'Regime change' led to hatred of U.S.
How CIA overthrew Iranian gov't in 1953
By Sako Sefiani
It has now been 51 years since a U.S. coup on Aug. 19, 1953,
overthrew a democratically elected prime minister in Iran and
brought the despised dictator, the Shah, back to power to rule
with absolute despotism for another 26 years.
Four years ago the New York Times obtained a copy of the
still-classified CIA secret history of that coup. That history,
according to a Times article by James Risen published on April
16, 2000, and available on the Web (search Google for New York
Times Special Report: The C.I.A. in Iran), reveals the inner
workings of a plot that set the stage for the Islamic
Revolution 26 years later and for a generation of anti-U.S.
hatred in one of the Middle East's most powerful countries.
The document discloses how the United States, in order to
gain control over Iran's oil and expand its dominance in the
region, plotted and executed the coup in collaboration with
Britain. The CIA has refused to make some files public,
claiming they were destroyed in early 1960s.
This was the first successful regime change by the United
States. Washington was to carry out many more. The next one
came the following year in Guatemala.
A short history
Restive under decades of British colonial domination,
nationalism had grown among the Iranian people. In 1951, Iran's
parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry. Legislators
backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Moham med
Mossadegh, as prime minister.
Britain responded with threats and sanctions. Prime Minister
Mossadegh refused to back down. So British intelligence
officials proposed a joint plan to oust him to their U.S.
The newly inaugurated Eisenhower administration became
especially interested when it learned that the Iranian
communist party--the Tudeh Party--was strong, active and
growing in popularity.
CIA Director Allen W. Dulles approved $1 million to be used
"in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh. The
aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an
equitable oil settlement ... and which would vigorously
prosecute the dangerously strong communist party."
Within days, agency officials identified a high-ranking
officer, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, as the person to spearhead a
coup. Their plan called for the shah to play a leading role.
But the young shah wanted to continue his kingdom and was
afraid of losing his throne if he went against the wishes of
the people and the parliament, so he was very reluctant to go
along. He was to be pressured and threatened to participate in
According to the document obtained by the Times, CIA
officials began planting anti-Mossadegh articles in the local
press. The coup began on the night of Aug. 15. At first, it did
not succeed and General Za hedi, who was to replace Dr.
But Kermit Roosevelt, the Middle East envoy at the time and
grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, tracked Zahedi down and
convinced him that the coup could still succeed if they could
persuade the public that he was the lawful prime minister.
(Roosevelt, by the way, became a vice president of Gulf Oil
after he retired from the CIA in 1958.)
To accomplish that, they had to get out the news that the
shah had dismissed Mossadegh and appointed Zahedi. So the CIA
station in Tehran sent a message to the Associated Press in New
York, asserting that "unofficial reports are current to the
effect that leaders of the plot are armed with two decrees of
the Shah, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other appointing
Zahedi to replace him." The CIA and its agents also arranged
for the decrees to be mentioned in some Tehran papers.
On Aug. 16, prospects for reviving the operation were dealt
a seemingly fatal blow when it was learned that the shah had
fled to Baghdad--because people were pouring into the streets
when they learned of the coup.
People rioted in the streets for three days. They dismantled
the statues of the shah and his father.
The CIA gave up on the operation. But Roosevelt insisted
that there was still a chance for success if the shah would
broadcast an address on the Baghdad radio, and if Zahedi took
an aggressive stand.
On the morning of Aug. 17, the shah finally announced from
Baghdad that he had signed the decrees.
Believing that the shah's departure and the arrests of some
officers involved in the coup had removed the danger, Dr.
Mossadegh let his guard down. The government recalled most
troops it had stationed around the city.
That night the CIA arranged for Zahedi and other army
officers to be smuggled into the embassy compound for a
"council of war."
They agreed to start a counterattack on Aug. 19. Using
travel papers forged by the CIA, key army officers went to
outlying army garrisons to persuade commanders to join the
coup. But once again, the shah disappointed the CIA when he
left Baghdad for Italy as his exile.
CIA forges 'iron hand'
On the morning of Aug. 19, several Tehran newspapers
published the shah's decrees. Soon pro-shah crowds were
building in the streets.
"They needed only leadership," the secret history says. And
Iranian agents of the CIA provided it.
One of the agency's most important Iranian agents led a
crowd toward Parlia ment, inciting people to set fire to the
offices of a newspaper owned by Mossa degh's foreign
Another Iranian CIA agent led a crowd to sack the offices of
pro-Tudeh news papers.
Iranians working for the CIA and posing as communists
harassed religious leaders and staged the bombing of one
cleric's home in a campaign to turn the country's Islamic
religious community against Mossadegh's government.
"By 10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military
personnel at all the main squares," the secret history
By noon the crowds began to receive direct leadership from a
few officers involved in the plot. Within an hour the central
telegraph office fell. Telegrams were sent to the provinces
urging a pro-shah uprising. After a brief shootout, police
headquarters and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell as
The Tehran radio remained the biggest prize. Army officers
and police overwhelmed the radio station. Pro-shah speakers
went on the air, broadcasting the coup's success and reading
the royal decrees.
At the embassy, CIA officers were elated. Kermit Roosevelt
got Zahedi out of hiding and took him to the radio station,
where he spoke to the nation.
Dr. Mossadegh and other government officials were rounded
up. Officers supporting Zahedi placed "known supporters" of the
coup in command of all units of the Tehran garrison.
The shah returned to rule with an iron hand, taking orders
from his bosses in Washington.
CIA and the U.S. media
Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported
that some of the unrest had been stage managed by CIA agents
posing as communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate
contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on Moscow
radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the
shah's return to power.
In one instance, the history indicates, the CIA was
apparently able to use contacts at the Associated Press to put
on the news wire a statement from Tehran about royal decrees
that the CIA itself had written.
But mostly, the agency relied on less direct means to
exploit the media.
The Iran desk of the State Department, the document says,
was able to place a CIA study in Newsweek, "using the normal
channel of desk officer to journalist." The article was one of
several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran,
fed the "war of nerves" against Moham med Mossadegh.
The history discloses that a CIA officer, working under
cover as the embassy's press officer, drove two U.S. reporters
to a house outside Tehran where they were shown the shah's
decrees dismissing the prime minister.
Kennett Love, the New York Times reporter in Tehran during
the coup, wrote about the royal decrees in the newspaper the
next day, without mentioning how he had seen them. In an
interview, he said he had agreed to the embassy official's
ground rules that he not report the U.S. role in arranging the
After the coup succeeded, Love did in one article briefly
refer to Iranian press reports of U.S. involvement. And the New
York Times also published an article from Moscow reporting
Soviet charges that the United States was behind the coup. But
neither the Times nor other U.S. news organizations appears to
have examined such charges seriously.
Love said: "I wanted to let Freedman [his boss] know that I
knew there had been U.S. involvement in the coup, but that I
hadn't written about it. I expected him to say, 'Jump on that
story.' But there was no response."
Long live solidarity!
Twenty-six years later, during the revolution of 1979, the
Iranian people overthrew the shah and the Islamic Republic was
born. When the students in Tehran overran the U.S. Embassy and
took the staff hostage, demanding the return of the shah to
face trial, this writer was in Illinois on a student visa. From
many people's treatment of me and other Iranians, it was
obvious that the people of the United States had been kept in
the dark--either due to CIA and Pentagon manipulations of U.S.
corporate media or the latter's complacency and
Such anti-democratic and repressive policies, which at times
have been outright war crimes and have cost the lives of untold
numbers of innocent people in various countries, and which
continue to this day, have been committed through the decades
in all corners of the world by both Republican and Democratic
administrations. And they have caused a tremendous level of ill
will, mistrust and hatred toward the United States.
Only the people--not the Democrats, not the Congress and not
the courts--can change the policies and priorities of this
government, by organizing and building a movement to challenge
the corporate government on the streets, just as was done
during the civil-rights movement a few decades ago.
Only the people can stop this government in its tracks and
redirect the billions of dollars spent every year to wage war
on the poor of the world in the interest of trans national
corporations, can force them to spend it instead on jobs,
health care, edu cation, housing, retirement and other social
programs that will benefit the people.
On Oct. 17, when workers from all over the country march on
Washington in the Million Worker March, I will be thinking
about the day when the CIA, unbeknownst to the people of the
United States, overthrew our popular prime minister and imposed
the will of the Empire on us.
I will view the march of the U.S. workers as the
long-awaited answer to Washington: "We are the workers and we
will not let you oppress our sisters and brothers overseas for
the benefit of the corporations anymore!"
Long live solidarity among workers of all nations, that
sends shivers down the spine of the Empire!
Reprinted from the Sept. 2, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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