22 February 2019
Documents declassified by the CIA recently offer insights on a crucial period in Iran's history after the Second World War. Photo:
Documents declassified by the CIA recently offer insights on a crucial period in Iran's history after the Second World War. Photo:

The 1953 coup: A scar in post-war Iran history

The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently released a number of declassified documents on its secret activities in Iran back in the 1950s.

Thanks to the declassified information, academics around the world were finally able to find the missing links and form a complete picture of the 1953 coup that took place in Iran, which resulted in the seizure of power by the pro-US Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The declassified information, for the first time, confirms the pivotal role of Washington in the coup.

During the early years in the wake of the Second World War, British Petroleum (BP) had a monopoly on the vast oil reserves of Iran.

However, as nationalist sentiments were sweeping across Iran in the post-war years, there was mounting indignation and discontent among Iranians about BP’s monopoly on their valuable natural resources, and there were widespread calls across the country for Tehran to take back the oil monopoly from BP.

At that time Iran was, to a significant extent, already transformed into a constitutional monarchy, with its king being a figurehead while real executive power was vested in a popularly elected government.

In 1951, the highly popular Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected prime minister of Iran. After he took office Mosaddegh immediately responded to the strong call from his people by pressing ahead with the nationalization of BP’s assets in Iran, defying fierce opposition from the oil company and the British government.

As Mosaddegh was determined to nationalize Iran’s oil industry against all odds, Tehran’s relations with the West rapidly deteriorated. As a result, the country’s pro-western king Pahlavi was forced to go into exile in the West.

However, as the Iranians were celebrating their triumph in regaining control of their oil industry, things took a dramatic twist in the West, which would later prove to have far-reaching and profound impact on Iran.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former World War II hero, took office as the 34th US president. A political conservative and a diehard anti-communist, Eisenhower was dismayed at Tehran’s socialist approach and anti-western stance. In particular, he was highly concerned about securing oil supply in the Middle East at a time when the Cold War was underway in full swing.

As such, it didn’t take long for Eisenhower to decide that it would be in the best strategic interests of the US and its allies to install a pro-western puppet regime in Iran.

After reaching a consensus with Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to coordinate with the British intelligence and jointly orchestrate a coup, in collusion with King Pahlavi and monarchists inside Iran, in order to topple the popularly elected Mosaddegh government.

Codenamed “Operation Ajax”, the coup jointly perpetrated by Washington and London was staged in August 1953, resulting in the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government and the restoration of King Pahlavi’s rule.

The 1953 Iranian coup is an important chapter in the CIA’s history, as it was the first ever time the agency succeeded in toppling a foreign regime entirely through espionage, infiltration and sponsoring subversive activities on foreign soil, a tactic that would be employed by the CIA over and over again in the following decades.

After having been reinstated by the US, King Pahlavi went on to consolidate absolute power by mounting a massive and relentless crackdown on dissent inside his country. His return to power also opened the floodgates to western oil companies, which quickly re-established their monopoly on Iran’s oil industry.

In the meantime, the pro-western Pahlavi regime also aligned itself with the Western bloc against the Soviet Union and became one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East.

However, as King Pahlavi was becoming increasingly autocratic, grievances and disaffection among the Iranians continued to mount, and their anger was further fuelled by their king’s unquestioning loyalty to the US even at the expense of their country’s interests.

In consequence, public outrage in Iran finally reached a tipping point in 1979, resulting in the Iranian revolution, led by Ruhollah Khomeini, which saw the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and give rise to a radical and extremely anti-western Islamic regime in Tehran.

The fall of the Pahlavi regime not only fundamentally upset the balance of power in the Middle East, but also took a heavy toll on Washington’s overall strategic interests in the region.

As a matter of fact, Iran was on its way towards becoming a secular, free and democratic country during the 50s, but the 1953 coup orchestrated by the US simply called a sudden and indefinite halt to Iran’s democratization process.

Worse still, US intervention and manipulation of Iran’s internal affairs led to a complete moral bankruptcy of western-style democracy, and as a result most Iranians simply lost faith in liberal democracy and western parliamentary politics overnight.

Suffice it to say that the post-war history of Iran would definitely have been different if President Eisenhower had not ordered the 1953 coup.

As far as Mohammad Mosaddegh is concerned, even 50 years after his death, he is still remembered by many Iranians and hailed as a national hero.

As an aside, I would bet the former leader, if he were alive today, will surely have a lot of mixed feelings about the current state of affairs in his country.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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