Musaddiq Coup: Did the United States and Great Britain Make a Mistake in Orchestrating the Overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953?

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Editor: David W. Lesch
Date: 2004
History in Dispute
From: History in Dispute(Vol. 15: The Middle East Since 1945: Second Series. )
Publisher: St. James Press
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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Musaddiq Coup: Did the United States and Great Britain Make a Mistake in Orchestrating the Overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953?

Muhammad Musaddiq was appointed prime minister of Iran by its reigning monarch, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (the son of Reza Shah Pahlavi), in April 1951 following the assassination of the preceding prime minister by an Islamist group. Musaddiq led the National Front, a secular, nationalist party that had formed in Iran soon after World War I (1914–1918), which was primarily interested in reducing the British presence in Iran as well as implementing true liberal constitutionalist reform. His overall domestic popularity was based not only on his reformist and anti-imperialist posture but also on his austere, humble, and intellectual demeanor. It was this popular base that translated into strong support in the Majlis (Iranian parliament) that essentially compelled the Shah to appoint Musaddiq.

One of the lightning rods of discontent over British influence in Iran was the position of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, later British Petroleum). In the first decade of the twentieth century, Iran became the first Middle Eastern country to produce oil. Lacking technology and equipment, the Iranian monarchy (the Qajar dynasty) relied on the British to produce the oil, which became a strategic necessity to London after it had shifted its navy from coal to oil shortly before World War I. Obviously, the AIOC dominated the oil industry in Iran, to the point that by World War II (1939–1945) the AIOC was actually paying more in taxes on its Iranian oil profits to the British government than it was in royalties to the Iranian government for exploitation of the oil concessions. The general post-World War II nationalist sentiment across the former European colonial territories fed into the already existing resentment in Iran of the lack of control over its own resources and the strong belief that it was not getting its fair share. As a condition for becoming prime minister, Musaddiq insisted that a nationalization act against the AIOC be passed first; as such, the government implemented the rallying cry of the National Front by nationalizing the oil industry in Iran just prior to his assumption of power.

Regardless of the legality of the act, the British government was disturbed lest a precedent be set in other British spheres of interest; indeed, for the same reason, the large Western-based multinational oil companies that controlled most of the oil industry at the time also opposed nationalization, and an oil boycott of Iran was instituted (in this case a boycott by consumers against a producer, which is the opposite of what has been experienced since the early 1970s). The initial U.S. outlook on Musaddiq was actually somewhat positive based on the fact that he was a liberal constitutionalist and was not beholden to the British. This assessment began to change, however, especially after the Eisenhower administration came to power in January 1953 Page 157  |  Top of Articlewith a more forward attitude toward regime change as the Cold War heated up. Musaddiq’s perceived alliance with and reliance upon the communist Tudeh (masses) Party for support in the increasingly politically and economically chaotic situation in Iran probably was his downfall, as domestic and regional elements of the crisis became subsumed in a Cold War atmosphere. The end came in August 1953, when the United States and Great Britain covertly arranged a coup d’état that ousted Musaddiq and brought the Shah back firmly into power.

Viewpoint: Yes. The coup removed opposition to the repressive regime of the Shah and thus presaged the Iranian Revolution of 1979

After decades of denial by the U.S. government, there is no longer any doubt that the Eisenhower administration used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to orchestrate the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq in August 1953. Historians now recognize this event as a model for subsequent plots in Guatemala (1954), Syria (1957), and Cuba (1960). Westerners often criticize the people of the Middle East for too easily accepting conspiracy theories; in Iran the theory became reality.

Musaddiq had a long history of selfless devotion to his country before he became prime minister in May 1951. In a variety of positions-governor, minister, and member of Parliament—he had repeatedly shown himself to be honest, hardworking, and patriotic. His opposition to the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi in the early 1920s, however, had cost him dearly. After establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979) Reza Shah sentenced him to internal exile, where he spent most of the inter war years. He was able to return to public life only after the forced abdication of the Shah in September 1941. He soon led a coalition of groups, the National Front, in opposition to foreign control over Iran’s oil resources.

Although Musaddiq was in many ways an admirable individual, one should not glamorize him. He would surely have rejected such treatment. He had many fine qualities but also weaknesses. One can say without hesitation, however, that he offered a much-welcomed leadership alternative, refusing to ally with either the Soviets or the West in the Cold War world of the 1950s.

On matters of principle he could be rigid, even stubborn, and this characteristic did not always serve him well. British and American leaders lost patience with him for dragging out the dispute over the nationalization of Iran’s oil. They rationalized their decision to move against him by arguing that at seventy-plus years he was too old and naive to maintain a firm stand against the Soviet Union and his own internal communists, the Tudeh (masses) Party. He would, they reasoned, destabilize Iran, opening the way for Soviet gains. Yet, Musaddiq had steadfastly kept the Tudeh Party at arm’s length, repeatedly refusing to enter into any popular front alliance with them. Some of his closest advisers, such as Khalil Maliki, were among the staunchest of anticommunists. Even on the eve of his overthrow, with a CIA-funded mob running riot in the streets of Teheran, he refused to distribute arms to his supporters, fearing the bloodshed that would follow.

Despite the claims of his enemies, he was no demagogue. He allowed his bitterest opponents, several of whom were newspaper editors plotting secretly for his destruction, to continue publishing their venomous attacks on his government. Nor did he ever consider establishing a secret police force, such as the Shah’s SAVAK, which ran counter to his principles.

Others charged that he wished to overthrow the Shah and make himself dictator, when his real objective was to create the limited monarchy envisaged in the 1906 constitution. Perhaps he was unrealistic, given the previous twenty-five years of centralization under the Pahlavis, but it was ironic that his adoption of the British model of limited monarchy should have brought him into such disrepute. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi resisted Musaddiq’s reforms and plotted against him, finally fleeing the country on 16 August 1953, when the scheme appeared to have failed.

Most American journalists accepted uncritically the Eisenhower administration’s view of Musaddiq as a menace who threatened U.S. security by weakening containment of the Soviet Union. Cartoonists lampooned him, and their images have persisted. Only the articles of New York Times correspondent Albion Ross showed any understanding of what Musaddiq intended. These articles proved that even in 1952 an enlightened attitude was not impossible.

Musaddiq likened Iran’s struggle with Britain to the colonists’ campaign against the tyranny of George III in the 1770s, and he drew examples from early American history to make this point. When a visiting U.S. official urged him to compromise with Britain over oil, for example, he asked how colonial Americans would have responded had Iranian mediators shown up at Boston in 1773, urging them not to throw chests of tea into the harbor. Later, from his prison cell, he suggested that the cultural affairs officer at the U.S. embassy broadcast to Iranians the history of the American Page 158  |  Top of ArticleRevolutionary War (1775–1783) and urge them to become the Washingtons and Franklins of their generation in order to preserve their freedom.

Not all American officials agreed that the United States should become involved in the plot to overthrow Musaddiq. An American military officer in Teheran pointed out to Ambassador Loy Henderson (1951–1955), in the wake of an earlier failed attempt, that Musaddiq seemed to represent just the kind of leader the United States ought to support, for he was popular with his people and an anticommunist, a rare combination. Another embassy officer had noted that the Iranians had their own national interests and that the crusade against communism was an American, not an Iranian, priority. Ambassador Henry F. Grady (1950-1951) became one of Musaddiq’s strongest supporters. In Washington, too, there were those who cautioned against supporting Britain’s anti-Musaddiq policies, including Assistant Secretaries of State for the Near East George McGhee and Henry Byroade, and Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett. Unfortunately, early in the Eisenhower administration the balance shifted to the hard-liners: Henderson, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and his brother Allen, director of the CIA.

Historians continue to debate how consequential was CIA involvement. After all, some argue, Musaddiq faced a rising chorus of opposition months before August 1953. Although one can identify several sources contributing to the success of the coup, among them disgruntled officers whom the prime minister had dismissed for incom-petency and prominent royalist politicians, these elements had been present for some time. Without American money and support for the plotters—the CIA had arranged for the evacuation of General Fazlollah Zahedi, leader of the coup, should it fail— Musaddiq could have maintained control indefinitely. The Iranian economy was in better shape than the Western media could admit, for prices of Iranian exports such as cotton had risen sharply as a result of the Korean War (1950-1953).

One unexpected result of the successful coup d’état of 19 August 1953 was that it seemed to have brought about a transformation in the Shah, who returned from his self-imposed exile in Rome three days later. He came to believe, against all the evidence, that the Iranian people out of regard for their monarch had risen up to overthrow Musaddiq and bring their beloved sovereign back to his throne. This conviction grew in the Shah’s mind. He repeated it to visitors and in several written accounts in subsequent decades. If the Americans had assumed that a grateful Shah would now follow their directions or be content to reign and not rule, they were badly mistaken. In fact, in subsequent years the Shah took more authority into his own hands, often against the better judgment of U.S. officials. Occasionally, as during the early Kennedy administration, Washington would try to redirect the Shah toward a more open, liberal regime, but mainly they acquiesced in whatever he proposed, increasingly concerned not to anger him.

In May 1972 President Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger visited Teheran briefly and gave the Shah carte blanche to purchase any nonnuclear weapon in the American arsenal, without being subjected to the usual screening procedures. As the Shah’s megalomania became more pronounced, he delighted in lecturing the Americans about the evils of Western society, disparaging what he considered its crass materialism. To assurances of continued U.S. support from President Gerald R. Ford the Shah responded that given what was at stake he did not expect the president’s response to be otherwise.

Throughout these years American officials forgot the details about Musaddiq, who died under house arrest in March 1967. National Security Council expert Gary Sick admitted that by 1978 “the events of 1953 had all the relevance of a pressed flower.” When officials thought of him at all, it was as a figure of ridicule, for all they remembered were his tearful and emotional speeches or his meetings with foreign dignitaries at his bedside, with the chronically ill prime minister dressed in striped pajamas. Or they dismissed him as a naive and dangerous leader, who would have so weakened Iran that without its Shah the country would have fallen under Soviet control.

Sadly, they transferred this aversion to his associates as well, and for decades they refused to consider any of them, even the most capable, worthy of high office in Iran. They railed against the “Musaddiqists,” who, they charged, had never given up their extreme views and plans to subvert the Shah’s regime. The Shah made the most of this American myopia to justify excluding the leaders of Musaddiq’s National Front from power. Only in the final months before the collapse of the Shah’s regime did the Americans finally reconcile themselves to the idea of Musaddiq’s associates—men such as Shahpour Bakhtiar, Mehdi Bazargan, or Karim Sanjabi—wielding power in Iran. By then, of course, it was too late, for control had passed into the hands of the clerics, men such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had no goal of creating a liberal Iran. The secular middle class assisted the Revolution of 1979, but having failed in its mission in 1953 under Musaddiq, its members now had to assume a subordinate role.

Interestingly, Khomeini had no time for Musaddiq either, and his regime did all it could to disparage the memory of the still-popular nationalist. After a huge march to Musaddiq’s grave on the twelfth anniversary of his death, the government of the Islamic Republic forbade such gatherings and began a propaganda campaign to vilify him. They had no more success, however, than

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In a 1973 interview, Loy W. Henderson, former ambassador to Iran (1951–1955), recalled Muhammad Musaddiq:

Mossadegh was an attractive man although he was neither handsome nor elegant. He was tall and lanky; his long horse like face topped with rather disheveled gray hair was expressive like that of an actor. He had a large mouth and when he smiled, his whole face lit up and one felt drawn toward him. He liked jokes and liked to laugh at them—a trait which is always helpful, particularly when one is engaged in serious conversation. He was troubled with dizzy spells so he would remain in bed much of the time. In general I found our conversations interesting and even agreeable. During most of them he was in bed and I was sitting beside him. He was quite frank, at times, without being offensive in criticizing our policies, and I was equally frank with him. So we got along quite well, each pointing out where he felt the other was wrong.

Mossadegh’s weakness, in my opinion, was that he still felt that he was living in an era of about 1910–1912, when Iran’s basic foreign policy consisted of playing the Russian Empire off against the British Empire. He did not seem to realize that the Soviet Empire was quite a different entity from that of the Czars, and was using different tactics and different methods in its endeavor to extend its power and its territories, and that the British Empire was gradually evaporating. The British were no longer the threat to Iran that they were when they controlled South Asia and much of the Middle East.

Mossadegh was not a Communist, and I was convinced that he was opposed to communism as an ideology. Nevertheless, he was willing to accept Communists and their fellow-travelers as allies. He had, I understood, a princely background and was related to the ruling family of the regime which had been overthrown by the father of the Shah. I thought that one of his ambitions was to be the Regent or a member of a Board of Regents which would replace the Shah and rule the country until an appropriate successor could be found. He did not understand that the Communists and their allies had no use for him and that they would get rid of him just as soon as he had served their purpose.

One of his ambitions was to make Iran completely independent. He had been one of the leaders in opposing the Soviet efforts in the middle 1940s to obtain oil concessions in Iran, and at that time he had intimated that the British concessions should also get out of the southern part of the country. He hoped to be able to play the Americans as well as the Russians off against the British. For that reason he tried hard to get my personal support. I tried to make him understand that in the Middle East it was important for the Americans, so far as possible, to cooperate with the British; that unless we could cooperate the Soviet Union would take advantage of our disunity and that could be disastrous to Iran.

. . . Early on the following morning, Wednesday, August 19, 1953, an important date, I received word while I was having breakfast that an uprising was taking place in the lower part of the city. I hurried across the Embassy garden to the chancery where I learned that a group of members of a well-known athletic club had suddenly emerged from the club with various kinds of arms calling upon the people to help them overthrow the Mossadegh regime and restore the Shah. In this club its members were accustomed to work hard developing their torsos in accordance with certain Iranian traditional exercises, which included the swinging of heavy clubs. The leaders of the demonstration, therefore, were men with almost frightening physiques, and they were rapidly joined by people on the street. Members of my staff whom I had sent out to find what was going on kept us informed by telephone. Within an hour the demonstrators reached the building which houses one of the leading pro-Mossadegh newspapers and destroyed the plant. I was confident that when the crowd would come into contact with the military, it would disperse, but to my surprise the military joined it. By noon the demonstrators had taken over the Foreign Office and a little later the area surrounding our Embassy compound was full of cheering people. General Zahedi, whom the Shah had appointed to succeed Mossadegh, and who had been in hiding, came out and seated on a tank moved through the applauding, waving crowds.

Late in the evening Ardeshir Zahedi, the son of the new Prime Minister, came to see me. He said that the leading cities of the country and most of the countryside were now under the control of the army, which had come out for the Shah and his father. He added that his father had asked him to inquire if I had any suggestions to offer. After a minute’s thought I said, ’Yes, I have three suggestions. In the first place, I think every effort should be made to prevent Mossadegh from being harmed or killed. If he is taken prisoner, care should be exercised to make sure he is not physically abused. The question of his punishment, if any, should be left to the courts. In the second place, a circular telegram might be sent out at once to all the Iranian diplomatic missions and consular offices informing them that the new Prime Minister appointed by the Shah has taken over and they should continue to transact their business as usual. No revolution has taken place, merely a change in government. My third suggestion is that a similar announcement might be made for the benefit of the civil servants. They should be told by radio that they should report to work tomorrow as usual.”

During the next twenty-four hours, Mossadegh was captured and imprisoned pending a trial. Most of the Iranian diplomatic and consular offices carried on as usual. On the following day the governmental machinery was for the most part functioning, Zahedi proceeded to set up a new cabinet for the Shah’s approval. The Shah, who was in Rome on the day that Zahedi took office, returned to Tehran on August 22. I have never seen Tehran so happy as it was when it greeted him back.

Source: “Oral History Interview with Loy W. Henderson,”5 July 1973, Truman Presidential Museum & Library <>

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had the Shah, and by all accounts his memory is widely revered today.

Iranians knew well the story of Musaddiq’s overthrow long before it became common knowledge in the United States, and to them “it was as fresh as if it had happened only the week before.” The Americans had intervened once to remove a popular leader, and they might do it again. Thus, when the Shah came to the United States in October 1979 for medical treatment, Iranians believed that this move was a pretext so that the deposed monarch could plot with the CIA to return him to power. To forestall such an event, Iranian students seized the American embassy and held its occupants hostage for more than a year. U.S.-Iranian relations have made little improvement since that time.

In 1980 Chargé D’Affaires Bruce Laingen, then a hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Teheran, reflected on the course of bilateral relations since the coup of 1953. In a letter home he cited the words of Undersecretary of State Joseph Cisco to the effect that removing Musaddiq had gained twenty-five years of stability in U.S.-Iranian relations and that seemed a pretty good exchange. Today, following a quarter century of turmoil in U.S.-Iranian relations with no end in sight, one suspects that those officials would have welcomed the opportunity to modify their earlier, hasty remarks.


Viewpoint: No. The coup was necessary given the Cold War environment and the genuine threat of Muhammad Musaddiq succumbing to communist control in such a vital geostrategic region

My qualification for doing this essay is that I served in the British embassy in Teheran in 1952 as acting Oriental Counsellor, that is to say, political adviser and interpreter to the Chargé d’Affaires, George Middleton. With hindsight there is possibly a case against the coup in 1953. In my view it was essential. Nobody could then have foreseen that Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi would become such a disagreeable tyrant and provoke his people, particularly the religious fraternity, to the 1979 revolt. Then, while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was tiresome and regarded the United States as the “Great Satan” (the British were a “little Satan”), he was not a serious menace in the Cold War context. He had no love for the Soviet Union.

Let us recall the immediate post-World War II world. The Soviet Union had occupied Iranian Azerbaijan in 1946 and then reluctantly withdrawn, but remained a considerable threat. Joseph Stalin was still alive, and the Soviet Union further demonstrated its aggressiveness by the Berlin blockade in 1948. I was stationed in the British Zone of Germany at that time, and World War III was believed to be close. Then, we had just had the Korean War (1950–1953) to keep us on our toes.

The facts of history are well known, and I shall mention them only briefly. My object is to show why the liberal Middleton; Monty Wood-house, our brilliant and experienced Head of Intelligence; and I all came to the conclusion that Musaddiq must go. We later helped the U.S. government and an initially reluctant British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to accept this course of action.

The oil crisis started off this conspiracy. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) failed to match the American company ARAMCO’s 50/ 50 deal with the Saudi government, while the British government did not bring pressure on the AIOC, who tried to get Iran to accept their own so-called Supplemental Agreement, which was somewhat less favorable to Iran and much less simple to understand than a clear-cut 50/50. General Ali Razmara, the Iranian prime minister, tried to get the Supplemental Agreement through the Majlis (Iranian parliament) and was assassinated for his pains. Dr. Muhammad Musaddiq came to power on a wave of popular emotion and nationalized the AIOC, which was heralded by the majority of the Iranian people as a great victory over imperialism.

During 1951 there were several attempts by the British, the distinguished American diplomat Averell Harriman, and the World Bank to reach an oil settlement with Iran. All were technically good for Iran, but that is not essentially the point. Musaddiq would not settle; his whole position, power, and popularity were based on his nationalization of the British oil company, and it was politically impossible for him to allow them to return, certainly not openly, probably not even in disguise. In his excellent book, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism (1984), William Roger Louis states that “It is debatable whether any Englishman, even of the stature of Mountbatten could have successfully negotiated with Musaddiq.”

But it was more complex than that; Musaddiq had rejected the offer from the World Bank on the grounds that it would compromise Iranian sovereignty. Even though Musaddiq had the best interests of his country at heart, it seemed unwise not to consider an American-sponsored Page 161  |  Top of Articledeal, since the Americans were well disposed toward him. Their great hope was that a patriotic, honest, noncorrupt nationalist could bring Iran peace, prosperity, and democracy, while keeping the Tudeh Party (communists) at bay. The Americans now came to know how difficult it was to negotiate with Musaddiq. And even though President Harry S Truman found him charming upon the Iranian prime minister’s visit to Washington in summer 1951, the rejection of the World Bank report gave the Americans pause.

In early 1952, when I came to Teheran, Middleton was, despite the frustrations of 1951, determined to do everything possible to come to terms with Musaddiq, with whom he was personally friendly. He found him a most civilized human being. Both men spoke fluent French and conversed easily together. The U.S. ambassador, Loy Henderson, a wise and experienced diplomat, held similar views to Middleton, and they got on well.

Despite Musaddiq’s popularity and his anti-imperialist stance, many educated Iranians, including some important clerics, began to doubt his capacity to rule. This was my job—to talk to as many Iranians as I could to assess their views—and I was somewhat surprised at discovering these sentiments. It seemed that the emotion of the initial stages of the Musaddiq revolution were dissipating as fast as the economy was deteriorating, damaged as it was by the oil embargo. My contacts told me that they doubted that we would ever be able to reach an agreement with Musaddiq. Nevertheless, Middleton was a more supple and subtle negotiator than his predecessors, and he was determined to succeed.

Nineteen fifty-two was an exciting time to be in Iran. History was being made, and both the American and British embassies hoped and worked for a just solution. Middleton had many, as he put it, delightful meetings with Musaddiq. One day he returned elated from a marathon session. “I think we have done it this time, Sam.” He sent his telegram to London describing what appeared to be a sensible and equitable settlement. Two days later Musaddiq rejected the proposed settlement and came back with some impossible demands.

This style of diplomacy was typical and happened many times. But Middleton was persistent and kept on trying. Eventually, around midsummer 1952, even Middleton came to the sad conclusion that his dear old friend was not able, or possibly was not permitted by his own extremists or even the Tudeh Party, to reach any sort of settlement that would be acceptable to the British or even the Americans. Musaddiq initially dealt bravely and firmly with the British–the AIOC deserved what they got. He was, however, unwise not to negotiate with the Americans. Also, for the sake of relations with the international oil business, he should have been more forthcoming and rational on compensation for the AIOC.

It is generally believed that the Qavam al-Sultaneh interlude in July 1952 was a failed British coup, partly because Qavam had met the British right-wing politician, Julian Amery, in London. This period of rule was not our coup, perhaps unfortunately; all Qavam got from Great Britain was moral support and general encouragement. Musaddiq’s resignation on 16 July 1952 was precipitated by the Shah’s refusal to agree to his prime minister’s request for control of the armed forces, which was the Shah’s principal source of influence.

Qavam was rational and able. I had several talks with him and found him as much of a nationalist as Musaddiq, but he, from experience, especially in 1946, regarded the Soviet Union, rather than Britain, as the principal threat to Iran’s independence.

Qavam fell after only five days because the Shah failed to provide him support. He lost his nerve and was intimidated by the Tudeh-controlled mob. Many, including Middleton and Henderson, believed that had the Shah held fast, Qavam could have stayed on because he did enjoy considerable support among the Majlis and thinking Iranians. Middleton wrote to the Foreign Office: “The Shah was in the grip of fear, fear of taking a decision that might expose him to the fury of the populace, should Qavam not, in the event, remain in control. This attitude of the Shah is one of the central features of this crisis. We had long known that he was indecisive and timid, but we had not thought that his fear would so overcome his reason as to make him blind to the consequences of NOT supporting Qavam.”

One more quote from Middleton from my own personal records sews up his view at the time:

Mussadiq’s strength lies in his power of Demagogy and he has so flattered the mob as the source of his power that he has, I fear, made it impossible for a successor to oust him by normal constitutional methods. His followers, and principally Ayatollah Kashani, have probably gone further than he intended in enlisting the support of the Tudeh for Monday’s trial of strength. The chief question now facing us is whether Mussadiq’s Government, or any other short of a military dictatorship, can avoid the “kiss of death,” which is the well known consequence of flirting with communists.

These words were written in July 1952, not by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy but by an experienced and forward-looking diplomat who knew Musaddiq well and liked him as a person. I do not

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Former Iranian prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq signing documents Former Iranian prime minister Muhammad Musaddiq signing documents sentencing him to three years of solitary confinement for treason, December 1953 - (© CORBIS/Bettmann)

apologize for repeating this statement, as it is one of the strongest justifications for the coup. The Shah succumbed to all Musaddiq’s demands as the latter returned in triumph with the support of the mob and the Tudeh Party. The Shah, meanwhile, became more and more of a feeble, terrified shadow of a ruler. Now we had to think seriously about the future. I tended to sympathize with decolonization and the new nationalism. From the beginning I had been in complete agreement with Middleton and Henderson that we must pull out all the stops to reach agreement. Now the world situation was such that we had to consider covert action. This activity was not “my part of the ship,” as we say in the navy, but at that time I spoke fluent Iranian, then known as “Farsi” or “Persian.” It was thought that I might be useful through my contacts.

This was “my finest hour,” as I saw it. I was being asked to participate in what others wiser than me considered an operation to prevent World War III. My grandchildren’s generation will doubtless consider this activity to be absurd and old-fashioned imperialism. It was not; the threat was urgent and real. Part of my task was to discover if there were any potential successors to Musaddiq who could command enough popular support to run the country, crush the Tudeh, and reach a tolerable oil settlement. Would such a candidate need “assistance” from the West? If so, what form should it take?

My first and principal contacts were three notorious brothers. When I first wrote, some years ago, their names were confidential and I shall continue to call them “the brothers,” although they have become well-known. They were successful businessmen and Iranian patriots, who no longer worked for money since they had plenty. They were convinced that Musaddiq Page 163  |  Top of Articlewas a disaster who would hand over Iran to the Tudeh. They had wide connections in the government, Majlis, bazaar, armed forces, and throughout all levels of society. They were longstanding friends of the British, in spite of our oil folly. They had a great contempt for the Shah but admitted that he was a necessary evil. They used to say, ”Bichareh mesleh sag, mitarseh” (Poor bastard, he is scared as a dog!)—the dog is considered an unclean and unloved animal in Iran. I used to breakfast with the brothers. Their breadth of knowledge was amazing, and they were charming and amusing company, even at breakfast. We discussed possible prime ministers; their favorite was a fascinating old gentleman, Sayid Zia-al-Din Tabataba’tai. He had been prime minister briefly in 1921 but had been deposed by Reza Khan, the Shah’s father. He was still in good shape and widely respected in Iran. We discussed his eventual premiership, and the brothers reluctantly agreed that he was too pro-British in the present atmosphere.

So I took a little trip to a pleasant house in the hills north of Teheran to visit the next candidate, General Fazlollah Zahedi. He was a retired general with a seat in the senate and with political ambitions. The British had imprisoned him during World War II for pro-Nazi activities, and therefore he could not be accused of being a British stooge. He was apparently pleased to see me, and politics demanded that he should bear no grudge. After all, there was a decent job at stake, and Zahedi had no doubt that he should succeed Musaddiq, support the Shah, and clobber the Tudeh. Zahedi made a good impression on me, although I was young and probably easily flattered. In my report at the time I described him as “tough and clear headed.” I doubt if our American allies, who ran the coup itself, would agree. I think they found him rather wet, but where was the alternative? To excuse myself, I may have been the first plotter to approach Zahedi, but I was certainly not the last. On our side both Middleton and Woodhouse visited the general and, to the best of my knowledge, approved of him as the best available, even if not ideal. I attended the visits as interpreter.

Of course, our visits to Zahedi were not secret. Embassy officials had every right to visit a distinguished senator. There was, as far as I know, no plot at that time, and Zahedi was not paid. But Musaddiq felt instinctively that we had ceased to favor him and broke off diplomatic relations with Britain on the pretext of an attempted coup. And so in October 1952 Middleton, my embassy colleagues, and I left Teheran for Beirut. The Iranians bade us a most friendly farewell and hoped we would soon return—no violence, no unpleasantness. Musaddiq gave Middleton a warm and tearful farewell and wished him luck in his future career.

We had only been in Beirut a few days when I received an order to accompany Woodhouse to Washington, D.C., to meet with State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials. It was an interesting time in Washington. The Republican Eisenhower administration had replaced the Truman administration. The Eisenhower administration considered the Musaddiq situation to be much more of a threat, and it was known that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s brother (Allen Dulles), as head of the CIA, thought that more direct action was a possibility. The State Department was listening to our arguments, but even as late as November 1952 they were still convinced that Musaddiq was the last best hope to save Iran from communism. We disagreed, and with my field knowledge of the brothers and our acquaintance with Zahedi, we made a persuasive argument. Even though State was impressed, they did not change their policy, but with Allen Dulles and Kermit Roosevelt the CIA was much more receptive. Roosevelt is well known as the executor of the coup and the author of the book that described his exploits, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran (1979).

Thus ended my personal involvement with the famous or infamous coup of 19 August 1953. Britain is said to have played a minor part in the coup. In its execution, yes, we were not in Iran. As for the planning, our role was important. We certainly made an impression on the CIA in November 1952, and they took over “the brothers” from us. We drafted the original plan. I feel honored to have been involved at the start, and I think I was the first to meet Zahedi.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Sir Winston Churchill’s wonderful remark to Roosevelt: “Young man, if I had been but a few years younger, I would have loved nothing better than to serve under your command in this great venture.” This essay spells out the case that favored the deposing of Musaddiq. Clearly, it would have been more desirable and in the interests of the United States, Iran, and, indeed, Britain if we could have made a reasonably satisfactory deal with Musaddiq. It might even, with the benefit of hindsight, have been better to make a poor deal than no deal at all. There were, however, limits beyond which it would have been impossible to go without upsetting the global oil business. Maybe it would have been worth it, and the cost to the United States might have been less than that of the Khomeini Revolution. It is difficult to say, but, in my opinion, Musaddiq turned down some good offers that might have prevented the crisis.

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In 1952 we were very worried about the Soviet, Chinese, and world communist threats, with extremely good reason: Tensions were high and real. There was the Korean War, and Stalin was still alive in all his psychopathic and dangerous malevolence. At the time the prospect of a communist Iran was alarming and, we thought, could have led to World War III. To this day I remain utterly convinced that the communist danger was too great to ignore and would have produced knee-jerk reactions that could have led to global catastrophe. Not only our intelligence services but also an enlightened liberal of the caliber of Middleton, who tried desperately to reach an agreement with Musaddiq, were in no doubt that the lovable old man had to go.

To finish on a personal note: In the British Foreign Service I was known as “Red Sam.” This name was given because I believed in liberal causes, resurgent nationalism, and the like. Later I was a fervent supporter of both Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the Iraqi nationalists. Thus, Musaddiq was initially a man after my own heart, and I am on record as a remorseless critic of the AIOC. The fact that even I eventually became convinced that he had to be replaced says something; all my beliefs, or, if you like, prejudices, were in the other direction—on his side. Sadly, he could not control the communists, and they would have removed him from power and replaced him with one of their own.



James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Farhad Diba, Mohammad Mossadegh: A Political Biography (London & Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm, 1986).

Mostafa Elm, Oil, Power, and Principle: Iran’s Oil Nationalization and Its Aftermath (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992).

Sir Samuel Falle, My Lucky Life in War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy (Sussex: Book Guild, 1996).

James Goode, “A Liberal Iran: Casualty of the Cold War,” in Paths Not Taken: Speculations on American Foreign Policy and Diplomatic History, Interests, Ideals, and Power, edited by Jonathan M. Nielson (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000), pp. 161–173 .

Goode, The United States and Iran: In the Shadow of Musaddiq (London: Macmillan, 1997).

Homa Katouzian, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 1990).

Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979).

Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2877500031