Iran, America, and the 1953 coup; the real roots of the mullah’s hostility to America and the West

The narrative seems etched in stone: America, by overthrowing the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in a 1953 CIA coup, snatched democracy from the people of Iran, and consigned them to a tyranny that oppressed them but kept friendly relations with us, and, of course, the oil spigot open for our use.

Speaking of the coup in 1997, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said:

“The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. … But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by Americain their internal affairs.”

The America-stole-democracy-from-Iran thesis is the chief feature of author Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men” (2003), a popular and much-touted account of the 1953 coup that has America deposing the “democratically elected” government for a major share of oil concessions and, later, reaping our just deserts in the form of the shah’s overthrow by violent Sh’ia fundamentalists, the kidnapping of our hostages, and the lasting enmity and distrust of the Iranian people—the true legacy of the CIA-authored coup, which haunts our selfish, thoughtless, greedy, imperialistic, regime-deposing souls to this day. In short, we are the true authors of the mullahs’ violent hostility toward us, and we now reap what we sowed.

This narrative has long been an article of faith on the left, and has even seeped into the mainstream somewhat. The Carter, Clinton, and Obama Administrations seem to have accepted it without question, President Obama even going so far as to cite it as justification for his silence during the 2009 post-election crackdown of the Green movement.  

Said President Obama:

“This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years,Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

Works like Abbas Milani’s “The Shah” (2011), a biography of the shah of Iran, and, more recently, Christopher de Bellaigue’s “Patriot of Persia: Mohammed Mossadeq and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup” (2012), a biography of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who was deposed in the 1953 coup, have gone a long way toward debunking this spurious narrative. Both of these authoritative and superbly researched works make clear that, far from being a stable, budding democracy, the Iran of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 was in fact a cauldron of anarchy, chaos, and double-dealing, and was moving fast toward a pro-Soviet coup and/or dictatorship, not democracy. They also show that by the time the coup occurred, Mossadeq, the one-time liberal “reformer,” had gone a long way toward alienating his former allies and supporters by his vote rigging, his Byzantine attempts to maneuver the Shah aside and gather the Shah’s power unto himself, and his extra-constitutional attempts to grab power away from the Majlis, the Iranian parliament.


When he became Prime Minister in 1951, Mossadeq showed himself to be a popular politician and an accomplished legislator, mastering parliamentary procedures, maneuvering deftly, and bribing, cajoling, and threatening to great effect to gain his objectives—a kind of LBJ of the Majlis, if you will.  Like most Iranians of his day, he was possessed of a violent dislike of foreigners, particularly the British, and he viewed the concession of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which drew an outrageously disproportionate share of the profits from the oil marketed in the region, as a national humiliation to be removed by nothing less than the full nationalization of Iran’s oil.  

An equitable renegotiation of the oil deal on terms more favorable to Iran was certainly in order, but Mossadeq compounded the problem by brooking no compromise: all of Iran’s oil must be nationalized, and that was that. As Iran had no capacity to extract and export its oil on the market, this was nothing less than a recipe for disaster. Yet the catastrophic consequences this would have to the economy left Mossadeq unmoved; like Nasser with the canal in 1956, what mattered most was “honor” and a highly dramatic eviction and thwarting of the foreigner.

 After all, who needed modernization? “What would happen if the roads were not paved and the buildings and guest houses went un-built?…I wanted to walk over the earth and not suffer my country to be taken over by others.”  Mossadeq’s obsessive tunnel vision and oh-so Persian xenophobia, his unseemly pursuit of  total nationalization, and his brutal indifference for what it portended to the national self interest was the beginning of the end for him, and soon enough he came to be viewed by many as a liability and even a danger.  

While the battle for nationalization raged, Mossadeq sought to empower the Majlis by weakening the shah, despite the fact that the shah almost always gave Mossadeq his full support. He insisted the Shah reign as a figurehead, and not as executive ruler. He sought control of the army, and, in July 1952, he manufactured a dispute with the Shah over the appointment of the war minister. He then upped the ante, and now demanded the Shah appoint him as war minister, and, when this was refused, resigned to much fanfare and popular support.

The Democratic National Front, a loose coalition of liberal-progressive parties, now threw its support behind Mossadeq, as he had expected, and the streets of Tehran were convulsed with street protests where some 69 people died and some 750 injured, though the Shah held back the police and the military from firing on the protestors. After five days of chaos, the Shah bowed to the pressure and re-appointed Mossadeq prime minister.

Mossadeq now resumed his grab for power. He appointed himself war minister, confiscated the Shah’s lands, expelled the Shah’s sister from the country, and forbade the Shah to have any contact with diplomats. Many of his liberal minded followers in the Democratic National Front, who supported him against the Shah, now began to have second thoughts, and, disillusioned, turned against him. The most prominent among them was the Ayatollah Kashani, of the Mujahedeen-i-Islam (Warriors of Islam) party, one of the parties included in the National Front. Kashani and many other opposition leaders were now actively blocking the Prime Minister’s legislation, and there was continued violence and chaos in the Majlis.

Mossadeq’s only way to hold on to power now was to dissolve the Majlis, and hold elections whose outcome he could control, but he was faced with an obstacle: under the Iranian constitution only the Shah could dissolve the Majlis. So Mossadeq engineered a detour: he would effect a mass resignation of the National Front, dissolve the Majlis, and then put his action to a national referendum on the novel theory that “popular will superseded the constitution.” As Iran scholar Evrand Abrahamian noted in his “Iran Between Two Revolutions,” (1982),

“Mossadeq the constitutional lawyer who meticulously quoted the fundamental laws against the Shah, was now bypassing the same laws and resorting to the theory of the general will.” 

The Shah by now had fled the capital. The vote in early August 1953, which, on the nod from Mossadeq, deliberately excluded the rural areas in an un-secret ballot, netted Mossadeq a 2,043,300 vote margin out of 2,044,600 votes cast—a brazenly fraudulent 99.93% “victory” that would have made even Ahmadinejad and the mullahs blush with embarrassment.

Though Mossadeq later attempted to justify his actions on the grounds that “royal interference” made it necessary, this was untrue. He had by this time almost completely sidelined the Shah into near irrelevance, and the Shah had in fact fled the capital by time the vote was taken. Mossadeq later admitted in an interview that he dissolved the 17th Majlis to avoid a confidence vote that would have collapsed his government.

Long upheld as a symbol of the liberal democracy that would have been but for the shadowy machinations of American and British interference, Mossadeq, in fact, was really no different from most of the other third world leaders of the post war/post-colonial period. They all talked freedom, democracy, and human rights, and, when in power, practiced graft, vote-rigging, and mass oppression.

As Kermit Roosevelt, who participated in effecting the coup for the CIA observed in his “Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran,” (1979), by late August 1953, Mossadeq was “barely holding on to the broken sails of his sinking ship. Everything considered, whatever might be said of the morality or legality of the American action, it still should not be considered as having overthrown a stable regime inIran.”

Indeed. The transparently rigged referendum further alienated Mossadeq not only from the rest of the National Front, but from most parties all across the political spectrum in the Majlis as well. He who, in the name of the constitution and “democracy” had once championed the Majlis to check the power of the Shah, had now engineered an illegal and unconstitutional dissolution of the Majlis on the dubious premise that his action could be supported or rejected by a popular referendum, and had then proceeded to rig the referendum in his favor. Majlis member Jamal Imani denounced Mossadeq for “leading the country toward anarchy,” and the Ayatollah Kashani pronounced the referendum null and void, and contrary to Islamic law.

Seeing his popular support within the National Front and the Majlis sink like a stone, Mossadeq now sidled up to the well-organized Communist Tudeh party, and began openly consorting with them, each using the other to their own purposes. The Tudeh now took to the streets with mass rioting and violence. On August 8, the Soviet Union, which had already provided Mossadeq with $20 million to keep his government afloat, now tied more strings and announced that they were engaged in negotiations with Iran for further economic aid. All the conditions favoring a Soviet coup were in place.


This then was the situation in Iran that confronted American policy makers. It must have been frankly nightmarish. The Iran-Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946, where the Soviets not only refused to withdraw from the northern half of Iran that they had occupied during the war (the British occupied the south), but attempted to create two “People’s Democratic Republics” within Iran, alerted the Americans of Soviet designs on Iran. Having just watched the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, China, Mongolia and North Korea all fall to Communism, the idea of an oil-rich country in a strategically vital region falling within the Soviet orbit would have been a catastrophe for the West, and anyone who thinks that the Soviets, who were in the process of deepening their claws into Iran, and helping to exploit the present instability to empower the Tudeh, would have kept the erratic and non-Communist Mossadeq in power or installed some Jeffersonian Democrat in his place, is delusional. Bottom line:Iranwas going to have dictatorship one way or another, and better it be one favorable toAmerica and the West, than not.

What would have happened without either Soviet or American involvement has long been a subject for furious speculation. Certainly it is unlikely that the Tudeh at the time could have seized power without the Soviet assistance, yet they were gaining in power and influence, especially in their infiltration of the army. Their new alliance of convenience with Mossadeq merely added to this. (The CIA speculated that they could probably not seize power alone before the end of 1953). But the fact of the matter is that the Soviets were very much involved, had long been covetingIran’s oil and their strategic location to posit their influence, and had presently been exploiting the chaos and laying the groundwork for convertingIraninto a client state, long before America became involved or even decided on a coup of their own.

As Edward Shirley, a former CIA agent who toured revolutionary Iran has written in his “Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran,” (1999),   “What the Ayatollahs did in 1953 with British andAmerica help, they might have been able to do later without such help.” Shirley also wrote that the America-stole-democracy thesis is, “too convenient in its diabolization of the CIA and M16, and too Persian in its determination to make someone else responsible for failure.” 

It should also not be forgotten that the coup could not have succeeded without the assistance of many internal Iranian factions, including the Sh’ia clerical establishment. The current regime goes to ludicrous lengths to deny this, but the truth is that Ayatollahs Kashani and Behbehani of the Mujahedeen-i-Islam (Warriors of Islam) party were instrumental in assisting the American-led coup, and it was unlikely to have succeeded without them.

The mullahs of today, however, who see their own revolution deposing the shah as removing a tool of western imperialism, freeing Iran from the virus of western influence, and restoring Iran to Islam, are understandably anxious to avoid the taint of being seen consorting and conspiring with the CIA of ‘Great Satan,’ of all people, and much prefer their own narrative, one that, according to Ervand Abrahamian, has the Ayatollah Kashani spearheading the nationalization campaign against the hated British with Mossadeq as his mere errand boy and hanger-on, though Kashani, in fact, worked hand in glove with the CIA and the British MI6 to engineer the coup and had even told a foreign correspondent at the time that Mossadeq had “fallen because he had forgotten that the shah enjoyed extensive popular support” and that he “deserved to be executed because he had committed the ultimate offense: rebelling against the shah, ‘betraying’ the country, and repeatedly violating the sacred law.”  


If the hatred and distrust directed at us does not stem from a coup in which they themselves were our allies and co-conspiritors, where then does it spring from? It springs from the hostility, insecurity, xenophobia, and paranoia all typical of totalitarian regimes, as well as the nature, disposition, and fundamentalist Shi’ite ideology of this regime itself.

Following the fall of the shah, the consolidation of the Khomeini regime followed a model of brutal totalitarian efficiency. It was a clean sweep of a distinctly Leninist variety. Like Lenin, who promised peace, land, bread, and freedom only to deliver to the long suffering Russian peoples a tyranny far crueler and oppressive than any by the Czar, Khomeini, again like Lenin upon assuming power, first quickly dispensed with any nonsense about democracy (“do not use this word ‘democracy,’ that is the Western way”).

He then dissolved the provisional government, closed scores of newspapers (“… After each revolution several thousand of these corrupt elements are executed in public and burnt and the story is over. They are not allowed to publish newspapers”), banned the National Democratic Front (“we thought we were dealing with human beings. It is evident we are not”), banned the Muslim People’s Republican Party, purged the People’s Mujahadeen of Iran militia, purged the universities of un-Islamic undesirables, purged some 200 of the old regime’s civilian and military notables and subjected them to sharia-based show-trials and executions, collected tens of thousands of political prisoners, had executed 582 “enemies” by January of 1980, executed 900 more between January 1980 and June 1981, 2946 over the following year, and several thousand over the next two years—in four years literally dwarfing the numbers imprisoned and executed in the entire 26 years of the shah’s rule, and exceeding the worst human rights excesses of his regime by many times over.  

Such a regime, by its closed nature, needs enemies to justify its existance and methods of rule. In this instance, the Ayatollah had not far to look; there was America, long friendly to the regime, taking in the ill shah and his wife, and, even worse, upholding just about every modern, secular value that he and his other clerics loathed so intensely.

When a group of young Shi’ite firebrands stormed the American embassy, Khomeini was alertred to the possibilities that the action could offer him in his struggle to power with other rivals. Said he to his future President Banisadr (whom he later purged and impeached):

 “This action has many benefits. … This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people’s vote without difficulty.”    

Iranians were then reminded that it was America who had placed the loathed shah upon his Peacock throne by a shadowy coup and kept him there for their own purposes; by storming the embassy, they were told, Iranians were now forstalling another attempt by America to interfere in Iran’s affairs and deliver them unto another oppressive tyranny. (Said one hostage taker to his captive: “You have no right to complain because you took our whole country hostage in 1953”). The embassy was a “den of spies” and “evidence of American plotting” against the revolutionary regime was quickly “discovered.”

In the short term, the siezure of the embassy and the humiliating captivity of the hostages was a great popular success with the chanting, thronging masses and assisted the new regime in deflecting unwelcome attention to its own grab on absolute power. It was also useful in deposing the provisional revolutionary government of Mehdi Barzagan, whom Khomeini accused of wishing to restore relations with America, and whose enthusiasm for Islamic governance was held to be in question.   

Long term, the hostige crisis humiliated America and cemented the regime’s domestic power and international prestige as the world’s premier terror state. Thereafter, implacable hostility toward an America as the author of all Iran’s ills both past and present became the primary article of faith and the founding stone of the regime of Khomeini and his successors.  

And, of course, America had an ally and partner in crime in these nefarious deeds: the Jews. Khomeini, no less than Hitler, was a fervent believer in classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were a favorite of his, and he saw to it that every Iranian embassy around the world were stocked with copies. His own official publication, Imam, quoted often from the Protocols; in 1982 he accused the British of committing atrocities in the Falkalnd Islands at the behest of the Elders of Zion. Zionism, said the Ayatollah, had “for centuries everywhere been perpetrating crimes of unbelievable magnitude against human societies and values” at the behest of Satan.

His own variety of blood libel followed a frothy mixture of both the Muslim Koranic and Christian medieval model of Jews as treacherous sub-humans deserving of persecution or worse; the more violent of the Hadiths thus combined with the language of Luther’s diatribes to paint a chilling caricature of life unworthy of life. Yet there was confusion in his hate; the Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere, he said, were also Zionist puppets, and he could not seem to decide whether Israel pulled America’s strings, or vice-versa, or whether Satan was controlling one through the other, or both.       


The evidence, in any event, is thus clear: America did not “steal” democracy fromIranin 1953 as there was no democracy around to steal or replace. The Iran of 1953 was in the grip of an erratic, ambitious, authoritarian leader who, by his own cynical, Byzantine maneuverings and misjudgments, had plunged the country into crisis and political chaos, and was heading it fast toward a Soviet coup, and the current regime’s hatred and hostility toward the United States thus does not, and cannot possibly come from our involvement in a coup in which their own involvement worked hand in glove with our own.

  The key to understanding the true enmity of Iran’s rulers toward America (and the west in general) thus lies not in any actions or crimes supposedly committed by America against the Iranian people, but in the nature and character of the current regime itself.  


About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.