The 1953 Coup and Its Reminiscences

The 1953 Coup and Its Reminiscences
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The bloody coup attempt on July 15 orchestrated by the members of a particular terrorist organization infiltrating the ranks of the Turkish armed forces failed due to the adamant and uncompromising attitude of the Turkish people and the Turkish political leadership. The widespread assumption about Western backing of the coup among the general populace has refreshed the memories of the previous interventions of the imperial powers in the Islamic world through coup d'etats. One of the most noteworthy attempts against Muslim leaders that slipped from the Western control is certainly the Iranian coup of August 19, 1953. The TPAJAX coup, jointly orchestrated by the United States and the United Kingdom that resulted in dismissal of Mohammad Mossadeq’s government, deserves closer inspection due to its manifold features. This coup – acknowledged by US President Barack Obama after 60 years, but still denied by Britain – exposes the machinations of the Western powers to depose popular civilian politicians while backing repressive rulers like the Shah of Iran whenever their interests require so.

To provide a glimpse of the events leading to the 1953 coup, Riza Pahlavi – the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty – was accused of supporting Hitler Germany during World War II, and was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Muhammad Riza under the pressure of the British and Soviet Union in 1941. The young Shah soon encountered the opposition of the National Front led by Mohammad Mossadeq, a Swiss educated lawyer and son of a Qajar vizier. Despite securing relatively few seats in the parliamentary elections of 1949, the National Front dominated the Assembly with the support of its electorate and the semi-official Tudeh Party.

The petroleum nationalization plan enacted by the parliament in March 1951, after the assassination of the former pro-Western and anti-nationalization Prime Minister Ali Razmara by a member of the Fadayan-e Islam organization, garnered huge fame for Mossadeq among the masses. Britain, which did not want to lose its privileges regarding the oil fields applied diplomatic pressure, asked the UN to intervene, and finally tried to intimidate the Iranian government by sending the British Navy to the Gulf against Mossadeq, who assumed Prime Minister’s office a month later. Despite all this, Mossadeq emerged triumphant from the 1952 parliamentary elections and used this victory to intensify his anti-Shah and anti-British rhetoric.

Realizing the inability of its Iranian allies, including the Shah to redress the situation, the United Kingdom decided to take a unilateral initiative on Iran that it has been ruling as a semi-colony for over 150 years. However, Mossadeq’s purge of pro-Shah generals in the army and closure of the British Embassy in Tehran, which was suspected to be the command center of the military, hindered British plans. The significant decline in British naval operations capabilities and the probability of Moscow's involvement in Iranian affairs through the Tudeh Party made it impossible for London to proceed on its own.

Of course, one of the main instigators of such a strong British reaction against Mossadeq’s dissent was the fear of penetration of Iranian attitude into other states gaining independence after the war, and the danger of collapse of the British economy that depended on the natural wealth drawn from its former colonies. Britain also warned the United States that Mossadeq’s bid to control Iranian oil reserves would unleash a nationalization movement of underground resources in other countries, and reminded the Washington administration that not only London’s but also Washington's regional interests from Indonesia to Latin America would be jeopardized as a consequence.

Iranian oil was indeed an existential priority for the United Kingdom. The Iranian refinery of the Anglo-Iran Oil Company (AIOC), which would later become BP, was the world's largest refinery. Depending largely on Iranian resources, the company was the world's second largest crude oil exporter with the third largest reserves under its control. In 1950, it paid 24 million pounds in taxes, and provided 82 million in foreign reserves. Perhaps an even more important fact, the company alone met the British Navy’s 85% fuel needs.

Britain, unwilling to lose these privileges, sought America’s blessing to act against Mossadeq’s government that was bolstered by heavy public and probable Soviet support, but President Harry Truman explicitly rejected such British proposals. The elections in the United States arrived to the aid of Britain in this difficult situation. Shortly after Dwight Eisenhower’s election as President in November 1952, Britain sent agents to Washington and the new President's team was persuaded for the coup. For this purpose, Kermit Roosevelt – the Middle East Director of the CIA, and the grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt – arrived in Tehran in June 1953 with a big stash of cash and began bribing a significant number of politicians, journalists and clergy to reduce Mossadeq’s popularity and create chaos in Iran as a precursor of the coup.

Mossadeq, who was a heroic figure among the people, had to be disgraced using disinformation before putting him out of business. Through systematic efforts to influence public opinion with fabrications and slanders, Mossadeq was accused of perpetrating the Communist Party due to his connection to the leftist Tudeh Party. Given the circumstances and the beginning of the Cold War, there could have not been a more appropriate label to demonize Mossadeq – especially in the Western world.

Likewise, Western and Iranian media under American and British influence started portraying Mossadeq and his fellows, like his Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatimi as "dictator", "demagogue", "emotional Islamist obsessed with martyrdom", "homosexual", "drug addict", "Jewish" and "Bahai".[1] Moreover, preparatory steps taken for the coup were not limited to Iranian domestic landscape. For instance, Britain launched an economic war against Iran along with an international propaganda campaign. Moreover, the London administration froze Iran's assets in Britain; forbade exports of oil drilling equipment to Iran. The US also cancelled a previously promised 25 million dollar loan to Iran. The United Kingdom also started threatening potential customers interested in buying oil from Iran.

In fact, a great degree of Mossadeq’s power derived from the nationalist elements oriented around him. The National Front initially attracted all anti-Shah and anti-West forces. From the pro-Soviet leftist Tudeh Party, to the spokesman of religious sects Ayatollah Kashani, to the local landowners of Tehran, many sectors supported Mossadeq’s bid to nationalize the oil and saw it as a national cause. However, this coalition of diverse groups led to problems in a short period of time, and Mossadeq’s steps, such as attempts at granting women voting rights or land reforms widened the cleavage between Mossadeq and these groups – except Tudeh. On the other hand, the propaganda warfare and munificent bribes of the United Kingdom and the United States proved effective in dissipating the forces around Mossadeq.

The circle around Mossadeq was narrowing. The disenchanted landowners and clerics took a stance against Mossadeq who was confident of his popularity in the streets, as the effects of the economic crisis began to hit the markets and ordinary trades. The USA and the United Kingdom decided to take action in this favorable situation. Churchill and Eisenhower officially ratified the TPAJAX plan on July 1 and July 11 respectively. They convinced the Shah, who was initially reluctant to join due to the possible failure of this venture. He then issued an order for the dismissal of Mossadeq from his post, even though it was contradictory to the Constitution.

Mossadeq, who received the news of the coup attempt through military sources, ordered the arrest of the chief of the Royal Guards Regiment, Colonel Nasri and his soldiers who came to detain him. This made the Shah flee to Baghdad on his personal plane. Mossadeq’s loyalists, especially the Tudeh Party, occupied the streets and started dismantling the sculptures of the Shah and his father and seizing government buildings.

In the meantime, Roosevelt’s stooges, who enacted a second phase after the failure of the initial plan, started plundering shops and attacking ordinary people in the streets while raising slogans in favor of Mossadeq and the Tudeh Party. At this stage, Roosevelt sent US Ambassador Loy Henderson to convince Mossadeq. The Ambassador said his country would provide varied assistance to Mossadeq’s government if the demonstrators, who also put American citizens in danger, return to their homes from the streets. Mossadeq, assuming that the coup had been averted, called for the withdrawal of demonstrators from the streets that cost him his 27 month long prime ministry and his political life. The crowd on the CIA’s payroll then seized the streets and displaced the general populace disappointed by Mossadeq’s call to "evacuate squares”. Later on, pro-Shah and pro-CIA generals besieged Mossadeq’s residence with tanks under the cover of these crowds, and captured Mossadeq after nine hours of fighting on August 19, 1953.

The effects of this coup, jointly orchestrated by the CIA and MI6, were far more profound than those planned by the coup plotter. A consensus is forming among the observers about the rapidly increasing radicalization and anti-US sentiment among the Iranians intolerant towards secular and democratic politics after the coup with regard to the illegitimate interests of the West. Stephan Kinzer, in his book "All the Shah's Men" on the subject of this coup, has correctly emphasized the fact that a significant factor behind the public anger toward the US during the Islamic Revolution was the role played by Washington in the aforementioned coup. Neither the British Oil Company could return to the conditions prior to nationalization nor did the Iranian attitude towards the US change with this coup d'etat orchestrated against a "moderate" and "democratic" politician like Mossadeq, until his death in 1967. This coup, unfolding as a response to the nationalization of oil, is one of the fundamental reference points of Iranian collective consciousness even after 60 years as observed in the breakdown of Iranian modern history and during nuclear negotiations.

This article appeared in the September-October issue of the Middle East Analysis Journal published by ORSAM (Volume: 8, Number: 76, Pages 15-17).

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[1] If you wonder about the baseless accusations directed at Mossadeq and others around him in the works of Western press and diplomats on Iran, see:  Ervand Abrahimian, (Summer, 2001) The 1953 Coup in Iran, Science and Society, Vol. 65, No. 2, 193-194