The current nuclear confrontation between Iran and the West may be traced directly to a seminal event almost 60 years ago that has had a profound impact on the Middle East and global geopolitics.
In August 1953, through the auspices of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence, in cooperation with forces loyal to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, the popularly elected prime minister of Iran, a man named Mohammad Mosaddegh was forcibly removed from power.
Mossadegh's “crime” had been to support the nationalization of Iran's key oil industry – a grave affront to British oil companies.
The 1953 coup not only ended Iran's attempt to control its own hugely lucrative petroleum sector, but likely also killed any chances for Iran developing into a democratic society. Twenty-six years later, the outraged Iranian people would overthrow the Shah himself – with the bitter memories of 1953 prominently on the minds of his determined opponents.
What occurred in 1953 planted the seeds of anti-American hatred in Iran and across the Middle East.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on U.S. foreign policy to discuss the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and its repercussions 60 years later.
Jamie Chandler is a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City.
IB TIMES: In 1941, the British and Soviets removed Reza Shah from the throne in Iran and replaced him with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Why did they bother keeping the younger man in power if they opposed his father?
CHANDLER: Mohammed Ali-Foroughi, the former prime minister, orchestrated a smooth transition of power. The Shah enlisted him to negotiate with the Allies to ensure that the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran didn’t end the Pahlavi Dynasty. The British and the Russians had planned to replace the monarchy with an occupation government, but the resulting disruption would have created turmoil in Iran.
Ali-Foroughi convinced the Allies that they would be better off keeping [Mohammad] Reza Pahlavi in power because he was much more agreeable than his father over the U.S. and the British having majority control over the Persian corridor and Iranian oil reserves.
IB TIMES: Reportedly, Reza Shah (the father) was a Nazi sympathizer. Was that really the reason he was deposed by the UK and Russia?
CHANDLER: The reasons for the Shah’s deposal were complex, and many years in the making. Throughout his reign, the Shah worked to weaken the British and Russians' opportunistic hold on Iran.
His relationship with Russia had deteriorated through the 1920s and 1930s. The Russians had adopted draconian trade policies that harmed Iran’s economy. The Shah’s 1932 cancellation of an agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) won him no favors with Britain.
The Shah engaged the Nazis to counterbalance British and Russian control, and by 1940, Germany had become Iran’s largest trading partner. Iran’s strengthening relationship with Germany, declining relationships with Britain and Russia, and its declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war converged to bring about the invasion.
The tipping point was when the Shah denied the Allies access to Iranian shipping routes, which Britain and Russia perceived as Iran’s intention of giving Germany control of the Persian Corridor and Iranian oil reserves.
Indeed, Winston Churchill said afterward that the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran was instrumental to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany.
IB TIMES: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was apparently reluctant to support the 1953 coup. Is this true? If so, why did he then go along with it?
CHANDLER: The Shah had maintained close relations with the U.S. and Britain since the Anglo-Soviet invasion, but he was reluctant to support the coup because of his fear it would lead potentially to a revolution.
The U.S. didn’t have great confidence in the Shah; CIA and British diplomatic cable traffic indicated their disdain for the Shah. He believed that the coup would only increase the American and British control over Iran’s economy. Regardless, the Shah didn’t have much of a say in the matter. The CIA would move forward with the coup with or without his consent.
However, the CIA did take great pains to win the Shah’s support. Iranian national Assadollah Rashidan and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf Sr. [father of the celebrated Gulf War general] played an instrumental role in the negotiations, and the CIA instituted covert measures to convince powerful Iranian politicians and clerics to support the removal of Mosaddegh. They paid them, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, and his military colleagues large sums of money in exchange for their support. Mosaddegh’s power grab and CIA pressure convinced the Shah to go along with the coup.
IB TIMES: Prior to 1953 it seems that Britain was the dominant foreign power influencing events in Iran. After the coup, it appears the U.S. took charge of Iranian affairs – is this an accurate assessment? Or did the British retain their influence during the Shah's reign?
CHANDLER: A couple of factors led to the U.S. to take a lead role in Iranian affairs in the 1950s. First, British intelligence recognized that they could exploit the Americans' Cold War enmity towards communism by taking a subordinate position to the CIA. Also, Britain’s declining empire made working through the U.S. a necessity. Global power concentration had shifted from a multi-polar to a bipolar distribution with the U.S. and the Soviet Union dominating Middle Eastern affairs.
Second, the CIA was lead orchestrator of Project AJAX, the codename for the coup. CIA officers Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Donald Wilbur planned and executed the operation with British Intelligence.
The British played a large role, but accepted that the U.S. had first right to the spoils of a successful coup.
After the coup, the U.S. actively pursued a policy of converting Iran into an anti-Communist beachhead and gaining significant influence over its oil industry. This move weakened Britain’s presence; indeed, its last real involvement in Iranian affairs was the overthrow of Mosaddegh.
IB TIMES: One of the reasons for the coup was the fear that the Communists would take over Iran. But how powerful was the Tudeh (Communist) party in Iran? Did the Soviets have a strong influence in Iran at that time?
CHANDLER: The Tudeh party was a populist movement that threatened the Shah’s control over the government. The party was a pro-Soviet entity, but the degree to which their relationship was mutually beneficial is up for debate.
At times, Soviet pressure on the party harkened back to the Russia’s opportunistic influence over Iran before World War II. And the party’s public approval dropped when the Soviets pressured it to grant the Soviet petroleum industry preferred status in northern Iran, and allow the Soviets to sponsor ethnic revolts in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.
On the other hand, the Soviets supplied the secret Tudeh Party Military Organization with resources and to help the organization’s intelligence-gathering activities. Overall, the party’s relationship with the U.S.S.R. helped it build its popular front strategy by emphasizing “socialist solidarity.”
IB TIMES: The Tudeh party apparently supported Mosaddegh – but how did he relate to the Communists?
CHANDLER: Mosaddegh had a love/hate relationship with the Tudeh party. He was a staunch supporter of total Iranian control over its oil reserves, and rebuked the Tudeh’s support for pushing the northern provinces to recognize the Soviet oil concessions in 1944.
The Tudeh oscillated between claiming Mosaddegh was an agent of American imperialism to supporting him during the July 1952 uprising. Mosaddegh recognized the utility of the Tudeh’s popularity to solidify his control over government.
IB TIMES: Mohammad Mosaddegh was himself appointed as prime minister by Shah Pahlavi. Why did the Shah turn against him?
CHANDLER: The Shah at first supported Mosaddegh in response to a wave of protests urging Mossadegh’s appointment. When demonstrations broke out after the Majlis [Iranian parliament] voted to nationalize the oil industry in 1951, the Shah realized that seating his first choice, Gen. Haj-Ali Razmara, would destabilize the government. Mosaddegh escalated tensions with Britain by cancelling AIOC’s concessions, which led to the British blockade of the Persian Gulf.
And his power grab in the first half of 1952 ended any possibility of the Shah and him sharing power. In July 1952, Mosaddegh resigned after the Shah refused to appoint him as minister of war. The resignation led the Shah to name Ahmad Qavam as prime minister, but a wave of protests, strikes, and violence forced him to back down and reappoint Mosaddegh.
Mosaddegh’s renewed popularity allowed him to gain emergency powers, which he used to limit the Shah’s constitutional powers, cut his personal budget, and prevent him from speaking directly with foreign diplomats. These moves all but solidified the Shah’s support of the overthrow of Mosaddegh.
IB TIMES: Why did the Western powers (UK/U.S.) select Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi as the new prime minister? Wasn't Zahedi himself a Nazi sympathizer?
CHANDLER: Zahedi’s close relationships with the military and influential leaders in Iranian society, and his support of the U.S. and Great Britain’s claims to Iran’s oil reserves, made his appointment all but certain, regardless of his former ties to the Third Reich.
Zahedi also accepted large sums of money from the CIA in exchange for his support. Zahedi got the military to send tanks into the capital, bomb Mosaddegh’s official residence, and arrest him in August 1953. This ended the Shah’s brief exile as well as the influence of Mosaddegh’s supporters. They were arrested and executed by firing squad on Oct. 29, 1953.
IB TIMES: How dependent was Britain on Iranian oil? Did the UK not have other sources for petroleum?
CHANDLER: The British were highly dependent on Iranian oil. Winston Churchill argued after World War II that their oil was instrumental to the Allies’ victory over Germany.
In 1933, the AIOC negotiated a 32-year agreement, which gave them --- although less than their original 1901 D’Arcy Oil Concession -- control over the country’s choicest oil reserves paid for by a modest 750,000 pound annual payment. AIOC attempted to diversify its drilling operations in other parts of the Middle East, but by 1950, Iran provided 75 percent of its supplies.
IB TIMES: How did Mosaddegh get along with Iran's Islamic mullahs? Did they support him?
CHANDLER: The mullahs did not support Mosaddegh, and some historical documents indicate that the mullahs played a larger role than the CIA in engineering his ouster. They most definitely accepted payments from the U.S. in exchange for their support, and worked closely within a network of pro-Shah forces to ensure that the 1953 coup succeeded.
IB TIMES: If the 1953 coup had not taken place, do you think Iran would have eventually developed into a free, democratic society?
CHANDLER: Hypothetically, there would have been no possibility of an Iranian democracy. The Shah’s brief exile would have been permanent, and Mossadegh would have escalated his emergency powers to take complete control over the government. Iran would have become a Soviet client state.
And that would have escalated U.S. and Soviet tensions -- especially given that Britain would not have regained its control over the Abadan oil refinery. A war in Iran would have been a strong possibility.
IB TIMES: After 1953, was the Shah the real power in Iran – or was he (as alleged by his opponents) a “puppet” of the U.S. and U.K?
CHANDLER: The Shah’s efforts to consolidate his power accelerated prior to the coup. Although he vowed that he would act as a constitutional monarch and defer to the parliament’s will, he involved himself in governmental affairs and obstructed strong prime ministers through manipulation. The Tudeh Party’s 1949 attempt to assassinate him pushed him to expand his constitutional powers.
IB TIMES: During 1953-1979, how did the Shah deal with his political opposition, the mullahs and Islamic fundamentalists (who eventually deposed him)?
CHANDLER: The Shah used the SAVAK, Iran’s security and intelligence organization, to arrest, imprison, exile and torture his opponents. This created an enormous amount of anger within the Iranian public, which the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini used to foment populist support for his Islamist philosophy.
Public discontent accelerated after the Shah crowned himself “King of the Kings (Emperor of Iran) in 1967.
IB TIMES: What is Mosaddegh’s legacy and image in Iran today? Is he revered as a nationalist hero, or is he largely a forgotten figure?
CHANDLER: The regime views Mosaddegh’s overthrow as a rallying point for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He remains a popular figure in Iranian history, but is not viewed higher in the pantheon of Iranian heroes because of his secularism and Western manners.
IB TIMES: Mosaddegh did not appear to be religious at all – so how does the Islamic Republic regime view his contributions?
CHANDLER: The clerics are mixed on Mosaddegh contributions. Shia clergy feared the Communist takeover, and ended their support for him prior to the coup. Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani’s disfavor was particularly damaging and one of the key factors in his fall from power.
IB TIMES: Does the present regime (Ahmadinejad/Khamenei) often cite the 1953 coup as a symbol of Western duplicity in Iran? Or is 1953 too long ago to have much relevance today?
CHANDLER: The coup had long-lasting, damaging effects on the U.S.’s reputation in Iran, and was central to the 1979 revolution. Ahmadinjejad and Khamenei continue to reference it to energize the Iranian public’s anti-American sentiment.
IB TIMES: What do you see as the real legacy of the 1953 coup in Iran and the Middle East?
CHANDLER: The most significant legacy of the coup was the blowback the U.S. suffered in Iran. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued that it was a major setback for democratic government. The coup did enable the Shah to consolidate power but solidified the public’s disdain for his leadership, which perceived the Shah as a puppet of the CIA.
During the 1970s, the Shah eroded his relationship with the U.S. through high taxation on foreign companies, and increased oil concession royalties. The Iranians also took control of the price of oil, which was one of the contributing factors to the 1973 energy crisis.
Part of this change was meant to mollify public discord over the U.S.’ support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Through the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. gained significant balancing power against the Soviet Union, but in the context of the results of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the negatives far outweigh the positives.