Iran and the 1953 Coup by the CIA: United States Template for Regime Change
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Iran and the 1953 Coup by the CIA: United States Template for Regime Change


USA Really presents the essay applied for The Global Democracy Award (The John Reednominee).

"I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it."

-Niccolò Machiavelli

 All coups initiated by a foreign government upon the sovereignty of another government are based on realpolitik whose severe consequences are not realized until a harsh period of time has passed.  Coups tend toward the horrific -- the men  slaughtered, the women and children sold into slavery.  And so there have been very few non-violent coups  any modern historian could write seriously about, since an overthrow is always one of violent intent and cannot be otherwise. If one is to attain power without the process of legal means, then one must be ruthless and ignore the voice of the people.

In assessing the political and military coup first developed by British intelligence, and further enhanced and finally orchestrated by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against the Mosaddeq Iranian Government in 1953, one sees the first modern overthrow or coup initiated by American Imperialism that would serve as a murderous template for the many subsequent coups to come in countries in which the magnitude of death, torture and imprisonment of thousands of ordinary people, besides destroying the country physically and financially.  The Iranian coup would be the first notable clumsy experimentation of direct interference by a modern country upon another country in which economic exploitation -- oil reserves -- coupled with fear of encroachment of Soviet influence and power, would be laid bare for the world to take notice. 

A certain jubilation describes the immature behavior of many individuals who work for the CIA regarding not only routine espionage activities, but also such planning and execution of the 1953 Iranian coup that took place under the direct auspices of Donald Wilber, a principal architect of the CIA project "Operation Ajax", a successful plot to overthrow the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. The plot replaced Iran's first democratically elected Prime Minister in Iran’s modern history. It is reported that soon after the successful coup took place on August 19, 1953, the CIA operative Wilber responded in glee, “"It was a day that should have never ended… it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it."[i]

What the CIA operative could never admit was the coup orchestrated by the backing of both British and American intelligence services could never have taken place without active and constant collaborators within the Mossadeq government. There were also outside forces primarily within the urban communities of Tehran -- part mob, paid thugs -- and those classes supporting not only the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but also an unsubdued Iranian army not reined in by the reformist Mossadeq. Coming from a prominent Persian family, Mossadeq was educated in an advanced institute in Paris, France. Although well-meaning in his intent to bring about democracy to the Iranian people,  he was naïve about the process of retaining power -- the need for extensive and disciplined protective domestic and foreign professional  intelligence networks to keep enemies from undermining his government.

Equally important was Mossadeq’s party -- the Jebhe Melli (National Front of Iran, created in 1949), along with The Tudeh Party of Iran as the Iranian communist party formed in 1941 and one of the allies of Mossadeq -- could never bring about complete control of the Iranian Army -- crucial to any revolution or reformist movement to  maintain a continuity of power and control in the modern world.  However,  the leadership of the Tudeh Party -- through its own military intelligence network -- did perceive the coming coup against Mossadeq and tried to stem the reactionary process orchestrated by not only the CIA but certain Iranian generals and their political proxies inside and outside the Mossadeq government. These are only a few of numerous flaws or weaknesses I would refer to in creating an objective analysis of reasons the coup plotters succeeded.

The 1953 coup in Iran began inauspiciously, when Donald Welber the main leader of the CIA operation wrote in a previously CIA secret document concerning "Operation Ajax," code-name of the covert operation itself. “Representatives of British Intelligence met with Near East and Africa (NEA) Division representatives in Washington during November and December in 1952 for the purpose of discussing joint war and staybehind plans in Iran.”[ii] He continued laconically, “Although it was not on the previously agreed agenda of the meeting, British intelligence representatives brought up the proposition of a joint political action to remove Prime Minister Mossadeq”[iii]  This is an important first acknowledgement of the planned coup, as it reveals that it was the British Government who had the initial idea for the coup against Mossadeq and needed a co-conspirator to bring about a successful operation. 

Hard to imagine, but the Americans were “innocents abroad” in this period of modern intelligence warfare, as the “Cold War” was still maturing in its own precarious and violent ways due to proxy wars generated or influenced by the United States unilaterally which supported and abetted the most reactionary political forces in the world during that period of world history, while the Soviet Union supported and abetted either nominal progressive political forces in various countries or actual communist political and military forces waging either civil war or actual committed to a revolutionary process.  The USA, although up to the occasion in attempting to achieve world hegemony with its own ideological view of capitalism wedded to bourgeois democracy, was still groping within the CIA and its military apparatus to create a foundation and networks of programs that could dismember foreign governments at will.

This process would eventually be achieved in the most sophisticated and brutal way during the Chilean Coup on September 11, 1973. But it was through the most formidable initiation with the help of British goading into the Iranian affair, paving the way for future coups planned and carried out by CIA operatives throughout the world.    

Various interpretations have been written by scholars, academics, CIA operatives, Soviet intelligence gathers and Iranian historians on both sides of the deadly political encounter during the 1953 Iranian coup which although practical narratives, will not convey the actual chaos, bungling by various parties involved, and profound disregard for the human suffering the Iranian people went through during and long after the aftermath of the coup itself.  

Darioush Bayoandor, a former Iranian diplomat and official in the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, provides a revisionist if interesting account of the coup's origins: "It is clear that when the crunch came on 19 August, neither the TPAJA [extension of the coup d’état plan code-named] operatives nor General Zahedi had been in a position to meaningfully harness the military resources left in the capital to launch a military coup. We also emphasized that General Zahedi planned to stage an armed revolt from a base in in a strategic place outside Tehran.[iv] "

In his annotation of the coup against Mosaddeq and the Iranian government, Bayoandor describes CIA plotters and their Iranian accomplices “…a 24-hour time allotment for preparations – which included a fatwa for hold war not to mention the rallying of some garrison commanders in Esfahan and Kermanshah – is bizarrely short… it is still hard to figure out why the planners accorded themselves only 24 hours to prepare such a complex plan… Finally, it is not excluded that – if at all true – planning in essence may have had longer-term connotations, foreshadowing contingencies against a Tudeh take-over, given the wording requested fatwa and military aspects of the deliberations”. [v] The coup, then, would not only be about who controlled the oil refineries in Iran, but also how to end the undisputed progress of the Iranian Communist Party in influencing the Iranian people to embrace, at the most, a democratic form of government.

Oil, a versatile substance conveyed into gold bullion or American dollars and hence the basis for economic development, investment and millions in currency made by the British and then the American petroleum companies,  was the central core of the Iranian coup in 1953.  As astute professor- scholar Ervand Abrahamian succinctly characterized the Iranian coup, “Nationalization initiated a zero-sum struggle. For Mossadeq and Iran, nationalization meant national sovereignty, and national sovereignty mean control over the ex-traction and exportation of oil. For Britain and the AIOC [Anglo-Iranian Oil company], nationalization meant the exact opposite. It meant loss of control over the exploration, extraction, and exportation of the same oil. Political conflicts usually leave some room for compromise; this left little such room. Either control had to be in the hands of Iran—as Mossadeq insisted. Or, as Britain equally adamantly insisted, control should remain in its own hands-- or, at least, out of the hand of Iran.”[vi] 

If it was about oil and control of the means of production, meaning who would retain the rights for Iranian oil, then it would lead to conflict, and if there cannot be direct war from one party against another due to political circumstances extending to a regional or world order, then intelligence operations, even the investment of a coup d’état, can be a possible choice of war by another means, if it is understood how it will affect future relationships. The deeper insight by Abrahamian clearly reveals the CIA planners, like the dilettante Donald Wilber,  boastful of his participation in the Iranian coup. And Kermit Roosevelt    Jr.,  more complex as an operative and more tactically astute in creating Iranian political forces to divide the Mossadeq government, but who nonetheless became a pawn in the writing of the history of the coup itself, when he would allow his written history of the event  called Countercoup to be heavily edited by the CIA agency and therefore lacked a more objective account of what took place before, during and after the day of the coup on August 19, 1953.   

Another weakness revealed by the Iranian coup created in part by the CIA agency was that its actors in the field as well as those working in the bureaucratic offices in Langley, Virginia, have a historical propensity for inflating their actual roles in any given intelligence operation and to naively boast of their accomplishments which are more complex than they are even willing to admit in their final analysis of any given operation.  And so it would seem normal for these Americans, including the CIA intelligence leadership and its field operatives, to be so naively confident of their intelligence trophies throughout their history.

To truly comprehend a nation-state’s intelligence services, it is imperative to understand the culture  the intelligence service has been borne of from its inception.  Every intelligence service goes through a dialectic process as part of the overall country it serves. Therefore to undermine an intelligence service adversary, one must concentrate on understanding the very political underpinnings of the various individuals who control the agencies, as well as  understanding and collecting information on the private end by various operatives themselves.  However, the anti-intellectual behavior of the CIA is changing while the USA begins imploding politically as I write the history of the tragic Iranian coup.  

Even with its arrogance and impulsive planning, through its dark practicality, the CIA was able to fund various Iranian political factions to support the coup, including infiltration of the Iranian Army.  The CIA,  despite its most cumbersome lack of understanding the consequences of its decisions, can devise ways to undermine or overthrow a government  considered a threat. However, the CIA lacks the overall intelligence gathering and staying power to control various world events due to the very corruption and self-destructiveness of the American imperialist system itself, which it cannot escape from and will itself eventually implode like the country.   

In its role in the Iranian Coup, the CIA only mirrored the will of the American government, and did not have the will nor the intellectual capacity to challenge the Eisenhower administration on its part in the fall of the first democratic government in modern Iran.  I would say the CIA was manipulated and became an unwilling pawn of the United Kingdom's MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service), whose main task is to get others to work for their overall national security strategy. Thus,  I would suggest although the CIA may see itself as the main planner of the Iranian coup, it was the British intelligence service that set the plan in motion, while the Americans conformed to their British ally’s demands, albeit reluctantly at first.  I would also posit once the CIA decided to participate in the coup taking place in Tehran, they worked diligently to devise a decisive plan. 

According to an official CIA document, “[O]n 16 April 1953 a compressive study entitled: 'Factors Involved in the Overthrow of Mosaddeq' was completed. The study indicated a Shah-General Zahedi combination, supported by CIA local assets and financial backing, would have a good chance of overthrowing Mosaddeq, particularly if this combination should be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and if a sizable portion of the Tehran garrison refused to carry out Mossadeq’s orders.”[vii]

Here the operative term is “financial backing” -- those who opposed Mossadeq were men and women whose main interest was capital investment and financial gain, not excluding control of oil fields and oil revenue with their colonial masters, the British and the Americans.  In the process of the coup being ‘successful’, all three parties could not have foreseen such a coup having dangerous consequences to the world.

Decades later, United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, himself a former CIA director, would signal: “On November 5, 2018, the United States will reimpose sanctions lifted as Part of the nuclear deal on Iran’s energy, ship building, shipping and banking sectors. These sanctions hit at the core areas of Iran’s economy. They are necessary to spur changes we seek on the regime”[viii]

This analysis of the Iranian Coup created by the USA's Federal government in conjunction with the CIA and its paid allies in Iran in 1953 is a bloody past, a chronicle of coup after coop. This paper is a serious analysis of history, not a work of propaganda. Now we are in November of a new century which could come to a deadly end in the stand-off between the Iranian Islamic Republic and the malevolent creation of a Fascist American regime. As the ancient Persian proverb goes, "Every man is the smith of his own fortune." I take that apply to the fortunes of a nation as well, a nation which interferes in the internal affairs of nation after nation after nation.             


[i]  What Kermit Roosevelt Didn't Say Archived February 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.

[iii] Ibid.  

[iv] Darioush Bayandor, IRAN AND THE CIA The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 118. 

[v] Ibid, 119.

[vi] Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup 1953, THE CIA, AND THE ROOTS OF MODERN U.S.-IRANIAN RELATIONS (New York & London, The New Press, 2013), 81. 

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina