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.
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.