I recently wrote a term paper on the motivations, impacts, and relevance of US involvement in the 1953 Iranian Coup that overthrew the government of Mossadeq. Foreign policy is a little beyond the scope of what I usually write about here, but I was very excited to write this paper and pleased with how it turned out.
A “NEW LOOK” AT THE 1953 COUP IN IRAN: THE COLD WAR MOTIVATION AND THE LESSONS OF COVERT INTERVENTION
The United States’ overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 is directly linked to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The regime that came to power in 1979, and the strained relations it has with the United States, is of great foreign policy concern. In order to help understand the complicated relationship, and to make wise intervention choices in the future, it is necessary to understand the 1953 coup and the American role. In the course of this paper, I will prove that oil drove British involvement and subsequently opened the opportunity for US involvement, but the United States’ central rationale for intervention was its “New Look” containment strategy. I will then establish that the impact of the coup was the discrediting of Iranian secular political parties in the long run, and little tangible impact on events in the short term. Finally, I will explore the lessons to be gleaned from the Iranian 1953 coup through the lens of public opinion theory, bargaining theory, and the bureaucratic politics model. With all of this in mind, I will support the conclusion that the United States should never forget the importance of the appearance of state sovereignty, even in the face of large geopolitical conflicts.
A review of declassified documents, both in 2013 and the early 2000s, reveals indisputably that the Central Intelligence Agency in cooperation with the British government supported the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953.  In the course of this paper, I will prove that oil drove British involvement and subsequently opened the opportunity for US involvement, but the United States’ central rationale for intervention was its “New Look” containment strategy. I will then establish that the impact of the coup was the discrediting of Iranian secular political parties in the long run, and little tangible impact on events in the short term. Finally, I will explore the lessons to be gleaned from the Iranian 1953 coup through the lens of public opinion theory, bargaining theory, and the bureaucratic politics model. With all of this in mind, I will support the conclusion that the United States should never forget the importance of the appearance of state sovereignty, even in the face of large geopolitical conflicts.
The British were the spark that encouraged American involvement, and their motivation was primarily oil extraction rights. Prior to the 1953 overthrow, Iran was in heated negotiations with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British company that operated the world’s largest oil refinery in Iran. The company supplied an enormous share of the oil needs of Britain, and around 75% of its profits came from its Iranian operation. The British government also held a 51% share in the company, meaning that any conflict involving the AIOC was essentially a conflict with the British government. The disagreement was over the terms of a supplement that would change the profit sharing ratios. When bargaining over the Supplement collapsed in 1951, Mosaddeq capitalized on “British intransigence” to nationalize the oil industry, effectively forcing many British employees to leave while at the same time propelling himself to power. 
Mosaddeq argued adamantly that the Supplement negotiations were about something much deeper than profit sharing—he made control of Iranian oil an issue of national sovereignty. At the same time, the British Foreign Office secretly came to the conclusion that “control” of the oil reservoirs, not profit sharing, was the problem. One official even went as far as admitting that the British government would allow a 60/40 agreement, if it meant that AIOC retained operational control. Given that it is not possible to reconcile or bargain between control or no control, and Mosaddeq was the politician responsible for framing the debate in this way, many officials throughout the British administration realized that Mosaddeq had to be removed for negotiations to continue. When their initial efforts on this front proved unsuccessful, they moved to lobby for American support. Thus, the British created the opportunity for the Eisenhower administration, and the British targeted Mosaddeq because he created a situation with no bargaining range.
Although oil motivated the British, Eisenhower and his administration were motivated by the calculus of their soon to be unveiled Cold War Strategy, the New Look. This claim is controversial, because it implies that the Cold War concerns must have been greater than oil concerns for Eisenhower, which is not an easy claim to make, especially from the perspective of the current Middle East situation. However, evidence points to this Cold War interest. NSC-162/2, released in 1953 just weeks after the coup, supports covert action as a new component of the Eisenhower strategy in “uncommitted areas” where “forces of unrest and of resentment against the West are strong.” The coup follows the theme of NSC-162/2, in that it represents a cheap, covert response in an “uncommitted area.” In this same vein, it is key to note that although the Eisenhower administration supported the coup, the Truman administration was against interventionism in Iran, especially covert government overthrow that would align them with oil companies. Truman’s cabinet, including Dean Acheson, even went as far as stopping British military action. Eisenhower and his administration had few problems with covert overthrow as long as it was discreet and affordable. This suggests, since little changed between the administrations, that the American involvement in the coup was part of the larger change in US containment strategy that came with the New Look.
What solidifies the primacy of a Cold War strategy motive is evidence that the British intelligence community was aware that oil interests alone would not galvanize American participation. In order to push the narrative of communism, the British secretly implemented staged communist demonstrations. This implies that the British new that oil alone would not pull Eisenhower into the conflict. At this point I want to point out that I am again attempting to prove that Cold War considerations were the primary motivator. I am not trying to prove that the threat of communism was realistic. On the contrary, this example highlights that there was not enough credible evidence of communism arising, and that despite this the British knew Eisenhower and his administration would be more willing to intervene if there was.
It is also true that later on even American agents formented or staged communist Tudeh rallies. This indicates that at the lower levels of administration there was a clearer idea that communism was not a threat. The understanding of this fact either was purposefully distorted to gain upper level support or higher level officials suffered from confirmation biases. Whatever the case, primary sources indicate that Eisenhower was fully aware of the situation and authorized it. A journal entry from him in October of 1953, several months after the coup, reveals that if things proceeded as planned, “[the United States] may really give a serious defeat to Russian intentions and plans in that area.” The journal further makes clear that Eisenhower wanted the situation to be secret so that the United States could continue to do things “of like nature in the future.” It is clear that Eisenhower not only imagined the Iran coup as a proxy within his New Look strategy, but he imagined it as a model for future interventions.
Before accessing the short run impact, it is necessary to fully explain how the coup unfolded. Oil talks fully collapsed between Mosaddeq and Britain near the end of 1952, and at that time Mosaddeq broke off relations with Britain. The CIA and MI6 came fully together to design the coup plan, named Oepration TPAJAX, in March of 1953. The plan was allocated only $285,000, and it intended to use existing political forces ignited by a crisis around Mosaddeq. It appointed General Zahedi the leader, and the planners tried to get the Shah to support their plan. During the days leading up to the coup, the situation crystalized into the Shah issuing royal decrees to replace Mosaddeq, and Zahedi and other officers arresting him if he refused . In the time leading up to the event, the coup planners actively lobbied the Shah for support, while also using agents to ferment unrest. The unrest and negative propaganda was meant to depict Mosaddeq as unable to maintain order and as in league with the Communists. This was helpful for co-opting the clerics.
The difference between the plan and what occurred is telling of the short-run impact. Four days before the coup, Tudeh (the communist party of Iran) agents planted in the military informed Mosaddeq of the coup plot. He promptly arrested many officers, and issued a warrant for Zahedi’s arrest on August 16th. The Shah subsequently fled the country. Thus, both prongs of the coup as originally planned never occurred. In fact, Under Secretary of State Walter Smith reported to Eisenhower that the coup had failed. Review of CIA documents also reveal that there was no contingency plan in case of complete failure. When Mosaddeq did fall, it occurred mostly organically, by a spur of the moment plan organized by General Zadehi that took advantage of pro-Shah riots and band-wagoning military personnel to surround and force Mosaddeq to capitulate. Mosaddeq aided in his own demise by dissolving Parliament, thus removing any barriers that protected him from royal decrees by the Shah, and opening him to more legitimate attacks by the military-Shah alliance. Although Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA chief in Iran, was still leading an operation alongside the events, most riots, formations, and other actions seem to have either been the idea of Zahedi or the result of already snowballing events. The CIA/MI6 impact is clearly, as a result of failed aims and mostly organic events, limited. Additionally, documentation reveals that two Tehran agents were hired for the purposes of TPAJAX. Both these agents were tasked according to CIA reports with creating fake Tudeh crowds that supposedly united with real Tudeh crowds and helped improve the atmosphere of chaos and Tudeh violence. But interviews with Tudeh leaders reveal that most of the rioting was ordered by Tudeh leaders. Thus, not only were the direct events of the plot beyond CIA control, but so were the influencing and background events.
In assessing the short term impact of the coup, it is sufficient to say that it had little effect. Most historical evidence I mentioned before shows that the outside organizations did little more than piggyback on already occurring movements and events. Mosaddeq made critical mistakes in dissolving Parliament, repressing dissent and allowing the British economic sanctions to continue. His coalition was fractured, unrest fed into the narrative of his inability to maintain order, and powerful interests within the country were united in ousting him. In a sense, the coup was a perfect failure: all the goals were met despite the failure of all the actions proposed to achieve them.
The long term effect is by and large a negative one for the United States. Because Eisenhower and his administration viewed the conflict mainly on the balance sheet of the Cold War, it at first seemed to be successful: communist Tudeh elements were suppressed by the Shah regime, the oil resources were kept within the Western sphere, and the United States had a staunch ally in the Shah and the Iranian military. But the 1979 Revolution is evidence of the much deeper effects American and British intervention through the coup had on politics in Iran. The coup, and the implication of the United States, took legitimacy away from the military by showing its willingness to cooperate with foreign powers. In the same way, it further reduced Iranian confidence in the Shah as a national figure independent of foreign powers. It also discredited nonreligious parties, especially the National Front and the Tudeh. The only elements left mostly unscathed were the Islamist factions. After they successfully overcame the Shah’s regime in 1979, they filled the power vacuum nicely. As a consequence, the defeat of communism and populist nationalism through the overthrow only served to make way for a militant Islamic state.
Examining the coup yields important lessons for future policy. In reading the primary source documents, including Eisenhower’s journal and “A Secret History”, and the aggregations of these documents in the forms of several different journal articles, it is clear that almost no one agrees on the story. In order to account for these differences, it is helpful to consider the bureaucratic politics approach. By analyzing interests of the organizations and individuals involved from the United States’s side, it is possible to evaluate for why there are such disparities between the stories. The largest sources of information currently are the memoires of CIA officers involved, and a commissioned history by the CIA. The commissioned history written specifically by Dr. Wilber blatantly omits many details, especially those that involve many unsavory actions that likely occurred. It also focuses only on the CIA’s role, and leaves out other agencies. Memoires of Kermit Roosevelt, which serve as another main source for many documents, and for Eisenhower’s perception of the coup, are also filtered. Roosevelt had a vested interest in attributing causality for Mosaddeq’s downfall to CIA action. This would increase his own prestige and elevate the CIA above other competing agencies. The 1953 Iran coup can be viewed as a test of Eisenhower’s new Containment policy under NSC 162/2. It came right after the issuing of the document and near the beginning of Eisenhower’s term. Roosevelt and other contemporaries had a vested interest in telling the President that the New Look Policy, which encouraged covert overthrows, worked.
Eisenhower confirms in his journal he had some suspicions about the claims made regarding the casual link between CIA action and Mosaddeq’s fall. Specifically, he says the report sounded more like a “dime novel” than “historical fact. Further, reports from Tudeh leaders and General Zadehi are contrary to much of the CIA’s reporting. Local interviews and a comprehensive overview of the situation makes author Bayandor conclude that the CIA actions did not make any intentional difference in Mosaddeq’s fall. The lack of a non-CIA American perspective is troubling, given that the TPAJAX coup was used to model other potential and actual coups by the United States government throughout the Cold War. In order to fix this problem with objectivity, the Eisenhower administration should have taken active steps to assure that some non-CIA oversight was enforced. The administration should also have pressed for more detail regarding how an orchestrated coup could go from abject failure to sudden success in a few days. In covert operations, policymakers should always realize that bureaucrats have the inherent advantage in their ability to filter information and claim the need for secrecy.
Secondly, the Iranian coup holds a lesson in foreign public opinion. In the course of this paper, I have so far established that the American intervention had little practical effect: Mosaddeq had many weaknesses that occurred organically, and many of the situations leading to his demise occurred outside the CIA’s control. But the coup still has massive public opinion effects on the reception of the US to the Iranian public. A Rand Poll found that nearly 52% of Iranians still believe that the 1953 coup influences their feelings toward the US. And of the Iranian’s polled, over 70% view the US negatively. This has large implications, especially because the poll also found that a large majority of Iranians learned of the coup from state-run media sources.I can then infer that the Iranian coup of 1953 is at the very least a very effective propaganda tool for the Iranian regime. I imagine that US involvement in something that appears to violate legitimate government, and national sovereignty, resonates with Iranians, as it would with many peoples. The coup is also effective as public opinion mechanism because it allows the current regime to build a narrative of Western oppression. It allows the regime to divert the anger from painful economic sanctions back on to the West. It is for this reason that future interventions would do well to avoid violating what is perceived as legitimate government.
The final relevant lesson from Iran, is not to miss situations with flexible bargaining ranges. As it stood in 1950 under the past oil agreements, Iran received 17% of the profit, and it wanted 50%. The terms of the Supplement the AIOC provided offered a 24% share, no deadlines on promoting Iranians to managerial positions, and no concessions on domestic oil discounts for Iran. It also did not address many other transgressions brought forward by the Parliament. As a result, and with advisement from an outside consultant, the Parliament rejected the Supplement, and Mosaddeq was able to redirect effort to nationalization. The overconfident bargaining offers of the AIOC directly resulted in the destruction of a bargaining range. It is much easier to bargain over a divisible situation, like profit sharing rates, as opposed to binary choices, like to nationalize or not. Future negotiators should be wary of the possibility that an issue can be reframed in a less negotiable manner.
Aggregating all these lessons, motivations, and impact analyses, I have come away with my own evaluation of such an intervention. Before concluding, I think it is important to mention that further research must be conducted when the rest of the CIA documents are released. A large number of correspondences, especially involving outside organizations in the American government, still needs to be evaluated. With this caveat in mind, I will continue.
My conclusion is that the United States should only undertake covert regime changing operations if it can assure that there is at least an appearance of state sovereignty and legitimacy, otherwise only coercive assistance from the United States will keep the regime in place. In other words, there needs to be solid evidence that the new regime was driven into power by the proper vehicles. From how the United States viewed Iran in 1953, it is easy to see how sovereignty and legitimacy considerations were left out. The Cold War dominate political thought, either for real security reasons or just as a convenient explanation for less ideal real reasons. In the Iran case, it is my opinion that the larger geopolitical conflict of the Cold War overshadowed these considerations of legitimacy and sovereignty, with disastrous long-term results. The US would do well to not make this mistake again.
 Abrahamian, “The 1953 Iran Coup,” 185.
 Cavendish, “Iranian Oil Fields”
 Gheissari and Nasr, Democracy in Iran, 53
 Abrahamian, “The 1953 Iran Coup,” 191.
 NSC 162/2
 Abrahamian, “The 1953 Iran Coup,” 197.
 Bayandor, Iran and the CIA, 34.
 Eisenhower, Journal Entry, 11.
 Bayandor, Iran and the CIA, 94.
 Gheissari and Nasr, Democracy in Iran, 53.
 Bayandor, Iran and the CIA, 95.
 Bayandor, Iran and the CIA, 97.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 129.
 Abrahamian, “The 1953 Iran Coup,” 213.
 Eisenhower, Personal Journal Entry, 10.
 Bayandor, Iran and the CIA, 175.
 Abrahamian, “The 1953 Iran Coup,” 183.
 Sarah Beth Elson and Alireza Nader, What Do Iranians Think? 22.
 Parsi, Trita and Marashi, Reza. “Why Sanctions on Iran are Not Working.”
 Cavendish. “Iranian Oil Fields.”
Abrahamian, Ervand. “The 1953 Coup in Iran.” Science & Society Volume 65. No. 2
(Summer. 2001):182-215. Accessed October 29. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40403895.
Bayandor, Darioush. Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisisted
(Palgrave McMillan 2010).
Byrne, Malcolm. “CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup.” The National Security Archives.
Last modified August 19. 2013. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/#_ftn1
Cavendish, Richard. “The Iranian Oil Fields are Nationalised.” History Today.
Last modified 2001. http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/iranian-oil-fields-are-nationalised.
Eisenhower, Dwight. Excerpt from typed journal, October 8, 1953. Eisenhower Archives.
Elson, Sarah Beth and Nader Alireza. What Do Iranians Think? Santa Monica: RAND
Corporation: 2011. November 2014. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2011/RAND_TR910.pdf
Gheissari, Ali and Nasr, Vali. Democracy in Iran (Oxford University Press. 2006). 50-153.
NSC 162/2. (paper presented to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on
October 30. 1953. Washington, DC).
Parsi, Trita and Marashi, Reza. “Why Sanctions on Iran are Not Working.” Al Jazeera.