Why a U.S.-led Coup Seven Decades Ago Still Matters to Young Iranians

Calls for regime change in Tehran are nothing new from the United States – but on August 19, 1953, the CIA went a step further and overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. The trauma of that event still persists

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Supporters of then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, armed with long sticks, tearing down a statue of the Shah of Iran's father, in Tehran, August 17, 1953. Two days later, Mossadegh was overthrown.
Supporters of then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, armed with long sticks, tearing down a statue of the Shah of Iran's father, in Tehran, August 17, 1953. Two days later, Mossadegh was overthrown.

Democratic regime change in Iran has become a bipartisan slogan permeating modern American politics. What’s less well-known is that the United States played a crucial role in bringing down Iran’s last democracy in 1953.

This week marks the 67th anniversary of a covert operation – code-named Operation Ajax by the CIA and Operation Boot by the British secret services – that brought down Iran’s last democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. 

A nationalist and champion of secular democracy, Mossadegh (also spelled Mosaddegh and Mosaddeq) gained prominence in Iranian politics by focusing on two key issues: devolving more power from the monarchy to parliament, based on Iran’s 1906 constitution; and wresting back control of Iran’s oil industry, which had been dominated by the British.

In 1949, Mossadegh formed the National Front Party and spearheaded protests against Iran’s reigning monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the ongoing involvement of the British Empire.

By early 1951, the Shah was overwhelmed by widespread public demonstrations. In the face of Iranian protesters, who saw him as nothing but a puppet of the British, the Shah folded to popular pressure and approved a parliamentary vote to make Mossadegh prime minister. Within a week of his tenure, Mossadegh ratified a momentous bill nationalizing Iran’s oil industry.

A crowd of pro-Shah demonstrators tearing down a political party's in Tehran, August 19, 1953.

This was a crushing blow to the British, who had controlled Iran’s oil for decades through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which would subsequently become British Petroleum, or BP). But as political scientist Mark Gasiorowski argued in Foreign Policy last October, the precedent set by Mossadegh threatened the very survival of British imperial interests in the Middle East. 

In short order Mossadegh became a wildly popular figure in Iran – and with outside observers, too, earning himself the accolade of Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951. But to Western powers with economic interests in Iran and the broader Middle East, the charismatic Iranian premier posed a threat to regional hegemony and economic prosperity.

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed office as U.S. president in January 1953, the British government under Prime Minister Winston Churchill approached him with a plan to thwart Mossadegh’s efforts.

Eisenhower’s predecessor, President Harry Truman, had been adamantly opposed to meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs. But fears of increasing Soviet influence and the growing voice of Iran’s communist Tudeh Party prompted drastic action from the United States.

An army officer rallying a crowd of demonstrators in front of the home of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Tehran on February 28, 1953. The CIA plot was being hatched at this point.

Nine-hour firefight

In early 1953, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, directed the CIA to plot Mossadegh’s removal from power. The plan centered on convincing Iran’s Shah to replace Mossadegh with a new, less radical prime minister through royal decree. The operation would be coordinated on the ground by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson and the CIA’s Near East and Africa divisional chief.

Following several months of careful preparation, Roosevelt Jr.’s first attempted coup failed after Mossadegh caught wind of a military plot to overthrow him. But four days later, on August 19, 1953, his second attempt proved more successful.

After a nine-hour firefight where 300 people were killed, according to Gasiorowski’s account in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Mossadegh’s home was besieged and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest, eventually dying in 1967.

The Shah issued two decrees: one removing Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister; another replacing him with Maj. Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, who had served in Mossadegh’s cabinet. In the process, the democratic parliamentary process was replaced by direct rule of the Shah, who was to remain in power until 1979. To American and British eyes, the coup was, at least initially, a success.

According to a recently declassified CIA dossier, published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, Zahedi had been preemptively “approached by [the] CIA and told of [the] operation and its aim of installing him as the new prime minister.”

A woman addressing demonstrators as she lends support to the Shah of Iran in front of the Royal Palace in Tehran, March 2, 1953.

CIA agent Donald Wilber, who was involved in the plot to oust Mossadegh, wrote the now publicly available 200-page account just months after the coup. In it, he shed light on how the CIA and British intelligence services helped spread anti-Mossadegh material in an “increasingly intensified propaganda effort through the press, handbills and the Tehran clergy in a campaign designed to weaken the Mossadegh government in any way possible.”

Not only was the 1953 coup the CIA’s first successful peacetime overthrow of a foreign government, following its formation in the fall of 1947. It also forged a blueprint for future covert operations, including 1954’s Operation PBSUCCESS, which deposed Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, and the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, code-named Project FUBELT.

The United States was still lauding the Shah in 1977, with President Jimmy Carter even visiting Tehran on December 31 and calling Iran “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” However, the Shah’s ouster 13 months later following mass protests ushered in a new era of hostility between the United States and Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the anti-Western Islamic Revolution, with relations further deteriorating in November 1979 with the start of the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis.

End of a ‘thriving democracy’

Scores of books, screeds, documentaries and movies have contributed to our understanding of what happened in 1953 – and the precise impact Western forces had on bringing down the Mossadegh government – but there remains a point of debate as to whether Mossadegh would have failed even without foreign intervention.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi driving through cheering crowds in Tehran, December 14, 1959, on their way to the Shah's palace.

We may never know the extent to which British and U.S. intelligence agencies were involved, either, as it “is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a historian to gain access to the CIA archives on the 1953 coup in Iran,” writes Ervand Abrahamian in his 2013 book “The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations.”

Stephen Kinzer, who wrote “All the Shah’s Men” (2003), tells Haaretz that “the American and Iranian view of U.S.-Iranian relations today are very different. In fact, they run on parallel tracks and never coincide,” he says. “The American view is that everything that has to do with the Iran-American relationship starts and ends with 1979. For Iranians, the entire downward spiral of their country began in 1953: Iran was on its way to consolidating a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East – and we made sure that didn’t happen,” he says, outlining the secular Iranian argument.

In place of democracy, Iran experienced severe “blowback” – a CIA term first coined after 1953 to refer to unintended consequences brought on by the U.S. government’s activities abroad – as it ushered in the Shah’s 26-year absolute rule, and the coup became a rallying cry for anti-Western protests that eventually led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In a March 2000 address, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded that, although the Eisenhower administration “believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”

Kinzer notes that “outside interference has been a central fact of Iranian history for the last 200 years.” As a result, Iran has “developed a strong sense of nationalism and an intense desire to avoid falling into the clutches of Western powers.”

Former Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadegh is sentenced to three years' solitary confinement by a military court in Tehran, December 21, 1953.

Nearly 70 years after the coup, his sentiments about Iran’s democracy being derailed are echoed by secular Iranians living in the United States.

Nadia, a 33-year-old Iranian-born neuroscientist based in Boston, Massachusetts, tells Haaretz that millennials and “the older generation still think of Mossadegh as a champion because of the social reforms he introduced during his short time in office, and that he stood up against foreign domination and exploitation.” (Like the other Iranians interviewed here, Nadia asked that her surname not be published.)

The former premier remains a popular figure among different generations of Iranians, including Manhattan resident Fariba, who was 5 years old when Mossadegh was overthrown. She vividly remembers how much support there was for Mossadegh from her own family members.

“My father worked in the oil industry and thought very highly of Mossadegh, even after the Shah took power,” she recounts. “I remember he and his brother would always sit by the radio and secretly listen to broadcasts of the Tudeh Party. They couldn’t let anyone know they were supporters because the SAVAK, the secret police set up by the Shah, would make life very tough for them.”

Though she grew up during the Shah’s reign and was a supporter, she still sees Mossadegh as a national hero.

Iran's new prime minister, Maj. Gen. Fazollah Zahedi, after being appointed by the Shah, August 25, 1953.

His country’s reluctance to discuss events preceding the 1979 revolution is why Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, describes America as the “United States of Amnesia.” He tells Haaretz: “Gore Vidal was right when he said this was the right name for the U.S., but he’s wrong in the sense that many Americans never knew this coup happened in the first place. This means that Americans have no sense whatsoever of the grievances people in Iran might harbor with regards to the United States.”

Those grievances remain, even with Iranians born decades after Mossadegh’s ouster. “When we read about him in history textbooks, we see that he did a lot for Iran’s economy at the time by nationalizing oil,” says Shabnam, a 31-year-old student from Bandar Abbas, on the southern coast of Iran, in a video interview. “He did a lot for our country, and he was deposed because the United States was opposed to his politics and to his economic policies,” he adds. “It wasn’t in America’s best interests for us to sell our oil.”

For Nadia, “the coup is probably one of the main historical events that strongly remained in the memories of many generations of Iranians. The lack of trust is still very powerful, because even now we can see how the leaders of Western countries take no position when it comes to violations of human rights in Iran by the Iranian government.”

The White Palace of the Shah of Iran in Tehran.

Handle with care

Beyond personal anecdotes of the 1953 coup and expert opinions, both the U.S. and Iranian governments have had to tread carefully with their retellings of this particular story.

For the Americans, the episode represents unseemly meddling in the domestic affairs of an otherwise democratic government, in the pursuit of oil and regional hegemony. In 2013, the CIA formally acknowledged its role in the coup, but its efforts had already long been known. “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a key role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” President Barack Obama noted during his so-called Cairo speech in 2009.

For the Iranians, the events of 1953 are often proffered as a glaring example of the evils of the West. While the coup helps the theocratic regime demonize the “Great Satan,” the period before the coup and memory of Mossadegh also offers a disquieting threat to the status quo: a period of comparative tranquility where democratic processes and the country’s parliament, the Majlis, wielded real power – and that could one day fuel grassroots calls for a return to democratic government.

Jonathan Harounoff is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an alumnus of the universities of Cambridge and Harvard. Stephanie Posner is a graduate student at the Yale School of Management and the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Arman Amini is a management consultant and a Zuckerman Fellow at Harvard University.

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