Global Politics

The US and Iran part I - the 1953 coup

This story is a part of a series

US-Iranian Relations

This story is a part of a series

US-Iranian Relations

iran_1953_coup.jpg

Tanks in the streets of Tehran, 1953.

Credit:

Wikipedia

In 1979 the political scientist Mark Gasiorowski was a young graduate student. He was transfixed by the revolution in Iran, and he was blown away by its anti-American flavor.

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"I was really drawn to this phenomenon and wondered why did the Iranians hate us so much?  What is it that we've done that created this tremendous animosity?" he says.

Gasiorowski discovered that the 1953 coup was at the heart of Iranian attitudes toward America. He's been studying it ever since. The story has never been that well-known in this country. He says at the time it happened, the coup was unprecedented in US foreign policy.

"It was really a milestone. It was the first major covert operation by the CIA. It was regarded as a great success. And it was replicated repeatedly subsequently," he says.

To understand how the 1953 coup came about, you have to consider Iran's history, and picture the country on a map.

The crucial Persian Gulf lies on its southern border. The former Soviet Union looms to the north. Iran has a strong Persian identity, and a majority Shia Muslim population. Its history has always distinguished it from the countries around it.

New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer discovered that when he first went to Iran.

"You're in the middle of the Arab world, but you're not in an Arab country. You're in the middle of the Sunni Islam world, but you're not in a Sunni country. Iran has a history that stretches back thousands and thousands of years to great figures like Cyrus and Xerxes. This is a country that has a great sense of itself. It's a very proud country. It's not a country that was made up in the early 20th century like most of the other countries in the Middle East," he says.

Countries like next door Iraq had their borders drawn up in secret deals between colonial powers during World War One. By contrast, Iran, or Persia, as it was known then, had been around for millennia. That said, Iran was no stranger to foreign meddling. All through the 19th century, Britain and Russia vied for influence there. Britain was trying to keep the Russians away from its interests in India. Russia wanted access to the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf.

Along the way, both countries exploited Iran's resources. And Iran's corrupt monarchs obliged them. Various Shahs sold off whole industries - tobacco, oil, caviar - in exchange for ready cash. During World War Two, Britain and Russia became allies against Hitler. They feared Iran's Shah was tilting toward the Nazis. So they invaded. They forced him to abdicate and put his son on the throne. 

The BBC's Richard Dimbleby witnessed the turnover.

"The last 24 hours have been busy and important in Tehran. We have seen the closing in on the city of British and Russian troops, the hasty departure of numbers of Germans, women and children included, and the first visit of the new Shah to Parliament," he reported.

American troops ended up in Iran too, as part of the war effort. It was the first significant contact between the two countries. Britain, Russia and the United States all promised to withdraw their troops after the war. But that's not what happened. The Soviet Army had occupied a portion of northern Iran. Now it refused to leave. Iran demanded it withdraw. In January 1946, Iran took its case to the newly formed United Nations Security Council, chaired at the time by the Australian diplomat, Norman Makin.

"This is the first occasion upon which the Security Council have been called upon to act under Chapter 6 of the Charter which is entitled The Pacific Settlement of Disputes," Makin said.

The United States backed Iran's protest against the Soviet Union. It was the first skirmish of the Cold War.

US diplomat Averell Harriman remembered President Truman calling him into his office.

"He said this is so serious that it may lead to war. Truman was very much alive to the dangers. And Iran was the point of the danger," Harriman recalled later.

In the end Iranian diplomacy backed by American pressure persuaded the Soviets to pull back.

But Gasiorowski says the crisis highlighted Iran's newfound strategic importance to the United States.

"The most important issue there, as the Cold War grew, was to create a kind of a containment belt to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its influence southward toward the Persian Gulf. So the United States, in the second half of the 1940s, was building up its relationship with Iran, building up its plans to defend Iran and to keep the Soviet Union out," he says.

Meanwhile another drama involving foreigners was unfolding inside Iran: the struggle for control of the nation's oil.

Kinzer tells the story in his book "All the Shah's Men."

"All the oil that was produced in Iran was the property of one British oil company. And that oil company paid Iran only a very small amount for the oil that it took. It was inevitable that sooner or later Iranians would rebel against this. And that's what they did. By propelling Mohammed Mossadegh into the prime minister's office. Mossadegh's principal project as prime minister was to nationalize the oil company. And that's what he did," Kinzer says.

The year was 1951. Mohammed Mossadegh captivated the world with his struggle for independence from the British. He was charismatic and forceful. He was also eccentric. He greeted visitors, even foreign dignitaries, while in bed. He had fainting spells in Parliament. He infuriated the British. But the Americans liked him, according to Gasiorowski.

"He was almost an ideal political leader from the point of view of the United States. In 1951, of course, you had the Truman administration in power, their view was that we need to encourage peaceful moderate change in the world, particularly in the emerging third world, in order to prevent radical change, particularly to prevent communists from emerging," Gasiorowski says.

The British disagreed. Mossadegh's nationalist movement was a threat to them. They clung to the outdated idea that Iranian oil was theirs because they got there first. But they met their match in Mossadegh.

British diplomat George Middleton was stunned by the intensity of the conflict.

"I cannot emphasize too strongly how emotive a situation it was and how really this was feelings rather than arguments which were ruling all the time," he later told the BBC.

Instead of negotiating, the British tried to get Mossadegh to bend to their will. They stationed warships off the coast. They used covert tactics to undermine him. They drew up plans for an invasion. And they organized a crippling oil embargo against Iran. The Americans watched the growing chaos with concern. They had an eye on the Soviet Union. Their main priority in Iran was stability. Washington tried to get Britain and Iran to come to terms.

American diplomat Averell Harriman was dispatched to Tehran.

"We had admitted, as a nation, the right of a country to nationalize foreign-held properties providing they were paid for promptly and adequately. The British finally accepted the right of the Iranians to nationalize but then it was rather too late," Harriman said.

By then, Mossadegh and his followers were beyond dealmaking. In the end, the British set out to overthrow him. In October 1952, Mossadegh discovered their plot. He ordered the British Embassy shut and its diplomats expelled. A few weeks later the British asked the Americans to help them with a coup. The request came just after Dwight Eisenhower had been elected, but before he took office. The outgoing Truman Administration opposed the idea of a coup. But Eisenhower did not, according to Gasiorowski.

"Key Eisenhower officials began to talk about carrying out a coup even before Eisenhower was inaugurated. The key figures there were John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, and his brother Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. They clearly came into office in January 1953 with the idea that they would carry out a coup," Gasiorowski says.

They chose CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt to run the operation. He was the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, and the head of covert operations in the Middle East.

Kinzer says he was a perfect fit.

"He slipped clandestinely across the border and in a period of just three weeks, really through his own wits, Kermit Roosevelt organized the overthrow of the government of Iran. He was truly a real life James Bond," Kinzer says.

Roosevelt started by tapping into the intelligence networks the British and Americans had built up inside Iran. A few key Iranians proved willing to do his bidding. They unleashed a ferocious propaganda campaign against Mossadegh. They bribed newspapers to print slander; they paid clerics to denounce him at Friday prayers. They hired thugs to organize mobs and riots. Meanwhile, Roosevelt had to persuade Iran's young Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to participate in the coup. Roosevelt told the story in an interview in 1980.

"It was difficult to set up because the Shah was extremely suspicious, I guess, is the right word about what British and American intentions toward him really were," Roosevelt said.

This was the same Shah who was thrust onto the throne during World War Two. His father had ruled Iran with a strong hand and kept parliament under his control. But the younger Shah started out weak. And Mossadegh's movement to nationalize the oil industry had put the Shah on the defensive. Now the British and the Americans wanted Mossadegh out and the monarchy back in control. They needed the Shah to sign a royal decree dismissing Mossadegh. But the Shah hesitated. He wanted to make sure the whole thing wasn't a trick. Roosevelt arranged for high level emissaries to make the case. But in the end Roosevelt had to persuade the Shah himself. He made a secret midnight visit to the place. It worked.

"He recognized me. And he figured that you know a Roosevelt wasn't going to come to lie to him," Roosevelt said.

In the end the coup came down to four dramatic days in August 1953. The head of the Shah's imperial guard was supposed to go to Mossadegh's house, present him with the royal decree dismissing him, and then arrest him. But when the Colonel arrived at Mossadegh's house he found himself surrounded by troops loyal to Mossadegh. The prime minister had him arrested instead of the other way around.

Gasiorowski says things didn't look good for the American plotters.

"And indeed when the CIA station in Tehran sent a cable to Washington telling them what happened they soon got a cable back from Washington saying stop the coup attempt and evacuate Roosevelt and other key people. This has failed," Gasiorowski says.

The Shah fled the country. But Roosevelt refused to give up.

"You know you had a job to do. Our studies convinced us that if you could bring about a clear cut unmistakeable confrontation between the Shah on one side and Mossadegh on the other the army and the people would throng to the support of the Shah. And that did turn out to be correct," Roosevelt later said.

So Roosevelt set about stage-managing that confrontation. He had copies of the decree dismissing the prime minister plastered around town.

Kinzer says Roosevelt went back to the Iranians he was working with and had them organize fresh mobs.

"He would have them surge through the streets of Tehran, break windows, beat up people, shoot their guns into mosques and shout, "We love Mossadegh. Up with Mossadegh and communism." And as if that wasn't enough he then hired another mob to attack this mob to show that Tehran was in such chaos that anarchy was threatening and that just to bring Iran back to a measure of stability, Mossadegh had to be overthrown," he says.

The strategy worked. The demonstrations escalated. Clashes broke out between opposing military factions. On August 19, 1953, anti-Mossadegh forces seized power and Mossadegh went into hiding. An army general was installed as prime minister. The Shah made a triumphant return home.

Gasiorowski says the US action changed the course of Iranian history.

"The coup succeeded and began a series of events that over the next couple of years transformed Iran from a sort of a populist political system moving in the direction of democracy to a very strong dictatorship," Gasiorowski says.

The coup was celebrated in Washington. But in Iran it sowed a resentment and distrust of US power that still exists.

Just ask Mostafa Zahrani, the director of the government-affiliated Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran.

"At that time we had a parliament and an elected prime minister so what happened is that the US killed democracy in Iran 50 years ago," he says.

That's the lesson a whole generation of Iranians took away from the coup. It would come back to haunt the United States 25 years later, during the climax of the Islamic Revolution.