Were Regime-Changes of Iran in 1953 Inspired by the Goal of Furthering Democracy or Furthering an Economic Interest?
On Aug. 19, 1953, elements inside Iran organized and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence services carried out a coup d’état that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Historians have yet to reach a consensus on why the Eisenhower administration opted to use covert action in Iran, tending to either emphasize America’s fear of communism or its desire to control oil as the most important factor influencing the decision. Using recently declassified material, this article argues that growing fears of a “collapse” in Iran motivated the decision to remove Mossadegh. American policymakers believed that Iran could not survive without an agreement that would restart the flow of oil, something Mossadegh appeared unable to secure. There was widespread skepticism of his government’s ability to manage an “oil-less” economy, as well as fears that such a situation would lead inexorably to communist rule.
Among the book's main conclusions is that Iranians and non-Iranians both played crucial parts in the coup's success. The CIA, with help from British intelligence, planned, funded and implemented the operation. When the plot threatened to fall apart entirely at an early point, U.S. agents on the ground took the initiative to jump-start the operation, adapted the plans to fit the new circumstances, and pressed their Iranian collaborators to keep going. Moreover, a British-led oil boycott, supported by the United States, plus a wide range of ongoing political pressures by both governments against Mosaddeq, culminating in a massive covert propaganda campaign in the months leading up to the coup helped create the environment necessary for success. However, Iranians also contributed in many ways. Among the Iranians involved were the Shah, Zahedi and several non-official figures who worked closely with the American and British intelligence services. Their roles in the coup were clearly vital, but so also were the activities of various political groups - in particular members of the National Front who split with Mosaddeq by early 1953, and the Tudeh party - in critically undermining Mosaddeq's base of support. The volume provides substantial detail and analysis about the roles of each of these groups and individuals, and even includes scrutiny of Mosaddeq and the ways in which he contributed to his own demise. The "28 Mordad" coup, as it is known by its Persian date, was a watershed for Iran, for the Middle East and for the standing of the United States in the region. The joint U.S.-British operation ended Iran's drive to assert sovereign control over its own resources and helped put an end to a vibrant chapter in the history of the country's nationalist and democratic movements. These consequences resonated with dramatic effect in later years. When the Shah finally fell in 1979, memories of the U.S. intervention in 1953, which made possible the monarch's subsequent, and increasingly unpopular, 25-reign intensified the anti-American character of the revolution in the minds of many Iranians.
The will of the people becomes too much, and soon the occupying army units join the movement. Civilians and soldiers, side by side, proceed to take over the main squares of the city and ultimately seize the broadcasting facilities of Radio Tehran. This historic Persian city has officially erupted into total chaos. Tremendous fear from local families caught in the fray fills the air. The demonstrations seem to have taken on a life of their own as they continuously grow in size. The mob moves on to take over the telegraph office, the foreign ministry, press and propaganda bureau, the police and army headquarters. Finally, they come to the home of the man who is the ostensible cause for all of the mayhem, their Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq (Ervand Abrahamian, 2013). A battle breaks out between Mossadeq's supporters and the antiMossadeq crowds, leaving hundreds of people dead on the streets. The overthrow is now complete, and later the same day Army General Fazlollah Zahedi announces that he is Iran’s new Prime Minister and that his forces now control the city. At the time, and for many years following the coup d’état which overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq almost no one, outside of British and US intelligence and their Iranian operatives and collaborators, would have ever dreamed that this horrific scene was entirely fabricated, designed, and orchestrated by a new world power—the United States of America and their top intelligence agency, the CIA. Hard to believe as it might be, this is no movie scene, but a sad narrative that lies at the heart of modern US-Iranian relations (Amin Saikal, 1980).
To sum up, the coup against Mossadegh has often been described as the beginning of the ‘Golden Age’ of the CIA. The article argues that, while the coup was successful in getting rid of Mossadegh, its negative short-term and long-term consequences in Iran but also for the United States weigh heavily. Without thorough analysis why it nearly failed, the coup became a fatal catalyst for other interventions of the CIA that led to the Bay of Pigs disaster. If intelligence activities lose their moral dimension and if success is exclusively measured by ‘mission accomplished’, in the end more will be lost than gained.
Mark J. Gasiorowski, "The CIA's TPBEDAMN Operation and the 1953 Coup in Iran." Journal of Cold War Studies 15, no. 4 (2013): 20
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Pompeo: U.S. Looks to Change Iranian Behavior, Not Regime” (May 25, 2018)
Amin Saikal, The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 13.
Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, The CIA and the Roots of Modern U.S.- Iranian Relations (New York: New Press, 2013), 18.