A sketch history of U. S. military bases in the Middle East: the Overthrow of Mossadegh

At the end of World War II the United States was left with something like 15 military bases in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite this military presence the United States was apparently not regarded as an occupying power or as a colonizer. Two factors seem to have changed this: the state of Israel and the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953.

In August 1953 after several days of anti-government rioting the government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown by pro-Shah forces and the Shah, who had been residing in Italy, was restored to power. Here’s how the New York Times of August 23, 1953 summarized the events leading up to the coup:

November, 1951. In Washington Mossadegh spurned offers for oil settlement, hinted that economic troubles would open way to communist Iran, demanded without success a $145,000,000 U. S. loan.

Feb. 19, 1952. Mossadegh rejected World Bank offer for oil settlement.

July 19-21. Shah named new Premier when Mossadegh demanded appointment as War Minister. For three days there were violent pro-Mossadegh rallies. Shah reappointed Mossadegh as Premier.

Aug. 30. President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill made a “final” offer for oil settlement.

Feb. 28, 1953. The Shah bluffed abdication, partly to force Mossadegh’s acceptance of Churchill-Truman offer. For two days there were pro-Shah rallies in streets. The pro-Mossadegh mobs led by Tudeh won out. The army had done nothing to help Mossadegh. He began replacing key officers with his own men.

March 20. Mossadegh finally rejected Churchill-Truman offer.

April 14. Mossadegh introduced a bill in Majlis (Parliament) to transfer army control from Shah to himself.

June 29. President Eisenhower rejected Mossadegh request for loan.

July 11. New Soviet Ambassador appointed to Teheran.

July 19. Unable to get army bill through Majlis, Mossadegh demanded dissolution. When Shah refused Mossadegh called for plebiscite.

Aug. 2. Backed by Tudeh, Mossadegh won plebiscite with 99.4 per cent of vote in a nonsecret balloting.

Aug. 10. Moscow announced bilateral talks with Iran on “all questions.”

Aug. 14. Foreign Minister Fatemi announced full agreement on Russian talks agenda.

Aug. 15 (last Saturday). Mossadegh announced dissolution of Majlis. The stage was set for last week’s events.

There are several competing analyses of the coup. One commonly-accepted view of the coup is nicely represented in the Wikipedia article on Mossadegh. In this view the coup was a contrivance of the CIA and the British MI6. There is evidence in support of this view. In April of 2000 the New York Times printed a report based on CIA documents that showed British and American involvement in the coup particularly:

  • Britain, fearful of Iran’s plans to nationalize its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the United States to mount a joint operation to remove the prime minister.
  • The C.I.A. and S.I.S., the British intelligence service, handpicked Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and covertly funneled $5 million to General Zahedi’s regime two days after the coup prevailed.
  • Iranians working for the C.I.A. and posing as Communists harassed religious leaders and staged the bombing of one cleric’s home in a campaign to turn the country’s Islamic religious community against Mossadegh’s government.
  • The shah’s cowardice nearly killed the C.I.A. operation. Fearful of risking his throne, the Shah repeatedly refused to sign C.I.A.-written royal decrees to change the government. The agency arranged for the shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlevi, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Desert Storm commander, to act as intermediaries to try to keep him from wilting under pressure. He still fled the country just before the coup succeeded.

There are competing analyses. In May of 2000 Ardeshir Zahedi, son of the general who led the coup, bitterly denied the CIA claims in an article published in the New York Times. In his view the pro-Shah forces stepped into the vacuum created by the collapsing Mossadegh government and that such involvement as the American CIA and British MI6 had was largely ineffectual. There’s evidence to support this view, too in the form of the reports of Roy Henderson, ambassador to Iran at the time.

To the best of my knowledge Eisenhower never acknowledged American involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh. In his memoirs he characterized Mossadegh as “naive”.

Some are rather dewy-eyed about Dr. Mossadegh and his regime. For example, here’s what the eyeranian thinks would have happened had the Americans and British not overthrown the Mossadegh regime (if, of course, they did):

Let’s just play with historical facts a bit and see what could have probably happened if the CIA didn’t topple the popular government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and The Shah had remained in exile or at least out of work. I know there are tons of other factors this notion can not take into account and there are also all those unpredictable events that may have popped up here and there (hey, one crazy man with a single bullet can alter the course) but this is perhaps the most likely scenario:

– Iran would have practiced and learned democracy over the past 50 years, starting with the nationalist government of Dr. Mossadegh and declaring a Republic, then going through various other types of governments and seeing some of the diverse beliefs in assorted posts and governments and eventually becoming that example of freedom in middle-east that others now try to import there by force. No political oppression, prisoners of conscience, torture, Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) or IRI’s myriad of security outfits and mass executions.

– With all ideologies and political parties present and active, the clergy would have never been able to ride the wave of a popular movement to power, there would have been no revolution in 1979 and the “Islamic Republic” (which in my opinion is neither Islamic or a Republic) would not have existed. There would have been no oil embargo, no hostage crisis, no October surprise Reagan can exploit to win and then obviously no Bush Sr., or Bush Jr.

And so on. The gist of it is that the undoubted crimes of the Shah, the Cold War, the current Iranian mullahocracy, the Iran-Iraq War, and the War on Terror would never have taken place if Mossadegh had been allowed to remain in power.

To me the evidence suggests that Mossadegh was a national socialist very much like Stalin, Mussolini, or Castro. His reforms largely consisted of the standard socialist program of the time: collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of industries. He tended over time to concentrate more and more power into his own hands. There are few signs of his having been either a democrat or a liberal. As we have seen with Castro such regimes are highly reluctant to relinquish power.

I do believe that the CIA and MI6 had some role in the coup but I doubt the image of the omnipotent, malevolent CIA that I think is required to accept the first analysis completely. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the CIA over the last 20 years, it’s that it has a culture of resume-padding (exaggerating the threat, exaggerating their successes, minimizing their failures) so I’m not surprised that agents might be attempting to grab credit (if that’s the right word for it) to which they are not completely entitled. Especially if book sales are involved.

But a greater problem, it seems to me, is that Mossadegh had little natural support. The Tudeh Party (lit. the Masses, the Iranian Communist Party under another name) had abandoned him. Recent revelations from the Kremlin (pointed to by Francis Gavin in his paper, Politics, Power, and U. S. Policy in Iran, 1950-1953) suggest that although Mossadegh was leaning increasingly towards the Kremlin, the Soviet-funded Tudeh was pushing increasingly hard in that direction. The military had many pro-Shah officers despite his best efforts at replacing them with his own men. Religious conservatives had abandoned him, possibly worried about the increasing socialization (and secularization) of the country.

Regardless of their actual influence in the coup there’s little question of the interest of both the United States and Britain nor is there any doubt of the continuing support the United States provided for the Shah until he was deposed in 1979.

I tend to agree with this statement of Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s in March of 2000:

“The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America.”

Unfortunately, doing things that are deeply regrettable to prevent things that are even more regrettable is the difference between a great power and a Ladies Aid Society.

It’s tempting to view the U. S. interest in Iran through the oil-tinted prism of today and certainly oil was a major consideration for Britain. Mossadegh had seized the British-built and -owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and nationalized it. And Iran was an important source of oil for Europe. In 1953 U. S. imports of oil were very low but a stable supply of oil from the Middle East was necessary to sustain the post-war rebuilding of Europe.

But oil wasn’t the primary interest of the United States in Iran. The United States was concerned about a possible Soviet takeover of Iran. The concern was not entirely without basis. In the 1920’s one of Iran’s provinces had briefly been carved off as the Persian Soviet Socialist Republic (also known as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Gilan). And the Soviet Union’s interests were not entirely based on oil, either.

We tend to forget that one of the most persistent Russian ambitions has been a warm water port. Without such a port Russia simply can’t be a naval power. And Iran had such ports not only on the Caspian but, more importantly, on the Gulf as well. Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and one of those most involved on the U. S. side in the Iranian coup, remained convinced to his dying day that only U. S. involvement with Iran prevented a Soviet takeover there.

Consider the context of the times. The Korean conflict had demonstrated incontrovertibly that Communists were willing to resort to direct military force to expand the dominion of Communism. And, as Gavin, above, has pointed out, U. S. leaders understood that the United States had little ability to oppose a takeover of Iran by the Soviet Union through direct military confrontation. We just weren’t positioned properly for it.

And that, finally, is the relevance of the overthrow of Mossadegh to my sketch history of U. S. military bases in the Middle East. For many people and, especially, the people of the Middle East it suggested that the United States was little different in pursuing its interests by interefering in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries than the old colonial powers had been. And for the United States it suggested that if we were to be able to oppose the advance of the Soviet Union, we would need to be involved with the Middle East to a significantly greater extent than we had been historically.

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16 comments… add one
  • Excellent roundup. Thank you.

    Every time I was about to make a point, I realized that reading a little further addressed it.

  • Excellent, excellent, excellent ! I really believe that you nailed this one -Dave you have a historian’s eye ( and contrary to what Political Scientists say, that’s a compliment)

    My two cents to add, rambling fashion:

    Mossadegh was no more a democrat, contrary to Eyerainian, than he was the man in the moon. He was a Qajar who oposed the son of the man who toppled the previous dynasty. A nationalist and an effective demogogue in a shiite context, yes but he ruled by thuggery and intimidation mixed with populist pathos.

    The Soviet interest in Iran did not end after Truman used nuclear pressured the Red Army to remove from the Northern provinces to the USSR. They continued formenting Irano-Azeribaijani separatism even as they funded the Tudeh.

    The reasoning of Mossadegh’s overthrow automatically begets Khomeini ( 25 years later) begs the question of exactly what the hell the two had in common? Khomeini would simply have overthrown a secular republican government instead of the Shah ( assuming Iran didn’t go Communist instead – a huge, gigantic if given what happened in next door Afghanistan). This is an error of linear thinking beyond what is supported by evidence.

    And we know what Khomeini thought of Tudeh once he came to power since his regime jailed and murdered them in short order

    Book recs on Operation Ajax: Ike’s Spies by Stephen Ambrose; The Persian Puzzle by Ken Pollock; Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles by Peter Grosse; For the President’s Eyes Only by Christopher Andrew; Honorable Treachery by G.J.A. O’Toole

  • Thanks, Mark.

    The reasoning of Mossadegh’s overthrow automatically begets Khomeini ( 25 years later) begs the question of exactly what the hell the two had in common? Khomeini would simply have overthrown a secular republican government instead of the Shah ( assuming Iran didn’t go Communist instead – a huge, gigantic if given what happened in next door Afghanistan). This is an error of linear thinking beyond what is supported by evidence.

    This touches on a point that I had intended to address but neglected to. While, as I said, the Shah committed many crimes, his real sin was modernizing too fast. The major political groups in the country included

    • the military
    • the Tudeh
    • the religious conservatives
    • reformers

    The Tudeh was intractable; he had the support of the military; he couldn’t appease both the religious conservatives and the reformers. Turns out the religious conservatives had a stronger hand.

  • bq. Unfortunately, doing things that are deeply regrettable to prevent things that are even more regrettable is the difference between a great power and a Ladies Aid Society.

    This is one of the greatest lines I have ever read! Very good round-up.

    Re: the Shah modernizing too quickly, did you know about his cancer? Apparently he had some sort of lymphatic cancer since 1973, and this may have contributed to his breakneck speed of reforms. I didn’t know about this until recently.

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