A Tale of Two Coups

From either a geopolitical or counterintelligence standpoint, coups are the equivalent of using a brushfire to clear away vegetation instead of carefully tending and weeding a garden. It’s uncontrollable, unpredictable and at all times to be avoided except as a last resort. It never creates desirable results and it destroys everything in its path in the blind hope that whatever’s left in the ashes will be preferable to what was there before. Coups never introduce stability, but they almost always create a backlash that is arguably worse than the original situation. Iran is the perfect demonstration of this, as a coup took the situation from undesirable to bad and eventually to worse when the inevitable counter-revolution happened.

The first coup (which eventually gave rise to the second) can be traced directly to oil and the West’s interest in it, both to benefit the West and to deny the essential modern resource to the Soviet Union. It began with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) and the British military’s need for oil. The company was created in 1908, and in 1911 when Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty he insisted on switching the Royal Navy from coal to oil. Three years later, the British government sought to ensure its supply of cheap oil by becoming a 51% shareholder in APOC.

As the company developed, it sought to limit the amount of the profits that Iran was entitled to. A series of negotiations ultimately saw some token improvements but the arrangements remained largely unfavorable to the Iranians. The company renamed itself the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) while the situation for Iranians continued to deteriorate during World War II as the Allies moved in to occupy Iran and the Soviet Union sought to gain access to its oil fields. It eventually reached the point where the director of Iran’s Petroleum Institute described the refinery at Abadan by writing that:

Wages were fifty cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shantytown called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity… In winter the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and canoes ran alongside the roadways for transport. When the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant waters to fill the nostrils…

Summer was worse. It descended suddenly without a hint of spring. The heat was torrid… sticky and unrelenting while the wind and sandstorms whipped off the desert hot as a blower. The dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, turned into sweltering ovens… In every crevice hung the foul, sulfurous stench of burning oil – a pungent reminder that every day twenty thousand barrels, or one million tons a year, were being consumed indiscriminately for the functioning of the refinery, and AIOC never paid the government a cent for it.

To the management of AIOC in the pressed ecru shirts and air-conditioned offices, the workers were faceless drones. … In the British section of Abadan there were lawns, rose beds, tennis courts, swimming pools and clubs; in Kaghazabad there was nothing – not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town, no matter how poor or dry, were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats. The man in the grocery store sold his wares while sitting in a barrel of water to avoid the heat. Only the shriveled, mud-brick mosque in the old quarter offered hope in the form of divine redemption.

Iran was an occupied country until 1946, at the same time that a series of strikes and protests were begun by Iranians. Eventually, in 1951, Iran’s parliament voted to nationalize AIOC and a champion of nationalization, Mohammed Mossadegh, was elected Prime Minister of Iran. To the United States, he was a man who “had become so committed to the ideals of nationalism that he did things that could not have conceivably helped his people even in the best and most altruistic of worlds. In refusing to bargain — except on his own uncompromising terms — with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, he was in fact defying the professional politicians of the British government. These leaders believed, with good reason, that cheap oil for Britain and high profits for the company were vital to their national interests.” [Emphasis added]

The military coup that resulted was not done solely at the behest of the United Kingdom, however. The CIA Report The Battle For Iran simultaneously affirms that the coup was carried out under CIA direction and that it was a matter of commerce for both the United Kingdom and the United States:

The military coup that overthrew Mosadeq [sic] and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government. It was not an aggressively simplistic solution, clandestinely arrived at, but was instead an official admission by both the United States and the United Kingdom that normal, rational methods of communication and commerce had failed.”

These “rational methods of communication and commerce” that had failed included the attempt to deny Iran oil revenues through an embargo. The British, who had little respect for the Iranians, essentially believed that when “the beggars need the money badly enough, that will bring them to their knees.” The CIA report notes that this “did not bring the Iranians to their knees; it merely forced them to take the risky steps that increasingly endangered their country’s future.” This admission within the report is in stark contrast to the statement that it was Mossadegh’s commitment to nationalization that caused those “risky steps” to be taken.

The Battle for Iran describes the risks that Mossadegh was taking in terms of a British invasion of Iran and the Soviet response with a counter-invasion. “Under such circumstances, the danger of a third world war seemed very real.” The report goes on to explicitly acknowledge that this situation had been created by the British when they caused Iran to lose the revenue from oil. Mossadegh was “openly threatening to turn to other sources for economic help — the Soviets — if Britain did not meet his demands or if the United States did not come forth with massive aid to replace his lost oil revenue. Peacefully or in war, the Soviet Union appeared to be the only potential beneficiary of Mosadeq’s [sic] policies.”

It does appear that the United States briefly considered providing the aid to Iran, but this option was not pursued because it would “frustrate British policy, which was to undermine Mosadeq [sic].” The Communist presence in Iran was also a major factor in the denial of aid to Iran. According to John Foster Dulles, “the growing activities of the illegal Communist Party in Iran and the toleration of them by the Iranian government has caused our government concern. These developments make it more difficult to grant aid to Iran.”


After some setbacks, the coup was ultimately successful and the United States’ and United Kingdom’s interests were protected by the newly installed pro-West Iranian government led by the Shah. However, even before the Iranian counter-revolution in 1979, the United States was aware that their long-term goals had not been met, and things had not improved in the Middle East and Western influence had steadily declined since the coup in 1953. The coup had, however, helped set the stage for the increased value of oil in the 1970s. The resulting profits had gone to modernizing elements of Iranian society, especially its military was which intended “not only for self-defense but to support Iranian aspirations for dominance in the Persian Gulf as well.” The CIA history acknowledges that the democracy they had installed was a farce and that “although parliamentary elections and procedures may furnish the window-dressing of democratic government, it is the Shah alone who determines national policy.”

After the 1953 coup, the Iranian government began a crackdown on political opposition and dissidents. The Iranian secret police, SAVAK, received training from CIA and used kidnappings and torture to suppress political opposition. Simultaneously, the oil profits did not trickle down to the public as had been hoped. Instead, inflation increased along with the wealth divide and an increased perception of corruption. Inevitably, this led to widespread public dissatisfaction and a strong Iranian desire to reject the status quo while re-embracing their own identity.

The 1953 coup also set the stage for the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini had risen to notoriety ten years after the 1953 coup when he denounced the Shah and his policies of pro-West modernization. Khomeini was exiled until the 1979 Islamic revolution, which not only denounced the Shah and the West and but Iran’s role as a geopolitical pawn being used by foreign capitalists and communists. With the revolution of the Islamic theocracy came the slogan “Neither East, nor West – Islamic Republic.” This revolution was successful and the rejection of the West led to the seizure of the U.S. embassy and the Iranian hostage crisis, along with thousands of pages of still classified State Department and CIA documents being stolen and published.

Despite this, parts of the United States government were willing to continue improving the military of the now hostile theocratic state by selling them weapons as another maneuver in the West’s Cold War geopolitical conflicts which has become infamously (and reductively) known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Since then, Iran has a been a sponsor of acts of terrorism and cooperated with Al Qaida on numerous significant occasions and there continue to be concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Since World War Two, attempts to intervene in and manipulate Iran have steadily made things worse. Many of the problems arise from a few key factors in these interventions and others like them:

  1. They’re detrimental to democracy and self-determination, which makes them harder for people to accept (especially if it isn’t “validated” by religion).
  2. They’re created by one-sided economic interests which exacerbate the problems in the host (i.e. target) country.
  3. They approach the situation with an all-or-nothing mindset.
  4. They create conditions where corruption and abuse can flourish, both of the political and economic variety.
  5. They eliminate problems without creating long-term solutions.

The long-term solution has never been and will never be fighting wars for oil, but in creating the circumstances which will organically give rise to the conditions we find desirable. In many cases in the Middle East, this means fighting extremism with education. In most cases throughout the world, it means taking a generational approach to problems which are generational in nature. In some instances, it means changing the world by changing our own behavior. The quickest way for the West to change the oil market and economies is by reducing our oil consumption and investing in alternative energies that eliminate the need for oil as a fuel. In other instances, it means subtly exerting influence to encourage the desired long-term conditions not through eliminating obstacles, but by accomplishing goals.


You can read The Battle for Iran history from CIA below, or see the full release of CIA files on the coup at MuckRock:



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