Britain Fights Oil Nationalism
he coup had its roots in a British showdown with Iran, restive under decades of
near-colonial British domination.
The prize was Iran's oil fields. Britain
occupied Iran in World War II to protect a
supply route to its ally, the Soviet Union, and
to prevent the oil from falling into the hands
of the Nazis — ousting the shah's father,
whom it regarded as unmanageable. It retained control over Iran's oil after the war
through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
In 1951, Iran's Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and legislators backing
the law elected its leading advocate, Dr.
Mossadegh, as prime minister.
Britain responded with threats and sanctions.
Dr. Mossadegh, a European-educated
lawyer then in his early 70's, prone to tears
and outbursts, refused to back down. In
meetings in November and December 1952,
the secret history says, British intelligence
officials startled their American counterparts with a plan for a joint operation to oust
the nettlesome prime minister.
The Americans, who "had not intended to
discuss this question at all," agreed to study
it, the secret history says. It had attractions.
Anti-Communism had risen to a fever pitch
in Washington, and officials were worried
that Iran might fall under the sway of the
Soviet Union, a historical presence there.
In March 1953, an unexpected development pushed the plot forward: the C.I.A.'s
Tehran station reported that an Iranian general had approached the American Embassy
about supporting an army-led coup.
The newly inaugurated Eisenhower administration was intrigued. The coalition
that elected Dr. Mossadegh was splintering,
and the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, had become active.
Allen W. Dulles, the director of central
intelligence, approved $1 million on April 4 to
be used "in any way that would bring about
the fall of Mossadegh," the history says.
"The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil
settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and
which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party."
Within days agency officials identified a
high-ranking officer, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi,
as the man to spearhead a coup. Their plan
called for the shah to play a leading role.
"A shah-General Zahedi combination, supported by C.I.A. local
assets and financial backing, would have a good chance of overthrowing
Mossadegh," officials wrote, "particularly if this combination should
be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and if a sizable
portion of the Tehran garrison refused to carry out Mossadegh's
But according to the history, planners had
doubts about whether the shah could carry
out such a bold operation.
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His family had seized Iran's throne just 32
years earlier, when his powerful father led a
coup of his own. But the young shah, agency
officials wrote, was "by nature a creature of
indecision, beset by formless doubts and
fears," often at odds with his family, including Princess Ashraf, his "forceful and
scheming twin sister."
Also, the shah had what the C.I.A. termed a
"pathological fear" of British intrigues, a
potential obstacle to a joint operation.
In May 1953 the agency sent Dr. Wilber to
Cyprus to meet Norman Darbyshire, chief of
the Iran branch of British intelligence, to
make initial coup plans. Assuaging the fears
of the shah was high on their agenda; a
document from the meeting said he was to be
persuaded that the United States and Britain
"consider the oil question secondary."
The conversation at the meeting turned to
a touchy subject, the identity of key agents
inside Iran. The British said they had recruited two brothers named Rashidian. The
Americans, the secret history discloses, did
not trust the British and lied about the identity of their best "assets" inside Iran.
C.I.A. officials were divided over whether
the plan drawn up in Cyprus could work. The
Tehran station warned headquarters that the
"the shah would not act decisively against
Mossadegh." And it said General Zahedi, the
man picked to lead the coup, "appeared
lacking in drive, energy and concrete plans."
Despite the doubts, the agency's Tehran
station began disseminating "gray propaganda," passing out anti-Mossadegh cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering
articles in the local press.
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