Revolution #90, May 27, 2007

Background to Confrontation:

The U.S. & Iran: A History of Imperialist Domination, Intrigue and Intervention

Part 2: The U.S. Seizes Control in Iran: The CIA’S 1953 Coup D’etat

For over 100 years imperialist domination of Iran has been enforced by the U.S. and other powers through covert intrigues, economic bullying, and outright military assaults, even invasions. This history is crucial to understanding the real motives for U.S. threats today—including the real threat of war, even nuclear war. Part I of this series explored the rivalry between European imperialists over who would rob Iran of its oil and viciously exploit the people of the country up to and after World War 1. Part II exposes how in the aftermath of World War II, based on emerging as the dominant power in the world, the U.S. overthrew the nationalist secular government of Mohammed Mossadegh, and installed the brutal and oppressive rule of a loyal administrator— the Shah in Iran.

The U.S. Seizes Control In Iran: The 1953 CIA Coup

Based on its position as the number one global power coming out of World War 2, the U.S. moved throughout the world to rip colonies away from its rivals and institute oppressive relations with much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Iran was a key prize. In 1953 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated a coup d’etat that returned Iran’s monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to power. This was a turning point in Iranian — and Middle East — history. The coup put a brutal tyrant and U.S. client on the throne, crushed his opponents, and turned Iran into a key client of U.S. imperialism. It signaled the U.S. ascent to regional dominance, taking over from Britain. And it planted the seeds for Iran’s 1979 revolution, which brought Islamic fundamentalist clerics to power — ushering in the new, tense and dangerous chapter in U.S.-Iranian relations we’re in today.

Oil, The Middle East & The Rise Of U.S. Imperialism

Petroleum’s military and economic importance grew enormously after World War 1. New oil-based industries, such as auto, rubber, petro-chemicals, and plastics, had arisen and expanded. The economies and militaries of the U.S., Europe, and Japan were more and more dependent on petroleum. A 1944 U.S. State Department memo called oil “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

During World War 2, the U.S. rulers focused increasing attention on the Middle East because of its strategic location at the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe, and because most of the world’s oil reserves are located there. U.S. strategists realized that controlling this region was crucial not only to winning the war, but to emerging as the globe’s dominant imperialist power afterward as well.

Seizing Middle East dominance meant first, edging out the British and French as the region’s dominant power. Second, containing or suppressing the post-war nationalist and anti-imperialist movements rising across the region. Third, preventing the then-socialist Soviet Union from gaining influence or power.

All three of these challenges came together — very sharply — in Iran after the war’s end.

In 1946, the first post-war confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union took place over Iran. At the time Britain still occupied southern Iran and the Soviet Union occupied the north (where it had helped set up Soviet Republics, really mini-states, in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan). The wartime alliance between the U.S. and the Soviets was breaking down and turning into all-out hostility and the Cold War. President Harry Truman wrote: “[I]f the Russians were to control Iran’s oil, either directly or indirectly, the raw material balance of the world would undergo serious damage and it would be a serious loss for the economy of the western world.” ** Amin Saikal, The Rise and Fall of the Shah, p. 33. [For an important discussion of the real nature of World War 2, and the role of the U.S. in that war, see “Bringing Forward Another Way,” by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA— in particular Part 6 — available at]

Truman considered Iran so strategically crucial that he threatened to drop a “super-bomb” — a nuclear weapon — if Soviet forces didn’t withdraw. This was no idle threat; the year before the U.S. had dropped not one, but two atomic bombs on Japan. Soviet forces soon withdrew.

Iran: Mass Anger & Oil Nationalization

Iranians had suffered enormously as a result of what one historian called “social disorder, political disarray, and economic hardship,” during World War 2. (Saikal, p. 26) When the war ended, Iran’s political instability continued, along with a rising tide of anger against British imperialism.

This anger focused on the enormous gap between the riches Britain reaped from Iran’s vast oil wealth (which the British still exclusively controlled) on the one side, and the paltry sums paid Iran and the crippling poverty which was the lot of most Iranians on the other. For instance, in 1947, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company reported an after-tax profit of £40 million ($112 million in U.S. dollars), while paying Iran only £7 million. (Stephen Kinzer, “All The Shah’s Men,” p. 67)

Conditions for oil workers were so bad that riots broke out in Abadan (where most oil production took place) in 1946 after striking workers were attacked by criminal gangs organized by the British. On May First, International Workers Day, 1946, tens of thousands of people marched in Tehran and Abadan under the leadership of Iran’s Tudeh Party (a non-revolutionary, pro-Soviet communist party). (Kinzer pp. 52, 65)

By the late 1940s, a broad movement to take control of the country’s oil wealth was gaining momentum. It coalesced in the National Front, a diverse alliance under the leadership of a bourgeois nationalist politician, Mohammed Mossadegh. By April 1951, Mossadegh had enough support to pass a bill in Iran’s parliament (Majlis) nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi felt compelled to sign. A week later, Mossadegh was named Prime Minister. Iran’s nationalization was a defiant and unprecedented act in the Middle East, where oil production was controlled and run by foreign imperialist monopolies.

Britain & The U.S. Lash Back

Iran’s oil nationalization struck at key British imperialist interests: AIOC was the largest single overseas commercial asset of the British empire and a crucial source of oil. The British worried that the nationalization could ripple through the region and prove a telling blow to their empire, already reeling in the aftermath of World War 2.

The British struck back by organizing an international boycott of Iranian oil, going to international courts, and by covertly organizing to overthrow Mossadegh. After initially standing aside, by 1953 the U.S. joined the British in plotting a coup. The U.S.-Soviet confrontation was growing very sharp and U.S. officials were concerned that Iran was in danger of falling under Soviet control, and that only a "regime change" would cure the problem.

The CIA put Kermit Roosevelt (President Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson) in charge of the operation inside Iran and on April 4, 1953 allocated $1 million to “bring about the fall of Mossadegh,” and “bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party." (Declassified CIA history at:

Mossadegh and the oil nationalization were widely popular — in 1951 the nationalization was unanimously approved by the Majlis and in 1953 Mossadegh won a national plebescite by a landslide — and the British were widely hated. (Kinzer, pp. 82, 165) So the CIA moved methodically to forge an anti-Mossadegh alliance, which included monarchists, military leaders, and other propertied Iranians, while dividing and weakening Mossadegh’s National Front.

The National Front was a loose coalition of diverse political forces, including the Tudeh Party, Iranian nationalists and ultra-nationalists, and Islamic fundamentalists. The U.S. and British paid particular attention to winning over the Islamic fundamentalist forces grouped around Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqassem Kashani (a mentor of Ayatollah Khomeini, who would take power in the 1979 revolution). These clerics had been hostile to the Shah’s father Reza for undercutting Islamic institutions and tradition. They initially joined the anti-Shah alliance, bringing their considerable influence among the impoverished urban masses. But the clerics feared the growing influence of the Tudeh Party, which Mossadegh tolerated for his own purposes, much more. This concern, plus hefty bribes by the U.S. and British, led them to turn against Mossadegh and support the CIA-led coup.

The British-led boycott of Iran’s oil was wearing on Iran’s propertied strata. Using Iranian operatives, the CIA also organized incidents and spread propaganda aimed at confusing and paralyzing the population, and turning them against Mossadegh.

August 19, 1953 — A Day Of Infamy In Iran

On August 15, 1953, after months of organizing, the Shah signed orders to arrest Mossadegh and appointed the pro-U.S. General Zahedi as Prime Minister. CIA operatives in Tehran broadly publicized the Shah’s order to oust Mossadegh. Bribes were paid to military officers and $50,000 was handed out to organize criminal gangs to rampage through Tehran's streets, while shouting pro-Mossadegh slogans. Then pro-coup police units were sent to break up the "mobs" and to restore order.

On August 19, CIA-paid gangs began taking over public squares and shouting, "Long live the Shah! Death to Mossadegh!" A military assault began against Mossadegh's residence, and after many attackers were killed, an army unit with tanks broke through to capture the house. Mossadegh escaped, but surrendered after it was clear all was lost. General Zahedi rode to Radio Tehran atop a tank to proclaim his victory. The Shah told Roosevelt, ”I owe my throne to God, my people, my army — and to you.” (Kermit Roosevelt, "Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran," p. 199-202).

The Coup’s Bitter Aftermath

After the coup, the name of Iran’s new nationalized oil company — National Iranian Oil Company — was kept, but full control of production and sale of Iran’s oil was returned to a consortium of international oil corporations, which now included five American oil giants. They were given 40 percent of Iran’s oil, Anglo-Iranian Oil’s (later renamed British Petroleum) share was reduced to 40 percent, and French and Dutch companies were given the other 20 percent. Rising nationalism in Iran and across the region had forced the oil giants to raise Iran’s cut of oil profits to 50 percent, but Iranians were not allowed to inspect the books, and one oil historian called the deal “one of the most attractive contracts of the oil industry in the Middle East, as far as terms of payment are concerned.” (Kinzer, p. 196; Larry Everest, Oil, Power & Empire, p. 44; Rashid Khalid, “Resurrecting Empire,” p. 91.)

The Shah was, for the first time, firmly in power, thanks to the U.S., and his opponents were dispersed, demoralized, or suppressed. He reigned for the next 25 years, a loyal instrument of American imperialism in Iran and the region, his rule enforced by brutality and terror.

The 1953 coup profoundly impacted Iranian politics and consciousness — a day of infamy to millions — for decades afterward, and planted seeds that would grow into the 1979 revolution.

Next : The Shah’s reign: What U.S. imperialist domination meant for Iranians.

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