On September 16th Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged the United States to draw a red line on Iran’s alleged nuclear program, which is the latest episode in the troublesome triangular relationship between the three countries (Netanyahu, 2012). Iran seems to be a constant thorn in US foreign policy’s side. Similarly, approval rates of the United States in Iran are some of the lowest to be found among Middle East states, and indeed worldwide, at currently around eight percent (Ray, 2012). Yet, that has not always been the case. In fact, the US used to be quite popular among Iranians (Ansari, 2006: 27). However, in 1953 the United States intervened in the affairs of the Iranian people, deposing the prime minister and effectively replacing him with a much strengthened monarch, the Shah. To do this, the CIA was employed in what was to be its first clandestine operation of this magnitude, of which many others would follow in subsequent decades around the globe.
This essay will focus specifically on the events between August 16th and 19th, 1953, during which a second attempt at deposing the Iranian government was undertaken after having failed on the first try on August 15th. It will be argued that a small range of actors, who were largely acting without explicit instructions and often improvising, had a significant impact on the outcome of the attempted coup, thus setting a precedence both for the CIA and the United States in general.
Three main implications will be derived from the successful coup. First, the consequences for Iran itself will be outlined, given the situation of a vastly different political landscape resulting from the conditions created by the government’s ouster. Secondly, the coup will be highlighted as a major catalyst for a more active involvement of the CIA in US foreign policy implementation. In this context, it will be acknowledged that there are two contrasting views as to the actual level of CIA engagement, one perspective emphasizing the crucial role played by the agency, and another maintaining that it grossly overstated its influence. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in the context of the United States foreign policy in the Middle East, the coup will be taken as one of the most significant milestones which, among other events, has constricted the policy-making scope in the region and has contributed to the decidedly unfavorable image of the United States not only in Iran, but in the Middle East at large.
The historical context
As the situation out of which the coup attempt arose did not develop in a vacuum, some attention has to be given to the historical underpinnings which led to the events of 1953. In 1901, the Briton William Knox D’Arcy secured a concession to exploit the presumed oil wealth of what was then still called Persia, which was subsequently bought by the British state in 1908, later to be established under the name of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (Kinzer, 2003: 48-50). Thus, Persia’s immense oil wealth was exploited by the United Kingdom against a relative pittance conceded to the Persian state in the form of royalties (Ibid). Having been renamed Iran, the country went through a process of strengthening calls for nationalization of Iran’s oil industry (Ibid: 51-2).
It is against this backdrop that Mohammad Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister in April of 1951, a staunch supporter of the nationalization effort, and a strong nationalist in general terms (Gasiorowski, 1987: 261). The United States had finalized a deal with its Middle East oil company, the Arabian American Oil company, to share revenues with Saudi Arabia on a 50/50 basis, further reinforcing Iranian efforts at more control over its own oil resources (Bill, J. A., Louis, WM. R., 1988: 6). Hence, Iran came into gradually increasing conflict with the United Kingdom, which regarded its oil concession in Iran as a major national interest. After having nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in March 1951, the United Kingdom responded with economic sanctions and an oil boycott, severely weakening the Iranian economy in the process (Katouzian, 1988: 207-8). Abrahamian refers to this as “the clash of economic interests between imperialism and nationalism” (2001: 194). This impasse would lead to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1952 (Ansari, 2006: 33).
This is the background to the British decision to try to depose Mossadegh through a coup, which was first contemplated as soon as he took office in April of 1951 and consequently proposed to the United States in November of 1952 (Gasiorowski, 2004: 227). The Truman administration, particularly Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had been opposed quite strongly to a forceful removal of Mossadegh. Acheson is quoted as noting that “‘[n]ever had so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast’” (Kinzer, 2003: 206), referring to the British intransigence to compromise on a fairer oil deal. However, with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House, who identified a communist threat developing in Iran, the British encountered a new mindset favorable to them (Etges, 2011: 503).
Against this backdrop, the CIA, with the support of the British Secret Intelligence Service, developed a coup plan codenamed TPAJAX, which was approved by the CIA, the State Department and the President on July 11th, 1953 (Mokhtari, 2008: 477). The plan consisted of four major components (Kinzer, 2003: 10). First, Mossadegh’s popularity was to be undermined by campaigns in mosques, the press, and demonstrations in the streets. Secondly, royalist military officers were to deliver a firman, a royal decree obtained from the Shah after initial reluctance, to Prime Minister Mossadegh. The firman would establish Mossadegh’s removal from the Prime Ministerial post. Third, mobs to be organized by various agents were to take control of the streets to fortify the regime change. Lastly, General Fazlollah Zahedi, the candidate picked by the US and the UK, would assume his post as the new Prime Minister of Iraq.