Sometimes when I read about historical events I get a strong desire, borne of frustration, to be able to transport myself to the place a key decision was made, look decision makers in the eye, and show them proof that what their decision will be calamitous. I’ve long felt this was about UN inaction in Rwanda in 1994, for example. And now I can add the British and American engineered Iranian coup of 1953.
I’ve read several accounts recently, and the story is pretty much agreed. It is also extensively evidenced in documents that were leaked to the New York Times in 2000.
In the 1950s Iran was moving towards democracy, maybe not the purest but certainly not the worst in the region. A populist Prime Minister called Mossaddegh was elected, partly on a platform of renegotiating the oil concessions of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. You probably know it as BP. Whereas the Americans in Saudi Arabia were sharing oil revenues fifty/fifty with locals, AOIC was taking 92%. Iranians were getting pissed.
Mossaddegh resolved to cancel the AIOC contract, effectively ending British access to Iranian oil. The British cried foul but the International Court of Justice, and at first, at least, the Americas, took Iran’s side. The contract was between companies, not states, and Mossaddegh was planning to pay compensation to effectively buy the contract out.
The British managed to pivot the narrative. Mossedegh was nationalising oil, they said, and that meant he was probably a communist sympathiser. There’s evidence that the British, and the CIA agents they were trying to rile, didn’t really believe this, but with the Soviets on Iran’s northern border and the domino theory very much in vogue, this poke was enough to get the wheels of a coup moving.
Like something out of Homeland, MI6 and the CIA cultivated and corrupted individuals they thought would be keen to overthrow democracy and return to the rule of the hereditary Shah. A couple of million dollars was enough to get this done. In 1953 these folks successfully executed a broadly bloodless coup, reinstated the Shah, and got oil flowing to the British again.
There were three serious, and inter-locking problems associated with the coup, and that’s not even counting its motivations. First, the Shah wasn’t a very nice guy, nor a very competent ruler. Without a genuine mandate his regime was authoritarian and barbaric with its opponents. He was liberal and reforming, but his subjects didn’t look to the West like he did. Second, the instigators of the coup that the Shah appointed to run the country were, pretty much by definition, the most corruptible officials around. They didn’t do a great job. Finally, America’s fingerprints were clearly all over the coup. This was an affront to Iranian nationalism, undermined the authority of the Shah, and festered into the 1979 revolution and Iran’s transition to an Islamic Republic.
The consequences of the coup linger today in the popular anti-Americanism here. The fear of foreign influence which leads Iran to have a strident and aggressively independent foreign policy. And, in what is perhaps the richest irony, the oil that British spies were so evil to secure, is beyond their reach because of sanctions they’ve put in place against the new Iranian regime. It still gets sold, though, mostly to Iran’s biggest customer, China.