The United States Overthrew Iran’s Last Democratic Leader
Despite a campaign of historical revisionism in Washington, the archival record makes clear that the U.S. government was the key actor in the 1953 coup that ousted Mohammad Mosaddeq—not the Iranian clergy.
Mohammad Mosaddeq is a name that evokes strong emotions in the average Iranian. A charismatic French- and Swiss-educated lawyer from an aristocratic family, Mosaddeq served two terms as prime minister of Iran from 1951, when he led the movement to nationalize the British-controlled Iranian oil industry, until August 1953, when his government was toppled by a royalist military coup backed by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
The nationalization of Iranian oil was not only a blow to Britain’s economic interests in Iran but to the very survival of the British Empire in the Middle East. While U.S. President Harry Truman encouraged British Prime Ministers Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill to compromise with Mosaddeq, even hosting the Iranian premier in Washington in October 1951, the United States eventually lost patience as Anglo-Iranian negotiations failed. Fearing that continuing crisis and instability in Iran would lead to a takeover by Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, the newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the CIA to topple Mosaddeq in 1953.
The coup transformed Iran’s constitutional monarchy, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into a royal dictatorship that was later toppled in a popular revolution in 1979. For most Iranians, Mosaddeq remains an evocative national hero because of his staunch defense of Iran’s sovereignty over its most vital national resource—oil—in the face of the declining British Empire’s stubborn refusal to let go of an extremely valuable overseas asset. For many liberal Iranians who still dream of a democratic Iran, he also remains a symbol of civic nationalism and constitutionalism because of his demand that the shah should reign but not rule.
The lingering trauma of 1953 is powerfully evoked in Taghi Amirani’s new documentary film, Coup 53. Amirani’s film builds on the research that went into the 1985 End of Empire documentary series for British television, revealing tantalizing details about the role of the SIS in the coup. In the Paris basement of Mosaddeq’s grandson, Amirani discovered the transcript of an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the SIS officer who helped devise the coup plan, that was mysteriously cut from the 1985 broadcast.
With Darbyshire played by Ralph Fiennes, Amirani reenacts the interview in which the former British spy candidly admits his role in the coup, including the April 1953 murder of Gen. Mahmud Afshartus, the pro-Mosaddeq chief of police. The British played a crucial but supporting role to the Americans in the 1953 coup—and they are not keen to draw attention to their actions. Indeed, they have never officially acknowledged their role, unlike the Americans, and have been quite happy for Washington to take the blame.
The release of Amirani’s film this fall, with its narrative of Anglo-American culpability for the 1953 coup, is a powerful riposte to a handful of U.S. and Iranian politicians, academics, think tankers, and pundits who have recently been using and abusing history to absolve the United States of responsibility for toppling Mosaddeq—a form of official historical revisionism that has reached the highest levels of the U.S. government in the midst of Washington’s current maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
On May 8, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, blamed Mosaddeq’s downfall on domestic Iranian actors at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This was despite the fact that Hook’s own State Department published a long-overdue volume of the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series in 2017 that was full of declassified CIA documents confirming the United States’ covert role in the coup.
Hook claimed that these documents demonstrated that Mosaddeq was overthrown by a coalition of Iranian actors, including Iran’s Shiite Muslim clergy, thereby eliding the CIA’s central role in recruiting, mobilizing, and coordinating these Iranian coup plotters. He pinned the blame for Mosaddeq’s downfall on Iran’s clergy: “The current religious leaders don’t want to remind people that the religious establishment at the time supported his overthrow,” Hook told the audience.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit back on the 66th anniversary of the coup in August, drawing parallels between the Trump administration’s current maximum pressure sanctions policy against Iran and the Anglo-American efforts in 1953 to overthrow Mosaddeq, despite the Islamic Republic’s discomfort with the memory of Mosaddeq as a symbol of secular Iranian nationalism.
Few professional historians take seriously Hook’s argument that the United States played no role or a marginal one in toppling Mosaddeq. In fact, the CIA’s covert operation to topple Mosaddeq, codenamed TPAJAX, was one of the worst-kept secrets of the Cold War. Just days after the coup, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, Loy Henderson, reported to Washington a “widespread” rumor in Tehran that the United States was behind the fall of Mosaddeq. Associates of Iran’s new post-coup prime minister, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, had reportedly been saying that Iran was “deeply indebted to [the] Americans” for the success of their efforts.
For decades, both Britain and the United States publicly denied their roles in the 1953 coup so as not to embarrass the shah or endanger their close political and economic ties with Iran. With the overthrow of the shah in 1979, U.S. and British intelligence officers published memoirs, as detailed by the historian Shiva Balaghi, boasting of their roles in toppling Mosaddeq.
Nonetheless, it was not until March 2000, in the midst of a brief detente between Iran and the United States, that then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright officially acknowledged that the “United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq.” She described the coup as “a setback for Iran’s political development” and empathized with Iranians who “continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
Coincidentally, a few weeks later, the New York Times published a classified CIA history of the coup that provided extensive details on TPAJAX. This history leaves no doubt that the CIA played a key role in the coup—planning, financing, and orchestrating the various Iranians who carried it out. The U.S. government has never officially acknowledged the validity of this history. But in August 2013, the CIA officially declassified a document acknowledging its own role in the coup.
While the CIA documents that have been declassified in the last few years held few surprises for professional historians, the historical reality of the U.S. role in the coup is an inconvenient truth for opponents of the Islamic Republic in the United States who advocate regime change in Tehran.
Iranian monarchists who support the exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, worry that these documents refute the monarchist narrative that the 1953 coup was a popular so-called national uprising in support of the shah and expose the crisis of legitimacy that engulfed the monarchy after the foreign-backed coup.
Meanwhile, current U.S. advocates of regime change in Iran fear that these documents support Iran’s legitimate grievance that the United States violated Iran’s national sovereignty during the Cold War. These opponents of the Islamic Republic, both American and Iranian, worry that if the U.S. public is made to feel guilty about the CIA intervention in Iran in 1953, they may be less likely to support another U.S. intervention in Iran today.
These opponents of Iran’s current government have responded with a revisionist history—put forward by writers such as the retired Pahlavi-era Iranian diplomat, Darioush Bayandor, and the former U.S. State Department official and current Council on Foreign Relations fellow, Ray Takeyh—that largely absolves the United States of responsibility for the coup and instead blames the downfall of Mosaddeq on Iran’s Shiite clergy, thereby weaponizing the history of 1953 against the clerical rulers of today’s Islamic Republic.
Takeyh rejects the notion that the United States bears primary responsibility for Mossadeq’s downfall. He describes this as a “mythology” that has been “promoted by Iran’s theocratic leaders, who have exploited it to stoke anti-Americanism and to obscure the fact that the clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq.”
Instead, Takeyh argues that “the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant” and that “Mosaddeq was bound to fall” because he had “turned into a populist demagogue” who alienated his allies and refused to compromise with the British because of his “intransigence.”
Based on a deeply flawed and highly selective reading of the available evidence, Takeyh has set himself the task of denying the Islamic Republic the “moral high ground” on the history of 1953, which gives Tehran “an unearned advantage over Washington and the West, even in situations that have nothing to do with 1953 and in which Iran’s behavior is the sole cause of the conflict, such as the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.”
This revisionist history has become a powerful weapon in the hands of the Islamic Republic’s opponents because the enduring popularity of Mosaddeq is inconvenient for Iran’s clerical rulers. Mosaddeq was a secular liberal democrat who steadfastly refused to abolish the monarchy in favor of a republic. Within Iran, the official narrative has tried to credit Ayatollah Abolqassem Kashani, a populist cleric who initially supported Mosaddeq and then broke with him to support the shah, as the leader of the oil nationalization movement.
It is uncomfortable for the Islamic Republic to remember and commemorate a secular liberal icon like Mosaddeq. His legacy and his nonreligious brand of Iranian nationalism remain so distasteful to Iran’s Islamic rulers that until 2018 they could not tolerate having a single street named after him in the country’s capital. If the revisionists can pin the blame for Mosaddeq’s downfall on the Shiite clergy of the 1950s, so the thinking goes, then they might be able to use Mosaddeq’s ongoing popularity to mobilize Iranians against their clerical rulers today.
Putting these various politicized historical narratives aside, the documents and memoirs that are now available to historians leave no doubt that the United States played a crucial role in the 1953 coup. CIA personnel, working with their British counterparts, planned and financed the coup; selected its nominal leader, Zahedi; and persuaded the shah to support the coup and appoint Zahedi as Mosaddeq’s successor.
A CIA team led by Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, organized the military units that provided muscle and backbone for the coup. The CIA team also directed two large networks of Iranian agents that carried out key elements of the covert operation, including an elaborate effort to undermine Mosaddeq in the months before the coup with propaganda and political action.
After an initial coup attempt failed on the night of Aug. 15-16, Roosevelt’s team used these assets first to undermine Mosaddeq by fomenting chaos in Tehran for several days and then deploying military units and crowds on Aug. 19, seizing control of Tehran and forcing Mosaddeq into hiding. Mosaddeq surrendered the following day to the U.S.-backed forces.
The United States certainly did not act alone in overthrowing Mosaddeq. Britain organized an oil embargo and imposed economic sanctions on Iran soon after Mosaddeq became prime minister, damaging Iran’s economy. British intelligence officers also worked tirelessly to undermine Mosaddeq with covert operations throughout his time in office. These actions undoubtedly weakened Mosaddeq, but they had failed to dislodge him from power by October 1952, when he broke diplomatic relations with Britain.
British officials then helped to plan and finance the August 1953 coup and contributed one of the two covert networks of Iranian agents mentioned above. But British personnel had been withdrawn from Iran in October 1952 and therefore did not play any direct role in the August 1953 coup or the covert political activity of the preceding months.
Various Iranians also contributed to the coup. The shah issued royal decrees before the coup dismissing Mosaddeq and appointing Zahedi to replace him. He then fled to Baghdad and later Rome after the initial coup attempt failed. These actions gave the coup a constitutional façade and helped turn Iranian military personnel and civilian officials against Mosaddeq.
The shah had initially opposed a coup. He agreed to issue the decrees only after weeks of pressure from a series of U.S. intermediaries and only after Roosevelt threatened to proceed without him. Zahedi and his immediate allies also contributed to the coup. However, like the shah, they acted under U.S. leadership.
Indeed, Zahedi spent most of the period from Aug. 16-19 hiding in the U.S. Embassy and a CIA safehouse. No credible evidence has emerged that Zahedi and his allies organized the military units and crowds that acted on Aug. 19. While many of the military personnel and members of these crowds undoubtedly acted voluntarily, they were responding to conditions and following leaders catalyzed and directed by Roosevelt’s team.
The revisionist history of the coup downplays this incontrovertible U.S. role and instead blames Shiite clerics for Mosaddeq’s downfall. Bayandor claims that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi—the most senior cleric in Iran during the Mosaddeq era—supported the coup by sending a telegram to the shah shortly after the coup praising the monarch and calling for him to return to Iran.
However, as the historian Fakhreddin Azimi has shown, Bayandor’s interpretation of Borujerdi’s actions is inaccurate and misleading; it falsely claims that Borujerdi had long opposed Mosaddeq and misrepresents the content of this telegram. Moreover, a second CIA history of the coup states that the CIA team tried to enlist Borujerdi’s support for the coup but was unsuccessful.
While Borujerdi does not seem to have supported or participated in the coup, there is considerable evidence that two other Shiite clerics were involved—and that they were funded and encouraged by the U.S. government. A recently released document, apparently written by British officials in early September 1953, states that Ayatollah Mohammad Behbahani received a large amount of money from U.S. Embassy personnel and then organized crowds that helped carry out the coup. And the second CIA history mentioned above states that Ayatollah Kashani also helped organize these crowds, though it is not clear whether he received U.S. financial support.
Behbahani and Kashani were maverick, populist political activists, distant from—and often disdained by—the mainstream Shiite clergy epitomized by Borujerdi. Their involvement in the coup should not be taken as evidence that the mainstream clergy supported or participated in the coup, as Bayandor implies. And the clerics who did participate did so with U.S. support.
Acknowledging the role of Iranian actors, including some of the Shiite clergy, in the 1953 coup does not absolve the United States of responsibility for the coup. Many historians of the 1953 coup, most recently Ervand Abrahamian and Ali Rahnema, have judiciously documented the overwhelming evidence that the United States played a central role in toppling Mosaddeq. But their voices are being drowned out by a shrill cacophony of opportunistic politicians and revisionist scholars and pundits.
While British and Iranian actors played significant roles in the events before and during the coup in August 1953, it was the Americans who organized and led the overthrow of Mosaddeq, mobilizing and directing the Iranians who carried it out.
Roham Alvandi is an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War and editor of The Age of Aryamehr: Late Pahlavi Iran and Its Global Entanglements.