Seven decades after the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the country’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, a fundamentally distorted portrait of this highly controversial event continues to cast a shadow on elite judgments about the virtues of American power. For generations of liberal politicians and professors, the coup has provided an upsetting narrative in which a malevolent America strangled a nascent Persian democracy because Iran dared to nationalize its oil. And the destruction wrought by the United States wasn’t just about profits, according to the narrative. It’s that the American imperium could not tolerate neutralism in the Third World in the 1950s and needed compliant and brutal allies like the Shah of Iran. Thus, supposedly, imperialism and greed came together to deliver a deadly blow to a nation seeking self-determination.
The coup has proven irresistible as a talking point for Democratic Party politicians hungry for some kind of rapprochement with the current Iranian regime. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was one of the first to rush into this contested terrain during the Clinton administration: “In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq….The coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development.” A decade later, in 2009, Barack Obama invoked the coup in his maiden speech to the Muslim world in Cairo: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government.” In his memoir, Obama was more expansive, using the coup—code-named Operation Ajax—to castigate an entire generation of American policymakers:
Operation Ajax set a pattern for US miscalculation dealing with developing countries that lasted throughout the Cold War: mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interest with national security, subverting democratically elected governments and aligning ourselves with autocrats when we determined it was to our benefit.
But what happens if everything we have been told about the coup is wrong? What happens if the establishment consensus that has so penetrated our imagination is false?
Because it is.
To begin with: Mossadeq had not been democratically elected. And far from being a paragon of democratic virtue, he was not beyond using unconstitutional and illegal methods to sustain his power. Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had sincerely sought to craft a fair compromise between Iran and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company whose assets Mossadeq had nationalized. And most important, the coup itself was very much an Iranian initiative.
By dispelling these myths, we can make better sense of U.S. relations with Iran in those years—and, indeed, throughout the next decades before the installation of the radical Islamic regime that now poses an existential threat to Israel and the Middle East. What a clear-eyed view reveals is that the United States was, if anything, naively well-intentioned.
THE ANGLO-IRANIAN Oil Company, or AIOC, had dominated Persia’s oil fields since the turn of the century. The fact that the British government owned a majority of the company’s shares gave the entire enterprise an official standing. The arrangement was exploitative, as the AIOC routinely paid more in taxes to Britain than it provided in revenues to Iran. After World War II, with the inexorable rise of anti-colonial nationalism, that anachronistic arrangement became unsustainable.
The most ardent champion of the oil-nationalization movement was Mossadeq, an elderly parliamentarian (he was born in 1882) and a towering figure in Tehran’s political establishment upon his appointment as prime minister in 1951—at a moment when the politics of Iran could best be characterized as “elite pluralism.” Persia was the domain of aristocrats; its landed gentry, leading merchants, and clerics dominated cabinets and parliaments. The system was not without its checks and balances, as the cantankerous nobility was jealous of its prerogatives, and the monarchy was hemmed in on all sides by competing institutions. The young shah, 32-year-old Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was too hesitant and uncertain of his authority to challenge this governing arrangement.
The oft-repeated phrase that Mossadeq was “democratically elected” is a misunderstanding; he rose by royal decree, not a national plebiscite. Once the parliament passed an oil-nationalization bill in 1951, it was only natural for the plan’s architect to be offered the premiership. But in many ways, Mossadeq was the wrong choice for a position that he had coveted much of his life. At the time of his appointment, he was 69. A stubborn man who brooked no dissent, Mossadeq despised the British and had little use for compromise solutions.
The United States initially became involved in the oil dispute at Iran’s invitation. Shortly after assuming the premiership, Mossadeq wrote to President Harry Truman and asked for arbitration since America was a “strong supporter of freedom and sovereignty of nations—a belief evidenced by the sacrifices of the great-heartfelt nation in the last two world wars.” Thus began a series of American diplomatic initiatives, all of which were rejected by Mossadeq.
From the outset, the Americans did not contest Iran’s right to reclaim its natural resource. Washington was looking for an arrangement whereby Iran would be in charge of its oil, but Britain would be compensated for its seized assets and play a role in the management of Iran’s oil fields given its expertise and experience. The American attitude caused considerable consternation in Whitehall. At a time when British soldiers were fighting and dying on the battlefields of Korea alongside Americans, the Britons expected more support from the United States. The vast literature on the coup that obsessively chronicles Iranian grievances has little to say about the tensions in the Anglo-American relations caused by Truman’s evenhanded approach to the dispute.
The first American who tried his hand at crafting a solution was one of the Democratic Party’s most able troubleshooters, Averell Harriman. Harriman’s talks with Mossadeq revealed the difficulties America was to encounter. Arriving at the prime minister’s house and ushered into the bedroom where he held court, the American envoy was greeted with a rant against the British. “You don’t know how crafty they are,” Mossadeq raged. “You don’t know how evil they are.” All of Harriman’s detailed studies and proposals were casually brushed aside by Mossadeq. An exasperated Harriman could only report to Truman that Mossadeq “expects foreign [oil] staff to work on his terms…and Iran to get all the profits with compensation only to owners for property taken over. In his dream world, the simple passage of legislation nationalizing the oil industry creates a profitable business and everyone is expected to help Iran on terms that he lays down.”
Harriman’s failure did not cause Truman to forsake diplomacy. A trip by Mossadeq to America in October 1951 presented another opportunity. This time, the American chosen for the task was Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee. The so-called McGhee formula again accepted that Iran would be in charge of its oil—but given the country’s technical limitations, the formula involved granting an international firm, such as the Royal Dutch Shell Company, the right to operate the oil fields on Iran’s behalf. The AIOC would be offered a generous compensation package, including the right to purchase Iranian oil. Mossadeq seemed to agree, and everyone in Washington assumed that the crisis had finally passed.
But before a deal could be announced, Mossadeq summoned McGhee and told him that he “could not sign any agreement until he had first submitted it to the parliament and parliamentary commission for approval.” He further stunned McGhee, saying that he “would forward the agreement to the parliament without endorsing it.” It became apparent to Americans that Mossadeq was too concerned about his domestic political standing to press forward a compromise accord. Indeed, a mischievous Mossadeq confirmed this view when he confided to his American translator, Vernon Walters, “Don’t you realize, that returning to Iran empty-handed, I return in a much stronger position than if I returned with an agreement which I would have to sell to my fanatics.”
In the meantime, Iran was coming undone. By 1952, its economy was in shambles because Mossadeq could not overcome a British embargo imposed after the nationalization to sell his oil. The prime minister had long proposed the absurdity of an “oil-less economy” whereby Iran would ensure its financial stability by relying on its internal markets. But because oil was Iran’s principal staple commodity, and without proceeds from it, the state treasury quickly emptied. As the economic situation deteriorated, many in Tehran began to question Mossadeq’s stewardship of the country. The prime minister’s response was to crush dissent. He worked to hollow out the monarchy, reduce the parliament to a rubber stamp, and separate religion from politics. He was inaugurating a war against Iran’s aristocratic elite and its traditional institutions.
EVEN BEFORE Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, Mossadeq wrote to the incoming president to complain that the Truman administration had “pursued what appears to the Iranian people a policy of supporting the British Government and the AIOC.” This was an unfair characterization of an administration that had devised many proposals Mossadeq had summarily rejected. Still, Eisenhower responded calmly, “I hope our own future relationships will be completely free of any suspicions, but on the contrary will be characterized by confidence and trust inspired by frankness and friendliness.”
Eisenhower understood that Mossadeq belonged to a new generation of Third World leaders, and that if the United States were to wage the Cold War effectively beyond the boundaries of Europe, it would have to make common cause with credible nationalists who abjured Communism. This was shocking to Winston Churchill, who had recently returned to power hoping to revive the British Empire. Churchill quickly dispatched his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to Washington for a firsthand assessment. Eden was stunned by Eisenhower’s accommodationist attitude. Eisenhower bluntly told Eden that he considered Mossadeq “the only hope for the West in Iran” and that he “would like to give the guy ten million bucks.”
As a junior partner, Britain had no choice but to go along with more diplomacy. It would prove to be Mossadeq who came to Britain’s rescue by poisoning the well with the Americans. Washington soon made another offer to Iran. This time a multinational consortium would operate the oil fields on behalf of the AIOC. Until a final agreement could be worked out, the United States would purchase a large quantity of Iranian oil and offer $50 million in aid to stabilize Tehran’s finances. The value of the AIOC’s assets nationalized by Iran would be determined by the International Court of Justice. Once the Court rendered its judgment, Iran would make the necessary payment. The principal area of disagreement would be how much compensation the AIOC was entitled to, given that its contract with Iran had been abrogated by the nationalization before its maturation date.
Mossadeq played his usual game of privately welcoming the offer and then publicly rejecting it. He was temperamentally incapable of compromise and assumed that if he just held tight, eventually the Western powers would concede to his maximalist terms. He was unable to see the generosity of offers that he was dismissing.
Mossadeq’s last months in power were lonely ones. As the negotiations stalemated and the economy cratered, the Persian aristocracy began to turn against one of its own. The National Front party fractured as the elderly politicians who had started it with Mossadeq abandoned him. The clerical order, always suspicious of Mossadeq’s secular bent, grew concerned about growing leftist influence. The parliament became a seat of anti-Mossadeq agitation while the merchant class feared being dispossessed. The shah brooded in his palaces but was too timid to take charge. The armed forces, as the guardians of the nation, dreaded all the disorder around them. While the Iranian political class had supported the nationalization of oil, many understood the importance of getting some agreement to prevent a national catastrophe.
Mossadeq dealt with all this by attempting to purge his critics. A transparently fraudulent referendum dissolved the parliament. With a straight face, Mossadeq reported that the vote for disbanding the chamber was 2 million in favor and 1,207 against. This was a particularly maladroit move, given that the speaker of the parliament was Ayatollah Abul-Qasem Kashani, a clerical activist with ample street power. Kashani joined the ranks of the opposition. The armed-forces budget was slashed and many leading officers were cashiered. The shah lost control of the Ministry of War, a traditional monarchical prerogative, and was prohibited from having direct contact with military officers. Mossadeq, the man who would be posthumously commemorated by many Westerners as a rare democrat, was busy ushering in a despotic order.
Throughout Mossadeq’s tenure, numerous Iranian politicians had appealed to the U.S. Embassy to help them depose the prime minister. Ambassador Loy Henderson rejected all such entreaties and insisted that the Iranians sort out their own affairs. But by the spring of 1953, there was a subtle change in America’s attitude. And that change came about not because Washington feared democracy in Iran, but because it worried that Mossadeq’s dictatorship was vulnerable to Communist takeover from the country’s Tudeh party. America’s plot was not against democracy but despotic rule.
The intelligence community was quick to stress these themes. As early as February, the CIA warned Eisenhower that “there is the possibility that a communist seizure of power in Iran may take place imperceptibly over a considerable period of time. Under this contingency, it would be extremely difficult to identify and demonstrate to our allies that specific countermeasures were required to prevent communist infiltration from reaching the point where it would be able to significantly influence the policies of the Iranian government.” Three months later, the agency again noted that “while Tudeh’s popular strength remains about the same, its relative political position has grown relatively stronger as a result of continuing penetration of government agencies and the disruptive effects of Mossadeq’s struggle with the opposition.” The pattern in Iran appeared eerily similar to that of Eastern Europe, where Communist parties had first infiltrated popular-front governments before taking full control.
In a paradoxical way, Mossadeq confirmed the American intelligence assessments. Given his dire economic situation, he sought to extort money from Washington by invoking the Communist threat. Mossadeq summoned Henderson to his office and insisted that unless the United States purchased large quantities of Iranian oil, “there would be a revolution in Iran in thirty days.” When this failed to budge Henderson, Mossadeq warned in their next meeting, “If the National Front government should pass out of existence, only confusion or the Tudeh would take over.” Both Mossadeq and the CIA were telling Eisenhower that Iran was slipping away.
ON JUNE 23, 1953, the CIA plan code-named TP-AJAX was approved by Eisenhower. The coup that would prove a source of contention was remarkably simple. General Fazlollah Zahedi, a former cabinet member in Mossadeq’s government and one of Iran’s more distinguished generals, was identified as a key figure. This was hardly surprising, as Zahedi had been busy putting together a military network and had already made contact with the clerical leaders and political actors. The CIA launched a crude propaganda campaign that seemed transparent and false. Among its claims was that Mossadeq was of Jewish ancestry; evidently, many in Langley assumed that the Persians shared their anti-Semitism. The most useful contribution that the United States made was to press the shah to dismiss his prime minister. The monarch had the legal authority to do so, but given his propensity to fade in times of crisis, he needed ample American nudging.
The man chosen to lead the CIA’s efforts was Kermit Roosevelt, whose pedigree and connections were unmatched. The grandson of one president, Theodore, and the cousin of another, Franklin, he was one of the founding members of the agency and an eager proponent of meddling in the affairs of other countries. His task was complicated by the fact that the CIA by its own admission “did not possess any military assets” in Iran. The Americans were fortunate that Zahedi had already organized key divisions of the armed forces. The fact that Mossadeq had steadily shed supporters and alienated key segments of society made the task of displacing him seem easier. There was already a powerful coalition of clerics, generals, and merchants ready to dispose of the prime minister whose petulance was ruining the country.
All of these contingencies would have been unnecessary if the shah had simply discharged his prime minister. But he was not the type to assume responsibility for tough decisions. The recruitment of the monarch became America’s most important objective and its most consequential contribution to the coup. A series of emissaries now journeyed to the palace and pressed the diffident monarch to assert his powers. The shah detested Mossadeq and understood that he was doing immense damage to the country. Pahlavi argued, pleaded, and offered to give verbal but not written consent to firing Mossadeq. In one of their secret meetings, the shah insisted to Roosevelt that he could not act unless he had an indication of Eisenhower’s direct support for the coup. Roosevelt arranged for Eisenhower to insert a passage in his next speech stressing that America would not allow Iran to fall to Communism. This seemed to have done the trick. The shah signed the orders dismissing Mossadeq and appointing Zahedi as the new premier.
It must be noted that once the monarchical decree was issued, Mossadeq’s hold on power was rendered illegal. All discussion of the coup should not obscure the fact that once the shah issued his edict, Mossadeq no longer had a constitutional right to his position.
On the night of August 5, Colonel Nematollah Nasiri, commander of the Imperial Guards, was dispatched to the prime minister’s residence to deliver the decree dismissing him. He was quickly arrested by Mossadeq’s loyalists. The Tudeh party’s agents in the armed forces had tipped off Mossadeq, who was ready for Nasiri. Upon hearing the news, the shah, as was his wont, quickly fled the country. The ousting of Mossadeq was a bust.
In Washington, the news was received with fear and resignation. The State Department acknowledged that the “operation has been tried and failed.” The CIA informed the station in Tehran, “We should not participate in any operations against Mossadeq which could be traced back to us and further compromise our relations with him [Mossadeq] which may become the only course of action left open to us.” It was left to Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s crusty aide, to deliver the bad news to the president. Smith—who as Eisenhower’s chief of staff during World War II had grown accustomed to giving his boss difficult news in an unvarnished fashion—told the president that “we now have to take a whole new look at the Iranian situation and probably have to snuggle up to Mossadeq if we are going to save anything there.”
The events of the next several days have become a source of great controversy. Kermit Roosevelt, sitting in Tehran, was not sure that it was all over. There was too much anti-Mossadeq ferment in the streets, and there were still too many Iranian plotters on the loose. Roosevelt’s primary contribution to the unfolding drama was to circulate to the foreign and domestic press the shah’s decree dismissing Mossadeq. Mossadeq did not disclose in a radio address to the nation that he had been fired; he merely stated that an illegal coup had been thwarted. Roosevelt correctly sensed that once the decree made its way to the press, it would galvanize the population and the armed forces on behalf of a monarchy that still enjoyed widespread support. This is hardly a sinister act, as all Roosevelt did was seek to inform as many people as possible about what had actually transpired.
Tudeh activists, sensing that their time may have come, began tearing down statues of the shah and calling for “democratic government.” This too resembled scenes from Eastern Europe, where Communist parties had come to power under similar banners. The protest and mayhem generated a backlash, and pro-shah elements took to the streets. Too often in the coup literature, these demonstrations are attributed to CIA funding. While it is certain that some agency money made its way to roughnecks, the sheer scale of protests suggests that they were actually the work of the clerical order. The senior ayatollahs were alarmed at the possibility of a Mossadeq-led secular republic that might fall prey to Communist rule. As the CIA station reported: “Religious leaders [are] now desperate. Will attempt anything. Will try [to] save Islam and the Shah of Iran.” The mullahs’ street muscle was unparalleled, and at that point they were still comfortable with a young monarch deferential to their claims.
In the end, Mossadeq’s rule did come to an end. While the Americans were trying to figure out what was taking place, Zahedi and his men were on the move. Throughout this time, Zahedi was in various hiding places, directing army units into action and alerting sleeping cells in the armed forces. Washington was oblivious to all this, as the CIA station confessed: “As of night of August 13 CIA cut out of military preparations by Batmanqelij [army chief of staff] and Zahedi.” The soldiers methodically moved into Tehran, taking over key government buildings and finally announcing the collapse of the Mossadeq regime. The prime minister turned himself in; he was too much of an establishmentarian to attempt a life on the run.
In the decades since, all the complexities of the coup have been stripped away in favor of the simplistic claim that the red-baiting Eisenhower overthrew a democratically elected prime minister. It is the Middle Eastern studies and international-relations professoriate that bear the burden of blame for perpetuating a false narrative. The leftist takeover of college campuses in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which has only deepened over the past two generations, has led professors past and present to look for ways to blame the problems of the Third World on a villainous America. The coup in Iran has long served as one of their favorite indictments of American power, and that indictment has taken root. Indeed, the Academy Award–winning film Argo even suggested that the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was a justifiable response to the coup.
The principal beneficiary of all this historical malpractice has been the Islamic Republic. The theocratic state has whitewashed the clerical complicity in the monarchical restoration in 1953, and its suave diplomats have relentlessly reminded American audiences of their country’s guilt. The Democrats who view diplomacy with Iran as an occasion for propitiating past grievances have fallen prey to this game. Barack Obama was the most noteworthy but hardly the only defender of such discursive notions. The task many Democrats have assigned themselves is not to restrain Iranian power but to expunge past sins. Politicians seeking to right wrongs are most likely to negotiate deficient agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and ignore the theocracy’s imperial rampage throughout the Middle East.
The coup of 1953 is thus a living event. And so long as the prevailing narrative of the coup remains unchallenged, the Islamic Republic will have ready-made defenders in liberal circles. The key to unraveling the Islamist regime must start with setting the record straight.
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