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19 AUGUST

MI6 OVERTHROW MOSSADEGH – THE POPULAR MODERATE PRIME MINISTER OF IRAN.

[ 19 August 1953 ]

(Shorter version) On this day in 1953 British intelligence, helped by the CIA, staged a coup to oust Muhammad Mossadegh, the moderate nationalist prime minister of Iran, who had been a firm believer in liberal values, democracy and the rule of law. London was unhappy that Mossadegh also believed Iran should be able to run its own oil industry, which had been in British hands,  the revenue from which he hoped would help improve the lives of all Iranians, including the poor.

In 1951, Mossadegh had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and promised to pay the British company compensation, a move which was backed overwhelmingly by the Iranian parliament. However, for Britain, this represented not just the loss of an enormously valuable economic asset but also a dangerous precedent. Other colonial nations might follow Iran’s example.  London immediately dispatched warships to the Persian Gulf, froze Iran’s sterling assets, banned all exports of iron and steel to the country and organized a boycott of Iranian oil by the seven sisters, Royal Dutch Shell and the big six American oil companies.

As Iran’s main source of revenue dried up, Mossadegh was forced to impose drastic austerity measures.  Factories closed and unemployment soared.  At the same time Mossadegh tried to ameliorate the impact of the recession on the poor by introducing social security, land reform and rent controls.  But the political pressure continued as MI6 agents  stirred up unrest and funded a massive propaganda campaign to blacken Mossadegh’s reputation.  Historian Christopher de Bellaigue notes that “plots, assassinations and public disorder became almost banal occurrences.”(6)

On 19 August elements within the army, encouraged and funded by both MI6 and the CIA, staged a coup.  Earlier the BBC World Service Persian language broadcast had added the word “exactly” to the routine “It’s now midnight” message to alert key allies within the military.(7)  By mid afternoon soldiers had seized Tehran’s main radio station and fought their way into the prime minister’s residence, and the triumphant Shah returned to Tehran the following day, promising huge financial rewards to all those who had helped to topple Mossadegh’s troublesome reformist government.

Thousands, including Mossadegh, were thrown into jail, progressive newspapers were closed, torture became routine and anti-coup demonstrations brutally suppressed, even if it meant using machine guns when an angry crowd started to denounce the visit of vice-President Nixon to Tehran to bless the new administration.

Such crimes were either supported or readily excused by officials in London and Washington, who were jubilant as Iran agreed to hand its oil industry back into the hands of a consortium of multinationals, including Anglo-Iranian Oil, which was soon to be renamed as British Petroleum. (8)

AT A LONDON MEETING, FORMER US ATTORNEY GENERAL ATTACKS SANCTIONS ON IRAQ

On this day in 1995 Ramsey Clark, former US attorney general, addressing a meeting of the Commission of Inquiry on Economic Sanctions in London, said that while both nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed quarter of a million, the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations security council (on which the United Kingdom was a permanent member) had killed twice as many – half a million.[9] Later the same year the Lancet estimated the number of child fatalities resulting from sanctions at 567,000.

LONGER VERSION ON MI6 OVERTHROW MOSSADEGH

19 August 1953 – British intelligence, helped by the CIA, staged a coup to oust Muhammad Mossadegh, the moderate nationalist prime minister of Iran.  It was to be nearly half a century before the American government admitted the coup had caused a “setback for Iran’s political development” as Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it.(1)

Mossadegh had been a firm believer in liberal values, democracy and the rule of law. However, the greatest problem for London was that he also believed that Iran was entitled to its own independent economic independence and he would not back down on his insistence that the country be allowed to benefit from its own oil wealth. His idea was to create an indigenous oil industry with Iranian managers and foreign technicians, the revenue from which might help develop the country and improve the lives of all Iranians, including the poor.

“Let us ,” he had declared, “negotiate with every state that wishes to buy oil and get to work without delay to liberate the country.”(2)

Iranians were incensed at the unfair terms which governed the exploitation of the British oil concession, granted by the earlier deposed Iranian despot Reza Shah in 1933, which meant that while the British treasury, by 1947, earned £15 million in income tax, the Iranian government only received a mere £7 million in royalties. (3)

When, on 27 April 1951, Mossadegh insisted that if he were elected prime minister it would be conditional on parliament backing his plan to replace the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by an Iranian company, with compensation to be paid to the former, his proposal was passed overwhelmingly by 79 votes with just eleven MPs voting against. (4)

For Britain, this represented the loss of an enormously valuable economic asset, a stupendous source of oil revenue, as well as a dangerous precedent.  As the Daily Express commented the following month, “if Britain gives in to the Persians, then the time is near when we give in to the Egyptians and hand to them the Suez canal.”(5)  London immediately dispatched warships to the Persian Gulf, froze Iran’s sterling assets, banned all exports of iron and steel to the country and organized a boycott of Iranian oil by the seven sisters, Royal Dutch Shell and the big six American oil companies.

Mossadegh’s government was forced to impose drastic austerity measures as the country’s main source of revenue dried up.  Factories closed and unemployment soared.  At the same time Mossadegh tried to ameliorate the impact of the recession on the poor by introducing social security, land reform and rent controls.

To London and Washington this looked like a dangerous slide towards socialism and MI6 agents based at Britain’s embassy in Tehran focused on stirring upj unrest and even after its embassy was closed,  they continued to fund a massive propaganda campaign to blacken Mossadegh’s reputation.  Historian Christopher de Bellaigue notes that “plots, assassinations and public disorder became almost banal occurrences.”(6)

Britain appealed for American help to ensure Mossadegh’s speedy departure.  The CIA delegated Kim Roosevelt, the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, to mastermind the coup and he impressed on the Shah the need to act decisively if he was to save his throne from falling victim to the mounting anarchy in the streets.  British and American agents also cultivated key generals but an initial coup attempt on 15 August 1952 failed and the Shah fled to Rome. On the streets of Tehran angry crowds shouted slogans against the Shah, but Mossadegh refused to have any of the coup-plotters executed.

On the morning of the 19th army trucks brought in hired thugs armed with knives and clubs who were soon joined by a crowd of Royalist sympathisers.  Again Mossadegh refused the temptation to resort to counter violence, turning down offers from tribes to march on Tehran and from the Iranian Communist Party to mobilise a “national guard” militia.

By mid afternoon soldiers had seized Tehran’s main radio station and fought their way into the prime minister’s residence, and the triumphant Shah returned to Tehran the following day, promising huge financial rewards to all those who had helped to crush Mossadegh’s troublesome reformist ideology.

Thousands, including Mossadegh, were thrown into jail, progressive newspapers closed, torture became routine and anti-coup demonstrations brutally suppressed, even if it meant using machine guns when an angry crowd started to denounce the visit of vice-President Nixon to Tehran to bless the new administration.  Such crimes were either supported or readily excused by officials in London and Washington, who were jubilant as Iran agreed to hand its oil industry back into the hands of a consortium of multinationals, including Anglo-Iranian Oil, which was soon to be renamed as British Petroleum. (7)

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Quoted in Christopher De Bellaigue (2013), “Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup,” Vintage, London, p3

2. Ibid p123

3. Ibid p131

4. Ibid p156

5. Ibid p158

6. Ibid p205

7. Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac (2017), “The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers,” William Collins, London p176.

8. Ibid p261 and 263

9. Ruth Winstone, Tony Benn (2003), “Tony Benn: Free at Last ! Diaries 1991-2001,” Arrow Books, London, p328-329.

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