The Iranian Coup D’état, 1953

Iranian trucks on a highway leading towards Tehran. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 15th, 1953, the Iranian Coup D’état began when British and American-backed rebels overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. With the backing of the Persian Shahs (religious leaders), high-ranking members of the Iranian military tried to depose Mossadegh, ostensibly because the Prime Minister sought more executive powers. Mossadegh had the main plotters arrested; the first attempt at a coup had failed. In response, Iranian General Fazlollah Zahedi – accusing Mossadegh of cozying up to local Communist factions – galvanized his military forces and arrested the Prime Minister. Shortly after, Reza Shah Pahlavi – the King of Iran – was placed at the head of government.

ASAP: Blundering Western intelligence agencies manage to install a friendly (but incompetent) regime in Iran, which has repercussions in decades to follow.

Read on for details!
Reza Shah Pahlavi, pictured front. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mossadegh had initially been supported by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was relatively pro-West, and following WWII the West needed a friendly regime in place in Iran to counter Soviet ambitions in that region. Mossadegh had also cooperated with the British government in establishing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which gave the British priority access to Iran’s oilfields; in 1953, the AIOC was taken over by Mossadegh’s government in order to reduce foreign intervention in Iran’s economic livelihood. Both the US and British governments were unhappy with this move, and used their respective intelligence agencies to sponsor opponents of Mossadegh. The operation – codenamed AJAX – was run jointly by MI6 and the CIA. With the failure of the initial coup, MI6 pulled its support for the operation (Mossadegh was “good enough” for their purposes), but CIA operatives on the ground in Tehran – notably Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of US President Theodore Roosevelt, not a frog) – didn’t get the memo and kept enthusiastically supporting the coup leaders. Despite Operation AJAX’s near failure, the mission was the United States’ first successful overthrow of a foreign government, with Reza Pahlavi serving as king until the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

A CIA map of Iran. (source: Flickr)

While the British and American governments enjoyed Pahlavi’s run as Iranian King – he allowed constant, overbearing Western access to his oilfields – Iranians did not. Pahlavi gradually lost support over the following decades for his suppression of religious leaders, decadent lifestyle, and suppression of Communist party members. The Soviet Union leapt at the opportunity and allegedly funneled support to Pahlavi’s opponents; but Pahlavi was such a bad king that the majority of his opposition was completely organic. Pahlavi’s lousy regime made life difficult for Iranian citizens, but on a larger geopolitical scale the Iranian king’s failings had huge repercussions: the Iranian Revolution, which cost the NATO powers an important regional ally and created one of the first “nuclear rogue states”.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the main points on this topic.

  • Moderate Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran was friendly to Britain and the United States. When he tried to nationalize oil production, however, the two Western countries staged a coup to overthrow him.
  • The first attempt failed, but continued support by the CIA enabled General Zahedi to arrest Mossadegh and install King Reza Pahlavi as the head of state. Decades of Western-friendly governance follow, which was hated by Iranian citizens. This resulted in the Iranian Revolution.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • From a Western standpoint, was AJAX necessary? Would Mossadegh’s continued reign have proved beneficial to the West?
  • Was the Iranian Revolution a result of the actions of the CIA and MI6? If so, how?
  • How does the Iranian Coup D’état compare to other Western-backed coups during the Cold War? Does it fit into a larger theme?
  • What could Reza Pahlavi have done differently to prevent his overthrow in 1979?
  • What were some of the impacts of AJAX (and Pahlavi’s reign) on ordinary Persians?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Abrahamian, Ervand. “The 1953 Coup in Iran.” Science & Society 65, no. 2 (2001): 182-215.
  • Gasiorowski, Mark J. “The CIA Looks Back at the 1953 Coup in Iran.” Middle East Report, no. 216 (2000): 4-5.
  • Mokhtari, Fariborz. “Iran’s 1953 Coup Revisited: Internal Dynamics versus External Intrigue.” Middle East Journal 62, no. 3 (2008): 457-88.
  • Takeyh, Ray, and Christopher De Bellaigue. “Coupdunnit: What Really Happened in Iran?” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (2014): 163-67.
  • Zahrani, Mostafa T. “The Coup That Changed the Middle East: Mossadeq v. The CIA in Retrospect.” World Policy Journal 19, no. 2 (2002): 93-99.

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