Iran has always played a pivotal role in world politics. It was once a world-class empire, it is strategically located at a crossroad between Europe, the Near East, and Asia, and it has the world's second largest petroleum reserves. In the 18th and 19th Century, it was the battleground between imperial rivals Russia and Britain in what came to be known as "The Great Game". In both World Wars, Iran held a strategic position and was pivotal to the Allies' victory. In 1951, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) controlled Iranian petroleum production. Little of the company's profits went to Iran and the AIOC's Iranian workers were severely mistreated and underpaid. On April 30, 1951, everything changed. The Iranian parliament, with the support of Prime Minister Mossadeq, voted to nationalize Iran's oil. The following years would change Iran, America, and the world forever.
In Stephen Kinzer's book All the Shah's Men, the author prefaces the book with the discourse of an Iranian woman,
'Why did you Americans do that terrible thing?' she cried out. 'We always loved America. To us, America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries exploited us. But after that moment, no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. I can tell you for sure that if you had not done that thing, you would never have had the problem of hostages being taken in your embassy in Tehran. All your trouble started in 1953. Why, why did you do it? '
This woman's statement gives us a glimpse of Iranian sentiment regarding American involvement in the 1953 Coup, codenamed Operation Ajax; an event that to this day few Americans know about. Are her statements accurate? Did the United States really destroy a democracy? Examining her claim will show that her views hold some truth, and that her sentiments reflect a deep resentment among Iranians. This examination will summarize the Iranian-American interactions that culminated in Operation Ajax, examine the effects of the 1953 Coup, and determine that the Coup was detrimental to Iranian-American relations; specifically, the Coup hurt American credibility, resulted in anti-American sentiment, and directly led to the Hostage Crisis of 1979.
A Brief Look at the 1953 Coup
In 1950, Iran's economy was in a state of depression. Contrarily, the flourishing Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was pumping oil from Iranian soil with the help of Iranian workers, yet it was the United Kingdom who benefited the most. The company paid the British government more in income taxes than it paid Iran in royalties. According to Pollack, "[The AIOC] lied and manipulated its books to underpay the Iranian government to the tune of billions of dollars … violated the terms of the 1933 concession … paid [workers] 50 cents per day … [while workers had] no vacation, no sick leave, and no disability compensation. " The anger and resentment over the AIOC, as well as Mohammad Reza Shah's attempts to centralize authority in his hands led to the establishment of the National Front.
The National Front's confrontations with the Shah, and later the British government, led to the American involvement in Iran that culminated in the events of August 1953. There were two different presidential administrations in America during the time period of the National Front, and while these administrations held the same ideology, they undertook different policies towards Iran. The Truman administration's black-and-white image of the Cold War led to its support of the National Front and Mossadeq's efforts. He was worried that British demands would lead to the Iranians turning to the Communists for help. Furthermore, Truman recognized that the National Front was a nationalist movement, a not a Communist movement. This mentality led to closer relations between Iran and the United States during this period of the Nationalization Crisis, including defensive pacts, monetary aid, and more pressure American on the British government to compromise with the Iranians.
In 1950, ARAMCO, an American oil conglomeration, agreed to a 50-50 profit split between it and the Saudi government. At this point, the Iranian parliament, known was the Majles, attempted to workout a compromise with the British. The British refused. This refusal, coupled with ARAMCO's deal, eliminated any moderate solution and led to the drive for nationalization, resulting in the Majles's nationalization legislation, which was passed on April 30, 1951.
The British were furious. Their government plotted attacks as well as a coup attempt in Iran, but the Americans once again stepped in supporting the Iranian cause, as fears grew that a British invasion would lead to a similar Russian invasion. Yet, regardless of America's pro-nationalist stance, Mossadeq denounced any American intervention in Iranian affairs.
Britain then attempted to take the nationalization issue to the United Nations. Mossadeq's speech to the world community in defense of his actions was compelling and he won the admiration of the American people and the United Nations. The United Nations declared then that the nationalization crisis was an internal issue. This was one of Mossadeq's greatest victories. Yet the British felt humiliated and were still unwilling to compromise.
At this point, an internal power struggle in Iran led to Mossadeq's de facto control of the government, and the Shah's defeat and escape to Rome. It was now that the British attempted a compromise, but Mossadeq was unwilling, making him seem stubborn, particularly in the eyes of newly elected President Eisenhower.
One of the turning points of this conflict came with Eisenhower's inauguration as President of the United States. Mossadeq thought that Eisenhower would be even more sympathetic to his cause, but he was mistaken. Eisenhower also took a black-and-white approach to the Cold War, much like Truman, but the discrepancy can best be summarized by the phrase, "you're either with us, or against us." As far as John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State (whose brother, Allen Dulles was the head of the Central Intelligence Agency) and President Eisenhower were concerned, Mossadeq was against them. Initially, Eisenhower was sympathetic to Mossadeq, but Secretary Dulles convinced him otherwise. The issue was exacerbated by Mossadeq's threat to side with the Soviets if the British-Iranian dispute were not resolved.
On August 15, 1953, the CIA, operating from the American Embassy in Tehran, underwent its first operation: Operation Ajax. The undertaking sought to depose Mossadeq and re-install the Shah as the autocratic leader of Iran's government. Through the dispersion of money and the gathering of crowds, the operation was successful, and Mossadeq was defeated.
The Myth of the 1953 Coup
"At a time when America is telling the world its aims are to bring democracy to the whole plant, the Mossadeq era proves all of America's protestations to be a long lie." – An Iranian Blogger
Many Iranians denounce America's involvement in the 1953 Coup, but did the event destroy a democracy and is the United States to blame?
First, it is important to note that Mossadeq had a near autocracy during his rule. After the deposition of the Shah, Mossadeq was given near-autocratic powers by the Iranian Majles. Second, the United States had previously made efforts to help the Iranians, but Mossadeq seemed unwilling to reciprocate. Finally, it was Iranians who carried out the Coup with CIA support; it was not an exclusively American undertaking; there was then a great deal of disaffection with Mossadeq in Iran, particularly among Iran's political elite. In terms of CIA involvement, the Americans only used $ 100,000 and British intelligence to engineer the Coup.
Mossadeq was certainly not a perfect leader. He possessed many character flaws that hurt his cause. His antics may have been received with favor in Iran, but internationally, they made him a spectacle and a laughing stock. Mossadeq also became increasingly isolated and trusted no one, particularly his fellow Iranians. This led to his denouncement of those who voiced any opposition to his plan as traitors and British conspirators, thereby deepening his opposition base. Mossadeq was also uncompromising; he was unwilling to broker a 50-50 deal with the British, a deal which Truman appealed to Mossadeq to accept. His inflexibility particularly after this incident led Eisenhower and his administration to believe that the only solution to the Mossadeq situation was to depose Mossadeq and place a more easily influenced leader in Iran.
While there is a great deal of evidence and claims that the Coup was not solely fueled by the CIA, the organization did act as a catalyst and was responsible for placing the Shah in power after Mossadeq's fall. Keddie states that "the coup could not have succeeded without significant internal disaffection or indifference, but without outside aid it would not have occurred." The CIA unified Mossadeq's opposition and armed them with money and information, allowing the Coup to take shape. As opposed to restoring power to the Iranian parliament after the Coup, the CIA supported a more malleable figure: the Shah, thus guaranteeing that Iran would become an authoritarian state. This later came to be seen as evidence that America did not want democracy for the Middle East, but rather wanted to control the region.
Regardless of the truths and myths of the Coup, the sentiments of the Iranian people determined the event's impact on Iranian-American relations. Neither the realities nor the actualities of the events of August 1953 matter when dealing with such an emotional issue. While many argue that it was not solely the actions of the CIA that led to Mossadeq's toppling, the myth and political folklore created from the event tell a different tale. Many Iranians regard Mossadeq as "an uncorrupted modernizer and democrat who defied the imperialists." Iranians also conclude that Iran would be a democracy today were it not for the events of 1953. While the idea seems far-fetched, as Mossadeq was a near autocrat during his rule, he was still democratically elected and his powers were derived from the Iranian parliament. The emotional nature of the incident led to the status of Mossadeq as a martyr and a symbol of American treachery. Among the burgeoning Iranian blogs, many place pictures of Mossadeq without any text on significant dates associated with the popular leader as a show of morning over a lost opportunity. The caption of one blogger read, "In honor of Dr, Mossadeq, a man who never betrayed his own people …"
The Legacy of the Coup
"… Operation Ajax has left a haunting and terrible legacy." – Stephen Kinzer
The Coup has had many repercussions on American-Iranian relations, reaching from anti-American ideological positions to historical occurrences, such as the Hostage Crisis.
The ideological products of the 1953 Coup include anti-Americanism and an obsession with foreign intervention in Iran. The ideologies did appear before the Coup, but they were strongly reinforced and solidified by the events of August 1953.
First, the anti-Americanism found in the Iranian Revolution and during the Shah's time can be attributed to the actions of the CIA and the Coup's placement of the Shah as despot of Iran. While it is important to acknowledge that the British were involved in the Coup, not only did the Iranians think very little of the British, but also the United States was "seen as a betrayer and not just an old enemy." Prior to the Coup, the United States was very popular in Iran. But because the Americans were responsible for the Shah's dictatorship and for supporting him throughout his reign, the blame for the Shah's actions fell on America. The Shah thereby became a symbol of America's intervention in Iranian affairs. The conspiracy theories that Iranians had perpetuated turned out to have truth behind them: "… the United States did help to overthrow Mossadeq, and it was culpable in the establishment of the despotism of Mohammad Reza Shah that succeeded him." The event led to a lot speculation about how Iran would have been without Mossadeq's removal. It became commonplace for Iranians to claim that were it not for the 1953 Coup perpetrated by the Americans, Iran would be a flourishing democracy, an economic powerhouse, and even an American ally. Furthermore, the Shah's atrocious repression of any opposition, as well as his corruption are blamed largely on the United States. The Shah's actions were so horrific that in 1976, Amnesty International stated "no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran." In 1977, Jimmy Carter came to Iran supported the Shah, proclaiming that Iran is "an island of tranquility in a sea of turbulence." America's support of the Shah regardless of his actions was a sore point that Iranians did not forget.
Second, the Iranian focus on imperialist intervention can be attributed to Mossadeq's obsession with foreign involvement in Iranian affairs. The Coup proved the presence of foreign collusion in Iran, an obsession that would blind politicians and Iranians from the political and economic woes of Iran. The paranoia it created acted as a unifying force against the meddling foreigners, particularly the US and Britain. While Iranians had previously held such ideas, the Coup confirmed those notions. Furthermore, the events of 1953 taught Iranians that taking an extreme position would be the most successful method of action. Even though Mossadeq's extreme position led to his downfall, he achieved the status of a martyr, being even more popular after his downfall than before. Khomeini adopted this technique during the Revolution of 1978-79.
The historical products of the 1953 Coup are key to Iranian-American relations. Much of the anti-American and anti-Western activities carried out by Iranians before and after the Revolution can be attributed to what is seen as America's act of betrayal. Specifically, the 1953 Coup is responsible for the Hostage Crisis. The hostage-takers' capture of the American Embassy in Tehran was an attempt to stop history from repeating itself, as the 1953 Coup's base of operations was the American Embassy. The Iranian students who stormed the Embassy did not want to be subject to further actions against their best interest. Massoumeh Ebtekar, the spokesperson for the hostage takers said, "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 to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it was to be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible. " The students who stormed the embassy allegedly had copies of the memoirs of Kermit Roosevelt's (a key operative of the Coup) called Countercoup during the time of the hostage-taking. Furthermore, the students also believed that the hostages could be held as collateral to insure that the Americans would not engage in another coup attempt. The Coup's creation of the Hostage Crisis showed the lasting impacts of August 1953.
Operation Ajax initiated a shockwave that changed the Iranian landscape greatly. The deeply rooted anti-American sentiment of the past and of the present is fueled by the 1953 Coup, and the Hostage Crisis was a direct attempt to stop a repeat of Operation Ajax. The installment of the pro-American Shah following the Coup may have seemed to create stability in the Middle East, but in the long run, a deep-rooted distrust of Americans was created; a distrust that is proving hard to overcome.
"Operation Ajax taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants there that the world's most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and Western oil companies. That helped tilt the political balance in a vast region away from freedom and toward dictatorship "- Stephen Kinzer
In All the Shah's Men, Stephen Kinzer gave a review of what a handful of American historians said regarding the Coup. Mark Gasiorowksi said, "US complicity in [the Coup] figured prominently … in the anti-American character of 1978-79 revolution, and in the many anti-American incidents that emanated from Iran after the revolution, including … the embassy hostage crisis. " Mary Ann Heiss stated that the Coup showed the United States' lack of interest in what is best for Iranians. Keddie stated, "… However exaggerated and paranoid some charges by Iranians may be, suspiciousness and hostility have their roots in real and important occurrences."
Indeed, the American deposition of one of Iran's most popular figures, and Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1951 (beating out the likes of Winston Churchill, President Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower), provides evidence of the self-advancing position of the United States and the disinclination towards policies that would benefit the people of the world.
It is important to take some lessons from the 1953 Coup. For one, foreign intervention in internal affairs rarely produces positive effects; it destroys the credibility of foreign governments and further pushes a country into isolation. A regional or global hegemony must be mindful of the people's perceptions of its actions. What one government may declare as the only rational option, others may consider a gross injustice.
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