How does a coup start? Usually with a tyrannical leader, severe injustice and a population that has been pushed to breaking point. Alternatively, it might start with a democratically elected leader that is ousted to boost the power of a monarch and serve the interests of people that don’t actually live in that country. That’s what happened in Iran in 1953. But before we get into that we need to roll back a few years to the creation of everybody’s favourite environmentalist group, British Petroleum.
In 1901, a British man decided that he might want to do some mining in Iran. He met with the king of Iran (it was Persia back then) and they agreed that William Knox D’Arcy would be given rights to search for petrol for 60 years, and pay £20,000 for the privilege. These days that would be around the sum of £12 million. The king got a pretty raw deal because he was only offered 16% of any profits that the British made. By 1907, Mr. D’Arcy had transferred ownership of the oil rights into the name of the British Burma-Oil company. A year later, they hit oil.
Everybody got distracted for a while when World War One happened but in the aftermath, the world was being reorganized and Iran thought they would see what they could get out of it. They didn’t ask for much, they simply wanted a small portion of the profits from oil that was in their country. They were effectively told to do one and nothing much changed.
When World War Two broke out, Iran made the sensible decision to stay well away. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really their choice. Stalin had spent the last few years ploughing all of his resources into building massive amounts of war machines, which he now realized needed fuel. Iran had plenty, and they also had the Trans-Iranian railway that went through to Russia. So, Britain and Russia decided to invade Iran and kick out the Shah.
After the end of the war, Britain left Iran but Stalin decided he wanted to stay because he was interested in the black stuff. America decided to stick their oar in at this point because if Stalin wanted something, they suddenly decided that they wanted it as well. After a lot of pushing, they managed to get rid of Russian forces but Stalin continued backing pro-communist groups in the country.
In the post-war period, Iranian nationalism was growing in strength and people, again, started to ask for a bit more control over their own oil. Nationalist leaders didn’t trust the British to even pay the tiny amount that they did owe to Iran. They asked to audit the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (it changed names about a hundred times before it morphed into BP) but they refused. They had nothing to hide, but they just didn’t want anybody to know that they had nothing to hide. The Iranians were getting fed up of the British exploiting them, and pissed off with their government for not doing anything about it.
A prominent politician called Mohammed Mossadegh thought that Iran’s government should operate like the model of many European countries: a figurehead monarch that had no real power, with the decisions being made by the elected parliaments. Mossadegh created the National Front (not the same as the unsavoury one over here) as a way to wrest power away from the Shah, who had power to override all of the elected bodies in government. Beyond that, their main policy was the nationalization of the Oil industry. In just a few years, they’d managed to fill most of the positions in the elected bodies in government, it seemed like people wanted paying for the resources that they sold. The current prime minister was opposed to oil nationalization, so somebody murdered him. No prizes for guessing who succeeded him.
Mossadegh decided, as his first act as prime minister, he would salt the wound by pardoning and releasing the man that assassinated his predecessor.
In 1951, parliament approved oil nationalization and Mossadegh went to the British with a deal. He was very generous to offer them a 50/50 split, considering it was 100 percent his. But the British got greedy and viewed the nationalization as a breach of contract. The USA were also a bit worried because if Britain didn’t have any sway over the oil fields, there was a chance that Russia might get a look in. The initial reaction was to impose massive sanctions on Iran. Then they tried to fight it in the International Court of Justice but they were told they had no case there either. Since all of the legal avenues had failed, British authorities starting scheming.
The Shah was getting increasingly wound up by Mossadegh’s attempts to curb his power but to start with, he didn’t do much more than grumble.
Meanwhile, Stalin was backing a communist party in which was gaining ground, hence America’s interest. Thus, a plot to overthrow the Iranian government and replace it with something more favourable, was born. America, in their traditional style, would call it something ridiculous: Operation Ajax. Britain on the other hand called it, Operation Boot because, you know, we were giving him the boot.
We were kind enough to wait for permission before starting a coup, which the Shah didn’t give to start with. Then Mossadegh decided to dissolve parliament, giving all power to himself and his elected cabinet, leaving the Shah with no sway whatsoever. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the Shah gave the go ahead to the CIA who started pumping money into stirring up beef against Mossadegh.
They drew up a decree to sack Mossadegh and replace him with a General Zahedi. They got the Shah to sign it, just before he buggered off on holiday with his wife, and sent a messenger to deliver it to Mossadegh. He ignored it and all of his supporters started kicking off. The attempted coup fell flat. The Shah ran away to Baghdad and eventually managed to get safe passage back to America.
Zahedi started stomping about shouting about how he was the rightful prime minister but nobody was listening so he came up with a sneaky plan. People were already a little worried about the prospect of a communist revolution and he decided to capitalize on it. Infiltrators, hired with CIA money, were sent to the pro-communist groups to encourage them to start a revolution. They took the bait and started smashing up any symbol of capitalism they could find. Amidst the chaos, the CIA and Zahedi started the second phase of their scheme. They hired more infiltrators but this time they were sent to the damaged areas to stir up fears of the communist revolution and convince everyday Iranians that their only option was to revolt themselves and get rid of Mossadegh. Massive crowds took to the streets and battered the communists before turning on the government. By lunchtime, the army had joined them and that was pretty much it. After a tank levelled his house, Mossadegh ran off but he turned himself in a few days later. Zahedi replaced him as prime minister and he was sentenced to three years in prison and then put under house arrest for the rest of his life.
And that’s the story of how western ambitions completely uprooted the politics of a country halfway across the world. It’s a good thing that never happened again.