by Timothy Chilman
Early in the 20th century, the weak and ineffectual Mozzafar-ad-Din Shah Qajar, ruler of Persia, was troubled.
Declining revenues and royal extravagance caused financial woes. The Shah rapidly exhausted two large loans from Russia, partly on travel to Europe. Secret revolutionary societies sprang up. Widespread strikes and other protests aroused the fear that the military would join the opposition, requiring concession. On August 5, 1906, the Shah signed the Electoral Law of Persia, creating an elected parliament, the Majlis. On December 30 1906, five days before his death, he signed the Fundamental Law of Persia to give the country a constitution resembling those of France and Belgium.
The 33 articles of the Electoral Law and the 51 articles of the Fundamental law created an executive following the French example but with the monarch as head of state. These laws provided for checks and balances, separation of powers and a bicameral legislature, a considerable leap in the direction of freedom and democracy.
Millionaire London socialite William Knox D’Arcy led the wildcatting British Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s Persian expedition. Conditions were harsh: “Small pox raged, bandits and warlords ruled, water was all but unavailable, and temperatures often soared past 50°C.” In 1908, oil was discovered shortly after Knox had issued orders to wind-up the operation. A payoff to the Shah of GBP20,000, shares and a promise of 16% of future profits secured a 60 year arrangement making APOC the only company drilling for or extracting oil in Iran. The British government purchased 51% of APOC in 1914. Persia was re-named Iran in 1935, and APOC became AIOC.
During the Second World War, the next Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi, aligned with Germany, endangering British supply lines. An Anglo-Soviet invasion, Operation Countenance to the British, followed the Shah’s suspension of constitutional rule. He was overthrown and replaced by his son, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi.
British troops and a Soviet armored car in Iran
Iran was the world’s second-largest exporter of crude oil and possessed the world’s largest oil reserve outside of Saudi Arabia and Canada. Iran was the source of all Britain’s oil, which powered the Royal Navy’s projection of British power to every corner of the world, as well as trucks and factories. APOC reported after-tax profits of $112 in 1947, of which $19.6 million was paid to the Iranian government. APOC withheld payment when its demands went unmet. Oil was sold to Iran at inflated prices. The company reneged on obligations on a regular basis, for instance to give its workers better pay, more schools, telephones and roads. The International Labor Organization reported that Iranian laborers’ working conditions were unacceptable.
Renegotiation of the APOC concession was led by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, a lawyer, professor, author and member of parliament. A graduate of universities in Iran, France and Switzerland, he held a PhD in law. Even his enemies recognized his scrupulous honesty. In 1950, he was elected chairman of the government’s Oil Committee, which rejected a proposal by APOC offering better terms but not an even split. In 1951, APOC acquiesced to a 50/50 division, too late to forestall nationalization of the company on 8 March. Aged 69, Mossadegh was overwhelmingly elected Prime Minister by Majles deputies in April 1951. After selecting a cabinet, his first act was to enforce the Oil Nationalization Bill. Iran assumed control of the AIOC refinery at Abadan, largest in the world and supplier of 43% of Europe’s petroleum intake. British technicians departed the country, sometimes damaging refineries on exit. Oil production in Iran virtually halted and the economy declined precipitously. Only Italy and Japan continued to purchase Iranian oil. But Mossadegh was a hero. He toured the US and was named Time magazine’s person of the year.
Britain responded with an embargo on the purchase of oil from Iran, and pressured its allies for sympathetic action. In September, Britain froze Iran’s sterling assets and forbade the export of goods to the country. The US administration declined to lend Iran money pending resolution and worked to ensure enforcement of the embargo. Britain took its case to the recently-created International Court of Justice at the Hague in Holland and the United Nations Security Council in New York. Muscles were flexed. Britain’s Navy was mobilized and paratroopers dispatched to Cyprus.
Mossadegh defended Iran in both settings. The Security Council postponed a draft resolution until the Court of Justice had passed judgment, but the Soviet Union and China were unlikely to acquiesce. Initially, the Court granted an injunction, but on July 22 1952 it ruled the case outside its jurisdiction: it was not an inter-state dispute, but one between a private company and a government.
Britain decided Mossadegh must be removed. A thwarted coup attempt led to severance of diplomatic ties by Iran. British intelligence officials jolted their US counterparts by suggesting Mossadegh’s removal in meetings in November and December.. The Americans “had not intended to discuss this question at all,” but agreed to consider the proposal.
The outgoing administration of President Truman sympathized with Iran. The administration of Eisenhower didn’t. Electoral speeches by Eisenhower and his later secretary of State John Foster Dulles portrayed Truman as soft on communism and declared an intention to not merely contain communism, but roll it back. They couldn’t attack the Soviet Union or China directly, and needed an easier target. Britain sought to energize the US by saying communism was on the rise in Iran.
In a meeting, Eisenhower asked Dulles about Mossadegh, and Dulles replied that Mossadegh was not a communist but could easily be deposed by communists, and it was best to get things over with as soon as possible.
In 1946, the well-organized Tudeh (“masses”) communist party summoned tens of thousands of demonstrators on May Day. It proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Azerbaijan” in northern Iran, to be aborted by the appearance of gendarmes in Tabriz, the regional capital. Tudeh was banned after an attempt on the Shah’s life on 4 February 1949. A May 1952 secret intelligence report by the US State Department was confident that “while Mossadegh remains in power, it is safe to rule out a Communist coup”. A second report of January 1953 concurred.
In March 1953, the Shah attempted to have Mossadegh killed, but Mossadegh received warning and the plan failed. That same month, an army officer approached Tehran’s US Embassy seeking support for an army-led coup d’état. In June, American and British intelligence officers met in Beirut to finalize the plan, christened Operation Ajax. Dulles said, “So this is how we will get rid of the madman Mossadeq in Iran”. Eisenhower authorized the plan on July 11. In charge was the chief of the CIA’s Near East and Asia Division, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even three years before Jim Henson coined the term “muppet”, Roosevelt preferred to be known as Kim.
In July, the US president’s representative, diplomat Averell Harriman, visited Tehran to mediate between the British and Iranian governments. Many scholars believe a massive demonstration supposedly organized by the Tudeh party was in fact whipped up by agent provocateurs under CIA hired hands Ali Jalali and Faruq Kayvani. The demonstration represented a strong communist presence requiring swift remedy. On his return to Washington, Harriman said of the AIOC that he had “never known a company where the absentee management was so malignant.” But he was also convinced that Mossadegh couldn’t withstand a Soviet takeover.
CIA and British SIS officers met the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, in the French Riviera to persuade her to return to Iran and ensure the Shah’s compliance. Ashraf, described by the CIA as “forceful and scheming”, was deeply unpopular in Iran. Her arrival in Iran triggered energetic protest. The Shah, enraged by her unauthorized return, initially refused to see her. A palace staff member, a British agent, allowed Ashraf to enter the Shah’s palace on July 29.
Operation Ajax aimed to replace Mossadegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi. This represented a change of fortune for Zahedi, who tried to organize a tribal uprising to accompany a possible German thrust into Iran during the Second World War. SIS kidnapped him and interned him in a prison in Palestine. In April 1953, General Mahmoud Afshartus, the chief of Tehran police, was kidnapped and murdered by associates of Zahedi. British and US intelligence are both thought to have played a part.
In Iran, the CIA had a network of over a hundred agents, codenamed BEDAMN, funded by $1 million of the annual $82 million spent by the CIA on covert operations worldwide. BEDAMN prepared anti-communist books, leaflets, cartoons and newspaper articles. Disruptive and provocative acts against businesses and clergymen were staged and blamed on communists. Anti-communist movements such as the Toilers and Pan-Iranist Parties arose. Mob violence was organized by such esteemed figures as notorious gang leader Sha’ban “the Brainless” Ja’far, who owned a zurkbaneh, a traditional Iranian sports club. Money was given to clergymen who would denounce the Soviet Union and Tudeh. Threatening ‘phone calls were made to religious figures, instructing them to support Mossadegh or face punishment. Mosques and the homes of religious leaders were bombed so they wouldn’t value Mossadegh’s protection.
Mossadegh was accused of favoring the Tudeh Party and the Soviet Union and portrayed as an
enemy off Islam as a result. Falsified documents supported this. Rumors were spread that Mossadegh was Jewish and that he wished to become Shah. A leading newspaper proprietor received a personal loan of approximately $45,000 to secure his publications’ cooperation. In the US, Newsweek ran a story planted by the CIA entitled Iran, Reds….taking over. One CIA officer disclosed in an interview that the agency “…placed a cartoon in Iranian newspapers in the fall of 1952 suggesting that Mossadegh was sexually molesting [house speaker Ayatollah] Kashani”.
Iran had genuine, severe problems. The government was unable to fully pay civil servants’ salaries. Neither consumer nor industrial goods could be imported. That layer of the ruling class whose interests lay in continued US and UK domination became restive. On the other hand, Mossadegh’s supporters included intellectuals (munavvar al-fikran), students, artisans, retailers, and middle merchants. Further up the food chain, his support encompassed big businessmen, especially in the import/export sector, the aristocracy, big landlords, upper echelon clerics, and speculators. Some supporters, however, were US or British agents.
Much was made of Mossadegh’s habits of weeping publicly, complaining of ill health and doing business in his pajamas. Plagued by ill-health throughout his life, he had to return from university in Paris due to illness in 1909. He often experienced severe fatigue, sometimes requiring hospitalization. Like Proust, he often worked from his bed, for instance making speeches to the Majiles from his bed, which had been brought into the chambers. He was often photographed meeting dignitaries clad in pajamas.
Wary of endangering his throne, the Shah refused to sign royal decrees written for him by the CIA. Roosevelt met with him repeatedly. Per the CIA’s official history of the coup, the Shah “stated that he was not an adventurer, and hence, could not take the chances of one”. The Shah asked for President Eisenhower’s guidance. Addressing the governors’ convention in Seattle on 4 August, Eisenhower “deviated from his script to state by implication that the United States would not sit by idly and see Iran fall behind the Iron Curtain.”
On August 15, the coup activated, but was compromised by the remarks of an army officer. General Taghi Riahi, Mossadegh’s chief of staff, learned of the plot hours before it was to commence and dispatched his deputy to the Imperial Guard’s barracks. The deputy was arrested and ‘phone lines between government and army offices cut. The telephone exchange was occupied. Telephones, however, remained functional, giving Mossadegh’s supporters a crucial advantage. General Zahedi’s most senior aide fled upon seeing tanks and soldiers loyal to Mossadegh at army headquarters.
The CIA despaired and twice ordered Roosevelt to leave Tehran. Believing there was still “a slight remaining chance of success,“ he remained. Thinking the danger had passed, Mossadegh dissolved parliament, ordered his people to stay at home, and recalled most of his troops,
On August 16, the Shah violated Iran’s constitution by signing a “firman” dismissing Mossadegh and his cabinet without parliamentary approval. Zahedi was appointed prime minister. Colonel Nemtollah Nassiri, chief of the Royal Guards, formally notified Mossadegh of his dismissal. Nassiri attempted to occupy Mossadegh’s house, but guards forced a retreat.
Many CIA agents were under arrest or fleeing. A statement by Zahedi was prepared, but was not printed because no printing press went unattended by Mossadegh supporters. While the Shah’s decrees couldn’t be publicized, the coup was still widely known and within hours riots supporting Mossadegh commenced throughout the country. The Shah fled to Italy as statues of him and his father were pulled down. Protest continued for two days.
Roosevelt used $100,000 of bribe money to persuade circus acrobats, athletes, entertainers, and others to take to the streets, and by August 19 there were 100,000 people. That day, a senior cleric went from Tehran to the holy city of Qum to call for a jihad against communism. Roosevelt convinced the military that Mossadegh was losing. Army officers used CIA-forged travel papers to visit outlying army facilities to persuade their commanders to join the coup. Tanks led by Zahedi drove through Tehran and surrounded Mossadegh’s residence. The accompanying mob included a sizable number of bribed hooligans. Fighting ensued, but the guards were overcome, and the mob entered to loot. Mossadegh’s possessions were valued at less than 30,000 Toomans, a paltry sum. His home was one of nine buildings to be burned.
The central telegraph office was seized and telegrams sent to the provinces to encourage a pro-Shah uprising. Soon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, police headquarters, and the radio station fell. A radio broadcast concerning cotton prices went off the air, followed minutes later by the announcement “The Government of Mossadegh has been defeated!”.
The Shah returned to Iran. Publicly, he said, “I believe that the overthrow of Mossadegh was the work of ordinary people of my country whose heart held a spark of divine will”. Privately, he told Roosevelt, “I owe my throne to the God, my people, my army and to you.”
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Mossadegh surrendered, wearing pajamas and leaning heavily on a yellow malacca cane, at the Tehran Officers Club on August 20. He was tried and found guilty of trying to overthrow the monarchy. His death sentence was commuted on 21 December to three years’ solitary confinement followed by house arrest. He eventually relocated to his country house in the walled village of Ahmad-Abad. He bought the village, grew crops, founded an elementary school and began a public health project. He lived there until his death, whereupon he was buried in one of the house’s rooms.
300 people had died in nine hours of street-fighting. Martial law was declared. The CIA channeled $5 million to Zahedi’s regime two days after the coup. The new government awarded oil concessions to a Western consortium. 40% of shares were owned by AIOC and 14% by Royal Dutch Shell. 40% was shared between the US companies Standard Oil, Standard Oil of California, Gulf Oil and the Texas Company. 6% went to the French companies Socony Vacuum and the Compagnie Francaise des Petroles. The government agreed to pay AIOC reparations of $70 million over ten years, but its share of oil income was to be 50%.
The Shah ruled despotically. Large, conspicuous projects were mounted and $18 billion of weapons bought from the US in the twenty years up to 1979. His secret police force was SAVAK, Sazman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat-e Keshvar, the Organization for Intelligence and National Security. It was the largest such force outside of the Warsaw Pact and was trained by General Norman Schwarzkopf, the well-known general’s father and once narrator of the radio series Gangbusters. There was much jailing, torture and killing, the latter particularly in the 1970s.
Clerics who were younger at the time of the coup, such as Sayyed Ruhollah Mostafawi Mousawi Khomeini, hadn’t supported Mossadegh because they felt he had abandoned Islam. Ayatollah Kashani had at first supported Mossadegh but split when Mossadagh wouldn’t grant him influence. He became one of the many clerical supporters of the coup after a $10,000 bribe from Roosevelt. His son was the second person to celebrate Mossadegh’s overthrow upon capture of the radio station. Khomeini and others withdrew support from the Shah over the period 1961-64, These people and their supporters came to power in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Out went SAVAK and in came VEVAK, Vezarat-e Ettela’at va Amniat-e Keshvar, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. As the Washington Post reported on June 7 1980, it had the same organizational structure and many of the same faces as its predecessor, including its head, General Hossein Fardoust, the former deputy chief of SAVAK.
Blowback is the unintended, adverse consequences of careless use of a weapon. The word first appeared in the CIA document Clandestine Service History – Overthrow of Premier Mosaddeq of Iran – November 1952 – August 1953. Written in 1954 by Donald Wilber, one of the coup’s principal planners, the document warned that blowback could result from Operation Ajax, and it came in the form of the post-revolution Iranian government. The US Embassy in Tehran, the building from which the coup was largely organized, was seized after the US granted the Shah entrance to the country.
The coup enables the Iranian leadership to dismiss any criticism as the product of external meddling. Most Iranians took an interest in politics only after the revolution, and many, many of them, particularly university students, carry Mossadegh’s picture when they protest. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw revealed that when he first met the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first thing Ahmadinejad mentioned was the coup,
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