A Splutter of Musketry – Britain and America’s Destruction of Iranian Democracy (Part Two)

A Splutter of Musketry – Britain and America’s Destruction of Iranian Democracy (Part Two)

In the second part of his essay on the role of MI6 and the CIA in the Iranian coup of 1953, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst covers the coup itself and its aftermath.


The response of the AIOC to the Iranian parliament’s agreement to Mossadegh’s nationalisation proposal of February 1951 was to suspend the production and export of oil from Iran. The British government, with the agreement of the powerful “Seven Sisters” oil cartel that controlled the world’s oil market, began to impose an oil embargo on the country. When the City of London also imposed a banking boycott on Iranian credit institutions, the Iranian Treasury was squeezed hard.

Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s close friend and MI6 asset, was one of Iran’s key business leaders. MI6 money, channelled through the notoriously corrupt Rashidian brothers, bought the allegiance of key figures in Iran’s National Bank, including its Governor Dr Mohammed Nassirir. Using the excuse of attending International Monetary Fund meetings abroad, Dr Nassirir regularly stopped off in London to advise the FCO on the state of Iran’s finances, specifically how long the government could continue to pay its civil service without AIOC revenue (Dorril).

Britain’s anti-Mossadegh operation was multi-stranded and well rooted, but Mossadegh’s counterattack – the closing of the British Embassy in Tehran – dealt the plan a severe blow. Luckily for Churchill the main obstacle to American involvement in regime change in Iran, President Truman, was about to leave office, to be replaced by the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the last of Roosevelt’s New Dealers left the Washington stage, a newer breed of right-wing imperialists took power whose overriding political priority was to protect the wealth and power of American corporations.

The Dulles Brothers

No one exemplified this breed better than Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Director of the CIA Allen Dulles. Born in to the East Coast WASP elite – their uncle and grandfather had both each served a term as Secretary of State – the Dulles Brothers exhibited all of its arrogance with little of its wit and intelligence. Prior to their appointments by Eisenhower, both brothers had been senior partners at the prestigious Wall Street law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Sullivan and Cromwell was the legal representative of the AIOC in the US and did handsomely from its business.

When the head of MI6 Sir John Sinclair visited Washington on 18th February  1953, he was cordially received by Allen Dulles. Dulles told Sinclair that the qualms of the previous administration about intervention in Iran no longer applied, and the American government was now fully supportive of plans to remove Mossadegh from office. Given that the British could no longer take the leading role, Dulles proposed that the field operation be led by CIA Head of Near East Operations, Kermit Roosevelt.

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was cut from the same cloth as the Dulles brothers. Educated at Groton and Harvard, his grandfather had been President Theodore Roosevelt and he was a distant cousin to FDR, whose liberal politics he loathed. He joined the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during the war, and cultivated many powerful and influential contacts in the Middle East. Roosevelt made a very favourable impression on the British when, after Mossadegh closed down the British Embassy, he flew to Tehran and picked up many of MI6’s contacts and informers and put them on the CIA payroll.

General Faziollah Zahedhi

Roosevelt now had discretion to act as he saw fit. The British had suggested that the ideal puppet Prime Minister, after a coup, would be General Faziollah Zahedhi. The British knew him well, having arrested him during the war as a Nazi sympathiser. An ex-Chief of Police in Tehran, Zahedhi was a brutal anti-Communist who regarded not only the Tudeh but Mossadegh himself as Soviet puppets. Roosevelt brought him in.

The coup now acquired an official name – Operation Ajax (the more prosaic British had labelled their own covert anti-Mossadegh plan Operation Boot). The American Ambassador in Iran, Loy Henderson, had been sceptical of Boot but was enthusiastic about Ajax. He made contact with General Zahedhi and found him ready to help, although Zahedhi warned Henderson that the Iranians could not remove Mossadegh “through their own efforts”, mainly because most of them did not wish to do so.

That calculus could be changed, and the Rashidians were instrumental in doing so. Firstly they unleashed a street mob on to Mossadegh’s home. They then assassinated several of Mossadegh’s allies, including the loyal Chief of Police General Afshartous, who had uncovered and thwarted the AIOC’s own covert plans. As well as Afshartous, Mossadegh lost other key members of the National Front coalition, most importantly the senior Muslim cleric Ayatollah Kashani, who was persuaded that the best way to serve Islam was to start taking the Rashidians’ money.

These set-backs could have been weathered if the Iranian left had given Mossadegh solid support. But the Tudeh failed to appreciate how crucial the battle over the AIOC was to the future of Iran. At the end of 1950 the Tudeh viewed the nationalist movement as

the product of internal contradictions within the ruling classes… they were simply unable to recognise that there could be any other organised popular movement capable of challenging the basic structure of Iran’s power relations (Sepehr Zabih, The Mossadegh Era).

The “radical” wing of the Tudeh, under Abdol Kambakhsh, Ahmed Qasemi and Nur al-Din Kianuri, hewed firmly to the belief that any oppositional movement not led by the Iranian working class could not be serious about challenging neo-colonialism.  The more “moderate” wing, led by Morteza Yazdi, Iraj Eskandari, and Ali Olovvi – originally part of the independent leftist “The Fifty-Three” and thus more flexible in their thinking than their hard-line Stalinist colleagues – began to shift towards support for Mossadegh as the crisis intensified. Unfortunately for Mossadegh, the Stalinists retained control of the party until it was too late.

What had begun as a premiership devoted to “one issue” had escalated to become a wide-ranging geo-political struggle between progressive democrats and an aristocratic-military elite (with fundamentalist Muslim support) whose self-interest overlapped the strategic priorities of the US and British governments. Mossadegh himself was also broadening his political outlook. The reaction of the AIOC and the British government to the nationalisation decree, and his conversations with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had led Mossadegh to see the struggle over Iran’s oil as the product of the West’s economic colonialism, requiring a more radical response than he had supposed in his youth.

CIA confirmation for the execution of Operation Ajax

The CIA and MI6 now had all elements in place for a coup. They had authorisation from Eisenhower and Churchill. They had established contacts with powerful circles inside Iran who had a vested interest in the existing distribution of profits from the AIOC (General Zahedi had now formed a “Committee to Save the Fatherland”, composed of pro-British senior army officers, run out of the Officer’s Club in Tehran. The Committee was funded by the Rashidians, and established warm relations with Ayatollah Kashani). Thanks to Kim Roosevelt – now operating inside Iran under an alias – they had a steady stream of funds to bribe the bazaar merchants and their army of thugs. With his Chief of Police removed, Mossadegh was unprepared for the coming attack.

On 4th April  $1 million was sent from Washington to the CIA station in Tehran.  The money was to be used to fund the Committee to Save the Fatherland and to print inflammatory leaflets and posters to be disseminated around Tehran by Rashidian boot boys. The leaflets accused Mossadegh of corruption, of being anti-Islam, and of working with the Tudeh to hand Iran over to the Soviet Union. They helped to whip up an atmosphere of crisis, during which Zahedhi’s forces plotted to seize key points in the city such as the telephone exchange, Radio Tehran, the Central Bank, and Mossadegh’s home. It was planned that after Mossadegh was arrested, the Majlis – heavily lubricated by CIA money – would proclaim Zahedhi the legitimate Prime Minister. The Shah would then immediately endorse the new Prime Minister, as would Iran’s chief Imam.

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt

On 15th June 1953 Kim Roosevelt flew to London to meet MI6 and explain the plan. The meeting in Whitehall was chaired by senior FCO mandarin Patrick Dean, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee which oversaw all covert operations. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was in attendance. All approved the plan. On 25th June the plan was put to a high-level meeting in the State Department in Washington chaired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and attended by his brother Allen, Director of the CIA.  Once again Operation Ajax was given the green light.

The signal to the coup leaders inside Iran was helpfully provided by the BBC, whose senior news managers had acceded to a request from the Foreign Office that they broadcast a coded message that the coup was good to go. Hence on 8th August the BBC’s Persian language news broadcast began not with the usual “It is now midnight in London”, but with “It is now exactly midnight”. This was the coup’s starting gun.

As a first move, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group cut off liaison with those army officers loyal to Mossadegh, whilst assistance to Zahedi’s anti-government officers increased. Despite this, the Shah was nervous. It took Kim Roosevelt’s personal intervention to get him to sign a special firman that dismissed Mossadegh as Prime Minister and replaced him with General Zahedi. Meanwhile the Rashidian brothers organised mobs to pose as Tudeh militants to attack Mosques and Imams. The attacks, combined with propaganda presenting Mossadegh as a Communist sympathiser, turned many Muslim clerics against the government.

Troops outside Mossadegh’s home

Mossadegh fought back. He surrounded his house with loyal troops and when the Shah’s emissary, Colonel Nassiri of the Imperial Guard, arrived to arrest him he was faced by a row of tanks led by the reliable Army Chief of Staff General Riyah. Much to Nassiri’s surprise, Riyah took one look at the arrest warrant from the Shah, declined to recognise it and arrested him instead. Zahedi went into hiding in a CIA safehouse.

Mossadegh temporarily closed down the Majlis, preventing Zahedi’s political cronies from presenting the Shah’s decree removing him from office. The Tudeh, finally waking up to the danger to Mossadegh and to themselves, began to mobilise their trade union supporters on to the streets. In the crucial period between the first attempt at a coup and the second – from 16th to 19th August – Tudeh activists were out on the streets distributing leaflets, attacking statues of the Shah and agitating for the establishment of a democratic republic.

Roosevelt sensed that further delay might give Mossadegh the opportunity to link up with the Tudeh and the unions. Whilst he worked furiously behind the scenes, Mossadegh called Loy Henderson to his residence on 19th August to demand the US government cease efforts to remove him from power. Mossadegh asserted that the Shah, by fleeing the country and deserting his people, had lost his authority. Henderson denied any US involvement in a coup. The meeting descended into a shouting match.

Mossadegh, who had reacted skilfully to the first stages of the coup, now started to make mistakes. Flustered by Henderson’s claims that US nationals were being attacked in the streets by Tudeh thugs, he called for a ban on all political demonstrations on the streets of the capital. Many of his supporters, including some in the Tudeh, heeded his call. But anti-Mossadegh forces did not. To add to the escalation, he placed General Daftary, one of Zahedi’s supporters, in charge of the armed security forces set up to put down the riots. Daftary promptly ordered the security forces to support anti-Mossadegh rioters. At the same time, the CIA delivered $10,000 directly to Ayatollah Kashani, and in return he called on all Muslims to support the rioters.

The unions awaited a signal from the leaders of the Tudeh, whose Executive met in emergency session. Ali Olovvi insisted the party call for a general strike to oppose the coup.  Nur al-Din Kianuri – who some within the party suspected of being a KGB agent – opposed the call, fearful of making any move not sanctioned by Moscow. Unfortunately there was no time to seek and receive instructions from Moscow, which a few months after Stalin’s death was locked in political paralysis. Unable to decide, the Tudeh did nothing.

The Iranian military, meanwhile, began to sense which way the wind was blowing, and hitherto loyal officers started to shift allegiance. General Zahedi finally emerged from hiding and broadcast from Radio Tehran that in line with the Shah’s decree he was taking over as Prime Minister. At the same time military forces led by General Daftary converged on Mossadegh’s house to implement the Shah’s firman.

Elsewhere in the capital the anti-Mossadegh forces were winning. A mixture of disloyal army units and paid thugs attacked government buildings and the offices of newspapers that supported the National Front. Gunfire was exchanged, but the buildings fell quickly to the attackers. At Mossadegh’s house, resistance was more serious. Mossadegh remained in the house for most of the day, but when Zahedi’s tanks arrived his aides persuaded him he should leave. Helped by a small core of loyal soldiers he fled out the back amidst gunfire.

Mossadegh’s military support had collapsed. With Mossadegh’s government now effectively overthrown, Kim Roosevelt accepted the thanks of cheering officers at the Tehran Officer’s Club. A few days later Mossadegh gave himself up to Zahedi, and was temporarily imprisoned in the Officer’s Club. Zahedi himself was inclined to be generous to his defeated opponent, but the Shah was not. Arriving back in Iran after his supporters had done the fighting, he called Mossadegh “an evil man” and called for him to be moved to the city prison.

There was still sporadic resistance from Mossadegh’s supporters, especially from trade union militants at Abadan. But they had no organisation or access to arms. Most of the Tudeh’s Stalinist leaders decided discretion was the better part of valour, and fled to the Soviet Union. Ordinary Tudeh members put up a better performance, but they were outnumbered, outgunned and without leadership. They were quickly suppressed.

It was the close of a great moment in Iranian politics, the deliberate extermination of a pluralist liberal democracy by those who loudly claimed to defend such systems. Though the direct cause was outside intervention, the success of the coup had been eased by the inability of Iranian democrats, socialists and trade unionists to form a popular front to defend their interests. Those who regarded themselves as the political leaders of the Iranian working class were unable to focus on the main threat facing them. For this, the 1950s have been rightly called “the decade of great defeat for Iranian Marxists”, with the sad but accurate observation that

A generation of young, largely well educated activists saw their ideals crushed by a preventable coup which succeeded with minimum effort (Behrooz)

Mossadegh in court

Mossadegh was tried for treason by a military tribunal that was only going to deliver one verdict. Nevertheless the old man still had some fire in him. He bluntly told the tribunal:

My only crime is that I nationalised the Iranian oil industry, and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on Earth.

He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison followed by a life sentence of house arrest.

On 26th August, four days after the coup, Kim Roosevelt flew directly to London where he was taken to see Winston Churchill at 10 Downing St. He reported the complete success of Operation Ajax. After this he flew to Washington to a hero’s welcome at the CIA. President Eisenhower awarded him the National Security Medal for his work in Iran. The British government gifted him £500,000 in shares in the AIOC and the company made him an Executive Director. In 1958 Roosevelt left the CIA to become Vice-President of Gulf Oil, which had secured major contracts to develop Iranian oil after the coup.

Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s friend and inside source for MI6, was knighted by the British government. Sir Shapor became one of the most powerful arms brokers in the Middle East and remained a close confidante of the Shah until 1979. Always a step ahead, he left Iran shortly before the revolution that deposed the Shah.

The head of MI6, Sir John Sinclair, became Director of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, one of the UK’s leading academic research bodies. In that role he ensured the historical record of the 1953 coup conformed to official spin, as laid out in a June 1951 cable from the FCO’s Eastern Department to the Washington Embassy:

It is essential… that Britain not be seen as a capitalist power attacking a nationalist Persia

For a time the official version – that Mossadegh was an unstable semi-Communist removed by the Shah and the Iranian military alone – was widely accepted. Latterly, popular histories by New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer and the great demythologiser of British foreign policy Mark Curtis (who revealed the FCO cables and other hitherto secret material) have gone some way to put the record straight.

Reflecting the shift in economic power from Britain to the US, it was American oil firms that gained the most from the new regime. Iran’s oil reserves were divided up by a series of new leases and contracts overseen by New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, on whose Board sat the CIA Director and the Secretary of State who had orchestrated Operation Ajax. The Iranian concessions were parcelled out to a massive international consortium dominated by American oil companies. The AIOC had only 40% of the consortium. Renaming and rebranding itself, the AIOC became British Petroleum (BP) and began to explore new commercial opportunities in Kuwait, Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1980s it was the fifth largest company in the world.

Within Iran the Shah introduced a ferocious regime of repression, led by his new intelligence agency SAVAK.  The Tudeh bore the brunt.  After the coup four thousand of its members were arrested, including teachers, civil servants, students and industrial workers. Forty were executed, but many more were tortured and imprisoned. Trained in torture techniques by the CIA and MI6, SAVAK kept a stern boot on political opponents. At the time of the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah one of SAVAK’s biggest concentration camp, at Irafshan, held fifty thousand political prisoners.

The 1979 revolution replaced one authoritarian structure with another. Arguably, that structure, after nearly four decades, is finally beginning to exhibit signs of internal reform and modernisation, although the extent to which this may occur without continuous pressure from the populace and support from the international left is in doubt.

One thing remains clear. However and if the process of democratisation develops, Iran still lives with the legacy of 1953 left it by Britain and America.