While there are few direct lines of cause and effect that can be established throughout history, the hostility that has characterized U.S.-Iran relations in the twenty-first century is predominantly the result of a relatively anonymous act that occurred over half a century ago. On August 19, 1953 the popularly elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq was removed from power in a coup d’état planned and executed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mosaddeq’s crime: the nationalization of the oil industry and an offensive display of Iranian backbone. While the immediate result of the coup was twenty-five years of stability under the oppressive Mohammad Reza Shah, the long term effects have proved traumatic for U.S.-Iran relations. Events such as the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Iran-Iraq War all have roots in 1953, and have all helped to drive a wedge between the two countries. While the majority of the American public is not even aware of the event, for the people of Iran the coup has instilled an indelible memory. Today Mohammad Mosaddeq is revered as a symbol of Iranian nationalism and a martyr in the struggle against traditional Anglo-American imperialism. Thus, although initially praised as a rousing success, the 1953 coup was the first domino to fall in a chain of events that have polarized U.S.-Iran relations. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated in 2000, the 1953 coup was “a setback for Iran’s political development, and it is easy to see now why so many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
In order to fully appreciate the appeal of Mohammad Mosaddeq and his fierce nationalist agenda, it is important to understand the history of foreign intervention in Iran. Throughout the modern era Iranian interaction with the West has come in the form of economic exploitation and Western intervention in domestic affairs. In the twentieth century the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became the dominant imperial presence within Iran. Originally established as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1901, the company began as a concession granted to English businessman William D’Arcy by Muzaffar al-Din Shah. The agreement granted D’Arcy the exclusive rights to any oil found in Iran. In return the Shah was paid a sum of £20,000 and an allotment of 16% of the annual profits of D’Arcy’s company. After seven years of failed attempts D’Arcy struck oil in May of 1908 at a depth of 1,180 feet, becoming the first person to gain access to Iran’s greatest natural asset. A month later Great Britain formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and spent £2 million to buy a controlling interest in D’Arcy’s company, giving Great Britain exclusive control over the birthright of the Iranian people.
In the truest sense of imperialism the APOC was a ruthless and corrupt company, eager and willing to lie, cheat and steal from the Iranians; raping them of their most abundant natural resource while paying them a pittance in return. The APOC frequently refused to allow Iranian auditors to examine their books or falsely reported the company profits so as to deflate the value of the 16% endowment owed to the Iranians. The hub of the APOC’s operations was the Abadan refinery on the Persian Gulf which was constructed in 1912. In an effort to isolate the APOC from Iran, the only jobs available to Iranian workers were the lower level, blue collar jobs. Engineering and administrative positions were filled by British citizens or by foreign workers imported from the British colonies. Working conditions at the refinery were abysmal. Workers got paid fifty cents an hour and were packed thousands deep into shantytowns called “Kaghazabad” meaning “paper city” referring to their crude construction. These slums were without running water or electricity, disease and famine were common occurrences, and personal privacy was nonexistent. The economic dominance exuded by the APOC manifested itself in a physical form at Abadan.
Outraged by British encroachment on Iranian sovereignty, Reza Shah canceled the British mandate in 1932, ending the APOC’s right to Iranian oil, and forcing them to the negotiation table. In 1933 the two countries agreed upon a new concession which stated that British land rights were to be reduced to ¾ of what they had originally been (although the APOC got to keep all of the oil fields that were already developed), that the British must now pay an annual allotment of no less than £975,000 to Iran, and that working conditions at Abadan were to be improved. In exchange the Shah agreed to extend the concession until 1993, and change the name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). However, although these negotiations were promising, the AIOC eventually reverted back to its old corrupt and exclusionary habits. Furthermore, Great Britain used the onset of World War II to force Reza Shah to abdicate in 1941. Once Reza Shah left the country Great Britain placed his son, Mohammad Reza Shah on the throne and demanded that the Shah name the pro-British Mohammad Ali Furughi as Prime Minister. Consequently, through the combination of a new, inexperienced Shah and a malleable Prime Minister Great Britain was able to more directly controlled Iran than ever before.
It was in reaction to these events that the National Front came into being. Formed in 1949 the National Front was a political organization that fought to curtail the influence of the British and check the power of Mohammad Reza Shah, who had become quite powerful thanks to British patronage. The coalition united a broad spectrum of political ideologies from the reformist liberal intelligentsia, to the socialist peasants, to the clergy, and even some extreme right-wing conservatives. This mosaic of political ideologies was united by a common goal: to expel Great Britain from Iran and give the people a stronger voice in their government. Once it formed, the National Front oriented itself around a charismatic and eccentric intellectual, Mohammad Mosaddeq.
Born on May 19, 1882 Mohammad Mosaddeq was from a rich upper-class family, his mother was a princess in the Qajar dynasty and his father served as the chief financial minister for Nasir al-Din Shah. Interestingly, Mosaddeq’s life seems to have paralleled the maturation of democracy within Iran. As a young boy he participated in the Tobacco Riots, in 1906 he campaigned for reform during the Constitutional Revolution, and at the age of 24 he was elected to the first Majlis (Iranian parliament). Perhaps it is fitting then, that the Iranian democratic experiment culminated with Mosaddeq in power and ended with his removal. As a result of his early foray into politics Mosaddeq became disenchanted with the corruption and incompetence of the Qajar Shahs and looked toward Europe for inspiration. As a young man Mosaddeq studied law and public finance in Neuchâtel and received his doctorate in law from the University of Neuchâtel in 1914. His studies imbued him with the ideals of liberalism and self-determination and he became enchanted with the idea of establishing a secular democracy within Iran. As a political activist Mosaddeq became renowned as a fierce anti-imperialist and champion of Iranian nationalism. His education and experiences awakened him to the plight of his countrymen and he argued, quite accurately, that as long as the AIOC interfered in Iranian affairs Iran could never exist as a fully independent state. Consequently, the charismatic politician made it his life’s goal to nationalize the AIOC and establish Iran as a democratic state.
In 1949 Mohammad Mosaddeq and the National Front demanded that the British renegotiate the terms of the 1933 concession. Riding a wave of popular support which had given Mosaddeq and his party a strong presence in the Majlis, the parliament drafted a resolution stipulating that Iran was to be entitled to a 50-50 split in the profits of the AIOC and the random, uninhibited examination of the AIOC’s books. Predictably however, the AIOC refused to agree to the new bill and demanded that the 1933 concession be adhered to. While admittedly the negotiations were a failure, the experience did succeed in lending credence to Mosaddeq’s argument that the AIOC must be nationalized and the British expelled from Iran. Compounding the failures of the Majlis was the fact that by early 1950 American oil companies agreed with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia on a proposal similar to the one that the British had rejected. Consequently, following the assassination of the Prime Minister, in which the assassins may have been affiliated with the National Front, Mohammad Mosaddeq was elected Prime Minister and on April 30, 1951 the Majlis voted to nationalize the AIOC and all of its operations. Two days later the Shah acquiesced and signed the bill into law.
1952 proved a pivotal year for Iranian foreign relations. Compounding the nationalization of the oil industry was the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as President of the United States. Renowned as a hardened Cold Warrior, Eisenhower was ardently committed to stopping the spread of Communism. In stark contrast to the Truman administration, which viewed Mosaddeq as a positive secular force that could be adopted as an ally to help contain Communism in the Middle East, Eisenhower viewed the political upheaval that was taking place in Iran as vulnerable to Soviet interference. As professor Barry Rubin stated, “while Truman and Acheson felt social change was inevitable- and thus should be encouraged in a manner consistent with American interests- Eisenhower and Dulles tended to see reform movements as disruptive and as likely to be captured by the Communists.” Consequently, Eisenhower devoted huge amounts of money and man power toward destabilizing and ultimately toppling Mosaddeq. Their efforts included spreading anti-Mosaddeq propaganda throughout Iran, making dubious connections between Mossadeq and the Soviet Union, and overstating the power of the Tudeh party (the Communist party) within Iran. The culmination of their operation against Mosaddeq was the coup against the Prime Minister, codenamed operation AJAX.
Executed on August 15, 1953 the initial plan, orchestrated and carried out largely by the CIA, was to convince the Shah to sign two firmans (royal decrees), one removing Mosaddeq from power and the other installing the pro-U.S. General Zahedi as Prime Minister. Although Mosaddeq was a great threat to the Shah’s power and influence, the Shah was rather skittish about the idea of a coup. Only after intensive negotiations with U.S. officials and reassurances by the CIA about the security of his own position, did Mohammad Reza sign the firmans. The next step was to order military officials loyal to the Shah to seize government buildings and arrest Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq however, became aware of the plan against him and quickly declared the firmans illegal and had the conspirators arrested. When news of the failure reached Mohammad Reza he panicked and fled the country fearing for his life. U.S. intelligence agents in Tehran however, refused to give up and began to rebuild support for the coup. The final blow to Mosaddeq came when a very instrumental CIA operative and one of the architects of the coup, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson), convinced the Shah, now hiding in Paris, to publically announce that he had signed a firman dismissing the Prime Minister and that Mosaddeq had no legal authority to continue is premiership. Roosevelt then paid a group of peasants to pose as Tudeh leaders and being demonstrating in support of Mosaddeq. Roosevelt believed that if he could convince the royalist and moderate politicians that Mosaddeq was losing control over the country and was affiliated with the Tudeh party, they would support his removal. Roosevelt’s plan worked and eventually a counter demonstration formed in the streets of Tehran, advocating for Mosaddeq to step down. The chaotic day ended when the pro-Shah military turned on the pro-Mosaddeq crowds, taking to the streets and brutally suppressing the demonstrations. The battle concluded at the gates of Mohammad Mosaddeq’s home where he was arrested and finally removed from power.
Upon the Shah’s restoration he declared martial law and embarked on what would be a twenty five year long reign of political centralization and social repression. Following the coup the Shah sentenced Mosaddeq to three years imprisonment and life under house arrest. Other activists also fell victim to the Shah’s paranoia and by the end of 1953 the Shah had imprisoned 2,100 political enemies. Most importantly however, was the fact that after the coup the United States replaced Great Britain as the predominant imperial force within Iran. In 1954 the Shah signed a deal that gave American oil companies more than 40 percent control over the production of Iranian oil and in return the United States bankrolled the Shah and by extension, his oppressive policies. In the three years after the coup the Shah received over $200 million in economic aid and between 1953 and 1961 $500 million in military aid. With this money the Shah increased the size of his military to 200,000 men and created the infamous National Intelligence Security Organization or SAVAK. The SAVAK was used to harass opposition groups, arrest suspected “traitors” or political enemies and commit acts of random terror. The SAVAK was also used as a political tool to bribe and bully politicians and rig elections to the Majlis. As a result, parliament became packed with wealthy landowners old aristocrats, reducing the role of the Majlis to a rubber-stamp organization. All of the political activists were either jailed or killed and any authority over domestic policies or control over the agenda that the Majlis had before the coup was completely annulled. All power was now centralized around Mohammad Reza Shah.
It may seem somewhat ironic that even though Great Britain spent the better part of a century imposing its will on Iran and robbing it of its most precious resource, it is the United States that attracts the most ire within the country. More than anything this anger is an indication of the magnitude of America’s actions. Even though it only spent a relatively short amount of time in Iran, the U.S. completely changed the political landscape of the country; substituting the democratic will of Iran for the perceived security of the United States. Consequently, it is important to remember that when questioning how the current state of Iran-U.S. relations came into being, or why a once promising democratic state devolved into fundamentalist Islamic regime, the United States must look in the mirror. By toppling Mosaddeq and bankrolling the Shah the United States became a complicit supporter of an authoritarian regime and declared to the rest of the world that it would sooner support a despot rather than a democracy. That is why the argument can be made that it was largely the actions taken by the U.S. government in August of 1953 that are the cause of the current turbulent relations between Iran and the United States.
The long term effect of the removal of Mossadeq was the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While the American public viewed the revolution as a spontaneous and unjustified act of defiance, for the people of Iran it was anything but. The revolution was the culmination of the previous twenty-five years of complete social and political repression of the Iranian people under the Shah. With the money and complicit approval of the United States, Mohammad Reza Shah sharply centralized political power beneath him, outlawing opposition groups and harassing political enemies. As a result, these policies created a barren political landscape, devoid of any political or social organ through which the public could voice their outrage. However, the Shah did not succeed in eliminating political dissent but merely forced it underground; creating an environment that was conducive to revolution and yearning for change. Without any legal avenue through which they could voice their dissent, the Iranian public became volatile; pressurized by their political suffocation. Consequently, once benign political activists grew frustrated and adopted more extreme agendas and radical tactics. Compounding the Shah’s oppressive policies was the notion that Mohammad Reza was merely a stooge for the West and a traitor that sacrificed the interests of the Iranian people for his own wellbeing. This sentiment may not have been wholly unfounded, and was reinforced by the increased U.S. control over Iranian oil and the huge sums of money transferred from Washington D.C. to the bank account of the Shah. Furthermore, this radicalization was also a reaction to the events of 1953. The failure of Mohammad Mosaddeq to successfully reform Iranian politics through non-violent and legal means convinced opposition groups that a more extreme agenda must be assumed. As Sepehr Zabih states in his book The Mosaddeq Era, the failure of Mosaddeq combined with the dictatorial rule of the Shah convinced reformers that “the very legitimacy of the monarchy, and not its mere constitutional limitations, was the question at hand.” Thus, without an avenue for legal and peaceful expression these revolutionaries were left to simmer in their dissent and ultimately turned to religious strong-man types who offered Islam as a way to achieve their goals.
Ironically, not only did the United States succeed in creating an environment conducive to revolution, but it also provided the masses with the means with which to achieve this revolution: political Islam. During the Cold War the U.S. viewed fundamental Islam in the Middle East as an effective tool against an atheist Communist platform. Frequently CIA agents would convince members of the Majlis or moderate clerics that the ministries of the Mosaddeq regime were “full of ‘Kremlin-controlled atheists.’” A State Department memo stated that “religious leaders were encouraged with funding to adopt a more fundamentalist line and break with Mosaddeq.” Furthermore, the CIA funded a specific individual, Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, who organized the Devotees of Islam (the Iranian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) and frequently engaged in acts of terrorism against the Shah and his father before him. While planning the coup the CIA noted that among the organizations that Kashani could mobilize was the “Fedayan terrorist organization of Muslim extremists.” Coincidently, Kashani was also the god-father of Ruhollah Khomeini, the man that would use Islam as a tool to overthrow the Shah twenty five years later. As Khomeini’s biographer Baqer Moin wrote, “Khomieni was a frequent visitor to Kashani’s home and admired his courage and stamina. He shared his views on many issues such as, anti-colonialism, Islamic universalism, political activism, and populism.” Therefore it seems reasonable to argue that the United States indirectly contributed to the Islamic Revolution. Not only did the United States tolerate, if not create, the plight of the Iranian people but it also funded and encouraged the mentor of Khomeini, the eventual leader of the Revolution.
Another important event in U.S.-Iranian relations that has direct roots in 1953 is the infamous Iranian Hostage Crisis. After the Shah was overthrown in 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter allowed him entrance into the United States to receive medical treatment. This seemingly harmless act elicited an outraged response in Iran and Iranian students, with the blessing of the revolutionary leaders, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran taking 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. While Americans found this act to be unprovoked and barbaric, for the Iranian public taking U.S. hostages was protection from what they saw as history repeating itself. As Stephen Kinzer describes in his book All the Shah’s Men, “the hostage takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne.” Furthermore, one of the hostage-takers admitted that “in the back of everybody’s mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d’état had begun. Such was our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible.”
As a result of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis the United States distanced itself from Iran, eventually cutting off all economic and diplomatic relations. Moreover, the revolution provided a common ground on which the United States and Iraq formed an alliance. Balancing the power and influence of Iran’s new leaders was crucial to both states; Iraq did not want the revolution to spill over and radicalize its majority Shi’a population, and likewise the United States did not want the entire Middle East to be consumed by fundamentalism and anti-U.S. sentiment. This unlikely paring led the U.S. to support Iraq in its long and brutal campaign against Iran. By providing money, intelligence and equipment the U.S. emboldened Saddam Hussein and helped him forge his position as dictator of Iraq. Once again it seems as though the U.S. traded immediate gains for a future of security; a decision that would lead them to invade Iraq twice in the coming decades. Furthermore, not only did the Iran-Iraq War lead the U.S. to fund a future enemy, it also reaffirmed the beliefs of the leaders of Iran that the only way to resist foreign interference was through armed struggle. Ayatollah Khamenei, one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s advisors and eventual successor, justified the regime’s militant and radical policies by stating, “We are not liberals like Allende and Mosaddeq, whom the CIA can snuff out.” The explicit mentioning of Mosaddeq’s name indicates how fresh the 1953 coup was in the minds of the Iranians even twenty-five years later. Furthermore, it highlights the revolutionaries’ belief that because Mosaddeq failed to peaceably reform Iran, violent struggle was their only alternative.
As had been argued, it seems as though the actions taken by the United States in 1953 had a direct effect on several subsequent events and succeeded in alienating the U.S. and Iran. However, there is still one question left to be answered: if the U.S. did not topple Mosaddeq, would Iran be a progressive and democratic state today? The answer seems to be, yes. Although perceived as a threat to British and U.S. interests in Iran, Mosaddeq was firmly committed to democracy. In an address to the 14th Majlis, Mosaddeq stated:
I have accepted the wishes of the electorate, which sent me to this Majles in order to embark on a holy war to achieve a superior goal. In domestic policy, to follow the principals of the Constitution and freedom and, in foreign affairs, to follow the policy of negative (or counter) equilibrium. This had been, is and will continue to be my aim, and I will make every effort to reach that goal.
This quote clearly exemplifies Mosaddeq’s resolve toward adhering to the rule of law in domestic affairs and in foreign affairs seeking “negative equilibrium”, or a non-alignment strategy. Furthermore, Farhad Diba states in his book, Mossadegh: A Political Biography, that “freedom of choice through literacy, freedom of capable choice through absence of intimidating control, and freedom to choose the representatives of one’s own best interests whatever they may be” were Mosaddeq’s firm beliefs. Additionally, the fear of the United States that Mosaddeq was being seduced by the Soviets was unfounded. Not only was the influence of the Tudeh party greatly exaggerated but as argued by Diba, Mosaddeq “sought to protect the growth of liberal democratic institutions through the elimination of interference, whether internal or external.” Finally, the existence of Mosaddeq would have insured that Iran remained secular and did not fall into the arms of extremist religious leaders. In pursuit of democracy, “Mosaddeq saw in the clergy a niggardly group, very much self-centered, blinkered by Islamic dogma and tending towards illiberal policies.” Therefore, it seems quite possible that had Mosaddeq been allowed to remain in power, Iran may now be a flourishing secular democratic ally of the U.S.
More than anything the actions taken in August 1953 highlight the shortsightedness of the American leaders, who were all too willing to overthrow Mosaddeq and ignore the will of the Iranian public in pursuit of their fanatical obsession to contain Soviet Communism. In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddeq was labeled as Time magazine’s man of the year. The caption under his name read: “he oiled the wheels of chaos.” The “chaos” meant by this statement was the resurgence of nationalism throughout the Third World that resulted from Mosaddeq’s campaign for change. In the bipolar world of the Cold War in which the only choice presented to a country was the United States vs. the Soviet Union, nationalism presented a problem. Mosaddeq’s defiance toward the West demonstrated to the rest of the Third World that they did not have to live in a bipolar world, but rather could forge their own identity, independent of the will of even the greatest super-power. In an eternal tug-of-war between the left and right, Mosaddeq provided a “third way” for smaller nations. However, in viewing the world in absolute, “with us or against us” terms, the United States perceived this national consciousness as a threat to their security and thus took action to topple Mosaddeq. As a result, a revolution and several hostile interactions have stressed U.S. Iranian relations almost to the breaking point. In retrospect it seems that by overthrowing Mosaddeq and crushing the burgeoning Iranian democracy the United States mortgaged away its future, trading twenty-five years of stability for a future of security.
Mitchell Freddura is a senior at the University of Delaware. He will be graduating in May 2011 in Political Science and Islamic Studies. He will be studying U.S. Foreign Policy in the fall of 2011 at the American University in Washington, D.C. This paper was written for Professor Rudi Matthee’s class on Nationalism.
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