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The Oily Business of Regime Change


About fifty years ago, in July 1953, the U.S. secretary of state held a press conference in which he stated, “The growing activities of the illegal Communist Party in Iran and the toleration of them by the Iranian government has caused our government much concern.” On August 19, a pro-Shah demonstration arose spontaneously in a Teheran bazaar. The demonstration seemed to express public alarm at the plans of the Communist Party to declare Iran a republic. By the end of the day, a retired general and a former cabinet member, Fazlollah Zahedi, had taken over as the new premier. The deposed premier, 71-year old Mohammed Mossadeq, and his cohorts were either in hiding or had been captured. The Shah returned shortly to Iran, where he was given a rousing reception. The U.S. claimed another victory against the evil empire, saying Iran had been prevented from falling behind the Iron Curtain.

A minority argued that a coup d’etat had taken place but the majority accounts disputed that assertion. Time magazine said, “This was no military coup, but a spontaneous popular uprising.” The Washington Post commented that Iran had been saved from falling into communist hands. That became the official version of history, and was taught in colleges and universities worldwide for the past five decades. The minority version has now been validated by the unofficial release of the C.I.A.’s secret history about the Iranian coup of 1953.

The 200-page document, which remains classified, discloses the pivotal role American and British intelligence services played in initiating and planning the coup. It shows that Washington and London-who constituted the coalition of two in the recent war against Iraq-shared an interest in maintaining the West’s control over Iranian oil. Donald Wilbur wrote the document in March 1954, based on agency cable traffic and interviews with agents on the ground in Iran. Excerpts were published by James Risen in the New York Times in April 2000 and the entire document was subsequently posted on the Times web site. Recent events in Iraq have given Wilbur’s history a new salience, and it is featured in the May 19 issue of Time magazine.

Wilbur lists seven reasons for why the C.I.A. carried out the coup. Oil heads the list. He says, “By the end of 1952, it had become clear that the Mossadeq government in Iran was incapable of reaching an oil settlement with interested western countries.” Mossadeq was an impassioned speaker and popular politician who had long argued against the British domination of Iranian oil. The Anglo-Iranian oil company, a predecessor of today’s British petroleum, held the concession for all of Iran’s oil. Mossadeq wanted a fifty-fifty sharing arrangement with the British, which was becoming the industry standard, but they refused. On becoming Iran’s premier, he nationalized the company.

According to Professor Mark Gasiorowski of Louisiana State University, the coup was stage-managed meticulously by the C.I.A. It prepared the groundwork for the coup by subordinating various important Iranian political actors and using propaganda and other instruments to influence public opinion against Mossadeq. There was no popular uprising on behalf of the Shah. The history says agency officers orchestrating the Iran coup worked directly with royalist Iranian military officers, sent a stream of envoys to bolster the shah’s courage, directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles, editorial cartoons and fake interviews in the Iranian press.

The Operation was code named TPAJAX, and its aim was “to cause the fall of the Mossadeq government.and bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement.” By April 16, 1953, the C.I.A. had determined that it was possible to change the democratically elected regime through covert operations carried out jointly with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The plan was completed by June 10, 1953 and submitted to the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen W. Dulles, the director of the C.I.A. The Dulles brothers assigned the task of overseeing the coup to Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and a long-time intelligence operative who was based in Teheran.

On July 11, President Eisenhower approved Operation TPAJAX. The C.I.A. choose General Zahedi as the successor to Mossadeq who would pave the way for the Shah’s return. Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the American general who led the allied forces during the first Gulf War, played a key role in the coup. General Schwarzkopf, who had worked with the Shah’s palace security forces during the mid-forties, helped buy his support for the coup by convincing him of its success.

Once the coup had restored the Peacock Throne to the Shah, British Petroleum returned to work the Iranian oil fields. In tow came along five American companies who would one day become ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. American foreign aid poured into Iran for the next quarter century to the tune of $20 billion. The Shah proceeded to launch a “White Revolution” from the throne. His grip on power was sustained through a notorious secret police, the Savak, which arrested, tortured and executed his opponents with a zeal that reminded Iranians of the Gestapo.

In due course of time, TP-AJAX became the blueprint for a succession of C.I.A. plots to foment coups during the Cold War. In more than one instance, such operations led to the same kind of long-term animosity toward the United States that occurred in Iran in 1979 when a religious movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah. The staff of the American embassy were held as hostages for over a year and to this day, U.S. companies are barred from doing business in Iran.

A lot has changed since then. The U.S. has successfully overthrown the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq through an overt military invasion of Baghdad. In the post 9/11-world, regime change does not have to be carried out in secret. The U.S. defense secretary has bristled at suggestions that the invasion was about oil. The Bush administration had argued that the war was directed at eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Since such weapons may never be found, the new line from the administration is that the war was intended to relieve Iraqis from tyranny and to bestow on them the gift of democracy.

This war may well turn out to be un-related to oil, and be the first such war in the Middle East. In the mean time, there is a strong suspicion, not just among the French, that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

AHMAD FARUQUI, an economist, is a fellow with the American Institute of International Studies and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at


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