(history/politics) Catalyzing Terrorism

On August 19, 2013, the US National Security Archive at George Washington University published then-recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents, officially and publicly disclosing the agency’s involvement — along with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) — in a coup d’etat in Iran in 1953. The disclosure came 60 years (to the day) after the event occurred, but its contents shocked very few people. The CIA’s involvement in Iran in 1953 –and in no fewer than 20 other coups around the world since — had been thoroughly investigated and reported by American historians and journalists for decades: in memoirs, documentaries, news columns, peer-reviewed journal articles, etc. A Texas congressman spoke about the coup at a nationally televised debate during the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary, contributing it entirely to US operations. President Obama alluded to it in a speech he gave in Cairo, in 2009 –almost five years earlier. Before 2013, the remaining questions about the coup itself only concerned the extent of US and CIA involvement. After 2013, these questions had been answered. The disclosure did not outline cursory knowledge or support of the CIA, but rather the explicit orchestration and execution of the mission that overthrew the first-and-only democratically elected prime minister in Iran’s history, Mohammad Mosaddegh. By studying the coup, known to the CIA as Operation TPAJAX (AJAX), and to MI6 as Operation Boot (Boot), we gain a better understanding of the mechanisms at play in American foreign policy following WWII, through the Cold War, and today.

There exists a common misconception that the CIA was the sole architect of the coup. This is technically only half correct. While AJAX was the specific mission that ended Mosaddegh’s Premiership in Iran in 1953, efforts to undermine the democratic/nationalistic leanings of his government, by British operatives, began almost immediately following his ascension to the role of Prime Minister in April 1951. Because of this, it is important to view the coup, not as an event occurring August 15–19 in 1953, but as –what historian Fakhreddin Azimi calls — a “protracted… clandestine…[and] sustained strategy of destabilization” by British business interests, carried out between the years 1951 and 1953. AJAX, then, was not the sole attempt, but rather the last in a series. For Azimi, this formulation is necessary in understanding the fundamental motives for both the MI6, and CIA. However, a comprehensive understanding of the coup itself requires looking back even further, decades before 1951.


In 1901, a British businessman, and future oil tycoon, William D’Arcy, paid $20,000 to Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, the Shah of Persia (Iran), to begin exploring Persian lands in pursuit of oil and other natural resources. This deal, known historically as the D’Arcy Concession, granted D’Arcy (and company) control over all oil production and exploration in Persia, and more critically, the vast majority of profits from the sale of most natural resources, for the next 60 years. This unequal business deal, which allowed for only 13% of oil profits to be paid to Iran, made way for the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1909 — the company that would become the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, and eventually, British Petroleum (BP) in 1998. By 1914, the British government owned a majority of the shares of APOC, effectively rendering it a nationalized company, and blurring the boundaries of British business interests and Iranian politics. This peculiar relationship, in part, allowed for the economic/market boom in England during the first half of the 20th century.

Despite several attempts by subsequent Shahs to obtain more-favorable oil deals for Iran, by 1948, the Iranians had only managed to negotiate an additional 3% of its own oil profits, while 84% was still going to provide other countries with the oil reserves needed to provide higher standards of living in an increasingly industrialized world. In November 1949, Mosaddegh united the various nationalist, pro-democratic, liberal, and secular groups in Iran under a single “umbrella” political organization known as the National Front. The group called for the maiden convention of the Majli (the Iranian Parliament, a then-unrealized group established by the 1906 Iranian Constitution, and finally convened for the first time in 1949), judicial reforms, educational and social programs for the poor, and most importantly, the nationalization of Iranian oil reserves. By 1951, the National Front accounted for a majority of seats in the Majli, and on April 28, on the strength of a 79–12 majli vote, Mosaddegh was appointed Prime Minister of Iran. This was the first time anyone had ascended to this post in Iran (or Persia) by means of a democratic process. As promised, Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil reserves in late 1951, and by 1952, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) had seized production of Iranian oil. This was after the final efforts by Mosaddegh –acting against the wishes of his political allies — to renegotiate a 50/50 deal with the British, as well as to audit the APOC, were denied.

The move toward oil nationalization in Iran presented something of an existential threat for British society and culture. Following a failed attempt to sue the Iranians in the International Court of Justice, the British government took matters in to their own hands, and began imposing harsh measures aimed at weakening the Iranian economy in 1951: naval blockades were dispatched into the Arabian Sea to block exports of Iranian oil; foreign ships carrying Iranian oil were stopped and seized on the grounds of transferring stolen property: international accounts that had been accessible to Iran were frozen; and the most consequential measure — the British had encouraged/bribed the majority of substantial oil companies in the world to adopt the trade embargoes, completely destroying the oil market for Iran. With trade of their most-profitable resource drastically reduced, Iran’s economy, predictably (and purposefully) tanked. In 1950, over 200 millions barrels of Iranian oil had been produced and exported. By 1953, just over 10 million barrels were produced — 5% of their former output.

By 1953, Iran was exhibiting most problems associated with a suffering economy: sanitation issues, famine, political and social unrest, etc. However, despite depressed conditions, Mosaddegh still enjoyed mass support from his constituents. Other “50/50” oil deals that were being afforded to other oil-producing countries around the world, namely Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and this had become common knowledge among Iranian citizens. It was also known that Mosaddegh (accurately) believed that pro-British operatives had infiltrated the Majli, via bribes and blackmail. This prompted the National Front to award Mosaddegh with the emergency powers he requested to handle the situation appropriately. By 1953, Mosaddegh had used these powers to jail the political opponents he believed to be working against Iranian interests, and end the circulation of anti-nationalist newspapers. When this measure proved largely unsuccessful, Mosaddegh issued a referendum to dissolve the Majli, granting himself the sole power to create and enforce the law. The referendum passed with 99% of the vote, effectively rendering Mosaddegh as the supreme ruler of Iran. Reza Mohammad Shah, whose power had been increasingly weakened by Mosaddegh’s populist, democratic reforms, saw this an unacceptable assault on his powers as Shah, and began entertaining the MI6 suggestions of overthrowing his Prime Minister — something he had mostly ignored since 1951, out of fear of losing all of his support to Mosaddegh.

These new powers were seen –at home, and abroad — as dictatorial behavior, and for the first time, Mosaddegh’s support inside of Iran began to fracture. This rendering of Mosaddegh as a dictator was also used by British academics, diplomats and MI6 operatives, to encourage US support of the coup inside of the new Eisenhower administration. Unlike the Truman administration, which was more concerned with the possibility of the coup encouraging closer ties between Iran and the Soviet Union, the Eisenhower administration, on average, had a much greater fear of communism spreading around the world, and signed on to take part in the intervention.

The Coup

On Saturday, August 15, a group of armed guards led by General Fazlollah Zahedi (whom would replace Mosaddegh as Prime Minister 5 days later) arrived at Mosaddegh’s residence and presented him with a royal decree signed by the Shah, removing him as prime minister. This was the third “phase” (of four) outlined in AJAX. The CIA’s Middle East Director, Kermit Roosevelt, had already completed the first two phases in the months leading up to the coup, consisting of: 1) infiltrating Iranian newspapers, police, and military, distributing various forms of propaganda in Iran, and around the World, portraying Mosaddegh as a communist dictator, a tyrant, and atheist, and 2) bribing Mosaddegh’s opposition (and paying others to pretend they were part of this group) to rally in the streets of Tehran, and demand for Mosaddegh’s removal. However, the third step, meant to remove Mosaddegh from power, was initially a failure. Roosevelt’s plan to fracture Mosaddegh’s support had only worked on the surface: the support from his grassroots base was still very significant, and his still-loyal guards defended him on August 15, refusing to arrest him, despite the decree. Mosaddegh, with the support from most military men present, refused to step down on the grounds that the Shah did not have constitutional authority to remove him as Prime Minister. The Shah actually did have this power, but despite this, the coup appeared to be a failure. Upon hearing the news of events that occurred at Mosaddegh’s home on August 15, the Shah fled to Iraq, fearing for his life as a result of the failed coup.

Once news of the event reached Washington D.C., Allen Dulles sent word to Roosevelt, warning him and his men to pull out of Iran immediately. It is not clear as to whether this communication was lost, or ignored entirely, but Roosevelt remained in Iran, determined to make the mission a success. News of the failed coup pushed Iran into chaos. Protests and riots over the next two days further confused and divided the people, and Roosevelt took advantage of the madness. He organized actors, athletes, street musicians, jugglers, and any other group he could find that was willing to accept his money in exchange for “protesting” in the street, and put them to work. This time, however, Roosevelt ordered some of the paid mobs to pose as Mosaddegh supporters as well, chanting communist slogans, attacking religious symbols throughout the city of Tehran, singing songs about atheism, and boasting of the coming communist takeover. He then ordered the two mobs “against” each other, adding more confusion to an already terrible situation. Zahedi, aware that the confusion may not last much longer, took another military force to Mosaddegh’s residence on the morning of August 19, again with the intentions of removing him from power. After a small battle on his front lawn that lasted several hours, Mosaddegh, not wanting any more bloodshed (his supporters were perfectly willing to continue fighting for him), surrendered late that evening. Zahedi officially declared himself as the new Prime Minister, completing the fourth and final phase of AJAX. The Shah, now back to his pre-democratic power position as a ruling monarch –but now as a puppet to the west — returned home to Iran, proudly exclaiming, “I knew they loved me” into the ear of Allen Dulles.

The 1953 Iranian coup was a turning point in American foreign policy. The American government had always protected American business interests around the world, but before this, the preferred means of flexing its strength on a global scale came in one of two forms: harsh economic sanctions against our enemies, or by threats of, or actual, military invasion. After the coup however, the preferred method changed. There was no longer a need for disturbing international trade with complicated sanctions, nor for spending the resources needed for military invention, unless absolutely necessary. The CIA worked much quicker, much cheaper, and secretly. In the years since 1953, the CIA has participated in no fewer than 20 military coups –that we know of — and probably many more. As we have seen in Iran in the last several decades, this kind of intervention can have serious, unintended consequences, and we have only just begun to understand their ramifications.

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