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Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran

posted on: Apr 19, 2021

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
A protest during the 1953 Iranian Coup

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Iran has made headlines for years with their aggressive internal and external policies and actions, but who/what contributed to the lack of democracy in the country and their current government? The actions of Iran’s theocratic government under the Ayatollah have not only hurt the Iranian peoples, but have also caused problems in numerous countries throughout the Arab World. We will explore the reason for the breakdown in democracy in Iran (hint: the U.S. and UK were a part of it) and how the brutal theocratic government came and how it has affected the Arab World. While this is an abbreviated summary of the 1953 coup in Iran, we must first talk about the situation in Iran leading up to it.

The Oil

In 1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was established in Iran after William D’Arcy, a British national had found oil a year earlier. By the end of the 1920s APOC had exclusive oil rights and in 1933 after Iranian complaints the company made minor concessions. At this time the British were making boatloads of money with their exploitation of Iranian resources and labor, ~$4.5 billion/year in today’s money.

By 1950, Iranians were aggressively pushing back against this exploitation and broken promises by APOC. This led Mohammed Reza Shah, the British-backed king, to honor a vote in Parliament (the Majlis), which appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of the National Front party. In the summer of 1951, Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry and expelled British workers. The British were furious, but the international community would not help. British intelligence reached out to the U.S., but President Harry Truman would not sanction a regime change simply over oil rights. He did, however, agree to meet with Mossadegh to discuss a possible resolution and act as a neutral mediator.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
Harry Truman meeting Mohammed Mossadegh during his visit to the U.S. (from: Harry S. Truman Library)

A New Administration

After several attempts at compromise it was clear there were not enough concessions from either side, but Mossadegh was specifically hoping for more luck with the incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unlike Truman, who searched for reconciliation, Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and CIA Director Allen Dulles viewed the situation through a Cold War lens. The Eisenhower administration was not worried about loss of oil flow, but of what a loss of oil revenue and subsequent economic downturn would do to Iran. They feared it would open the door for a Communist takeover. As Mossadegh worked to get concessions he attempted to play America and Britain against each other, but they did not want to play games and Eisenhower essentially green-lit covert action when he said he could not “sit still and do nothing” if negotiations continued to fail.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
John Foster and Allen Dulles were both instrumental in getting Operation Ajax approved

Mossadegh was not only nationalizing during this period, but he also introduced numerous economic and social reforms and worked to curb the power of the Shah on the road to democracy for Iran. If he had succeeded in maintaining a democracy, then Iran’s democratic model may have served as a guide/influence for many neighboring Arab countries. He knew this was not going to be easy, but he never expected American interference from his tough negotiating stance, he was just trying to solicit aid for a growing democracy.

Pre-Iran Coup of 1953

British Intelligence (MI6) had already been planning a covert operation codenamed “Operation Boot,” but their expulsion from Iran meant they needed CIA help. In November 1952, MI6 found Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA Middle Eastern Division head, who helped them convince president-elect Eisenhower that the Communist threat was all too real and action was needed. The British had already been recruiting assets in Iran, but unknown to Truman the CIA had also been implementing a large-scale propaganda and disruption operation code named BEDAMN. With Roosevelt’s support, MI6 liaison Monty Woodhouse brought the plan to the CIA and even admitted, “I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the…oil industry.”

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was instrumental in Operation Ajax despite his innocent look

On May 13, 1953 Ambassador Henderson headed to Washington to meet with Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and the Dulles Brothers among others. There, Operation Ajax (TAPAJAX) was officially created, though in early April, Dulles had already green-lit $1 million to be used by the Tehran CIA station to undermine Mossadegh. To begin preparations George Carroll, a CIA paramilitary specialist, was sent to Iran to organize street gangs and dissenting army members. Kermit Roosevelt entered Iran under a false name, while Rocky Stone, the Rashidian brothers, and the Boscoe Brothers – the main players in the coup – all assembled.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
This de-classified CIA document shows the official approval of the initial money Dulles sent and additional money to be sent later for TPAJAX.

The First Major Steps: Operation Ajax

The first step in TPAJAX was to plant propaganda in the media to create more pro-Shah and anti-Mossadegh sentiment. This included numerous articles planted in American and Iranian newspapers and even a story about how Mossadegh and the Tudeh (Iran’s Communist party) worked together to dirty the image of Iranians globally. By July 1st, London gave final approval to TPAJAX and Washington followed suit 10 days later. By July 29th the propaganda campaign to weaken Mossadegh was intense and constant.

The next step was to have the Shah issue two royals decrees: one dismissing Mossadegh and one appointed General Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. Initially, on August 1st, the Shah would not sign the decrees. On August 4th, Mossadegh suspecting British and American efforts to undermine him, called for the Majlis to be dissolved. This led to Kermit Roosevelt visiting the Shah and asking again for his support, which he then gave on August 13th fearing a Mossadegh dictatorship.

General Fazollah Zahedi who was set to replace Mossadegh

Operation Ajax: The First Attempt

On August 15th, Colonel Nematollah Nassiri, who was in charge of delivering the decrees, arrived with troops to remove Mossadegh, but was instead arrested. The army, which typically backed the Shah supported Mossadegh because of their younger officers who replaced older officers forced to retire. Mossadegh had been warned of the coup, but not before Nassiri cut the phone lines. With the phone lines cut, the Shah was able to flee the country and Zahedi hid in a CIA safehouse.

On August 17th, Zahedi announced from hiding that he was the prime minister and the CIA supported this claim with a wide dissemination of flyers showing the royal decree; the Shah confirmed the decree from exile. News of the attempted coup and Zahedi’s announcement sparked anti-Shah mobs.

The Shah’s order (known as a firman) naming Zahedi the new prime minister

These protests continued on the 18th and both days consisted of large groups of Tudeh supporters – some believe the anti-Shah protestors were hired by the CIA to confirm a Mossadegh-Tudeh connection. Ambassador Henderson met with Mossadegh on the 18th; he denied American or British involvement and threatened a removal of American aid and personnel if the riots continued. Mossadegh made the call and his forces brutally crushed the riots with cheers of “Long live the Shah.” Not only did this alienate the Tudeh, but it cleared the streets for the next phase.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
A statue of the Shah being torn down

The Second Attempt: Operation Ajax

On August 18th when Washington realized TPAJAX had failed they quickly sent a message saying, “operation has been tried and failed and we should not participate in any operation against Mossadegh which could be traced back to US.” When Kermit Roosevelt received this telegram he said, “no – we’re not done here.”

The next day, August 19th, Roosevelt activated Part 2 of TPAJAX, even though Part 1 failed. The Boscoe Brothers got their military contacts ready; the Rashidians had Majlis, police, merchants, journalists, mullahs, and mob-leaders; and tribes in the south incited by the British came out in support of the Shah. Beginning at 6:00 am, the “Great Demonstration” began with CIA supported and financed pro-Shah “rented” crowds. In order draws crowds, members of the Iranian Zuhrkhaneh (exercise clubs) performed and then shouted pro-Shah messages to these crowds, as well as passing out bribes. These crowds seen below were Phase I of the CIA’s operation with demonstrators beginning in south Tehran.

This map shows Phase 1 of the CIA’s plan on August 19th

Beginning mid-morning, the pro-Shah recruits from the police and military swarmed the streets to add to the protests. These new recruits helped take over tanks from the military Mossadegh dispatched to quash the protests. Much of the army had decided by this point to support the pro-Shah groups given the fervor and size of the demonstrations. Anything aligned with Mossadegh, the Tudeh, or other anti-Shah persons was taken over or destroyed.

Phase 2 of the CIA’s plan where the military and police got involved

Finally, seen below, a convergence upon Mossadegh’s house occurred around 4:00 pm forced him to flee as mobs attacked. During this clash with pro-Mossadegh people outside his home it was reported that ~200 people were killed. At 5:25 pm General Zahedi arrived at the now pro-Shah controlled radio Tehran and began broadcasting to the city about the regime change with pro-Shah propaganda.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
Phase 4 where the groups all converged on Mossadegh’s home
Zahedi’s speech to the Iranian people from radio Tehran

More images of the coup can be seen here.

Iran Post-Operation Ajax

In all, the events of August 19th left around 300 dead and 100 wounded with much of the deaths coming outside Mossadegh’s home. Throughout the day government buildings were attacked and mob violence ruled, but eventually Zahedi imposed a curfew a couple days later to prevent any counter-blows. On August 20th at 7pm Mossadegh came out of hiding, surrendered, and was treated with respect. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Despite Roosevelt defying orders it seemed the CIA operation – supported by the British – was a success.

Following the coup, Zahedi and Reza Shah targeted Tudeh and National Front (Mossadegh’s party) members and consolidated power. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah maintained power for the next 25 years with an iron grip over the country and Iranians endured a brutal dictatorship under constant watch by the secret police (the SAVAK), which Nassiri led.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah

The Islamic Revolution of 1979

  • Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gained notoriety and became the face of the revolution after he was exiled in 1963 for leading anti-Shah protests.
  • December 1977: President Jimmy Carter toasts the Shah and Iran’s “stability”.
  • 1978: anti-Shah protests spread across Iran
  • On January 16, 1979 the Shah leaves for “vacation” and appoints Shapour Bakhtiar as prime minister
  • February 1st: Khomeini returns to massive crowds of supporters.
  • February 10th: Bakhtiar refuses to relinquish power and Khomeini’s mass of supporters rise up.
  • March 31st-October 14th: Referendum passed to form the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is established, and Khomeini issues a doctrine giving all power to himself.
  • November 4th 1979-January 20th, 1981: The Iranian hostage crisis.
  • Sanctions and a souring of American-Iranian relations occurred during this period and are maintained on and off to present day.
  • U.S. and Western relations with Iran have on occasion been decent, but are generally pretty terrible.
Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made some efforts to better foreign relations, but the Iranian regime is still oppressive

Repercussions for Iran and the Arab World

What would have happened had the U.S. not intervened is of course uncertain, but to state it bluntly; the U.S. and British governments played a large part in the removal of a democratically elected, and widely popular leader of Iran. Even his undemocratic actions were because of pressure from covert Western actions. If Mossadegh’s government had instead received aid and support they could have been a democratic inspiration for countries across the Arab World and Iranians would not be suffering under dictatorial rule. The destruction of these chances was simply because Britain had lost their oil and Washington was paranoid about Communism.

The 1953 coup re-installing the Shah’s brutal dictatorship has an undisputed direct link to the Islamic revolution and the ability of the Ayatollah to seize and maintain power in Iran. Under Iran’s government funds have been used to support terror groups such as Hezbollah (who support Syrian government forces and Iraqi Shia militias), is attempting to become the dominant military power in the region, and works to destabilize Arab governments. The IRGC’s Quds Force (their external wing) works to provide this training, funding, and weapons to non-state actors throughout the Arab World. Iran exists as a threat to the Arab World with their variety of actions to spread their revolutionary ideology and influence and within their own borders many suffer under brutal restrictions and surveillance.

Democracy Destroyed: Stories of American Sponsored Coups - Iran
Former Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani who engineered many harmful Quds actions

Without the U.S.-British led coup of 1953 Iran could be helping spread democracy throughout the Arab world instead of trying to hinder it. Whether Mossadegh would have lasted is unknown, but it can be said without a doubt that TPAJAX left lasting harm on Iran and the Arab World.

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