The full story of the 1953 coup d’etat in Iran has yet to be told but it is generally agreed today that it was this event that sowed the seeds for the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the era of religious and political fundamentalism it ushered in. With its strategic location and vast oil reserves Iran was always going to be of special interest to the major powers; this particular debacle had its roots in World War II when Britain established a presence in the country to protect a vital supply route to its ally the Soviet Union and to prevent the oil from falling into German hands. After the war Britain effectively retained control over Iran’s oil through the establishment of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
This cozy arrangement changed abruptly in 1951 when the Iranian parliament, led by the nationalistic but democratic government of Mohammed Mossadeq, voted to nationalize the country’s oil industry. Seeing its interests thus threatened, Britain embarked on a secret campaign to weaken and de-stabilize the Mossadeq government. When this evolved into the idea of a full-scale coup to overthrow the government, Britain, reluctant to shoulder the responsibility alone, persuaded the USA to join forces by playing on Cold War fears and raising the specter of the communist bogeyman to the east.
The USA now took on the leading role in a covert operation where CIA-funded agents were used to foment unrest inside Iran with the harassment of religious and political leaders and a campaign of media disinformation. These efforts came to a head in the coup of August 1953 when the democratically elected government was deposed and the despotic authority of Shah Reza Pahlavi and his pro-Western monarchy was re-asserted.
When: August 1953
Death toll: Total unknown, but some 300 people were killed in the final fighting in the streets of Tehran.
You should know: The coup nearly failed because the Shah, fearful for his throne, vacillated over signing the royal decrees the CIA had prepared to sanction the change of government.