In an extract from A Brief History of Western Intervention in Iran, Mayer Wakefield gives a brief account of 1953’s events

Mayer Wakefield

Churchill with President-elect Eisenhower and their mutual friend, Bernard Baruch, January 1953

With Eisenhower replacing Truman as President in January 1953, Mossaddeq wrote to ‘General Ike’ with an impassioned plea to support the nationalist cause in Iran:

“For almost two years the Iranian people have suffered acute distress and much misery merely because a company inspired by covetousness and a desire for profit supported by the British government has been endeavouring to prevent them from obtaining their natural and elementary rights.”[i]

He would not be the last leader of an oil-rich nation to learn that, in the words of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, “the United States of America does not have friends; it has interests”[ii]. With advisors like Dulles around his table, the Tudeh Party continuing to grow in popularity and the Churchill government still coveting US backing, Eisenhower’s ears were beginning to prick.

In May 1953 plans for a coup were set in motion at a meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus between the US and British secret intelligence services. By July, Eisenhower and Churchill had signed off the plans and the ball was rolling.

Operation Ajax took place over the course two weeks in August 1953, but it was not until 60 years later that the CIA officially confirmed its centrality to the operation[iii].

“The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”[iv]

The British Secret Intelligence Service ran Operation Boot concurrently and together they brought down Mossaddeq’s democratically elected government using tactics that are now familiar to all countries who have found themselves at the sharp end of Western intervention in the past 70 years.

Both nations utilised their propaganda machines to full capacity with the BBC playing a particularly pernicious role in destabilising the Mossaddeq government. A 2005 Radio 4 documentary entitled A Very British Coup revealed the decisive role BBC Persia played:

“The BBC was used to spearhead Britain’s propaganda campaign. In fact, Auntie agreed to broadcast the very code word that was to spark revolution.”[v]

The intelligence agencies approached a range of influential figures in Iranian society including generals, clerics and newspaper editors to disseminate anti-government falsehoods. Meanwhile, in order to counter huge pro-Mossaddeq demonstrations in Tehran following his overwhelming victory in a referendum the CIA recruited mobs to attack pro-government newspapers, radio stations and government buildings.

On the decisive day of August 19th 1953 tanks and soldiers appeared in the streets – giving lifts to Mossaddeq’s headquarters for those willing to cause trouble. A five-hour battle ensued outside in which more than 100 people were killed. Eventually the former Prime Minister’s house was looted and burned. The following day he turned himself in and was replaced immediately by General Zahedi, who had been hand-picked by the Western powers.

The coup d’état was complete as Mohammad Reza Shah returned from Rome to take the throne and the US government agreed $45 million in aid to the government before September had sprung.

The following September saw the signing of the Consortium Agreement. The agreement resulted in the founding of Iranian Oil Participants Ltd – a syndicate of British, US, Dutch and French oil giants which between them took ownership of all of Iran’s oil. The consortium agreed to split the profits on a fifty-fifty basis with Iran, “but not to open its books to Iranian auditors or to allow Iranians onto its board of directors”[vi]. With the oil sewn up it was job done from a Western perspective.

The long-term ramifications of this coup in terms of relations between Iran and the West simply cannot be understated. Somewhat surprisingly, Democrat Senator, Jay Rockefeller, summed it up its immediacy in a 2006 speech:

“To understand Iran, you must understand that for Iranians, this event happened last night. It is of the moment. It defines us, even for what we did so many years ago.”[vii]

This is perfectly illustrated in a 2019 tweet from current Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he said:

“66 years ago, today, a coup instigated by the US and the UK overthrew the democratically-elected Government of Iran. This atrocity followed years of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iranians. Our people put an end to such interference in 1979. Time for some to deal with this reality.”[viii]

Zarif undoubtedly oversimplifies the revolution of 1979 but what cannot be denied is the fact that it followed 26 years of brutally repressive governance under the Shah. An Amnesty International report from 1976 said that “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”[ix] Corruption was rife, and the CIA were funnelling huge payments to the ayatollahs in exchange for what historian William Blum called the “absence of dissent”[x].

You can purchase a copy of A Brief History of Western Intervention in Iran here


[i] Stephen E. Ambrose, ‘Ike’s Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment’, (Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1999)

[ii] Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, ‘Iran’s George Washington: Remembering and Preserving the Legacy of 1953’, MIT International Review, 2008 <>

[iii] Malcolm Byrne, ‘CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup’, National Security Archive, 2013 <>

[iv] Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup’, The Guardian, 2013 <>

[v] Hamid Dabashi, ‘When the BBC did fake news’, Al-Jazeera, 23 November 2018 <>

[vi] Stephen Kinzer, ‘All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror’, (Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons)

[vii] Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, ‘Iran’s George Washington: Remembering and Preserving the Legacy of 1953’, MIT International Review, 2008 <>

[viii] Javad Zarif, 19 August 2019, <>

[ix] William Blum, ‘Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II’, (London: Zed Books, 2003)

[x] ibid


19 Aug 2020 by Mayer Wakefield

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