The 1953 Iranian Coup


by Jack R. Johnson

If you want to understand the destruction of Iran’s democracy more than half a century ago, you need to “follow the money”, as the old reporter adage has it, or, modified somewhat for the Middle East, follow the oil.

You could begin with a British gentleman named William Knox D’Arcy who contrived to cut a deal with the Iranian monarchy in 1908. According to Stephen Kinzer writing in Tom Dispatch, the terms of the deal were wildly lopsided and simplistic, “D’Arcy was to own whatever oil he found in Iran and pay the government just 16% of any profits he made — never allowing any Iranian to review his accounting. After his first strike in 1908, he became sole owner of the entire ocean of oil that lies beneath Iran’s soil. No one else was allowed to drill for, refine, extract, or sell ‘Iranian’ oil.”

“Soon afterward, the British government bought the D’Arcy concession, which it named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or APOC, later to be named Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or AIOC. It then built the world’s biggest refinery at the port of Abadan on the Persian Gulf.”

After World War II, in an era which sought to shrug off colonial yokes, Iran wanted rights to its own oil.  On April 28, 1951, the Iranian Parliament elected Mohammad Mossadegh as prime minister on a platform of “oil nationalization”. Days later, Iran unanimously approved his bill, nationalizing the British oil company.

As Kinzer noted, “to the British, nationalization seemed, at first, like some kind of immense joke, a step so absurdly contrary to the unwritten rules of the world that it could hardly be real.”

The directors of AIOC stonewalled while the British government took a series of steps meant to punish Mossadegh economically.

“They withdrew their technicians from Abadan, blockaded the port, cut off exports of vital goods to Iran, froze the country’s hard-currency accounts in British banks, and tried to win anti-Iran resolutions from the U.N. and the World Court,” writes Kinzer. Finally, the British, under Winston Churchill turned to Washington and asked for help.”

For those paying attention, those economic ‘sanctions’ might sound similar to the measures the U.S. is taking against Iran today.

Back in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, encouraged by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, enlisted the CIA to help overthrow Mossadegh and install the previous ruler Shah Reza Pahlavi who was seen as more compliant to Western concerns (i.e., willing to abide by outrageously lopsided oil contracts).  In fairness, the Shah initially opposed the coup plans, and supported the oil nationalization, but The CIA sent Major General “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. to persuade the exiled Shah to return to rule Iran. The Shah agreed to the coup after being informed by the CIA that he too would be “deposed” if he didn’t play along.

The Operation was called Ajax in the U.S. and Operation Boot by the British.

CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt, carried out the operation planned by CIA agent Donald Wilber.

During the coup, Roosevelt and Wilber, representatives of the Eisenhower administration—and probably with Eisenhower’s full knowledge—bribed Iranian government officials, reporters, and businessmen. They also bribed street thugs to support the Shah and oppose Mosaddegh

The next day, on August 19, 1953, with the aid of “rented” crowds arranged with CIA assistance, the coup succeeded. Iran’s nationalist hero was jailed, the monarchy restored under the Western-friendly Shah, and Anglo-Iranian oil re-branded itself as British Petroleum, or BP Amoco. General Schwarzkopf went on to train the security forces that would become known as SAVAK (The Western acronym for Sazman-e Etelaat Va Amniat Keshvar, which translated from Persian means the Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Country) to secure the Shah’s hold on power for the next two decades.

SAVAK was brutal. It had the power to censor the media, screen applicants for government jobs, and “according to reliable Western sources, use all means necessary, including torture, to hunt down dissidents.” The Federation of American Scientists found SAVAK guilty of “the torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners.” The FAS list of SAVAK torture methods included “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails”

After 1963, the Shah expanded SAVAK to over 5,300 full-time agents and a large but unknown number of part-time informers. Estimates are that some 10,000 dissidents were either killed or tortured in its wake.

The authoritarian rule fanned the flames of anti-Western sentiment, which reached a crescendo in 1979 with the final overthrow of the Shah, and the creation of the Islamic Republic to counter the West, the “Great Satan.” Operation Ajax, dreamed up in 1953 to control Iranian oil, and its subsequent profits, led directly to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the bitterly anti-Western regime that has been in control of Iran ever since.

Years ago, a famous cartoon character named Pogo had this to say about foreign adventures—which still rings true today: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

About CharlesM 302 Articles
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