It is safe bet that not too many people know about the stifling Tehran night in August 1953 when the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service conspired to overthrow a democratically elected government and its profoundly popular leader, with the enthusiastic participation of right-wing elements in the Iranian military and the unequivocal backing of President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill. But we perhaps should. It was a harbinger of events to come—all over the world—and remains to this day one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences. Given that it took place in the heart of the Middle East, you’ll be much less surprised to learn—if it is news to you—that it was all about oil.
The night of August the 15th that year was clear beneath a crescent moon in the Iranian capital. Just before midnight, a column with an armoured car, several jeeps and a couple of trucks full of soldiers set out through the slumbering city to arrest the Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, bearing only a legally questionable order from the Shah to appoint someone else in his stead.
The coup was the work of a young CIA officer called Kermit Roosevelt, who was so pleased with the clandestine derring-do that he and his colleagues displayed that he later wrote a book about it called Countercoup. It laid bare in disarming detail exactly what he had done and why.
But the story of that dramatic night began not with the US, but with the great Imperial power of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the British. In the late nineteenth century, a corrupt, debt-ridden and decaying Qajar dynasty sold a London-based financier called William Knox D’Arcy the ‘special and exclusive privilege’ to extract and export natural gas and petroleum for a term of sixty years. It was an act that has shaped relations between the two nations ever since.
It took D’Arcy a decade to strike oil, but his concession soon segued into the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which began to extract vast amounts of this precious resource from beneath Iranian soil. From the point of the view of the British Empire, this was a stunning development, which Churchill called a ‘prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams’. It did a great deal to keep the British Imperial fleet on the high seas. Unfortunately, it provided much less bounty for the people of Iran themselves, many still trapped in dire poverty. Iran’s royalty payment for 1920 might have thrilled the corrupt Qajar court but, fixed at a mere sixteen percent of the company’s profits, it did precious little to alter the country’s fortunes.
The winds of political change did episodically blow hard through Iran—as Shahs came and went—but by 1947 the renamed Anglo-Iranian company was still only paying £7 million into the Iranian treasury. And to make matters worse, the terrible conditions of many of the Iranian workers employed at the refinery in Abadan was a running national sore. The circumstances were obviously ripe for the rise of a national leader determined to strike a better deal and the Iranians duly got one in the charismatic figure of Mohammad Mossadegh, who was dramatically swept to power on a tide of anger.
Mossadegh demanded dramatic reform. And when he didn’t get it, he decided to nationalise Anglo-Iranian, to the ecstatic joy of many of his people. This enraged the British to the point that they considered an invasion, before settling for a blockade. The Iranian economy tanked and Mossadegh’s impassioned pleas to the United Nations and pretty much every other international forum did not sway them.
The British naturally wanted a pliant—or at least-co-operative—government back in power in Tehran and used their many agents to try and engineer Mossadegh’s removal. When he closed the embassy and expelled all its staff in 1952, they increasingly had to rely on their American allies. President Truman, no fan of the Imperialist mindset, gave them short shrift, but they had much better luck with President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers, whom Eisenhower had installed at State and the CIA respectively. All three were inclined—and not without reason—to see the world as it was developing in the early fifties as an elemental clash between the capitalist West and communist East. The British played up the threat of a growing communist party in Tehran and the proximity of the Soviet Union to cast the situation as a textbook example of this international rivalry, rather than being merely about the recovery of ‘their’ oil.
Historians still debate exactly how strong the Tudeh Party was in Iran or how seriously the Russians—who were, in the summer of 1953, anyway distracted by the recent death of Stalin—considered becoming involved again, having presided over one failed intervention at the end of the Second World War. What seems little in doubt is that the coup organised by the CIA that summer with British approval and contacts removed a genuinely popular and democratically elected leader who might have turned Iran into a defiantly neutral country in a tradition being pioneered by the leaders of India.
The armoured column failed in its task on the night of the 15th August, the first coup almost certainly betrayed by an officer loyal to Mossadegh. But the CIA officer in charge, Kermit Roosevelt, defied orders from Washington to leave and stayed on in Iran to try again, this time with greater success. His Operation Ajax, which involved the seduction of the Shah (who had to sign the questionable order appointing a loyal general, Zahedi, as Prime Minister) and the corruption of leaders at every level of Iranian government and society, did eventually achieve its aims. But the rest of the history we know; the Shah, for a time a reliable ally of the US, grew into a dictator whose inflexibility and repression led directly to the Iranian Revolution and its dire aftermath, from the hostage crisis to the hostile stand-off of the modern day.
The CIA used the Tehran 1953 playbook over and over again, in countries as diverse as South Vietnam, Guatemala and Chile. And historians will always debate which of the many US interventions in the Cold War were necessary and which examples of the wrong policy, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Would the Soviet Union ultimately have imploded anyway? Or did US foreign policy in the period directly contribute to its destruction?
It is still hard to say. But what one can claim with more confidence is that western governments as a whole have been extraordinarily slow to absorb the Tehran coup and its law of unintended consequences. Deposing a regime you don’t like doesn’t always—indeed, one might argue, rarely—leads to a better outcome in the long run. I’ve been obsessed with the importance of that August in Tehran since I studied the CIA as a history student and have just made it the subject of my tenth thriller, Yesterday’s Spy, which tracks an ageing intelligence officer as he searches undercover for his son—a foreign correspondent—in the middle of the coup. It was a dramatic but highly contentious few days and we appeared to learn little from it, with consequences that reverberate painfully to this day.