The United States Overthrew Iran’s Last Democratic LeaderRoundup
tags: Iran, diplomatic history, Mohammad Mosaddeq
Roham Alvandi is an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War and editor of The Age of Aryamehr: Late Pahlavi Iran and Its Global Entanglements.
Mark J. Gasiorowski is a professor of political science at Tulane University and the author of U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah and co-editor (with Malcolm Byrne) of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran.
Mohammad Mosaddeq is a name that evokes strong emotions in the average Iranian. A charismatic French- and Swiss-educated lawyer from an aristocratic family, Mosaddeq served two terms as prime minister of Iran from 1951, when he led the movement to nationalize the British-controlled Iranian oil industry, until August 1953, when his government was toppled by a royalist military coup backed by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
The nationalization of Iranian oil was not only a blow to Britain’s economic interests in Iran but to the very survival of the British Empire in the Middle East. While U.S. President Harry Truman encouraged British Prime Ministers Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill to compromise with Mosaddeq, even hosting the Iranian premier in Washington in October 1951, the United States eventually lost patience as Anglo-Iranian negotiations failed. Fearing that continuing crisis and instability in Iran would lead to a takeover by Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, the newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the CIA to topple Mosaddeq in 1953.
The coup transformed Iran’s constitutional monarchy, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into a royal dictatorship that was later toppled in a popular revolution in 1979. For most Iranians, Mosaddeq remains an evocative national hero because of his staunch defense of Iran’s sovereignty over its most vital national resource—oil—in the face of the declining British Empire’s stubborn refusal to let go of an extremely valuable overseas asset. For many liberal Iranians who still dream of a democratic Iran, he also remains a symbol of civic nationalism and constitutionalism because of his demand that the shah should reign but not rule.
The lingering trauma of 1953 is powerfully evoked in Taghi Amirani’s new documentary film, Coup 53. Amirani’s film builds on the research that went into the 1985 End of Empire documentary series for British television, revealing tantalizing details about the role of the SIS in the coup. In the Paris basement of Mosaddeq’s grandson, Amirani discovered the transcript of an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the SIS officer who helped devise the coup plan, that was mysteriously cut from the 1985 broadcast.
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