The Mossadegh Coup: A Watershed Moment in Iran’s History

The overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in August 1953 set into motion a chain of tragic events.

9 mins read
Mohammad Mosaddegh [Photo: britannica.com]

In 1908, two Englishmen discovered the enormous oil reserves of the kingdom of Iran. “We shall float on dollops of oil” they reported to Britain. And so they did. USA and Britain established the Anglo-American Oil Company and began to plunder more thoroughly than any invader of the past. The two World Wars slowed down their activities, but by 1949 the plunder was resumed with vigour.

By 1947 another force had appeared on the world scene. The dismantling of colonial empires. When India attained Independence from British rule, this zeitgeist swept over Asia and Africa. Though Iran was not colonized, it did not escape the grim consequences of colonialism. The oil city of Abadan was worse than a Nazi concentration camp. Iranians/Persians who worked for the Anglo-American oil Company labourers lived in sub-human conditions.

In June 1950, General Ali Razmara became Prime Minister of Iran and saw the depredations on his country. While millions of Iranians lived in poverty, without basic necessities of life, their ruling elite, collaborating with the foreign company enjoyed unimaginable luxuries. More important, the Anglo-American Oil Company leeched on the country and sent the wealth to USA and Britain. Iranians began to demand nationalization of their oil industry. When Prime Minister Razmara initiated action to nationalize the oil industry, the attention of the world was on Iran. In March 1951, Western agents had him assassinated.

Mohammad Mossadegh was appointed Prime Minister of Iran. He continued General Razmara’s initiative to nationalize the oil industry. Mohammad Mossadegh was admired and revered in Iran. During his tenure, he introduced numerous socio-economic reforms, and the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. This infuriated Britain who had controlled Iran’s oil industry for half a century. Britain appealed to the United States for help, which eventually led the CIA to orchestrate the overthrow of Mossadegh and restore power to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.

The Shah forced Mossadegh to resign on 17 March 1952 and appointed Ahmed Ghavan as Prime Minister. Mossadegh was a respected as an incorruptible nationalist; his dismissal provoked widespread riots in Iran. Afraid of the growing unrest and the possibility of a revolt, the Shah was compelled to reappoint Mossadegh as Prime Minister again three days later.
This caused deep anxiety in USA and UK. In March 1953, America’s Central Intelligence Agency began drafting a plan, which would be a covert operation and would install a government in Iran that would have the approval and support of USA. On 16 April 1953, a CIA report, “Factors Involved in the Overthrow of Mossadegh” declared that a coup in Iran was not only desirable but eminently possible.

In this document (Part I, page 3) it was stated that “The Director, on April 4, 1953, approved a budget of $1,000,000 which could be used by the Tehran Station in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” And “The purpose will be to create, extend, and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh.”

In May 1953, CIA and British intelligence officers met secretly in Cyprus to prepare plans for the coup. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Tehran station was granted approval to launch a “grey propaganda” campaign to discredit the Mossadegh government. On 10 June 1953 the CIA and MI5 officers met in Beirut for finalizing the coup plan.

On 19 June 1953, the operation plan for the coup prepared by the CIA and British intelligence was sent to the US State Department and the Foreign Office in London for approval, which was promptly accorded within a fortnight by both President of USA and British Prime Minister. However, the US insisted that it alone would have full control over production and sequestering Iran’s oil. The British Foreign Office memorandum stated that Britain “would be flexible on the issue of controlling oil in Iran.”

Pressurized by the CIA, the Shah’s sister went to Tehran (from France) to persuade the Shah to sign a royal decree to dismiss Prime Minister Mossadegh. She also informed her brother that the CIA had declared that “…should the Shah fail to go along with the US representative or fail to produce the [legal] documents for General Zahedi, Zahedi would be informed that the United States would be ready to go ahead without the Shah’s active cooperation…”

In the meantime, all through July 1953, the CIA directed compliant newspapers to discredit Mossadegh’s government. On 1 August 1953, Gen H. Norman Schwartzkopf met the Shah, who refused to sign the royal decree drafted by the CIA to dismiss Prime Minister Mossadegh and appoint Gen Zahedi as the new Prime Minister of Iran. Fully aware that the British and American governments were planning to depose him, Prime Minister Mossadegh held a referendum on 4 August calling for the Iranian Parliament to be dissolved. Under threat of his removal the Shah finally signed a royal decree dismissing Mossadegh.

As news of the Shah’s support for the coup spread quickly in Iran, the people were outraged. The first steps for the coup began on 15 August 1953 but were not carried through as Mossadegh pre-empted the moves. In fear of popular anger, General Zahedi went into hiding. The next day, fearing for his life, the Shah escaped to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. But CIA agents circulated copies of the decree dismissing Prime Minister Mossadegh and signed by the Shah. Two days later General Zahedi announced that he was the Prime Minister.
Disturbed by the failure of the planned coup the CIA ordered its agents in Tehran to postpone the coup. But on 19 August 1953, some Iranian newspapers published the Shah’s decree. General Zahedi reappeared on the scene and declared that he was now Prime Minister of Iran. Iran became vassal state of USA and Britain. The Shah and General Zahedi were their puppets

Huge protests erupted in Iran. In Tehran some 300 people were killed in police firing.

In 1954, hundreds of Iran’s National Front leaders, and member of the socialist Tudeh Party were arrested. Mossadegh’s main aides were arrested for having protested against the Shah. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Hussein Fatemi was executed.

With all protests stifled Iran and Oil Group signed an agreement with the Shah to resume production of oil by the Anglo-American Company. Most members of the legitimately elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh were arrested, imprisoned. Worse was to follow.

Mossadegh, the man who fought for the welfare of his country and its downtrodden people was arrested, tortured in prison, tried for treason. Iranians watched in rage. The resentment intensified over the years as they endured the tyranny of the West- backed Shah.

USA committed a grave judgement of error when they overthrew Mossadegh. He was the voice of reason and progress, who could strengthen democratic institutions and practices, who could reconcile Islam with modernity. By imposing a royal dictatorship, USA alienated liberal Iranians who looked to USA for help in modernizing Iran.
(Facts taken from New York Times Company publication).

On 19 August 2013, the CIA for the first time publicly admitted its involvement in the 1953 coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh

The paranoid puppet Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (who had seen his father deposed and was unwilling to meet the same fate) became an eager ally of Western oil interests. In return he was firmly supported by USA; his Swiss bank accounts as well as those of his fifty odd family members swelled into billions of dollars. While the ruling elite of 19 Iranian families led luxurious lives and divided their time between their palaces in Teheran, mansions in London and New York, and villas on the French Riviera, most of the population was poor with little education and lesser opportunities to drag themselves out of their misery. Instead of making the country prosperous through the wealth of the oil boom in the early 1970s, the governing circles enormously enriched themselves.

The country where mathematics, science and poetry flourished became a police state where a murmur of protest against the Shah ended in prison or mysterious disappearance. The silent and sullen citizens were controlled by harsh laws and punishment by the dreaded Savak secret police. But the mood of revolt intensified in the following months. Rising prices of essential commodities created serious inflation. However there were ominous signs of discontent; strikes in factories organized by socialists, and street demonstrations. The Savak had unbridled powers. Instead of the usual peaceful methods to disperse the crowds, police fired live ammunition and killed hundreds of protesters with impunity. Bloodshed further enraged the people. The police, the Savak and the military had never been trained to maintain law and order and assist on a reign of terror. Their sole purpose was to maintain the Shah in absolute power. In return they were pampered and given a free hand to oppress people, amass wealth.

Reza Shah suspected his counsellors, generals, civil servants. He followed a policy of divide and rule, set spies on any one vaguely suspected of opposing his authority. There was no cohesion among the senior personnel, whether civil or military.
Smouldering anger erupted into a mass movement in late 1978. Leadership of the opposition swiftly slipped into clerical hands. At first it seemed medieval and preposterous that a clergy would attempt to govern a nation in the twentieth century.

The extraordinary phenomenon of a theocracy in the twentieth century became possible through the character of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, a Muslim cleric from the sacred Muslim city of Qom. In 1963, he organized agitations against the Shah’s proposed White Revolution.

This was a sad turning point in Iran. At that time, the Shah genuinely wanted to modernize Iran and reduce the power of the Muslim Ulema. While preaching austerity for the faithful, the Muslim clergy held large tracts of land which brought them profit. The Shah wanted to redistribute the lands and give rights to minorities and to women. Afraid that these reforms would reduce the power of the Ulema, Khomeini whipped up religious sentiments and declared that the Shah had embarked on the destruction of Islam in Iran. Khomeini was arrested, followed by more riots, and then sent into exile in 1964. From Paris he ignited riots and violence in major cities.

Iranians now turned to a dangerous alternative—religious autocracy. Ayatollah proclaimed his readiness to be martyred while living in the security of Neauphle-le-Chateau. He reviled both capitalists and communists and Western habits. Social and economic progress on western lines was condemned.
Then the unexpected happened. Demonstrations intensified followed by police firing. The population was united in their opposition to the Shah’s regime. There was a general strike in October when mammoth protest rallies were held in major Iranian cities that crippled the country’s economy. Mosques and madrasas became centres of opposition. The Savak had no idea of what was happening. Never in Iran had millions taken to the street in protest against the Shah, regardless of the fact that they could be slaughtered by a brutal militia. Though the new Prime Minister, Jafar Sharif Emami tried to introduce some freedom, Iran moved inexorably towards a revolution.

The American Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski assured the Shah in November 1978 that they were fully behind him and would maintain his regime. Brzezinski was so obsessed with Iran’s frontier with the Soviet Union that he ignored all signs of imminent change.

The Ayatollah declared “It is not Iranian revolution, it is an Islamic revolution. It will affect the entire region.” The Ayatollah rejected patriotism as “paganism based on geographical concepts. Only Allah and Islam deserve reverence.” He was willing to approve Marxists if it freed the oppressed masses or mostazafin. He called USA “the great Satan” against whom a jihad must be fought. Only then the power and glory of Islam would be restored.

The stage was set for Khomeini’s entrance. Even the dreaded Savak gave covert help to the revolt. Sensing the nationwide opposition to the Shah’s rule, his ally, the USA and its President Jimmy Carter told the Shah that he must go. William Sullivan, the American ambassador suggested to the Iranian military to stage a coup which they refused to do. By December 1978, it became clear that the Shah could not continue to rule. So USA “took the Shah by the tail and threw him into exile like a dead rat.” Desperate, dying of cancer, the Shah and his family left Iran in January 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini left his exile in Neauphle-le-Chateau near Paris and arrived in Tehran on a chartered Air France flight on 1 February 1979. The mammoth surging crowd moved through the streets to accord Ayatollah Khomeini a tumultuous and spectacular welcome.

Khomeini swiftly dismantled all aspects of the Shah’s regime. Then the Ayatollah issued a stern warning to Iranians that there would now be a government based on the Sharia. “Opposing this government means opposing the sharia of Islam. Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

After the Shah’s downfall, Iranian leaders took an anti-Western stand and terminated the military alliance between the Iran and the US. Considering the possibility of installing a Leftist government Soviet Union made overtures to the new government. Any illusions on this were dispelled by the Islamic Republic’s harshness towards liberals, socialists, and minorities, accompanied by a medieval obscurantism that they imposed on the eclectic Iranian people who had for many millennia assimilated many cultures.

The overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh 70 years ago in August 1953 set into motion a chain of tragic events that transformed Iran and had ripple effects around the world.

Achala Moulik

Achala Moulik is a former Education Secretary, Government of India, author of books on political and cultural history and novelist. She received the Pushkin Medal and Yesenin Prize of Russia. She is now member of the jury for selecting awardees for the Leo Tolstoy International Peace Prize.

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