The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | August 19, 2019                      

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable | by Arash Norouzi

Before America and Britain joined forces to capsize the Iranian government in 1953, they first had to concur that this objective was politically and tactically cogent.

The chronology of this process has long been an area of fascination for historians, and recently unveiled top secret documents offer a more detailed picture to examine. Yet when viewed more expansively, the Anglo-American conspiracy seems less of an inevitability than a kaleidoscopic cycle of contradiction, vacillation and incoherence.

One longstanding fallacy about the coup is that the impulse to intervene began only after the U.S. and U.K. had exhausted all other avenues in coping with the messy British-Iranian oil feud and that reputedly weird, exasperating fanatic running Iran. In fact, the CIA had already initiated manipulating Iranian political affairs prior to Mossadegh’s ascent. Throughout the Mossadegh saga itself, a rough template for what would become Operation Boot and Operation Ajax — always centering around the vital cooperation of the Shah — was in development right from the beginning.

Enter — Mossadegh (1951)

On April 28, 1951, in concert with the Oil Nationalization Law, 79 out of 90 present Majles (Parliament) deputies voted to make their fellow member, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister.

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran The U.S. State Department sized up the new leader in a May 4th memorandum drafted by their Embassy in Tehran, “Estimate of the Political Strength of the Mosadeq Government”. The paper found Mossadegh to be a “popular hero” whose aims “are basically similar to ours”— including resolving the oil standoff with the British and protecting Iran from Communist inroads — and endorsed giving him “support, advice and possibly economic assistance” so that his government might “assist our aims in Iran”.

Five days later, during a Central Intelligence Agency meeting, Deputy Director for Plans Allen Dulles proposed a bold initiative to ‘save’ Iran — U.S.-sponsored regime change. According to CIA records:1

“Mr. Dulles stated that in his opinion only one thing could save the situation in Iran, namely to have the Shah throw out Mossadeq, shut down the Majlis and temporarily rule by decree. At a later date a new premier could be installed with our help.”

The suggestion intrigued CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith, who asked Dulles to have the State Department look into it further. He did just that. The next day, Dulles convened with State Dept. officials and the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Chief of the Near East and Africa Division, Directorate of Plans, to recommend that the U.S. send an emissary to persuade the Shah to ax Mossadegh, dissolve the Majles, and govern, “as his father did”, by decree, assuring him of full American support, of course.2

Keep in mind, Mossadegh took office on April 30th, so he had been Premier for little more than a week before such talk of his removal. And yet this period actually represented a high point in terms of his image within the U.S. government.

Even if the U.S. wanted Mossadegh out, this didn’t yet appear feasible for several reasons. A May 22nd U.S. Special Estimate concluded that “in view of Mossadeq’s popular backing, it is unlikely that the Shah and the Majlis would dare oppose him while tension over the oil issue remains high. . . . It is therefore unlikely that Mossadeq can be overthrown during this critical period except by violence or by the establishment of a semi-dictatorial regime under the aegis of the Shah. Such a course of action would involve risks which the Shah has thus far shown no willingness to take.”

Then a National Security Council progress report from May 24th recommended maintaining a “neutral position” towards Mossadegh — “It is believed advisable, in view of the present highly emotional state of the Iranian people, for the United States not to oppose him publicly and at the same time take no action which could be construed as support for him, his Government, or his program.”3

Contrast that statement with this one from the May 22nd profile: “It may well be advisable for the United States to indicate support of the Mosadeq Government. By increasing Dr. Mosadeq’s confidence in U.S. efforts to assist Iran we may well bring his Government to cooperate in implementing our programs here.” Two contrary positions, two days apart.

On August 15th, British Chargé d’affaires George Middleton approached Arthur L. Richards, the U.S. Counselor of Embassy in Iran, with a list of likely successors who might hopefully replace Mossadegh in the near future, with the pliable, pro-British politician Seyyed Zia being his preferred choice.4 Middleton deemed it essential that the U.S. and Britain coordinate their approval for said candidate to ensure his success. “In particular”, Richards informed Henderson, “he emphasized that the U.S. and U.K. must impress upon the Shah the necessity for acceptance of the strongest possible Prime Minister and that the Shah must be assured of at least moral support by both governments to the extent that he would feel confident in such a choice.”

Richards preached caution, however, writing prophetically:

“We must avoid close identification with any politician, at least for the present. To do otherwise would leave us open to accusation of close and sinister collaboration with the British and would give support to the allegation of intervention in the internal affairs of the country.”

Ahmad Ghavam Soon enough, however, one such candidate began soliciting the U.S. through various emissaries. Former Premier Ahmad Ghavam, sensing that the British and Americans were less than thrilled with Mossadegh, was scheming for a political comeback, and wanted America’s blessing. Though the U.S. did favor Ghavam, U.S. Ambassador to Iran Loy Henderson repeated the standard line he told all Iranian officials, that they “could not indicate opposition to or support of any specific person or political party”.

Sec. of State Dean Acheson, too, echoed this rhetoric, stating internally that the United States would “under no circumstances” favor or oppose a particular man for Premier — regardless of his status with the Shah. Yet the State Department’s own internal documents clearly document both men, among many others, acting quite antithetically.5

Ambassador Loy W. Henderson Middleton continued agitating for Mossadegh’s removal, however, and wanted decisive action posthaste. On November 28th, he asked the U.S. to commence jointly pressuring the Shah to replace Mossadegh. Henderson again demurred, however, noting in an internal memo that for the U.S., “while maintaining outwardly friendly relations with Mosadeq, [to covertly] bring pressure for his overthrow, would place [the U.S.] in [an] invidious position regardless [of] whether or not Mosadeq’s overthrow was effected.”

“It would not add to [the] US reputation for us to play [a] double-faced role in Iran”, continued Henderson. “If we think that Mosadeq’s policies are so dangerous that we must work against him we should let him know what we think before taking action. It seems to me, particularly in view [of] statements made to me yesterday by Ala [that the] Shah [is] not likely [to] relish [the] idea [of] attempting [to] replace Mosadeq so soon after [the] latter’s return as [a] national hero and while [the] latter is probably more popular with [the] masses than any political figure in many years.”6

The next day, the State Dept. informed the British that they were “disturbed” by Middleton’s suggestion, which seemed “doomed to failure.” With Mossadegh now at “peak popularity”, the Premier “could in [a] test of strength probably overthrow [the] Shah rather than vice-versa.” Besides, it explained, the whole thing could backfire badly in so many ways, possibly resulting in the removal of British influence in Iran or even a Communist takeover. Nevertheless, “If, despite [the] above, [the] British feel they must proceed with this course of action, we will of course not stand in their way.”

Mossadegh Stronger Than Ever (1952)

By Feb. 1952, a National Intelligence Estimate found that “Prime Minister Mossadeq and the National Front movement continue to dominate the political scene in Iran”, and that it was “extremely unlikely” the Shah would move to replace him given his status in the Majles and widespread popular support in the country.7

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, threatened by Mossadegh or any strong Prime Minister for that matter, became paranoid that his elderly nemesis enjoyed American support after hearing rumors to that effect. In a July 13th meeting, the Shah discussed this concern with Henderson, who assured him that both he and his government believed Mossadegh was leading Iran to ruin. The Shah explained that he would like to remove Mossadegh, but it was impossible given his hero status in the country. If he did move to dismiss him, hinted the Shah, he would require assurances of immediate financial support from the U.S. and England, among other things. Henderson said he could offer no such assurance of U.S. aid at this time, which might “further inflame UK opinion against Iran and at same time injure US–UK relations.”8

Then came the first major showdown between the two national figures in Tehran. In July 1952, Mossadegh sought control of the military, and when the Shah refused the request, Mossadegh resigned. The Shah appointed Ahmad Ghavam, who for months had solicited the U.S. to help make him Premier, in his place. Though the Americans were obviously relieved to be rid of Mossadegh, the good news was short-lived. Three days of bloody rioting against Ghavam and for Dr. Mossadegh ensued, with hundreds of demonstrators shot and killed by the Shah’s armed forces.

On July 21st, Middleton called Hossein Ala, Court Minister and former Premier, who told him that “perhaps “all of us” had underestimated [the] strength [of] Mosadeq, that Mosadeq seemed [to] have [a] following [of] tremendous popular appeal and that public sentiment was clearly opposed to Qavam. [The] Shah therefore was being forced to consider whether or not he should not request Qavam’s resignation and appoint [a] successor; he might perhaps even turn again to Mosadeq.”9

That evening, after an overwhelming vote in Parliament, the Shah was compelled to reinstate Mossadegh as Premier, along with the additional position of Defense Minister he had asked for.

Loy Henderson with Ahmad Ghavam in July 1952, during Ghavam’s brief return as Premier after Mossadegh resigned. Riots in Tehran returned Mossadegh to office four days later.

A week later, in his first meeting with Amb. Henderson since the ‘30 Tir’ uprising which returned Mossadegh to power, Premier Mossadegh repeatedly accused America of favoring Ghavam in the interim. Henderson denied this, telling Mossadegh that the U.S. was merely trying to be of help to Iran. Mossadegh laughed in reply, saying that if that was truly their intention, they were sure doing a good job of hiding it.

Henderson’s report of his “exhausting and depressing” meeting with the seemingly “not quite sane” Mossadegh distressed CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith, who feared the Iranian statesman’s alleged mental instability would further expose Iran to Communist subversion.

General Walter Bedell Smith But the next day, Allen Dulles, inspired by a recent CIA memorandum, noted that the British outlook was widely viewed by the agency as “a bit too defeatist”. The agent who prepared the paper, Deputy Director for Intelligence Loftus Becker, viewed Mossadegh as a perfectly rational actor, “crazy like a fox”, and argued that utilizing the Shah to take action or fomenting a military coup was a fool’s errand. Amazingly, Smith agreed, adding that Mossadegh and the National Front were “the only anti-Communist forces left in Iran”. Referring to the ineffectual Shah, he then hinted that perhaps a change in dynasty was in order anyway.

Almost immediately after Mossadegh took power, Dulles and Smith of the CIA were the first to champion ousting him. Suddenly, he was the horse to bet on.

Over a year after he became Prime Minister, prospects for the riddance of Mossadegh continued to look dim. After a discussion with Middleton on the various negative factors,10 Henderson reported:

“...both Middleton and I agreed that neither [the] British nor American Governments should undertake to encourage or support [a] coup d’état and that our two Embassies should not (repeat not) become involved in any way.”

Max W. Thornburg, Petroleum Advisor to the State Department Meanwhile, State Dept. Oil Adviser Max Thornburg was pushing hard for a military coup in which the Shah would rule autocratically, though John H. Leavitt, the Chief of the CIA’s Iran Branch, Directorate of Plans wasn’t convinced. In a memo to Kermit Roosevelt, he found it “extremely unlikely” the Shah would lead such a coup, regardless of any U.S. incentives offered him. Additionally, U.S-British support of the new regime “would lay the Shah open to charges of being a Western puppet, and would greatly increase rather than reduce opposition to him.”11

The United States continued to teeter between either exploring ways to subjugate Mossadegh, or uplift him diplomatically and financially. Then the British commenced a formal proposition to convince the Americans to cooperate in a coup with a report titled “The Communist Danger in Persia”. Preaching “absolute Anglo-United States solidarity” in whatever course lie ahead, the report, delivered October 8, 1952, contained four pages of potential covert activities they could employ against Mossadegh. Three times in a month’s span, CIA and State Dept. members (including Kermit Roosevelt) met personally with top British officials to discuss the paper, but the question of complete “solidarity” posed some issues for the Americans.

U.S. diplomat Henry Byroade noted that “many British officials believe that Mosadeq is the worst possible Premier Iran could have and that his ability to resist the Tudeh Party is nil. This is in complete contrast to a United States view that the nationalist Mosadeq Government constitutes at least a chance, perhaps the last one, to combat Tudeh rule and that although Mosadeq is admittedly very weak, there is no better alternative presently in sight.” (The CIA and Loy Henderson had just concurred that Mossadegh was “still the strongest political leader in Iran” the previous month).

British Proposal to Organize a Coup d’état in Iran (Nov.-Dec. 1952)

The exploratory talks continued into November and December. Paul Nitze, Director of Policy Planning at the State Dept., even proposed trying a test run against Ayatollah Kashani, influential cleric and Majles Speaker, and the well-organized Communist Tudeh party to evaluate their capabilities of launching a coup, but no one showed any interest. Nor was there a consensus on Mossadegh’s attitude toward thwarting Communist designs. The State Department at large, and Henderson specifically, “believed Mosadeq was sincerely anti-Communist and that if he were able to effect an oil settlement or otherwise strengthen the financial position of his Government, he would take a firmer position against the Tudeh”, confirmed John Jernegan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs.

Henry Byroade At the end of the year, an updated National Intelligence Estimate foresaw that “Neither the groups opposing the National Front nor the Tudeh Party are likely to develop the strength to overthrow the National Front by constitutional means or by force in 1953.”11 With their options evidently limited, hopes of reaching an oil deal lingered. As Byroade expressed the dilemma:

“One element which must be taken into consideration in making our decision is that we are presently thinking of unilateral action to assist the Mosadeq Government in the event that the British do not agree to an oil settlement acceptable to Mosadeq. It would be virtually impossible to proceed with plans to overthrow Dr. Mosadeq while at the same time giving him open assistance. Obviously, our assistance would have the effect of strengthening his Government, whereas the proposed plan for a coup requires a period of “softening up” designed to discredit him and make clear to the Iranians that he can expect no help from the Western Powers. In any case, it seems most improbable that the British would agree to collaborate in the preparation of a coup if we were acting unilaterally in a different direction.”

Mossadegh Under Attack (1953)

Hopes for a successful coup d'état picked up after tensions erupted with Mossadegh and the Shah on Feb. 28, 1953, during the violent event known as No’he Esfand. Falsely believing Mossadegh had forced the Shah to leave the country prior to the Shah’s departure to Rome, an angry, murderous mob attacked Mossadegh’s home, which he narrowly managed to escape from. The No’he Esfand ambush, which Mossadegh suspected included the participation of Loy Henderson, would foreshadow things to come.

Stimulated by these developments, Allen Dulles, now CIA Director, took inventory of the CIA’s assets in Iran in a memorandum prepared for the new U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a committed Shah partisan himself. The estrangement between Mossadegh and the Shah, coupled with his previous break with Ayatollah Kashani in 1952, presented opportunities for a successful coup.

CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. CIA agent Donald Wilber began drafting a coup plan in April 1953, and coordination with the British Secret Intelligence Service continued throughout May. A first draft was cabled to CIA headquarters on June 1st, with the SIS copy delivered by hand to London. Four days of CIA talks in Beirut led to a revised plan, after which Roosevelt and Wilber flew to London for further discussion with the British.

Simultaneously, the State Department’s Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian Affairs (GTI) prepared the papers “Proposal to Bring About A Change of Government In Iran” and a ‘how-to’ guide to installing a dictatorship titled “Measures which the United States Government Might Take in Support of a Successor Government to Mosadeq”. The latter was drafted by John H. Stutesman, who had co-authored the May 1951 assessment recommending the U.S. support the new Premier.

By July 1st, senior British and American officials signed off on the plan, (including Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden), leaving only President Eisenhower, Allen Dulles, and his brother, Sec. of State John Foster Dulles, who all signed on July 11th.

With the help of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s twin sister, among others, the reluctant Shah was persuaded to agree to sign two decrees, one dismissing Mossadegh, the other appointing Fazlollah Zahedi, on August 13th. Action began on the 16th, climaxing on August 19, 1953.12

After the successful coup in which several hundred Iranians died, the trial and imprisonment of Dr. Mossadegh, the execution of Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi, and the consolidation of the Shah’s military dictatorship, the U.S. and Britain divvied up the loot from their illicit, clandestine operation by negotiating the Iran Oil Consortium Agreement of 1954.


1 Minutes of Director of Central Intelligence Smith’s Meeting — Washington, May 9, 1951.
2 Memorandum for the Record — Washington, May 10, 1951.
3 Progress Report Prepared for the National Security Council — Washington, May 31, 1951.
4 Arthur L. Richards to Loy Henderson — Tehran, August 15, 1951
5 Loy Henderson to the State Department — Tehran, October 30, 1951
6 Loy Henderson to the State Department — Tehran, November 28, 1951
7 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE–46) — Washington, February 4, 1952.
8 Loy Henderson to the State Department — Tehran, June 13, 1952
9 Loy Henderson to the State Department — Tehran, July 21, 1952
10 Loy Henderson to the State Department — Tehran, July 31, 1952
11 John H. Leavitt to Kermit Roosevelt — Washington, September 22, 1952
12 Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran by Donald Wilber (1954)

The 1953 Coup in Iran Was An Act of War | by Arash Norouzi
The 1953 Coup in Iran Was An Act of War | by Arash Norouzi


Related links:

The Communist Danger in Persia | Britain’s 1952 Report to U.S.

“What the U.S. Has Always Wished For Iran” | CIA Draft Statement To Follow 1953 Coup

British Ambassador Roger Makins Bewails U.S. Ascendancy in Middle East (1954)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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