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How the US and the UK turned Iran from a democracy into a dictatorship

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

On August 19, 1953, the CIA and MI6 launched operation AJAX - a coup d'état against Iran's democratically elected government and its leader Muhammad Mossadegh. Unlike other leaders in the middle east, Mosaddeq was elected into office by the Iranian parliament, the "Majlis ". He was a unique "anti-colonial" middle east popular politican and leader who was also at the same time deeply committed to democratic values, the rule of law and human rights in Iran. However, when Mossadegh and his government tried to end how the UK's oil corporation in Iran was basically stealing Iran's oil and exporting it abroad, without Iran getting what it was due in royalties, Winston Churchill decided he must be overthrown, and together with Dwight Eisenhower they launched a coup in 1953 that removed him from office.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran with his supporters.

Everything started two years beofre the coup, in 1951, when Mossadegh had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP). Mossadegh had first sought to audit the documents of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a British corporation (now part of BP) and to limit the company's control over Iranian petroleum reserves. The reason being was that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had been making huge profits from Iranian oil, for decades, while barely paying any royalties to the Iranian state. The plain truth was that the UK had been ripping of Iran and the Iranian people and Mossadegh decided to end that. Upon the refusal of the AIOC to co-operate with the Iranian government, the parliament (Majlis) voted to nationalize Iran's oil industry and to expel foreign corporate representatives from the country. This infuriated Britian and its prime minister Winston Churchill who immediately ordered MI6 (the British secret service) to launch a coup in Iran and replace Mossadegh. The Iranian government learned of Britain's coup plans and had all British personal and diplomatic staff evicted from the country. Churchill was besides himself with anger over this failure, but he realized that if he were going to get rid of Mossadegh, he needed American help. At first the Truman administration refused Churchill's plans to depose Mossadegh, but once president Eisenhower was elected in 1953 into office, he ordered the CIA to work with the UK and to regime change Iran.In 1953 the CIA sent their agents into Iran.

Iranian Soldiers and tanks stand in the streets of Tehran after the deposition Mossadegh.

In order to carry out thier coup plans, the CIA relied on a vast infrastructure and network of Iranian traitors, informants and spies in the Iranian press, parliament and the army that the MI6 and Britain had built in Iran for decades. Their first coup attempt which was launched on the 15th of august failed miserably, however the CIA agents quickly learned from their mistakes, and launched a successful second attempt on the 19th of august 1953. Several Iranian fascists and Nazi sympathizers played prominent roles in the post coup regime. General Fazlollah Zahedi, who had been arrested and imprisoned by the British during World War II for his attempt to establish a pro-Nazi government, was made Prime Minister on 19 August 1953 in the post coup government. The CIA gave Zahedi about $100,000 before the coup and an additional $5 million the day after the coup to help consolidate support for the coup. Overall the CIA spent up to $20 millon on the coup. After the coup was over Iran was turned into a dictatorship, ruled by the Shah (the Iranian king) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah was basically a western puppet, whose sole role was to buy expensive western arms (he spent billions of dollars every year on US arms) and to supply the west with cheap oil, while persecuting anyone who dared to oppose his dictatorship as he ruled Iran with an iron fist. He cracked down on all the nationalist, secular, republican and secular forces in Iran, employing his Gestapo like secret service, the "Savak", in rounding people up, torturing and killing anyone who posed a threat to his autocratic rule.

The Shah of Iran meeting US president Eisenhower, after the coup.

In August 2013, sixty years afterward, the US government formally acknowledged the US role in the coup by releasing a bulk of previously classified government documents that show it was in charge of both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out "under CIA direction" and "as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government". The success of operation Ajax, the first succeful CIA coup against a leader of a nation state, opened the door to the CIA to employ such tactics all over the world. The 1953 Iran coup was to be adopted by the US governments to come as a relatively cheap and effective blueprint of how to regime change and remove heads of states all over the world, from South America to Asia, who were opposing US interests in their countries and regions. Bibliography: Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E. Meyer : "Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East." William L. Cleveland : " A History of the Modern Middle East." Stephen Kinzer : "All the Shah's men."

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