For decades, knowledge of America's role in the 1953 Iran coup, which led to the ejection of the country's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the installation of a despotic shah, was fragmented and vague. However, when CIA documents were declassified in 2000 about what it called Operation Ajax, it became clear American and British agents played a central role in the Iran coup d'état.
What started as a Western intervention fueled by the nationalization of Iran's oil supplies under Mossadegh turned into what many historians describe as the positioning of a pro-Western shadow government, with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi positioned as a symbolic ruler. In addition to their desire to gain control over Iran's abundant oil reserves, the US and Britain wanted more influence in the Middle East as the Cold War with the USSR raged on around them.
The results of the Iranian coup can still be felt to this day. The rapport between the US and Iran has never been the same, and Iranian resentment over Western tampering culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, where Pahlavi's government was overthrown by the theocratic, anti-Western followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then, foreign relations between the two countries have been defined by friction and aggressive retaliation.
By 1953, the CIA and British government developed a plan to oust Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, but the success of that plan rested on convincing Iran's current shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to seize power while a fake prime minister, Fazlollah Zahedi, was appointed. The CIA's Near East and Africa division chief, Kermit Roosevelt, wrote that his organization wanted Pahlavi "to stand fast as the CIA stirred up popular unrest and then, as the country lurched toward chaos, to issue royal decrees dismissing Dr. Mossadegh and appointing General Zahedi prime minister."
The CIA wanted to "produce such pressure on the shah that it would be easier for him to sign the papers required of him than it would be to refuse," and officials held numerous meetings with both Pahlavi and conservative factions of the Iranian government to exert their Western influence. It took all summer, but the shah finally agreed to the plan on August 13.
Even before they had the shah's approval, the CIA and British government were unrolling a propaganda campaign all over Iran and the world to discredit Mossadegh's party. In May 1953, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt paid newspapers and journalists to publish "grey propaganda," which spread lies and unflattering caricatures of Mossadegh. One unnamed leading newspaper was paid $45,000 to aid in bringing the shah to the side of Western interests. As Roosevelt wrote, the money was granted ''in the belief that this would make [the shah's] organ amenable to our purposes.''
The anti-Mossadegh messaging, according to author Stephen Kinzer of All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, included claims that he "was a Jew, a homosexual, a British agent, anything that they thought would... outrage people." The demand for these stories was so high that CIA officers in Washington, DC, were contracted to write new articles.
All of the CIA efforts paid off, and the world braced for a revolution it believed to be brought on solely by Iranian citizens. One Associated Press release stated: "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 General Zahedi to replace him."
Adding more fuel to the fire, declassified documents show the CIA hired Iranians to pose as communists in the months leading up to the coup d'état. These fake communists threatened religious leaders and executed bombings, creating further divide between Iran's Islamic factions and Mossadegh's government. Numerous leaders were targeted, and one cleric's home was blown up.
The tension between the US and Soviet Union was the biggest international conflict at the time, and the CIA and British government wanted Mossadegh's nationalist agenda thwarted by fabricated connections to fanatical communists.
The CIA worked every possible angle to ensure its coup would happen, digging deep into Iran's complicated political history to garner ample support. The man chosen to serve as prime minister after Mossadegh, Major General Fazlollah Zahedi, was a Royalist who pledged allegiance to the Iranian monarchy. Zahedi was a long-running minister whose affiliations with the Royalist faction of the Iranian military were used to the CIA's advantage.
When the coup eventually occurred on August 19, much of the strong-arming and physical acceleration was acted out by the Royalist troops aligned with Zahedi and the shah. The CIA also knew that Zahedi had a contentious relationship with Western powers, and they were able to use his reputation to distance themselves from the coup. In an article on August 20, The New York Times predicted Zahedi's "ascendancy will probably be met with mixed feelings by the Western world."