Behind the Scenes of the 1953 Coup d’état in Iran


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

After Reza Shah’s exile, the new Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, having come to power under foreign occupation, had little political capital. Conflicting visions emerged about how to maintain the country’s stability and security and the new shah wasn’t effective at managing the conflicts. In a little over a decade, from 1941 until the 1953 coup d’état, a dozen different prime ministers served the shah.

Photograph of President Truman and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran
Mohammad Mossadeq (right) became the prime minister in 1951. (Image: domain)

Troublesome Prime Minister

Government cabinets remained intact for only eight months on average. The shah himself faced a number of challenges to his authority, but none more serious than that of Mohammad Mossadeq, a descendent of the former Persian monarchy. Mossadeq was a dynamic political figure who resolved to establish a more liberal, constitutional regime.

In 1951, Mossadeq became prime minister and was suddenly in a position to create serious problems for the shah. As a fervent nationalist, he vowed to regain control of Iran’s oil resources from the British. In May 1951, Mossadeq nationalized the country’s oil industry. This move was enormously popular with Iranians. But the British responded with a blockade that penned up Iran’s oil resources and threatened its treasury.

Mossadeq’s Loss of Allies

For a time, Mossadeq maintained authority due to support from the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh. It was an obvious force among urban workers. He was also supported by the Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Kashani, the speaker of the Majles (the lower house of the Iranian parliament) and one of the most senior ulema in the country. He’d long been a champion of Iranian nationalism. So, Mossadeq’s move against British oil interests won his support.

But in 1953, Mossadeq overplayed his hand. In seeking to expand his authority, Mossadeq lost some popular support. And his initiative to grant women the right to vote and to rescind a national ban on alcohol created a rift between Kashani and the ulema. 

With Mossadeq’s domestic support faltering, the United States and Britain orchestrated a coup d’état to remove him from power. The British resented his nationalization of the oil industry, while the United States resented what seemed to be a communist influence at work.

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Roosevelt and the 1953 coup d’état

A CIA operative in Tehran named Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. (the grandson of former President Teddy Roosevelt) planned the coup d’état. He circulated anti-Mossadeq propaganda and fed rumors that the prime minister was heavily influenced by Iranian communists. 

At first, the coup d’état appeared to be an embarrassing failure. Mossadeq learned of plans to arrest him, and he and his loyal allies fought back. He withstood the attempts to overthrow him on August 15, arrested many key conspirators, and publicly condemned the action. Demonstrations in support of Mossadeq, led by the communist Tudeh party, attacked symbols of the monarchy. Angry crowds toppled statues of the shah and ripped down his portraits, and the shah fled the country.

The CIA’s Loose Canon

The CIA cabled Roosevelt that no US entity should participate in further actions against Mossadeq. Recently declassified documents reveal that Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. received these instructions from Washington and ignored them. Roosevelt used the turmoil in the streets to his advantage. 

Stoking anti-Mossadeq sentiment and planting stories in Tehran’s newspapers that the shah had dismissed the prime minister just days before the coup d’état attempt, the CIA’s operative brought pro-shah forces into the streets.

As The New York Times noted in its reporting on the chaotic situation in Iran, an unpredictable factor that August was “Tehran mobs”. These crowds, The Times described, were “composed of members of secret Islamic societies, nationalist groups, bazaar thugs and bully-boys” who could “stage ‘spontaneous’ political demonstrations and raise riot at a moment’s notice”. According to The Times, these groups shifted rapidly “with the prevailing political winds”.

Shah in a military uniform
After the Shah came back, he was determined to regain control of his monarchy. (Image: Hessler Studio, Washington, D.C./Public domain)

The Shah Makes a Return

And so, the political winds shifted quickly in Tehran in August 1953—with Kermit Roosevelt’s help. With popular sentiment spiraling out of control, the Islamic clergy, including Ayatollah Kashani, determined that Mossadeq needed to go.

Viewing the crisis in terms of the likelihood that rising republicanism, on the one hand, or communism, on the other, would lead to more secularization of the Muslim population, the clergy opted to defend the monarchy.

Mossadeq was arrested. And a few days later, the shah returned to reassert control. A period of royal absolutism began that would last for more than two decades. From this point forward, the Iranian parliament lacked any real power. It basically rubber-stamped the shah’s designs.

Common Questions about the 1953 Coup d’état in Iran

Q: What was Mohammad Mosaddeq’s nationalist act concerning oil?

Mohammad Mossadeq was a nationalist known for more liberal ideas. After becoming prime minister, he managed to nationalize Iran’s oil supplies.

Q: How did the first coup d’état against Mosaddeq end on August 15?

Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who masterminded the coup d’état, spread rumors that Mossadeq was greatly influenced by Iranian communists. The plans for the coup d’état were foiled after Mossadeq learned that he was about to be arrested. Key conspirators were arrested, the Shah fled the country, and the CIA told Roosevelt to stand down for now. Even though Roosevelt was determined to see the 1953 coup d’état succeed.

Q: How was Mossadeq arrested?

Mossadeq was arrested because of the 1953 coup d’état in which Kermit Roosevelt Jr., ignoring the CIA’s orders, brought pro-Shah protestors onto the street. They consisted of thugs, bully boys, Islamic societies, and nationalists. With the Islamic clergy, Kashani, deciding that Mossadeq needed to go, he was arrested.

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