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Iran 1953: How the CIA Orchestrated an Imperialist Coup

The U.S. has a long history of imperialist intervention in Iran. What role did it play in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh?

Salvador Soler

February 19, 2020
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Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran have brought the complicated relationship between the two countries to the forefront. One of the most crucial events in the timeline of U.S.–Iran relations was the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh at the behest of U.S. interests. By looking back at this instance of imperialist intervention, socialists can draw conclusions for defeating imperialism as well as the reactionary regime of the ayatollahs.

The end of World War II established a new world order under U.S. hegemony. The colonial order built by the British and French Empires began to break down, and their weakness opened the way for the emergence of national liberation movements in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These conflicts were framed in an unprecedented global situation of tension between two superpowers, the USSR and United States during the Cold War.

The Middle East—as the West likes to call it—has experienced mass anti-colonial struggles in the last century. In Egypt, King Farouk was overthrown in 1952. In Iraq and Syria, the Ba’ath Party emerged as the main opposition to the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which allowed England and France to draw the borders of the countries that would be made out of the former Ottoman Empire on a napkin. Particularly in Iran, the National Front was born out of the masses’ drive to nationalize oil. The leader and founder of this political organization, Mohammad Mossadegh, posed a threat to the power of the U.S.-sympathizing Mohammad Reza Shah due to a nationalist discourse against imperialism.

Reza Shah and World War II

Mohammad Reza Shah’s predecessor, his father Reza Shah, took power in Iran and established the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921 and 1925, respectively. Backed by the British, the coup of 1921 was an attempt to curb Bolshevik influence. The new Shah surprised the British when in 1932 he began to slash some of the oil concessions awarded to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that dominated oil exploitation in the Persian Gulf, while opening the door to German capital. By 1939, at the outset of World War II, the Third Reich was overtaking England as Iran’s main trading partner. The Allies needed Iran to get hold of the oil and the huge trans-Iranian railway linking the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea to supply the USSR with weapons. For this reason, in 1941, 15 divisions of the British Navy and the Red Army crossed the Iranian borders, motivated by the Shah’s admiration for Adolf Hitler.

The 1943 Tehran Conference—the “prequel” to the pacts from the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences—brought together Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt to discuss the sharing of the world after the impending German defeat in the war. The setting for the conference was no coincidence, as it was necessary for the world powers to define who would dominate a vital resource like oil. Roosevelt asked Churchill about the Shah’s situation and he told him that the Abwehr—the German military secret service—was influencing the Shah to the extent to which he was considering breaking neutrality and joining the Axis with Hitler. The British could not afford to allow oil to fall into Nazi hands, and the USSR would have a strategic problem with another enemy lurking on its borders. Churchill concluded his conversation with Roosevelt by saying: “We brought him, and we took him,” referring to Reza Shah Pahlavi. 

The Post-War and the Cold War

Since the British Crown needed a puppet to replace the Shah, they let his docile yet influential son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, take over. The young Shah would seal an alliance with the British, while maintaining a weak balance with the USSR (which demanded oil concessions). It also meant an alliance with socialists, liberals, and conservatives. Among them were the Tudeh, founded during the occupation in 1941 by the former militants of the Communist Party of Persia (the largest in the Middle East) of a Stalinist tendency, which had mass influence and led large unions; the National Front with Mohammad Mossadegh at its head, founded in 1949; and the conservative sector that synthesized the famous alliance between the Bazaar and the Mosque, that is, between the sector of the financial bourgeoisie and the Shiite clergy. The new regime included a parliamentary monarchy, political parties, and the legalization of the press, which led to a process of enormous politicization among the population.

Mohammad Mossadegh

The war had devastated the Iranian economy. The precariousness of life led to large workers’ strikes led by Tudeh. The province of Khuzestan housed the main industries and the largest oil well in the world at the time, held by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The workers on strike not only demanded better living conditions, but also that the labor laws be under Iranian and not British jurisdiction. To settle this strike that lasted long months, the Crown hired thousands of strikebreakers and placed two destroyers aiming at the oil tankers that occupied the well. The conflict culminated in the submission of the AIOC to Iranian law.

Despite the hundreds of deaths and injuries, the workers had left behind the idea of the need for oil nationalization as a path to national liberation, unleashing a widespread movement.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadán

After those strikes, the Shah not only banned the Tudeh and the unions, but also extended oil concessions to the British in exchange for minimal royalties for the country by allowing the British Crown to empty the Iranian wells. Massive opposition to this measure led to the founding of the bourgeois nationalist party, the National Front, whose top figure was Mossadegh. It was composed of professional sectors trained in Europe and different parties, some secular like the Workers’ Party of Iran, and Islamists like the Mujahideen-e Islam.

Demonstration against the monarchy in Tehran, 1952

Mossadegh gained a lot of prestige within Iranian society for confronting the English by obtaining better income distribution agreements. The National Front gained a majority of seats in parliament and enormous mass support. As part of Stalinism’s post-war policy, the Tudeh supported the policies of the National Front by sealing the alliance of the labor movement with the national bourgeoisie and clerical sectors. The Tudeh pressed the Shah to appoint Mossadegh prime minister in 1951 after he presented the bill to nationalize oil to the Majlis. Within days, Iran came to dominate 100% of the oil industry.

Demonstration in 1952 after the nationalization of the AIOC

British imperialism could not allow the world’s largest reserve to be nationalized and possibly fall under Soviet control. To exert pressure, they withdrew all their engineering personnel and sent warships to harass Iranian-flagged oil tankers, while calling for an international boycott.

The United States initially remained neutral. President Harry Truman let the nationalist movements run with the prospect of them favoring world trade by dynamiting Britain’s colonial relations. However, in January 1953, the Dwight Eisenhower administration opted for an aggressive international policy toward the USSR, positing the hypothesis that Iran could fall under the Iron Curtain (despite the fact that the Tudeh defined itself as a “patriotic democratic front” and had abandoned all socialist perspectives). Thus began the collaboration between the MI6 (British secret service) and the CIA to orchestrate the coup d’état in 1953.

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife Soraya arrive in Rome, August 17, 1953

Operation TPAJAX

The plan to overthrow Mossadegh surpasses fiction. It was divided into three overlapping phases: a permanent campaign of ideological propaganda through mercenary journalists; an extended network of military officers to lead the coup; and the purchase of parliamentarians to ensure a legislative body opposed to Mossadegh, as well as recruiting Islamist clerics and convincing the Shah to assume absolute power.

Mossadegh’s popularity pitted him against the power of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was seen even by the clerical sectors as a foreign agent. Mossadegh, remaining faithful to his class, was able to use this popular support together with the Tudeh, which provided the strength of the strategic unions as a base to maneuver, to undermine the Shah’s power, and to increase his share of power as a minister. This set him against the Islamists within the National Front who were aiming to Islamize the nation. That internal political dynamic opened the way for the imperialist intelligence services to gain influence over a famous Ayatollah, Ghasem Kashani.

This approach was decisive in confronting a sector of the impoverished population that was being impacted by the economic stagnation against Mossadegh. In this way, religious sectors began to collaborate with imperialist forces and the Shah.

Mossadegh was then faced with an attempted coup in which the Shah removed him from office, but was alerted by the intelligence networks of the Tudeh, and managed to survive. This failure forced the Shah to flee from Iran to Rome, which provided an impetus to the masses, who aspired to get rid of the monarchy and to stop the coup, to take several government buildings and flood the streets.

Mossadegh tried to hold onto power by seeking support from Eisenhower—who accused him of being a communist—in The Hague by denouncing the conspiracy in international court. Mossadegh had the option to hold onto power by sustaining the power of the masses who were rapidly advancing to confront imperialism. Instead, he feared that the masses would surpass his own power, and in order to defer to the U.S., he decided to fiercely repress the masses with the army.

With this choice, Mossadegh himself opened the door for Kermit Roosevelt—Franklin Roosevelt’s grandson—in command of Operation TPAJAX (the coup operation), to begin a bombardment of false decrees by the (exiled) Shah to influence public opinion against the prime minister. On August 18, there was a demonstration organized by the opposition (including clerics collaborating with the CIA) against Mossadegh and destroying Tudeh headquarters. But the Tudeh orders its militants to stay in their homes without intervening.

An army officer harangues supporters of Shah Reza Pahlavi in ​​front of the residence of Prime Minister Mossadegh, Tehran, February 28, 1953.

On August 19, Iranian army general Fazlollah Zahedi, a CIA agent, surrounded Mossadegh’s house with 35 Sherman tanks. After a nine-hour battle, Mossadegh was captured and sentenced to life in prison. The Shah took over within days and enacted unparalleled repression against the National Front, but even more repression against the Tudeh leaders. 5,000 people were imprisoned and executed, while others went into exile. Britain and the U.S. were rewarded with a renegotiation of concessions to their oil companies: 40% and 60%, respectively.

Fazlollah Zahedi

Mohammad Reza Shah would go on to be the absolute ruler of the country until he was overthrown in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution that established the current Islamic Republic.

It was not until 2000 that the U.S. revealed the intelligence reports showing their joint activities with MI6 in Iran. In 2009, almost 60 years after the coup, Barack Obama admitted U.S. participation in the coup as a conciliatory gesture to start discussing the nuclear agreement that would limit Iranian aspirations.

It is important to draw conclusions from the processes that took place in the Middle East in 1953 in order to address the current developments in class struggle that are challenging the various reactionary regimes since the Arab Spring. The regime of the ayatollahs that has ruled Iran since 1979, although allied against U.S. policy, is by no means anti-imperialist. Only the self-organization of the masses that defeats this reactionary regime can generate the basis for expelling imperialism from the Middle East. In our next article, we will analyze the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

A version of this article originally appeared in La Izquierda Diario.

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