its own role in the coup.
In 2017, the State Department published a volume of the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series that was full of declassified CIA documents confirming the United States’ covert role in the coup.
ARGUMENT The United States Overthrew Iran’s Last Democratic Leader
by Roham Alvandi, Mark J. Gasiorowski
End of Empire (Chapter 7: Iran) – YouTube
Coup 53 – a documentary film by Taghi Amirani available to stream (no screen mirroring) at coup53.com for $6.00.
The trailer is below.