The Magazine

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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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.” 

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