Before the CIA coup in Iran in 1953, Shah Pahlavi had ruled the country with the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and a Senate. Starting in World War II, Russian and British troops had occupied Iran. After the war, Russia wanted concession to develop northern Iranian oil fields to counterbalance British oil interests in the south. The Shah refused Russia because it was in the country’s best interest to control its own natural resources. The Tudeh, the communist party of Iran backed by the Russian army, increased anti-government activity after the Shah’s refusal of oil imperialism, leading to the communist takeover of Azerbaijan (Edmonds).
Following this, Iran filed a complaint to the United Nations against the USSR on January 19, 1946. This was the first complaint filed by a nation in the UN, which feared falling apart like the League of Nations if it took a stand against Stalin (Edmonds). Eventually, US President Truman saved Iran when he wrote an ultimatum letter to Stalin, who finally withdrew Russian troops. America was the only country with an atom bomb at the time, intimidating Russia. Though the Shah retook Azerbaijan on December 12, 1946, the communist influence still existed through the Tudeh.
Dr. Muhammad Mossadeq and the Tudeh shared the same goal of extreme government reform; however Mossadeq was a nationalist rather than a communist. He sought a nationalized oil industry which would remove the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and used anti-British propaganda, increasing his popularity. To counterbalance popular support given to Mossadeq, the Shah passed social reforms. In justification of the reforms, he stated “My wish is that every Iranian will benefit from his national and social rights. There is no honor in being the king of a poor people” (Edmonds 115). In one of his reforms of 1950, the Shah distributed part of his personally owned land to peasants for cultivation, showing that he was not a maniacal dictator as implied by some textbooks.
In contrast, Mossadeq was not the hero that other sources portray him to be. He rallied against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, depicting it as foreign enslavement of Iranians. In April 1951, the Shah started to support Mossadeq because of his popularity and nominated him for Prime Minister. With his new power, Mossadeq formed the National Iranian Oil Company after refusing an offer by the British to split Anglo-Iranian Oil profits evenly. This led to the threat of British military action. However, showing his support, the Shah threatened to personally lead the army against the British if they provoked war (Edmonds). In September of 1951, the British requested that the UN Security Council set aside the nationalization act and consider the matter as a threat to world peace. The council refused to take immediate action, leaving the decision to the International Court. The court eventually ruled in favor of Iran, but soon the Iranian oil industry had fallen apart due to British expulsion. The British had also started a trade embargo on Iran, which increased oil production elsewhere in the Middle East, including Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.
In 1951, Mossadeq demanded new elections until he realized that the worsening economy gave the communist Tudehs more support. The Shah stopped the elections at Mossadeq’s request; however, he refused to grant him new power to appoint a Minister of War and Chief of Staff, which would bring him to near dictator status (Edmonds). In a fit, Mossadeq resigned from Prime Minister. The Shah nominated Ahmad Qavam, who was forced from office by rioting led by Mossadeq’s nationalists and the Tudehs. Though the two parties were considered enemies, Mossadeq used the Tudehs against his political enemies. On July 22, 1951, in response to the British complaint, the International Court had ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the oil industry in Iran, revering Mossadeq among the public again and forcing the Shah to nominate him as Prime Minister a second time to prevent rioting.
Due to the worsening economy, Mossadeq appealed to the Eisenhower administration in 1952 for American aid. After being refused, Mossadeq threatened that he would drive Iran into Communism if they received no assistance. In a letter to Mossadeq, Eisenhower responded that “The Government of the United States is not presently in a position to extend more aid to Iran or to purchase Iranian oil… I note the concern reflected in your letter at the present dangerous situation in Iran and sincerely hope that before it is too late the Government of Iran will take such steps as are in its power to prevent a further deterioration of the situation (Edmonds 131).” This shows the terms on which Mossadeq was with the United States government. Threatening to turn to communism out of spite made Mossadeq a possible threat to the country, which would make him the CIA’s responsibility.
Mossadeq was not the democratic, popular man he was portrayed as. The only thing he succeeded in was destroying Iran’s economy beyond any quick repair. Eventually, the Shah decided that he wanted to remove Mossadeq from power, but he feared a civil war. The only chance of success was through CIA initiated covert operations. The CIA had been in contact with the Shah himself and General Fazlollah Zahedi, the leader of a pro-Shah faction. They provided the financial support, the psychological warfare, and the training of the Iranian royalist military. When Mossadeq realized that there was a plot against him, he disbanded the Senate because he did not hold a majority and suspended the Supreme Court, revealing his tyrannical traits. He also staged a rigged election to suspend the Majlis.
Political and military officials began retiring and deserting the Prime Minister in support of the Shah. After gaining enough support from Iranian military officials, the CIA, and influential politicians, the Shah signed a decree on August 13, 1953, removing Mossadeq form power, and replacing him with General Zahedi. The decree was being delivered to Mossadeq on August 16 by a colonel accompanied by a platoon of soldiers. However, the Prime Minister organized tanks and guards in opposition after learning of the platoon from Tudeh spies. The colonel messenger was jailed and Mossadeq ordered the arrest of the Shah, causing him to flee to Rome.
After this failure of an overthrow, the CIA’s prestige was devastated, motivating them further towards their goal. Soon, Tudeh riots gave the CIA the opportunity to move against Mossadeq on August 19, 1953. Mossadeq eventually surrendered and was imprisoned with a life-sentence conviction for treason, reduced to 3 years by the Shah. On August 22, the Shah returned to Iran to initial public acclaim, but Mossadeq had left him taken over by his own paranoia. The Shah set up military tribunals to punish the antiroyalists. This persecution killed 5000 people over two years (Hiro 36). After this, the Shah set out to restore the country with economic aid from America and social and political reforms, which ultimately proved futile because of the bureaucracy.
The CIA’s intervention had a multitude of effects in Iran: the devastation of the Tudeh party, the lift on the oil embargo, and the removal of a corrupt leader, falsely portrayed as a hero.