Today in Middle Eastern history: the 1953 Iranian coup

Britain and the United States enable the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

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The 1953 CIA- and MI6-backed coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh is one of the few bits of Middle Eastern history that probably gets overemphasized in the popular consciousness, mostly because relations between the US and Iran are what they are. It’s also not an easy fit in this “today in history” series because, believe it or not, I try to keep current politics mostly out of these pieces and in this case that’s very hard to do. People either want to blame the 1953 coup for everything that’s happened between the US and Iran since, which overstates things, or they want to pretend the US didn’t have anything to do with it, which is a lie, and in both cases it’s inherently tied up with current Middle Eastern realities.

Understanding the 1953 coup is difficult without understanding the full history of foreign interventions in Iran, which goes back…well, centuries, really, but we can skip ahead to the 19th century Great Game rivalry between imperial Russia and imperial Britain. At the crux of the Great Game was Britain’s not-unjustified fear that Russian expansion into Central Asia threatened British holdings in South Asia. And so Britain took steps to contain Russian advances, like such as using Afghanistan as a buffer zone, which helped create the very stable and naturally unified nation of Afghanistan that we all appreciate today.

Along those same lines, Britain intervened heavily in Iranian affairs, as did Russia. Late Qajar dynasty monarchs, whose main interests tended to be packing as much luxury as possible into one lifetime, were more or less happy to allow these two outside powers to dominate Iranian industries, trade, etc. so long as both kept throwing goodies at the Iranian throne. These goodies usually came in the form of large loans that everybody knew the shah wouldn’t be able to repay, and since he couldn’t repay he would instead award major concessions to Russian and British corporate and state enterprises. The arrangement basically financed the Qajars’ lavish lifestyles by selling off the independence of the Iranian people.

This pattern reached its apex under Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (d. 1907), who went so far into debt to Russia, in order to finance a swanky European vacation, that it caused massive public protests to break out across Iran in 1905. Britain, not usually a fan of popular uprisings in the colonies (or near colonies in this case), backed this one since the shah was indebted to the Russians and not to them. The protest movement led to the formation of a parliament (the Majles) and adoption of an Iranian constitution in 1906. Without getting into the details, the upshot was that the shah’s powers were to be limited (though still pretty vast) and that parliament and a cabinet were supposed to handle the day-to-day running of the Iranian state.

The constitution was intended to help divest Iran of foreign meddling, but of course it didn’t do anything of the kind. Britain and Russia signed an agreement in 1907 that ended their Great Game competition (paving the way for the Triple Entente), and among its provisions was an agreement to divide Iran into northern (Russian) and southern (British) spheres of influence, formalizing a colonial partition of the country in all but name.

The era of good feelings between Britain and Russia ended when the Bolsheviks came to power and pulled Russia out of World War I. Britain then engineered the 1921 coup that did away with the Qajars in favor of Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) in order to prevent the Commies from taking Iran over. Preventing the Commies from taking over is a theme that will recur a bit later in this story. Britain and the Russians (Soviets) became friends again during World War II, but Reza Shah—who was growing tired of British meddling and was starting to think maybe Germany would make for a cooler European patron, decided that Iran should remain neutral. So Britain and the Soviets invaded Iran, in 1941, and replaced Reza Shah with his much more compliant son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1980). This ensured, among other things, that British aid could flow reliably into the Soviet Union via Iranian territory.

If you’re thinking the Iranian people must be getting tired of all of this foreign intervention, I promise you we’re only scratching the surface. To really understand what was outraging the Iranian public we need to dig deeper, literally, to where the oil was. Among the painful concessions that Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar had signed over to British interests was the 60 year oil concession he’d granted to British businessman William Knox D’Arcy in 1901. Said deal called for Iran (still known as Persia at the time) to receive a whole 16 percent of net profits from the oil that, you know, lay right underneath it. That concession didn’t seem so bad when nobody knew how much oil Iran actually had. But then D’Arcy sold it to Burmah Oil in 1907 and the company promptly struck it big in 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company—later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and eventually just British Petroleum—got rich while Iran got pennies (OK, a dime, a nickel, and a penny) on the dollar.

Reza Shah wanted to renegotiate the oil concession, but he simply wasn’t strong enough to extract very much from Britain. So when the two sides did negotiate a new concession in 1933, it only offered slightly more favorable terms for the Iranians and came at the cost of extending British domination over the Iranian oil industry for another 30 years, or until 1990. As it happened Reza Shah was powerful enough to ignore the 1906 constitution and brutally repress any domestic opposition, such as opposition over the terms of the new oil agreement. Among the many opposition leaders he jailed in his 20 or so years in office was a 50-ish year old Mohammad Mosaddegh, a relative of the Qajar ruling family who became a leader of both the the anti-Pahlavi and pro-oil nationalization movements (these two circles overlapped a fair bit).

After Britain and the Soviets overthrew Reza Shah, his son turned out to be more compliant not only as far as foreign interests were concerned, but also with respect to domestic politics. Mohammad Reza Shah didn’t play a particularly active role in Iranian politics for his first several years in office, and largely abided by the 1906 constitution. But somebody tried to assassinate the affable young shah in 1949, either religious hardliners or members of the communist Tudeh Party (Tudeh was blamed but there’s a fair amount of evidence that the assassin was working for the religious types), and as a result he decided it was time for him to Get Involved. For the shah—hitherto known mostly as a playboy who appreciated the trappings of the crown but had no interest in anything that might resemble work—this meant, for example, forming a Senate to serve as the upper house of parliament, and assuming the right to appoint half of its members.

While technically legal, these actions struck Mosaddegh and other constitutionalists as an illegitimate power grab. They were looking for a constitutional monarchy in which the shah played a mostly ceremonial role, while Mohammad Reza Shah was increasingly interested in asserting his authority. To be fair, the shah may have had the stronger argument here—the 1906 constitution established some limits on the shah’s power, but it didn’t come anywhere near relegating him to the figurehead status that Mosaddegh and his allies seemed to prefer.

Mosaddegh, whose star was on the ascent in Iranian politics, formed the National Front party in 1949 and led it to a majority in the 1951 parliamentary election. When the sitting prime minister, Haj Ali Razmara, was assassinated (religious hardliners again), the shah tapped Mosaddegh, as the leader of the largest party, to replace him. Alongside the hardliners, led by cleric Abol-Ghasem Kashani, Mosaddegh consolidated his power. Which, naturally, came at the expense of the shah’s power. The battle line was drawn between the prime minister and the shah, and it focused largely on the oil nationalization question.

Although the shah doesn’t seem to have been all that opposed to the idea of nationalization, at least not initially, Mosaddegh made the issue his own and amassed huge popular support behind the cause, and so for the shah it became a question of wills. To go along with nationalization was to be seen as caving to Mosaddegh and assuming that aforementioned figurehead status, which he firmly rejected. The shah also of course had to deal with Britain, which was unsurprisingly irate when the Mosaddegh-led parliament passed an oil nationalization bill in 1951.

It’s around this time that the US began to get involved, though not really on Britain’s side. The whole Special Relationship thing hadn’t really worked itself out yet, and the US saw a lot of potential to get its own hands on some of that Iranian oil at Britain’s expense. So the US tried at first to act as mediator. For his part, Mosaddegh initially used the nationalization vote as leverage to renegotiate the oil concession with Britain, but when Britain refused his offer of a 50/50 revenue split what followed was the Abadan Crisis, in which the Iranians expelled Britain from its oil refineries in the city of Abadan and Britain responded by imposing sanctions against Iran and placing an embargo on Iranian oil exports. Iran’s oil production fell, because most other Western countries (including the US) refused to send technicians to Iran out of solidarity with Britain and a desire not to create a precedent that might embolden other oil-rich countries to follow Mosaddegh’s lead.

Mosaddegh began losing political support in Tehran throughout 1952, as the effect of British sanctions and the oil embargo began to pound away at the Iranian economy. Additionally, Abol-Ghasem Kashani and his religious hardliners turned on him for his failure to transform Iran into a religious state (there’s also some evidence to suggest that the UK/US may have paid Kashani to change his position). Mosaddegh was still popular with the Iranian public, though, and when the shah refused to allow him to appoint a new minister of war in mid-1952 and he resigned in protest, popular sentiment forced the shah to reinstate him in short order. That popular push was led by the Tudeh Party, which now increasingly aligned itself with Mosaddegh (at least publicly). That alignment was enough to disabuse the US of any lingering sentiments toward neutrality and put it squarely on the anti-Mosaddegh side. Around this time, CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt Jr. began working with British intelligence on a plan to oust the Iranian prime minister.

As 1952 wore on and the Iranian economy continued to weaken, Mosaddegh’s support declined somewhat. Late that year and into early 1953 he began to assert more unilateral power. Nothing Mosaddegh did here was unconstitutional as such—he asked for and was granted emergency powers by parliament, according to the rules—but it still took on an aura that even some of his closest political allies began to see as authoritarian. After several members of his National Front party resigned, leaving him short of a legislative majority, Mosaddegh held a referendum on dissolving parliament in early August. “Yes” passed with 99.9 percent of the vote, a suspiciously lopsided outcome. The process was marred by the fact that there were separate voting booths for “yes” and “no” voters, meaning that nobody could cast their vote in secret.

A lot of forces were aligned against Mohammad Mosaddegh by August 1953. Secular conservatives opposed oil nationalization while religious conservatives opposed his secularism. They’d begun to organize anti-government protests. As I mentioned above, many of Mosaddegh’s former constitutionalist allies were concerned by what they saw as his authoritarian turn (and his increasing reliance on Tudeh) and grew to oppose him. Britain obviously opposed the oil nationalization. The US opposed Mosaddegh because it worried that he was in bed with Tudeh and therefore with the Soviets. The Iranian military opposed him for similar reasons. Mohammad Reza Shah opposed Mosaddegh because he felt sidelined and because the US made him (he doesn’t seem to have had much appetite for the coup until Washington told him he’d be booted out the door right after the PM if he didn’t get on board). With all these forces arrayed against Mosaddegh, it’s really no wonder his position became untenable.

The coup itself took days to complete and nearly fell apart in the middle. On August 15 an Iranian colonel was tasked with delivering to Mosaddegh orders for his arrest and replacement as PM by General Fazlollah Zahedi. Mosaddegh instead had the colonel arrested and began to round up coup plotters. The shah hightailed it all the way out of the country and hid in Baghdad. Zahedi had to be ushered from place to place around Tehran to avoid Mosaddegh’s police.

But Zahedi was able to regroup, and with CIA money he organized both anti- and pro-Mosaddegh protests—the former were meant to keep Tehran in a state of chaos, and the latter to outrage the Iranian public and cost Mosaddegh some of his support. These culminated on August 19, when Zahedi hired demonstrators to pretend to be Tudeh members and to launch a wildly destructive protest in support of Mosaddegh across the Iranian capital. They were countered by “pro-shah” protesters, also hired with CIA money, who were paid to engage in clashes with the “Tudeh” protesters. Genuine protesters on both sides eventually joined in these clashes, and this gave Zahedi the cover he needed to call out the army and seize control.

That was it. Mosaddegh was out, Zahedi was in. And so was the shah, who returned from Baghdad to an apparently happy Iranian public and lots of newfound support from the CIA, which helped him establish a firmer hand on the Iranian state and even helped train his SAVAK secret police, who spent the next 26 years torturing political opponents on the shah’s behalf. The shah spent that same time steadily blowing whatever public goodwill he’d won after the coup, which is why by 1979 almost every faction in Iranian society couldn’t wait to show him the proverbial door.

Mosaddegh was initially sentenced to death, but had that sentence commuted to house arrest and died in that state in 1967. Oil revenues boomed for everybody except the Iranian people, though the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company did have to give up its monopoly and the US did get a piece of the pie. The Tudeh Party was brutally repressed, as it has been pretty much ever since. And the CIA came out looking fantastic, having engineered the overthrow of an unfriendly yet democratically elected government. This was the first time it achieved an outcome like that but certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The resonance of the 1953 coup today is its own essay and this one is already long enough, so I’ll mostly pass. The Islamic Republic doesn’t exactly celebrate Mohammad Mosaddegh as a role model—his secularism cost him the support of religious conservatives like Abol-Ghasem Kashani, who happens to have been a mentor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But in recent years the example of the 1953 coup has been used more often by the Islamic Republic, and to pretty good effect, as proof that the US has always been an enemy of the Iranian people. Those who argue that the 1953 coup led directly to Iranians’ mistrust of the US today I think are overlooking US support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the US downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, to pick just two more recent and probably more fundamental grievances. But there’s no question that 1953 is a part of that picture.