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Iran's 1953 Coup d'Etat: 63 Years Later

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

 

Sixty three years ago, on August 15, 1953, Iranian military officers backed by U.S. and British intelligence agencies initiated a coup d'etat whose aftershocks can still be felt around the globe.

 

 

Iranian Army officers and supporters of the monarchy gather on August 27, shortly after the shah returned from a brief period of exile to reclaim power.

 

The coup toppled Iran's first democratically elected government and its popular prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, and is widely credited with fueling the hostility against the West that culminated decades later with the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

 

 

But the events that played out over a five-day period from August 15-19 reverberated far beyond Iran's borders. The coup altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, became a blueprint for a succession of covert U.S. efforts to foster coups and destabilize governments in the '50s, and provided the Soviet Union with ideological ammunition during the Cold War.

 

Soldiers clash with protesters in the streets of Tehran

 

The theory, disputed by some, was that the CIA and Britain's MI6 masterminded the coup to maintain control over Iranian oil and to prevent Tehran from falling under Soviet influence after World War II.

 

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh steps off a plane in August 1953.

 

Dr. Mossadegh played a prominent role in Iran's 1951 move to nationalize its oil industry, which had long been controlled by Britain. The decision led to a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil intended to rein in Mossadegh's government, but when that failed a secret plan was devised to oust him. In September 1951, Britain froze Iran's sterling assets and banned export of goods to Iran. It challenged the legality of the oil nationalization and took its case against Iran to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The court found in Iran's favor, but the dispute between Iran and the AIOC remained unsettled. Under United States pressure, the AIOC improved its offer to Iran.

 

 

 Parts of Mosaddegh Speech at International Court of Justice:

"...Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries… have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation… It has been asserted abroad that Iran intends to expel the foreign oil experts from the country and then shut down oil installations. Not only is this allegation absurd; it is utter invention…"

 

The replacement of Mossadegh with a handpicked prime minister, General Fazlollah Zahedi, opened the way for Iran's relatively weak shah to gain nearly absolute power within Iran's constitutional monarchy.

 

 

With strong military and economic backing from Washington, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would take on the role of autocrat until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

 

Ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh during one of his frequent interruptions of court proceedings in Tehran's military tribunal in November 1953. He was tried for treason, for which he served three years in prison. He died under house arrest in 1967.

 

Dr. Mossadegh was named "Time" magazine's Person of the Year in 1953.

 

A crowd of demonstrators tears down the sign of the Iran Party, part of Mossadegh's National Front, at its headquarters on August 19.

 

Protesters run in the streets of Tehran.

 

 

On 19 December 1953, defending himself against the treason charge, he said:

Yes, my sin — my greater sin and even my greatest sin is that I nationalized Iran's oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world's greatest empire. This at the cost to myself, my family; and at the risk of losing my life, my honor and my property. With God's blessing and the will of the people, I fought this savage and dreadful system of international espionage and colonialism .... I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.

 

 

On 21 December 1953, he was sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to three years' solitary confinement in a military prison. He was kept under house arrest at his Ahmadabad residence, until his death, on 5 March 1967.

 

 

In response, the Soviet Union escalated its own activities in the region, providing aid and arms to governments in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and a host of other states in the Middle East and North Africa.

 

 

Kinzer, an award-winning journalist who teaches at Boston University, says the Iranian coup was a milestone for the upstart CIA, which was established in 1947. He says the 1953 coup, which was the agency's first major successful overthrow of a foreign government, became a template for the future.

 

 

"Had the Iran operation not succeeded, the idea of covert operations that became such an integral part of American foreign policy during the 1950s and beyond might not have seemed so appealing," he says.

 


Soldiers surround the parliament building on August 19.

 

Following the 1953 coup in Iran, the CIA orchestrated the successful Guatemalan coup one year later, failed to oust Syria's president in 1957; and suffered a black eye backing the unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba in 1961.

 

 

For decades, the United States denied playing any part in the Iranian coup. But that position ended in 2009 when President Barack Obama acknowledged Washington's role.

 

 

In Britain, meanwhile, the government-funded BBC provided details in 2011 of how it broadcast anti-Mossadegh programs to undermine his government.

 

 

Secret files and memoirs of CIA operatives show that the CIA played a pivotal role in initiating and planning Operation Ajax, as the covert operation to oust Mossadegh was called.

 



Dr. Mossadegh Tomb in Ahmad Abad - Iran

 

*Photo Credit: AFP, Wikipedia, ISNA, RFERL, AP, TIMES,...

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