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Jun-18-2009 13:17printcomments

Iran, 1953

While most Americans were ignorant of the 1953 coup that the U.S. was involved in, the Iranians were not.

Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeg
President Barack Obama made a major gesture of conciliation to Iran earlier in June when he admitted that the U.S. was involved in the 1953 coup which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Photo: AFP

(CALGARY, Alberta) - Iran is back in the news, not that it has been much out of it in the last few years. This time it’s about the outcome of an election that Western countries, particularly the US, don’t like.

Back in 2003, just before the American invasion of Iraq, I predicted (incorrectly as it has turned out so far) that once Bush and co had deposed Saddam Hussein, they would move into both Iran and North Korea—to take care of the Axis of Evil. Then the world would be safe for…America…to be in control of global affairs again.

But, said the 18th century Scots poet Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley”. As we shall see.

To remember the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in 1979, you would have to be in your mid-forties or so, now. To briefly recap: Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American embassy in support of the Iranian Revolution which deposed the Shah. Those who read my contributions know that I am fond of pointing out that everything is connected.

The group of students who organized the embassy takeover only intended to occupy it for a few hours. As it was, the long hostage taking undid the Carter presidency and gave the world Ronald Reagan. I don’t know if Carter could have won re-election, but if he hadn’t, the initial circumstances of the Reagan presidency would have been very different. This is all encapsulated in the old nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost

For want of the shoe, the horse was lost

For want of the horse, the rider was lost

For want of the rider, the battle was lost;

For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Some Iranian background

For the first half of the 20th century, Iran was dominated by the British, who controlled the Iranian National Oil Company. But after WWII nationalism and anti-colonialism reared their ugly heads across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

One result, in the spring of 1951, was the election of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh as Prime Minister of Iran. Educated in France and Switzerland he was the first Iranian to achieve a doctorate in law from a European university. He was descended from royalty on his mother’s side and his father had been Iran’s finance minister for more than twenty years.

He was a pro-Iranian idealist who believed that the Iranian people deserved more than the 16% of oil royalties they had been getting from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Both houses of parliament voted unanimously to nationalize the oil company. They also proposed reimbursing the British for the money it had spent building its wells and refinery. This is the kind of thing that the electorate in both Britain and US should have applauded. But the leaders, President Eisenhower and the two Dulles brothers, who had the power, rejected it. British Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison said:

“Persian oil is of vital importance to our economy. We regard it as essential to do everything possible to prevent the Persians from getting away with a breach of their contractual obligations.” An egregious example of backward looking colonialism.

But the British began to do what they could by sabotaging their own installation at Abadan, thinking to show Mossadegh that the Iranians could not possibly operate the oil industry without the British. They also blockaded Iranian ports so no tankers could enter or leave and appealed unsuccessfully to the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice. Finally, they concluded that the only option was a coup—get rid of Mossadegh.

British agents in Tehran were given instructions to begin coup planning, but Mossadegh learned of the plotting and on October 16, 1952, he ordered the British Embassy closed and expelled all its employees, which included the agents planning the overthrow.

Enter the CIA

Mossadegh was man of scrupulous integrity and concern for the Iranian people. In January 1952, Time named him Man of the Year—over all the other towering figures of the time like Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. The magazine called him “the Iranian George Washington” and “the most world-renowned man his ancient race had produced for centuries.”

Iran was clearly ready, indeed eager, to join the modern world and the existing group of developed nations. To do so, however, required them to throw off the colonial yoke and interfere with the profits of the British government-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Profit always trumps people. It’s the basic rule of capitalism.

The British approached the CIA and under the leadership of Allen Dulles, a plan was concocted where they selected a retired Iranian general to be titular head of the coup. They also sent $1 million (about $8 million in today’s dollars) to the CIA station in Tehran to do what they could to destabilize the country. They spent another $150,000 ($1.2 million) to bribe journalists, editors, Islamic preachers, and other opinion leaders to criticize Mossadegh. Another $11,000/week ($90,000) was budgeted to bribe parliamentarians.

When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was shown the plan, he said: “So this is how we get rid of that madman Mossadegh.” The overthrow was carried out at the order of President Eisenhower after being convinced by anti-communist arguments. Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry Truman, had earlier firmly vetoed a coup. John Foster was the older brother of Allan Dulles, the head of the CIA.

Not everyone liked the idea including several CIA officers. Chief of the CIA station in Tehran, Roger Goiran, resigned in protest.

Operation Ajax (code name for the coup) was supported by the American press. While there had been a few favorable articles about Mossadegh, the New York Times regularly referred to him as a dictator, while others compared him to Hitler and Stalin. By this time, Time was calling his election “one of the worst calamities to the anti-communist world since the Red conquest of China.”

To set the coup in motion, someone had to go into Iran and start things moving. The man they chose was Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore.

As Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow describes it:

“Roosevelt slipped into Iran at a remote border crossing on July 19, 1953, and immediately set about his subversive work. It took him just a few days to set Iran aflame. Using a network of Iranian agents and spending lavish amounts of money, he created an entirely artificial wave of anti-Mossadegh protest. Members of parliament withdrew their support from Mossadegh and denounced him with wild charges. Religious leaders gave sermons calling him an atheist, a Jew, and an infidel. Newspapers were filled with articles and cartoons depicting him as everything from a homosexual to an agent of British imperialism. He realized that some unseen hand was directing the campaign, but because he had such an ingrained and perhaps exaggerated faith in democracy, he did nothing to repress it.” (p. 124)

Roosevelt had set August 19 as the coup-day. On that morning thousands of demonstrators rampaged through the streets. Radio Tehran was seized and the pro-government newspaper office sacked. Roosevelt had bribed commanders of police and army units who proceeded to attack the foreign ministry, the central police station and the headquarters of the army’s general staff.

Mossadegh’s house was also assaulted, including a tank firing shells, for two hours but loyalist soldiers within successfully defended it. Then they fled over a back wall with Mossadegh and escaped. He later surrendered and was imprisoned for three years, then remained under house arrest until his death in 1967.

The Great Satan

While most Americans were ignorant of the 1953 coup, the Iranians were not. In March 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated her regret that Mosaddeq was ousted: "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 America."

So the origin of the great hatred of America and referring to it as The Great Satan.

Overthrow, the book

It has been my intension to review Kinzer’s book, but I may just end up doing it piecemeal. I highly recommend it. Here are the governments that the US has overthrown since 1893:

1893 Hawaii At the behest of the Dole Fruit Co. The overthrow was approved by President McKinley but denounced by his successor, President Roosevelt, who later became an enthusiastic supporter of regime change done by Americans.

1898 Cuba

1899 Philippines Mark Twain suggested that it was time to redesign the American flag “with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by skull and crossbones” (p. 54

1903 Panama

1910 Nicaragua

1911 Honduras

1954 Guatemala Government ties to Moscow were alleged, but never found. United Fruit Company operated here with no interference from the government. This is where the term “banana republic” originated. Kinzer writes: “The United States crushed a democratic experiment that held great promise for Latin America. As in Iran a year earlier, it deposed a regime that embraced fundamental American ideals but that had committed the sin of seeking to retake control of its own natural resources.” (p. 147)

1963 South Vietnam

1973 Chile

1983 Grenada The black humour in this invasion is that the American military had no real intelligence on the layout of the land. They ended up using maps from service stations.

1987 Panama

1996 Afghanistan America supported bin Laden and the Taliban in ousting the Soviets. The chickens have come home to roost.

2003 Iraq

The American public is easily duped

Americans are not a bad people, but they have an inherent weakness to believe almost whatever they are told. As Kinzer writes:

“Americans have a profoundly compassionate side. Many not only appreciate the freedom and prosperity with which they have been blessed but fervently wish to share their good fortune with others. Time and again, they have proved willing to support foreign interventions that are presented as missions to rescue less fortunate people.” (p. 83)

But, concludes Kinzer:

“Almost every American overthrow of a foreign government has left in its wake a bitter residue of pain and anger. Some have led to the slaughter of innocents. Others have turned whole nations, and even whole regions of the world, into violent cauldrons of anti-American passion.” (p. 302)

You reap what you sow.


Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class—a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves—writing and trying to make the world a better place

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Daniel Johnson June 18, 2009 4:45 pm (Pacific time)

Hank: Truly said. Thanks, as always, for your input.

Henry Ruark June 18, 2009 1:53 pm (Pacific time)

Friend D.J. Thank you for insightful and accurate summary, badly needed by many here who fail to know from experience and other sources what's reality for this time/place/events sequence,, so clearl shaping the Far East and the world eve since. Happens necessary writing study has brought me into some of same sources, and perhaps others, than you know, as well as the one cited here. From that I can confirm what you write and suggest to many they seek out the surrounding situations, too, which in turn have then shaped all we have done and can now do in this our own nation. Meaningful measures abound in these pages of history, but perhaps the most dire and desperate is the affects leading on to the Reagan era and its multiple malign and maladroit measures from which we are now suffering so deeply both here and worldwide.

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