1950-1959 | Instigating coups | Iran | MI6 crimes

MI6 overthrow Mossadegh – the popular moderate prime minister of Iran

Mossadegh c. 1951 (via Wikimedia) and British troops guard an Iranian oil refinery c. 1941 (© IWM E 5329).

19 August 1953

On 19 August 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’s angst was over Mossadegh’s determination that 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.1

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, he 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 the prime minister’s reputation.  Historian Christopher de Bellaigue notes that ‘plots, assassinations and public disorder became almost banal occurrences.’2

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.3  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, including the indiscriminate use of 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.4


  1. Christopher De Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup, Vintage, London, 2013, p. 123.
  2. Ibid., p. 205.
  3. Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins, London, 2017, p. 176.
  4. Ibid p261 and 263.

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