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The Myth of an American Coup

What really happened in Iran in 1953

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By RAY TAKEYH
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This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Ajax—the notorious CIA plot that is supposed to have ousted Iranian prime minister Muhammad Mossadeq. In the intervening decades, the events of 1953 have been routinely depicted as a nefarious U.S. conspiracy that overthrew a nationalist politician who enjoyed enormous popular support. This narrative, assiduously cultivated by the Islamic Republic, was so readily endorsed by the American intellectual class that presidents and secretaries of state are now expected to commence any discussion of Iran by apologizing for the behavior of their malevolent predecessors. At this stage, the account has even seeped into American popular culture, featuring most recently in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Argo. The only problem with this mythologized history is that the CIA’s role in Mossadeq’s demise was largely inconsequential. In the end, the 1953 coup was very much an Iranian affair. 

Truman with Mossadeq in 1951

Truman with Mossadeq in 1951

Muhammad Mossadeq was an aristocratic politician who belonged to a narrow Iranian elite who considered high government office their patrimony. Respectful of the traditions of its class, this cohort would constitute the cabinets, parliaments, and civil service that ruled Iran for much of the 20th century. Mossadeq and his political party, the National Front, reached the height of their influence in 1950 when they pressed a nationalization law through the parliament, allowing Iran to reclaim its oil from British imperial control. 

Despite the standard account of American hostility to Iranian nationalism, both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations recognized the shortcomings of British strategy in the age of postcolonial nationalism and pressured London to accept Iran’s legitimate demands. American diplomats like Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman pressed both sides toward accommodation and compromise. For three years, the United States crafted innumerable proposals that sought to reconcile British mandates with Iranian nationalist imperatives. As with today’s nuclear diplomacy regarding Iran, all these clever formulations failed to yield an agreement. 

One key problem was that Mossadeq became a victim of his own success. The prime minister’s absolutist rhetoric and pledges to end British influence created conditions that militated against a judicious resolution of the crisis. The more he galvanized his countrymen and inflamed public opinion the less likely he was to settle for a compromise accord. As the diplomatic stalemate persisted, Iran was deprived of indispensable revenue when Britain embargoed its oil shipments. 

By 1953, Iran’s economy was in free-fall. Without its oil wealth and facing mounting budget deficits, the Mossadeq government was increasingly incapable of meeting its payroll. Iran could not get around the British embargo, and efforts to operate an oil-less economy proved doomed as the government relied on petroleum sales to cover much of its budget. Mossadeq responded to the crisis by behaving in an increasingly autocratic manner. A principled politician who revered the rule of law, Mossadeq now contrived referendums, rigged elections, and sought control of the armed forces, long a prerogative of the Iranian monarchy. Suddenly the champion of constitutional rule turned into a populist rabble-rouser rebelling against the traditions of his state. 

Iran’s escalating economic crisis began to fracture the National Front, less a party than a coalition of like-minded organizations. The fact that it accordingly never developed its own dedicated and disciplined cadre that could remain steadfast under political stress was part of what undid Mossadeq. The Front’s middle-class elements, concerned about their declining financial fortunes, began to abandon him. The intelligentsia and the professional class were increasingly wary of the prime minister’s autocratic tendencies and looked for alternative leadership. The armed forces, which had stayed quiet despite Mossadeq’s periodic purges of the senior officer corps, now grew vocal and began to participate in political intrigues. The clerisy, long suspicious of secular politicians and their modernizing tendency, subtly shifted its allegiances to the monarchy. And here it is worth underscoring the fact that the clerical estate—despite the Islamic Republic’s current position on the so-called CIA coup—played a critical role in Mossadeq’s downfall.  

The prospect of toppling Mossadeq was promoted by a coterie of Iranian politicians who saw that, given Mossadeq’s dictatorial penchant, there was no legislative means of removing him from power. General Fazollah Zahedi, a onetime member of Mossadeq’s cabinet turned oppositionist, offered himself to the U.S. embassy as a possible solution. As a member of the armed forces with ties to the clerical establishment, Zahedi assured the embassy that a robust anti-Mossadeq network already existed and could discharge its functions with minimal support from the United States.

By May 1953, a joint CIA-MI6 task force proposed a plan of action, codenamed “Ajax.” The key to the plot was to gain the cooperation of the shah, who had the legal authority to dismiss his premier. Zahedi emerged as the cornerstone of the plan, for he was seen, according to the CIA’s account, as the only figure with sufficient “vigor and courage to make him worthy of support.” Eisenhower approved the plan in a meeting with his top national security advisers on June 22. 

By that point the erosion of Mossadeq’s support was all too obvious. A large portion of the National Front had abandoned Mossadeq while the military’s top brass was agitating for action. All the signals coming out of Tehran were that the shah was still a popular figure, and if he intervened decisively, Mossadeq would have to yield. As with most well-laid plans, the actual course of events did not conform to the plotters’ expectations.

The first phase of the CIA’s operation was to inflame the existing disorder with a propaganda campaign, turning out stories about Mossadeq’s corruption, hunger for power, and Jewish ancestry, the last of which, at least, was a fabrication. Other newspaper reports cited forged documents suggesting that the National Front was secretly collaborating with Iran’s Communist party, Tudeh, to establish a “people’s democracy” that would expunge religion from public life. 

The recruitment of the shah proved a much more difficult task. The monarch seemed to welcome Mossadeq’s demise but was reluctant to assume direct responsibility for his dismissal. To stiffen his spine, the CIA arranged for a series of emissaries—including the shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, as well as General Norman Schwarzkopf Sr., who trained the Iranian police force in the 1940s—to visit the palace. Another furtive guest of the court was the operational leader of the coup, Kermit Roosevelt. The shah wanted to gauge the degree of American commitment, and once assured of Eisenhower’s personal pledge to assist his country, he issued two orders—one dismissing Mossadeq and the other appointing Zahedi to the premiership.

On the night of August 16, Colonel Nematollah Nassiri, the commander of the Imperial Guards, attempted to deliver the orders to the prime minister’s residence. He failed. It appears that Mossadeq was tipped off by members of the Tudeh who had penetrated the armed forces. Nassiri and his troops were overwhelmed and quickly arrested by forces loyal to Mossadeq. Fearing for his safety, Zahedi went into hiding. The shah fled, first to Iraq and then Italy. 

It’s important to note that for all the talk of a coup, the reality is that it was Mossadeq who broke the law. The shah had the constitutional authority to dismiss his prime minister—refusing to step down in contravention of the monarch’s orders was an illegal act. 

After the plotters’ apparent failure, a mood of resignation descended over Washington. CIA headquarters acknowledged that the “operation had been tried and failed.” Eisenhower’s aide and confidant General Walter Bedell Smith told the president that “we now have to take a whole new look at the Iranian situation and probably have to snuggle up to Mossadeq if we are going to save anything there.” As the Americans despaired, the initiative passed to the Iranians. 

In Tehran, political fortunes swayed back and forth. A number of National Front members denounced the monarchy and castigated the shah as a bloodthirsty tyrant. They were joined by the Tudeh, which saw a unique opportunity to flex its muscles and depose the shah. The party’s cadre toppled statues of Pahlavi kings and called for the establishment of a democratic republic. The U.S. ambassador to Iran, Loy Henderson, cabled Washington that the masses were outraged at the Tudeh’s “gang of hooligans bearing red flags and chanting Commie songs.” This assessment was later corroborated by a prominent Tudeh member, who acknowledged that their actions had backfired, leading to “quarrelling with shopkeepers, ordinary folks and clerics, affronting, even alienating them from the government of Dr. Mossadeq.” 

Zahedi and his co-conspirators renewed their efforts, largely independent of Roosevelt and the CIA. Zahedi took two initiatives. He sought first to publicize the fact that the shah had dismissed Mossadeq and appointed him prime minister, and therefore Mossadeq’s claim to power was unconstitutional. Next, Zahedi contacted commanders of armed units in the capital and provinces that remained loyal to the shah and told them to prepare to mobilize their forces.

In late summer, military units began to clash with Tudeh activists, while pro-shah protesters took to the streets. It is true that the CIA paid a number of toughs from the bazaar and athletic centers to agitate against the government, but the CIA-financed mobs rarely exceeded a few hundred people in a country that was now rocked by demonstrators numbering in the thousands. As Henderson cabled from Tehran, the protesters were “not of hoodlum type customarily predominant in recent demonstrations in Tehran. They seemed to come from all classes of people, including workers, clerks, shopkeepers, students.” In the end, the CIA-organized demonstrations were overtaken by a spontaneous cascade of pro-shah protesters. 

In a sense, Mossadeq expedited his own demise. Determined to restore order, the premier ordered the military to put an end to the disturbances—a military whose loyalty was suspect. Armed units took over key installations and eventually moved against Mossadeq, forcing him to flee. A startled CIA reported to the White House that “an unexpectedly strong surge of popular and military reaction to Prime Minister Mossadeq’s government has resulted, according to the latest dispatches from Tehran, in the virtual occupation of the city by forces professing their loyalty to the Shah and to his appointed Prime Minister Zahedi.” 

Mossadeq was too much a man of the system to remain on the run. He turned himself in to General Zahedi’s headquarters, where he was treated with courtesy and respect. Before the advent of the Islamic Republic, Persian politics were still marked by civility and decorum. 

The coup that would be subject to so much historical controversy was not so much an American conspiracy as a reassertion of Iran’s traditional classes alarmed about the radicalization of national politics. The street that Mossadeq had relied on rebelled against him. Many chroniclers of these events refuse to acknowledge that the shah was at the time a popular figure and the monarchy a trusted institution. Army officers, landowners, mullahs, and average citizens alike had confidence in the monarchy and were fearful that its absence would pave the way for the dreaded Communists.

In the ensuing decades, Kermit Roosevelt and other CIA alumni would embellish their role in toppling Mossadeq, but the U.S. government’s after-action assessment was much more modest. The CIA itself noted that it was the shah’s departure that turned the tide against Mossadeq. “The flight of the Shah brought home to the populace in a dramatic way how far Mossadeq had gone and galvanized the people into irate pro-Shah force,” a CIA cable read. Similarly, the U.S. embassy reported that “not only members of Mossadeq regime but also pro-Shah supporters were amazed at latter’s comparatively speedy and easy initial victory which was achieved with high degree of spontaneity.” Eisenhower, who as supreme commander of Allied forces during World War II knew something about covert operations, dismissed Roosevelt’s narrative as “more like a dime store novel than historical fact.”

It is often suggested that the events of 1953 made the 1979 Islamic Revolution inevitable. This is another mythological narrative with little relationship to the facts. The shah, returning from exile, had the support of the public, the endorsement of Iran’s important social classes, and the validation of a superpower benefactor. While continuing his drive to modernize Iran, he could have assembled an inclusive government and thereby built a resilient state capable of withstanding the revolutionary tremors of the 1970s. Instead, he opted for the path of autocracy and corruption that proved his undoing. Neither the Truman nor the Eisenhower administration should be blamed for not foreseeing, much less preventing, the shah’s subsequent misfortunes. Nor should current American policymakers continue to operate under the illusion, as flattering as it might be to their vanity, that the United States singlehandedly toppled an Iranian leader. Mossadeq’s fall was largely a matter between Iranians.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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