When Iranians took U.S. officials hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Americans were mystified and angry, not being able to comprehend how Iranians could be so hateful toward U.S. officials, especially since the U.S. government had been so supportive of the shah of Iran for some 25 years. What the American people failed to realize is that the deep anger and hatred that the Iranian people had in 1979 against the U.S. government was rooted in a horrible, anti-democratic act that the U.S. government committed in 1953. That was the year the CIA secretly and surreptitiously ousted the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, a man named Mohammad Mossadegh, from power, followed by the U.S. government’s ardent support of the shah of Iran’s dictatorship for the next 25 years.
Today, very few Americans have ever heard of Mohammad Mossadegh, but that wasn’t the case in 1953. At that time, Mossadegh was one of the most famous figures in the world. Here’s the way veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer decribes him in his book All the Shah’s Men:
In his time, Mohammad Mossadegh was a titanic figure. He shook an empire and changed the world. People everywhere knew his name. World leaders sought to influence him and later to depose him. No one was surprised when Time magazine chose him over Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Winston Churchill as its Man of the Year for 1951.
(Kinzer’s book, published in 2003, is an excellent account of the CIA coup; much of this article is based on his book.)
There were two major problems with Mossadegh, however, as far as both the British and American governments were concerned. First, as an ardent nationalist he was a driving force behind an Iranian attempt to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British company that had held a monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil since the early part of the 20th century. Second, fiercely independent, Mossadegh refused to do the bidding of the U.S. government, which by this time had become fearful that Mossadegh might align Iran with America’s World War II ally and post–World War II enemy, the Soviet Union.
As Kinzer puts it,
Historic as Mossadegh’s rise to power was for Iranians, it was at least as stunning for the British. They were used to manipulating Iranian prime ministers like chess pieces, and now, suddenly, they faced one who seemed to hate them…. [U.S. presidential envoy Averell] Harriman paid a call on the Shah before leaving Tehran, and during their meeting he made a discreet suggestion. Since Mossadegh was making it impossible to resolve the [Anglo-American Oil Company] crisis on a basis acceptable to the West, he said, Mossadegh might have to be removed. Harriman knew the Shah had no way of removing Mossadegh at that moment. By bringing up the subject, however, he foreshadowed American involvement in the coup two years later.
The 1953 CIA coup in Iran was named “Operation Ajax” and was engineered by a CIA agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. Capitalizing on the oil-nationalization showdown between Iran and Great Britain, which had thrown Iran into chaos and crisis, Kermit Roosevelt skillfully used a combination of bribery of Iranian military officials and CIA-engendered street protests to pull off the coup.
The first stage of the coup, however, was unsuccessful, and the shah, who had partnered with the CIA to oust Mossadegh from office, fled Tehran in fear of his life. However, in the second stage of the coup a few days later, the CIA achieved its goal, enabling the shah to return to Iran in triumph … and with a subsequent 25-year, U.S.-supported dictatorship, which included one of the world’s most terrifying and torturous secret police, the Savak.
For years, the U.S. government, including the CIA, kept what it had done in Iran secret from the American people and the world, although the Iranian people long suspected CIA involvement. U.S. officials, not surprisingly, considered the operation one of their greatest foreign-policy successes … until, that is, the enormous convulsion that rocked Iranian society with the violent ouster of the shah and the installation of a virulently anti-American Islamic regime in 1979.
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of anger and hatred that the Iranian people had for the U.S. government in 1979, not only because their world-famous democratically elected prime minister had been ousted by the CIA but also for having had to live for the following 25 years under a brutal and torturous dictatorship, a U.S.-government-supported dictatorship that also offended many Iranians with its policies of Westernization. In fact, the reason that the Iranian students took control of the U.S. embassy after the violent ouster of the shah in 1979 was their genuine fear that the U.S. government would repeat what it had done in 1953.
Imagine, for example, that it turned out that a foreign regime had secretly and surreptitiously ousted President Kennedy from office because of his refusal to do the bidding of that foreign regime. What would have been the response of the American people toward that government?
Indeed, imagine that the CIA had ousted Kennedy to protect our “national security,” given what some in the CIA believed to be Kennedy’s “soft-on-communism” mind-set, evidenced, for example, by his refusal to provide air support at the Bay of Pigs, which resulted in the CIA’s failure to oust communist Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. What would have been the response of the American people to that?
At the time of the CIA coup, Iran was in fact in crisis and chaos. But democracy is oftentimes messy and unpredictable, and it no more guarantees freedom and economic stability than authoritarianism or totalitarianism does. (Think about the crisis and economic instability during America’s Great Depression along with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.) All democracy does is provide people with the means to bring about a peaceful transition of power. By violently injecting itself into Iran’s democratic process through its removal of their democratically elected prime minister, the U.S. government guaranteed the omnipotent dictatorship of the (unelected) shah, a dictatorship that would continue for the next 25 years, with the full support of the U.S. government. It was a convulsive event whose consequences continue to shake America and the world today.
As historian James Bill stated (quoted in Kinzer’s book),
[The coup] paved the way for the incubation of extremism, both of the left and of the right. This extremism became unalterably anti-American…. The fall of Mossadegh marked the end of a century of friendship between the two countries, and began a new era of U.S. intervention and growing hostility against the United States among the weakened forces of Iranian nationalism.
The coup brought the United States and the West a reliable Iran for twenty-five years. That was an undoubted triumph. But in view of what came later, and of the culture of covert action that seized hold of the American body politic in the coup’s wake, the triumph seems much tarnished. From the seething streets of Tehran and other Islamic capitals to the scenes of terror attacks around the world, Operation Ajax has left a haunting and terrible legacy.
Mohammad Mossadegh died in 1967 at the age of 82, having been under house arrest in his hometown of Ahmad Abad since the time of the 1953 CIA coup that ousted him from power. The shah of Iran, who would remain in power until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, would not permit any public funeral or other expression of mourning for Mossadegh.
In a speech delivered in March 2000 by Madeleine Albright (then secretary of state ), the U.S. government finally acknowledged what it had done to the Iranian people and to democracy in Iraq:
In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs. Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent. As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Not surprisingly, Albright’s “apology” fell on many deaf ears in Iran. While Iranians certainly have not forgotten the U.S. government’s support of Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s, including its furnishing Saddam with weapons of mass destruction to use against the Iranian people, the root of Iranian anger lies with the anti-democracy foreign policy of the U.S. government, by which U.S. officials ousted the Iranian people’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, from office in 1953.