Iran 1953

Making it safe for the King of Kings

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


"So this is how we get rid of that madman Mossadegh," announced John Foster Dulles to a group of top Washington policy makers one day in June 1953. The Secretary of State held in his hand a plan of operation to overthrow the prime minister of Iran prepared by Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt of the CIA. There was scarcely any discussion amongst the high powered men in the room, no probing questions, no legal or ethical issues raised.

"This was a grave decision to have made," Roosevelt later wrote. "It involved tremendous risk. Surely it deserved thorough examination, the closest consideration, somewhere at the very highest level. It had not received such thought at this meeting. In fact, I was morally certain that almost half of those present, if they had felt free or had the courage to speak, would have opposed the undertaking."

Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore and distant cousin of Franklin, was expressing surprise more than disappointment at glimpsing American foreign-policy-making undressed.

The original initiative to oust Mossadegh had come from the British, for the elderly Iranian leader had spearheaded the parliamentary movement to nationalize the British owned Anglo-lranian Oil Company (AIOC), the sole oil company operating in Iran. In March 1951, the bill for nationalization was passed, and at the end of April Mossadegh was elected prime minister by a large majority of Parliament. On 1 May, nationalization went into effect. The Iranian people, Mossadegh declared, "were opening a hidden treasure upon which lies a dragon".

As the prime minister had anticipated, the British did not take the nationalization gracefully, though it was supported unanimously by the Iranian parliament and by the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people for reasons of both economic justice and national pride. The Mossadegh government tried to do all the right things to placate the British: It offered to set aside 25 percent of the net profits of the oil operation as compensation; it guaranteed the safety and the jobs of the British employees; it was willing to sell its oil without disturbance to the tidy control system so dear to the hearts of the international oil giants. But the British would have none of it. What they wanted was their oil company back. And they wanted Mossadegh's head. A servant does not affront his lord with impunity.

A military show of force by the British navy was followed by a ruthless international economic blockade and boycott, and a freezing of Iranian assets which brought Iran's oil exports and foreign trade to a virtual standstill, plunged the already impoverished country into near destitution, and made payment of any compensation impossible. Nonetheless, and long after they had moved to oust Mossadegh, the British demanded compensation not only for the physical assets of the AIOC, but for the value of their enterprise in developing the oil fields; a request impossible to meet, and, in the eyes of Iranian nationalists, something which decades of huge British profits had paid for many times over.

The British attempt at economic strangulation of Iran could not have gotten off the ground without the active co-operation and support of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and American oil companies. At the same time, the Truman administration argued with the British that Mossadegh's collapse could open the door to the proverbial communist takeover. When the British were later expelled from Iran, however, they had no alternative but to turn to the United States for assistance in toppling Mossadegh. In November 1952, the Churchill government approached Roosevelt, the de facto head of the CIA's Middle East division, who told the British that he felt that there was "no chance to win approval from the outgoing administration of Truman and Acheson. The new Republicans, however, might be quite different."

John Foster Dulles was certainly different. The apocalyptic anti-communist saw in Mossadegh the epitome of all that he detested in the Third World: unequivocal neutralism in the cold war, tolerance of Communists, and disrespect for free enterprise, as demonstrated by the oil nationalization. (Ironically, in recent years Great Britain had nationalized several of its own basic industries, and the government was the majority owner of the AIOC.) To the likes of John Foster Dulles, the eccentric Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was indeed a madman. And when the Secretary of State considered further that Iran was a nation exceedingly rich in the liquid gold, and that it shared a border with the Soviet Union more than 1,000 miles long, he was not unduly plagued by indecision as to whether the Iranian prime minister should finally retire from public life.


The young Shah of Iran had been relegated to little more than a passive role by- Mossadegh and the Iranian political process. His power had been whittled away to the point where he was "incapable of independent action", noted the State Department intelligence report. Mossadegh was pressing for control of the armed forces and more say over expenditures of the royal court, and the inexperienced and indecisive Shah-the "King of Kings"-was reluctant to openly oppose the prime minister because of the latter's popularity.


Earlier in the Year, the New York Times had noted that "prevailing opinion among detached observers in Teheran" was that "Mossadegh is the most popular politician in the country". During a period of more than 40 years in public life, Mossadegh had "acquired a reputation as an honest patriot".

In July, the State Department Director of Iranian Affairs had testified that "Mossadegh has such tremendous control over the masses of people that it would be very difficult to throw him out. "

A few days later, "at least 100,000" people filled the streets of Teheran to express strong anti-US and anti-Shah sentiments. Though sponsored by the Tudeh, the turnout far exceeded any estimate of party adherents.

But popularity and masses, of the unarmed kind, counted for little, for in the final analysis what Teheran witnessed was a military showdown carried out on both sides by soldiers obediently following the orders of a handful of officers, some of whom were staking their careers and ambitions on choosing the winning side; some had a more ideological commitment. The New York Times characterized the sudden reversal of Mossadegh's fortunes as "nothing more than a mutiny ... against pro-Mossadegh officers" by "the lower ranks" who revered the Shah, had brutally quelled the demonstrations the day before, but refused to do the same on 19 August, and instead turned against their officers.

What connection Roosevelt and his agents had with any of the pro-Shah officers beforehand is not clear. In an interview given at about the same time that he finished his book, Roosevelt stated that a number of pro-Shah officers were given refuge in the CIA compound adjoining the US Embassy at the time the Shah fled to Rome. But inasmuch as Roosevelt mentions not a word of this rather important and interesting development in his book, it must be regarded as yet another of his assertions to be approached with caution.

In any event, it may be that the 19 August demonstration organized by Roosevelt's team was just the encouragement and spark these officers were waiting for. Yet, if so, it further illustrates how much Roosevelt had left to chance.

In light of all the questionable, contradictory, and devious statements which emanated at times from John Foster Dulles, Kermit Roosevelt, Loy Henderson and other American officials, what conclusions can be drawn about American motivation in the toppling of Mossadegh? The consequences of the coup may offer the best guide.

For the next 25 years, the Shah of Iran stood fast as the United States' closest ally in the Third World, to a degree that would have shocked the independent and neutral Mossadegh. The Shah literally placed his country at the disposal of US military and intelligence organizations to be used as a cold-war weapon, a window and a door to the Soviet Union-electronic listening and radar posts were set up near the Soviet border; American aircraft used Iran as a base to launch surveillance flights over the Soviet Union; espionage agents were infiltrated across the border; various American military installations dotted the Iranian landscape. Iran was viewed as a vital link in the chain being forged by the United States to "contain" the Soviet Union. In a telegram to the British Acting Foreign Secretary in September, Dulles said: "I think if we can in coordination move quickly and effectively in Iran we would close the most dangerous gap in the line from Europe to South Asia.'' In February 1955, Iran became a member of the Baghdad Pact, set up by the United States, in Dulles's words, "to create a solid band of resistance against the Soviet Union".

One year after the coup, the Iranian government completed a contract with an international consortium of oil companies. Amongst Iran's new foreign partners, the British lost the exclusive rights they had enjoyed previously, being reduced now to 40 percent. Another 40 percent now went to American oil firms, the remainder to other countries. The British, however, received an extremely generous compensation for their former property.


The standard "textbook" account of what took place in Iran in 1953 is that-whatever else one might say for or against the operation-the United States saved Iran from a Soviet/Communist takeover. Yet, during the two years of American and British subversion of a bordering country, the Soviet Union did nothing that would support such a premise.

When the British Navy staged the largest concentration of its forces since World War II in Iranian waters, the Soviets took no belligerent steps; nor when Great Britain instituted draconian international sanctions which left Iran in a deep economic crisis and extremely vulnerable, did the oil fields "fall hostage" to the Bolshevik Menace; this, despite "the whole of the Tudeh Party at its disposal" as agents, as Roosevelt put it. Not even in the face of the coup, with its imprint of foreign hands, did Moscow make a threatening move; neither did Mossadegh at any point ask for Russian help.

One year later, however, the New York Times could editorialize that "Moscow ... counted its chickens before they were hatched and thought that Iran would be the next 'People's Democracy'. At the same time, the newspaper warned, with surprising arrogance, that "underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism."

A decade later, Allen Dulles solemnly stated that communism had "achieved control of the governmental apparatus" in Iran. And a decade after that, Fortune magazine, to cite one of many examples, kept the story alive by writing that Mossadegh "plotted with the Communist party of Iran, the Tudeh, to overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevl and "hook up with the Soviet Union."

And what of the Iranian people? What did being saved from communism do for them? For the preponderance of the population, life under the Shah was a grim tableau of grinding poverty, police terror, and torture. Thousands were executed in the name of fighting communism. Dissent was crushed from the outset of the new regime with American assistance. Kennett Love wrote that he believed that CIA officer George Carroll, whom he knew personally, worked with General Farhat Dadsetan, the new military governor of Teheran, "on preparations for the very efficient smothering of a potentially dangerous dissident movement emanating from the bazaar area and the Tudeh in the first two weeks of November, 1953".

The notorious Iranian secret police, SAVAK, created under the guidance of the CIA and Israel, spread its tentacles all over the world to punish Iranian dissidents. According to a former CIA analyst on Iran, SAVAK was instructed in torture techniques by the Agency. Amnesty International summed up the situation in 1976 by noting that Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran."

When to this is added a level of corruption that "startled even the most hardened observers of Middle Eastern thievery", it is understandable that the Shah needed his huge military and police force, maintained by unusually large US aid and training programs, to keep the lid down for as long as he did. Said Senator Hubert Humphrey, apparently with some surprise:

"Do you know what the head of the Iranian Army told one of our people? He said the Army was in good shape, thanks to U.S. aid-it was now capable of coping with the civilian population. That Army isn't going to fight the Russians. It's planning to fight the Iranian people."


Killing Hope