1953 Coup

On August 19, 2013 The National Security Archive posted recently declassified CIA documents on the United States’ role in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that saw the ouster of then Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – a well-known figure in Iranian politics, known for his extreme popularity during his reign, for his nationalization of Iran’s oil, and his constant quarrels with the Shah as well as America. Although it has been no secret of Washington’s involvement in removing Mosaddegh from power, these documents are the CIA’s first formal acknowledgement of its involvement. Given this added information to what is an already exhausted conversation on this event, this paper will focus more on US-Iran relations leading up to the ’53 coup.


From 1883 until 1939 (the start of World War II), the extent of Iran’s relationship with the US was primarily exchanging diplomatic representatives. From within those interactions, American influence in Iran was minimal, between 1860 until 1940 the US had little official contact with Iran.[1]  The dominant foreign figures involved with Iran at the time were Great Britain and the Soviets, who constantly sought to influence Iran into embracing their ideology. Because of the constant presence of those two countries, the Iranians grew more resentful towards them, while simultaneously seeing the US as a positive, approachable alternative.

During World War II, Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941) grew increasingly fascinated with Germany and their Aryan State. He saw in Germany what he had once seen in America – a powerful country that could help them keep Britain and Russia at a distance.[2] Thus, when Reza Shah was asked to assist the British and Soviets in their fight against Nazi Germany he refused. In fact, Reza Shah interacted even more with the Germans and had many of them living in Iran at that time. The primary reason Iran was sought after for assistants was because of their railway system, which would have helped the US and the UK in transporting military aid to the Soviets. Therefore when Reza Shah refused to help, the British and Soviets invaded Iran and in less than two weeks Reza Shah was sent into exile and in 1941 his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941-1979) took the throne.[3] At the age of twenty one, no one believed he was capable of running a country, but that was irrelevant at the time since the British and Soviets were occupying Iran, making all the decisions – along with America – to assist in their defeat of Germany. Nonetheless, Shah was adamant about asserting himself as a genuine ruler of Iran.

In an effort to reassure Iran that foreign occupation would be short lived, in 1942 the US by way of a joint declaration from the UK and USSR affirmed that the takeover of Iran was temporary and Iran would regain its independence after the war.[4] Within that same year, Iran, the UK, and the Soviets signed the Tripartite Treaty, guaranteeing the territorial sovereignty and political independence of Iran. However, Shah and his advisers feared that under the assistance of only the UK and Soviets there was a serious possibility of their country’s dismemberment, and thus pushed for a stronger American presence and influence.[5] This decision was received with much displeasure by the Iranian people, who had a negative impression of the Americans. The Iranian opinion about America changed in a way during this time that would resonate for decades to come. In the eyes of many Iranians, America transformed from the benevolent country they sought after to replace Britain and Russia, to the country they saw imposing its will on their government as well as their land. As a result, the population divided into two groups, the supporters of an American presence inside Iran – which mainly consisted of pro-Shah advocates, benefactors of the monarchy, and the bourgeoisie – versus the opponents of an American presence – which mainly consisted of the lower and middle class citizens.

Nevertheless, the US agreed to this relationship and soon helped in the withdrawal of British and Soviet troops, as well as the compliance from those two countries in helping Iran rebuild and redevelop post WWII. The US also helped Iran in lend-lease assistance in addition to direct aid of roughly $7.8 million.[6] From 1942 to 1948 the plan for America in Iran was to provide aid in infrastructure, police training, assistance in public financing, building of a diplomatic relationship and supplies of many sorts.[7] America’s interest after WWII and during the Cold War can be described as episodic, Washington looked at Iran through two lenses, as competition versus the Soviets and as a major oil supplier.[8] Although these interests can be considered as vital reasons to build a relationship, there was no real need or consideration taken into understanding Iran itself – and this would prove to be detrimental in future interactions between the two nations. In other words, with mixed implementations in Washington’s interactions towards the Iranian people the latter found themselves once again occupied by a foreign power.[9]

Eventhough Washington was providing a substantial about of aid and assistance, there was tension within the US diplomatic circles as to their level of intervention, approach and mission.[10] The apparent clumsiness and lack of unified policy lead many Iranians to believe that they might need to look elsewhere for assistance.[11] A prime example comes from an American hired directly by Iran, Arthur Millspaugh. Millspaugh was a former financial administrator-general in Iran during the 1920’s, and in ’42 he was brought in to introduce reforms into the Iranian financial and economic systems.[12] Similar to his first efforts twenty years earlier, Millspaugh’s plan after several attempts failed[13], and as a result contributed to the tarnishing of America’s image within Iran. Hence, in addition to the two aforementioned groups two more began to take form; on the one hand there were the individuals with interests in land and bazaars (market shops) who sought to protect their power and privilege by cooperating with external forces in order to continue their prosperity. And on the other hand there was the extreme nationalist, who decried external imperial intervention in their domestic affairs and demanded for the destruction of the old aristocracy and an end to internal corruption and exploitation.[14]

From this latter group emerges Muhammad Mosaddegh, a Member of Parliament, whose argument was not necessarily anti-America but anti-American occupation – fearing the possibility that America’s presence inside Iran could become overwhelming. Furthermore, Mosaddegh argued that Millspaugh’s team of American’s was composed of third-raters whose performance was poor and unguaranteed by the US government.[15] As a result, Mosaddegh stressed the point that Iranians themselves can manage their country without the help of America. From this platform Mosaddegh’s following began to grow, and by 1944 the US withdrew support for Millspaugh and by 1945 Millspaugh was stripped of his economic power by Iran and he later resigned.[16]

The chain of events that occurred from ’42 to ’45 depicts a relationship between two very different countries that almost seemed destined to fail from the start. The Iranians coming off of a devastating occupation by the British and Soviets were seeking help from a country that could free them of their burden. America, having the capabilities to provide this type of assistance sought an opportunity to help Iran while gaining strategic advances over the Soviets during the Cold War as well as attaining access to Iran’s oil supply. What made matters worse was the young, inexperienced Shah who depended on Washington. Case in point comes in 1946 when the Shah wanted to expel his Prime Minister, Ahmad Qavam. Initially, the Shah offered the US very favorable oil concessions if Washington would assist, but the US was reluctant.[17] The Shah later asked Washington if they would object to him sacking Qavam; when he did not receive the answer he was looking for, the Shah grudgingly refrained. This was the beginning of a theme that would run throughout US-Iran relations for the next thirty years, and a relationship that would cause the Iranians to believe that the US had the ability to control Iran’s destiny.[18]

In addition, there were certain actions and beliefs on behalf of Washington, the Shah, and the Iranian people that furthered the troubled affairs which caused for such turmoil. First, there was Washington’s desire for a strong and oil-wealthy partner in the Middle East. In order to guarantee itself such an access Washington turned a blind eye to the Shah’s domestic policies, opulence, corruption, and incredulous human rights record. The Shah, therefore, was able to run the country any way he wanted while amassing enormous wealth, as a result leaving over half of the Iranian population to suffer. The Iranians constantly saw the relationship between the Shah and America strengthening and flourishing while they were struggling, leaving them to believe that the Shah was America’s puppet, hence encouraging their anti-American and anti-Shah rhetoric.


With the constant stress of foreign intrusion upon Iran, the citizens were becoming restless with the direction their country was heading. In 1949, Mosaddegh reappears, but this time as Iran’s Prime Minister and much at odds with the Shah, who tried to replace Mosaddegh but eventually reinstated him. An unspoken understanding began to reverberate around Iran that Mosaddegh was gaining substantial amount of power within the government. Once Mosaddegh unequivocally took office he began his push to nationalize Iran’s oil, which up to that point was predominately in the hands of the British, who had a lucrative contract with the Americans (among other organizations). As a response, Britain froze all Iranian assets and enforced a blockade of Iran’s oil exports.[19] The US stepped in to try to remedy the situation; however, at the 1951 UN Security Council meeting Mosaddegh provided a number of documents during his speech which revealed widespread interference in Iran’s political affairs by Britain, thus winning his country the freedom to nationalize their oil.[20] Although this action was revered and welcomed by the Iranians it nonetheless developed a severe blow to Iran’s already crippled economy.

Mosaddegh was hoping that the US would agree to provide Iran with economic assistance and to influence their oil companies to buy Iranian oil in order to break the British embargo, but that was a request Washington was unable to accommodate due to their close ties with Britain.[21] While the US was negotiating deals between Iran and Britain as well as Iran and American oil companies, Mosaddegh was occupied with domestic issues. In 1952 he was reelected only to be kicked out due to quarrels with the Shah. As protests and demonstrations ensued with violence and bloodshed following, the Shah had no choice but to, once again, reinstate Mosaddegh. At this moment it was clear that Mosaddegh was effectively running the country. Kenneth Pollack[22] in his book The Persian Puzzle explains that the “Shah went as far as to ask Mosaddegh whether he would retain the monarchy, acknowledging that Mosaddegh’s popularity and control over the institutions of government were such that the Shah was powerless to oppose him”.[23]

However popular Mosaddegh was with his fellow people, his strong stance against the West and his nationalist rhetoric further distanced himself from his fellow politicians as well as America. On one side Mosaddegh was clashing with many leaders from within his own political party (the National Front). On the other side the US, who were willing to press hard and make real sacrifices to get American oil companies to cooperate with the US government against the British embargo, were growing weary of Mosaddegh’s constant refusals on any kind of oil agreement. By 1953, Britain was convincing the CIA to perform a covert operation to take out Mosaddegh[24], while simultaneously, Mosaddegh, who depended on US aid for most of his policies, was giving idle threats that if his requests were not met he would go to the Soviets. Mosaddegh misjudged his relation with America because he thought Washington considered Iran a vital nation and would never risk losing it to the communists.

However unlikely the communist threat was, the CIA was still cautious of the possibility, and so began implementing covert exercises to turn Iran against Mosaddegh. They performed disturbances in the guise of the Tudeh party[25] to present Mosaddegh’s government as unstable and vulnerable to communist takeover. They also recruited General Zahedi[26] to foment a military coup with the CIA helping to employ more military elite. They would also stir up tribal and popular unrest to make it difficult for Mosaddegh to rule, and also to convince other groups that with Mosaddegh in command there would continue to be instability. Moreover, the CIA had four-fifths of the newspapers in Tehran under their influence projecting anti-Mosaddegh propaganda.[27]

After all the efforts of the British and CIA to tarnish Mosaddegh’s credibility to perhaps stir up a domestic upheaval, and considering the increasingly economic problems facing the country, Mosaddegh was still the most popular figure among the Iranians, and the least popular among the country’s political elites. Because of the tension with his fellow politicians Mosaddegh, who was a constitutional lawyer, performed a few unconstitutional acts in attempt to dissolve the parliament. Interesting enough, Mosaddegh who had meticulously quoted the fundamental laws against the Shah, was bypassing those same laws and resorting to the theory of the general will[28] in hopes of support from the one group whom he felt could keep him in power, the Iranian people. Even after multiple charges of tampering, Mosaddegh won the referendum and disbanded the parliament.[29] Soon after, the CIA began Operation TPAJAX[30] and after their second attempt and a number of riots and demonstrations they were able to bring the Shah back into power.

The most vital comparison to keep in mind throughout Mosaddegh’s reign is between the Shah and Mosaddegh – while not losing sight on America and the Iranian people. Starting with the Shah, when he first received word that the CIA was preparing to perform a coup against Mosaddegh he was terrified that things would unravel, so he chose to wait at his villa on the Caspian with a plane ready to take him out of the country at the first sign of trouble.[31] When Mosaddegh received word on the first coup attempt he stood his ground and claimed that the decrees by the Shah for his removal were illegal and forged, and had his men arrest the individuals whom he thought were responsible for the coup attempt. When the Shah heard of the failed coup attempt he jumped on his plane and fled, and it was Roosevelt who convinced him to publicly announce the decree which lead to the success of the second coup attempt. Washington invested a lot in overthrowing Mosaddegh – they had certain Iranian media, gangs, organizations and politicians (including the Shah) either on their payroll and/or involved in their coup – while at the same time appearing to overlook certain consequences. In other words, they failed to take into consideration the aftermath that would ensue from a foreign led coup during a time in Iran when the people were still traumatized by the former occupation of Britain and Russia.

In the end, the way Mosaddegh and Shah were to be remembered says a lot about the mindset of the Iranian people and what they looked for in their next ruler. On the one side there was the Shah who constantly had one foot in the plane ready to flee. On the other side there was Mosaddegh who stood up to the West.


Abrahamiam, Ervand. Iran Between Two Revolutions. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Ansari, Ali M. Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After. London: Longman, 2003.

Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Bill, James A. The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.

Byrne, Malcolm, and Mark J. Gasiorowski, edited. Mohammad Mosaddegh and the 1953 Coup in Iran. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Gasiorowski, Mark J. U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Griffith, William E. “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Pahlavi Era.” In Iran Under the Pahlavis, edited by George Lenczowski, 365-388. California: Hoover Institution Press, 1978.

Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

Kissinger, Henry. For The Record: Selected Statements 1977-1980. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981.

Kurzman, Charles. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Pollack, Kenneth M. The Persian Puzzle. New York: Random House Inc., 2004.

Rubin, Barry. Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America’s Fateful Encounter with Iran. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 1985.

Villiers, Gerard de. The Imperial Shah: an informal biography. Translated by Walter Benn Michaels and June Parker Wilson. Boston: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Wilber, Donald N. Adventures in the Middle East: Excursion and Incursion. New Jersey: Darwin Press, 1986.

Zahrani, Mostafa T. “The Coup that Changed the Middle East: Mossadeq v. the CIA in Retrospect.” World Policy Journal (2002): 93-99.


[1] James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 16.

[2] Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle (New York: Random House Inc., 2004), 38.

[3] Pollack, 38.

[4] Pollack, 41.

[5] Bill, 18.

[6] Pollack, 42.

[7] Bill, 20.

[8] Pollack, x.

[9] Due to the cultural differences of Americans and Iranians, many of the actions and sayings of the Americans are found offensive and disrespectful by Iranians. Just the same, the American’s would find many of the Iranian norms to be unimportant and a waste of time, which in turn infuriated the Iranians even more. The rift of cultural awareness and respect between Americans and Iranians grew increasingly further as the years passed, and source of this problem can be seen within the two years of Shah being placed into power and the US assisting and aiding Iran.

[10]Bill, 20.

[11] Donald N Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East: Excursion and Incursion (New Jersey: Darwin Press, 1986), 89.

[12]Bill, 25.

[13] James Bill explains that Millspaugh’s failure was due to his lack of understanding about the internal political forces arrayed against him. Those same forces that wanted America out of Iran.

[14] Bill, 25.

[15] Bill, 26.

[16] Bill, 27.

[17] Pollack, 50.

[18] Pollack, 50.

[19] Pollack, 56-57.

[20] Pollack, 59.

[21] Pollack, 59-60.

[22] Kenneth Michael Pollack is well renowned; twelve year experienced former CIA intelligence analyst and a former member of the National Security Council, as well as an expert on Middle East politics. His years of scholarly work and actual field experience enable him to offer an insight into the US-Iran relations that many thinkers cannot. Although apologetic at times on the level of influence the US had throughout the Shah’s reign, these shortcomings can be easily overlooked with the plethora of knowledge and information he provides.

[23] Pollack, 62.

[24] Pollack, 64.

[25] Founded in 1941 in Iran, this communist party played a vital role throughout Mosaddegh’s reign, especially with his push to nationalize Iran’s oil.

[26] General Mohammad Fazlollah Zahedi was an Iranian general from 1920 until 1963. His involvement in the ’53 coup d’état solidified his position as the new Prime Minister as well as the Shah regaining control of Iran.

[27] Pollack, 65.

[28] Ervand Abrahamiam, Iran Between Two Revolutions (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982), 274.

[29] Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 165.

[30] Operation Ajax, was a CIA lead coup against the then Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddegh. Ran by Kim Roosevelt, this coup failed in its first attempt but on the lone initiative of Roosevelt the coup became a success the second time, ousting Mosaddegh and reinstating the Shah.

[31] Kinzer, 162-163.


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