The 1953 Iranian coup d'etat was a coup against the Iranian government organised by the UK and the US in an attempt to keep the then royal family of Iran in power. There are disagreements as to the lead cause of the coup, but we’ll try to cover most of the assumed reasonings in this article.
Firstly, let me acknowledge our sources, one of which is “All the Shah’s Men'' written by Stephen Kinzer. I’ve also pulled some information from articles found on NPR, Aljazeera, ForeignPolicy.com, and the New York Times.
This story begins with the good ole “British Bulldog” himself, Winston Churchill. Prior to WWI Churchill noticed something changing in the world. He saw an opportunity in a substance we all know well today: oil. He saw the future in it being a very important commodity. A commodity which would give the possessor an enormous amount of power. The only issue he seemed to be facing was that England didn’t produce any oil at this time. So, Britain would obviously have to look elsewhere.
Well, if you don’t know this, Iran actually sits on top of one of the greatest seas of oil in the entire world. The ownership of which would give Iran a significant amount of power. Churchill knew of this great sea of oil, and even described it as, “A prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” So, he sent a group of agents to Iran to negotiate the UK receiving a portion of this oil. This actually culminated in the Iranian negotiators being bribed at the table to accept a deal.
The deal was that the UK would have full and total control over Iranian oil. The extraction, refining and sale of all of it. In fairness, Iran didn’t have the full infrastructure or wealth at the time to invest in starting up this oil extraction, refining and selling themselves. So having the British come in and assist them with the startup costs would seem like a good deal to an outsider.
In exchange for gaining control of the Iranian oil, the UK would give Iran 16% of the profits. Which could still be a hefty sum in relation to oil sales. However, the only issue with this is that the profits would only be calculated AFTER the company handling the Iranian oil paid a huge amount of tax to the British government. But the company was actually owned by the British government. So, the UK was effectively paying itself, and lowering Iran’s agreed 16% at the same time. The UK didn’t even allow the Iranian’s to see the books on how the 16% was calculated. They were handed the cheque and told to smile, basically.
Obviously, you can imagine that this deal would cause a bit of resentment from the Iranian people against the UK. And that resentment kept growing. Especially when the Iranian’s saw how absolutely amazing Britain was doing and their high standards of living when compared to the terrible conditions in Iran at the time. The Iranians were living in some of the worst conditions in the world, even though they had access to one of the wealthiest supplies of oil.
This resentment led to the rise of a man named Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh was described as an incredibly influential man, especially in 1951. So much so, that Time magazine actually chose him as their ‘Man of the Year’ for that year. He had been schooled in Europe, and was the first Iranian to receive a doctorate from a European university (University of Neuchâtel). By the 1950s, he had made his way into Iranian politics. He was known as being incorruptible. He never accepted a salary from the Iranian government. In all circumstances, he was seen as a very revered figure in Iran, who legitimately wanted nothing but success for the country.
He was so popular that he decided to run for Prime Minister of Iran. Prior to being a theocracy, or a more religious centered government, Iran’s government actually had a very democratic feel to it. There was a Shah who was the ruler of the country, and had the power to basically do what he wanted. But there was also a Parliament with democratically elected officials, which included Mosaddegh. The current Shah in the 50s, who we’ll mention a little later, was a very mild leader. He wasn’t very authoritative. Because of this, democracy had a bit more room to grow in Iran.
With this opening for more democratic politics, Mosaddegh ran his campaign for Prime Minister on two main points. Firstly, it was his belief that the Shah of Iran should have a more headpiece role to the country, similar to the British royal family, which meant that the Iranian Parliament should handle the democracy of the country. Secondly, he wanted to nationalise and take back control of Iran’s oil fields.
From his popularity he was elected Prime Minister easily. But he refused to accept the position before proposing the legislation to begin the nationalisation of the oil fields. This legislation passed unanimously in the Iranian Parliament. So plans began to remove the company, currently named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, from the country.
This upset the UK to no end. Churchill was beside himself that the Iranians would be so rude as to break an international contract. He also saw that the UK would lose an incredible amount of power with the loss of the oil fields. Not only that, but Iran would gain that power. So, he kept a reasonable head and decided that the UK should just invade Iran and take the oil back. In fact, they planned out at least two plans of invasion, with one including warships blocking the Iranian coast.
When the US heard about these plans, they told the UK that they couldn’t allow them to invade Iran. Because, as will mention again in a moment, current President Harry Truman was not for that type of thing. So, Britain decided to take the issue to a security council at the UN in New York. The US also said you probably shouldn’t do that either, because it’ll basically make you look terrible in front of the rest of the world. But they went ahead with it anyway. Mosaddegh was very happy with this and decided to fly personally to New York to represent Iran in the security council.
When he arrived in New York, Mosaddegh was almost instantly a hit with the American people. He did interviews and other publicity stunts that helped spread the word of the Iranian troubles. At the security council, Mosaddegh was so convincing in his arguments that Iran should have control over their own oil that the council found in Iran’s favour, making the decision the first defeat for a British resolution at the UN ever up to that point. Which effectively embarrassed the UK further.
After the British defeat, Mosaddegh was invited to the White House to try to find common ground with the UK and to negotiate an agreement. However, there was no agreement met, likely due to the fact that Mosaddegh simply wanted his country to own its property.
So, the whole thing came to an end and Iran got its oil back. Just kidding. Actually, the UK decided that their final option was to stage a coup within Iran to overthrow Mosaddegh and ordered their agents in the country to begin preparations for this coup. But Mosaddegh found out about this and closed the British embassy in Iran, sending all the UK agents home, including the ones planning the coup.
The only thing left to do was to appeal to the US, so Churchill approached President Harry Truman and asked him to assist in the coup. But Truman flat-out declined. He said that he did not want America to get involved with overthrowing the governments of foreign countries. In a diary entry, he actually referred to a fear of the US becoming an “American Gestapo”.
Well, that was it. The British had completely exhausted all options they could to get their oil back. Except this was all just before the American election of 1952. This ended with the election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of the main points of Eisenhower’s campaign had actually been that Truman had been much too soft on communism and other threats to US securities abroad. Basically seeing Truman as someone with no backbone.
This had Churchill jumping for joy. The UK was so excited by this election that they couldn’t even wait until Eisenhower’s inauguration before appealing to the US again. Before he was even made president, Churchill sent agents to America to meet with Eisenhower behind Truman’s back about the coup.
Now, this is where it gets a bit underhanded by the British. The agents that had been sent by the UK knew they had to find a different story to tell the US to convince them to join the coup. Because, “Mosaddegh took our oil and we want it back” just wouldn’t be persuasive enough. So, the British agents, which are quoted in “All the Shah’s Men”, change the story from “Mosaddegh took our oil and we want it back” to “Mosaddegh is opening up Iran to the possibility of Communist takeover.”
The climate in the world at the time, especially in America, was that Communists are the Devil and we should protect everyone from them. With the newly invented story by the British agents, the incoming CIA director and Secretary of State jumped on the argument headfirst. Two months away from Eisenhower’s inauguration the British had confirmation that the US would be assisting in the coup.
For their part in this coup, the CIA chose a pretty ridiculous and wiley agent, Kermit Roosevelt Jr. Who was actually the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. He snuck into Iran and began putting the CIA plan for the coup in place. Mainly, he began bribing people to turn against Mosaddegh. But he did this in multiple ways.
Firstly, he bribed newspaper editors, columnists and reports to print lies about Mosaddegh. He then bribed members of Parliament to leave Mosaddegh’s coalition and denounce him. He bribed Mullahs (an Islamic priest) so they would tell the people at prayers that Mosaddegh was against the Islamic faith. He also bribed mid-ranking US military officers based at the US embassy in Iran to ensure that they would be ready and willing to join their units to the coup when they were needed.
Most inventively, he also recruited several street gang leaders to help sow upheaval in the streets. One of the most famous of the gang leaders was Shaban the Brainless who ran a protection racket in the city. To Shaban, Roosevelt gave a specific duty. He was to take several hundred men and have them rampage throughout the city, breaking windows, beating up anyone they saw, shooting into mosques, all the while screaming, “We love Mosaddegh, we love communism.”
Roosevelt then hired another mob to attack Shaban’s mob. This gave the appearance that the streets were in utter chaos and that Mosaddegh had lost control of the city.
All the while completing these tasks, Roosevelt was also sneaking into the royal palace under a blanket in the back seat of a car to recruit the Shah in on the coup. The Shah at the time, as I mentioned a bit earlier, was a very meek and indecisive person and was hesitant to get involved in anything that could see him harmed. However, after multiple meetings, he was brought into the plan. His job was to sign a decree removing Mosaddegh from his office of Prime Minister. However, this was very bold, because the legality at the time, since democracy had grown in Iran up to this point, was that only the Iranian parliament could remove and approve a Prime Minister.
Well, the idea was to approach Mosaddegh with this decree removing him as Prime Minister, and he would obviously resist. So when he resisted, they’d arrest him and replace him with someone more controllable by the CIA. The CIA had already chosen Mosaddegh’s replacement, an Iranian military officer.
However, on the night of August 15, 1953, the officer chosen to deliver the decree approached Mosaddegh’s door, but was instantly grabbed by Mosaddegh’s men hiding in the shadows. It came to light that the coup had been betrayed. When hearing about the betrayal, the Shah fled Iran to Rome in a small personal plane. Since the Shah had signed the order to remove him, Mosaddegh assumed the danger was over. The Shah had fled, so there was no one else to worry about.
Roosevelt was then contacted by the CIA and told to leave the country as soon as possible, before he was caught and killed. However, he decided to stay. He felt that he could develop his own plan that could still work in overthrowing Mosaddegh, even with the first coup’s failure.
He organised four more days of rioting and denunciations against Mosaddegh, and then struck again on August 19th, 1953; four days after the failed coup. On this day, there were more rioters and military units in the streets, most bribed by Roosevelt. Some people were just joining in because they had no idea what else to do. It was utter chaos in the city. It all came to a head as government buildings were attacked. An enormous battle broke out directly in front of Mosaddegh’s house, killing 100 people in that battle alone.
By midnight, Mosaddegh’s house was in flames and he had fled the city, and the coup’s second attempt had succeeded.
A few days later, Roosevelt met with the Shah again, who had returned from Rome. The Shah toasted Roosevelt saying, “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and you.” Roosevelt returned to the White House a hero where he briefed Eisenhower on the events that took place. Eisenhower denies this meeting taking place (likely to avoid the repercussions of overthrowing a country’s government), but Stephen Kinzer claims in his book that he in fact pinned a medal on Roosevelt’s chest at that meeting.
Soon after his return to the US, The Secretary of State actually contacted Roosevelt and told him that he did such a great job with the coup in Iran, could he go down to Guatemala and do the same thing? Roosevelt denied, but another group was found and less than a year after the elected government of Iran was overthrown, the same happened with the elected government of Guatemala. This outcome of that was much worse, because it actually led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in a civil war that lasted over 30 years.
After the coup, Mosaddegh was found and arrested, tried for treason, and convicted. The Shah sentenced him to three years of solitary confinement, and the remainder of his life on house arrest. He lived in his home until his death ten years later in 1967.
The Shah tried to appoint the Anglo-Persian Oil Company back in control of Iran’s oil, but the country had been so affected by Mosaddegh that the choice would have seen an uprising (which would come later anyway) so the decision couldn’t go ahead. Instead, ownership of the oil was split between multiple oil companies, including Exxon, Texaco, and other well-known oil companies. Anglo-Persian Oil Company was given 40% ownership of the oil, and later rebranded itself to British Petroleum, or BP.
The coup actually had an enormous ripple effect that has led to the CIA being a player in the overthrowing and destabilising of some foreign governments. Pretty much exactly what Harry Truman was afraid of. The Shah being back in full power blocked all forms of democratic sentimentality. So democracy died in Iran. Which could be directly connected to the rise of fanatical Islamic fundamentalists that we see today. You can never draw a direct line from cause and effect with moments in history, but it’s hard to ignore what the loss of democracy really did to Iran and its people.
As I said at the beginning of this article, we will not get political. But it’s worth drawing a few parallels to today’s world. For instance, Great Britain chose to leave the EU to gain control over itself again. Is this not what Iran also sought to do? Could you imagine if Mexico owned all of the oil in Texas? Do you think American’s would be able to even accept that for a day? Churchill wanted to better England, but he wanted to do so at the detriment of Iran. He basically was pushing for Imperialism. In the end, he failed, but it could arguably be said that this situation really hurt Iran much more, and that is truly unfortunate.
“All the Shah’s Men” written by Stephen Kinzer