Iran’s 1953 coup: A nation interrupted

Iranian oil was indispensable in lubricating the allied war machine and when the Iranian parliament voted in 1951 to nationalise their own resource out of the hands of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), the fate of Mohammed Mossadeq was apparently sealed. According to Kinzer, British diplomats in Washington trying to persuade Eisenhower to back a coup argued, in addition to the obvious gambit that there was a threat of Soviet encroachment via an expanded Tudeh party, that the oil nationalisation would cost the British exchequer 100 million pound per annum. This figure was the amount in royalties paid by the Anglo-Iranian oil company and does not include their own profits – a mere 16% of which was given to Iran under the terms of the D’Arcy concession.

Mossadeq explained his nationalization policy in a 21 June 1951 speech:

“Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation”.

Tensions escalated from here with the British government threatening legal action against purchasers of oil produced in the formerly AIOC-controlled refineries. Agreements were then made with other international oil companies not to purchase Iranian oil, a de facto blockade was reinforced as Britain beefed up its presence in the Persian Gulf, Iran was blocked from accessing its hard currency in British banks, key British commodities were prohibited from being exported and a complaint was finally issued by them to the United Nations. This latter action concluded in a humiliating diplomatic defeat for the British as the UN Security Council having heard the case presented by both Mossadeq and the British ambassador to the UN voted on October 19th, 1951 to postpone discussion of the question to a certain day or indefinitely’.

However, this success was short-lived as the following week’s discussions in Washington with the World Bank and US officials failed to secure any relief for the Iranian economy.

In late 1951 elections were brought to an abrupt halt when the minimum number of deputies had been returned to achieve a parliamentary quorum with Mossadeq asserting that foreign agents’ had been exploiting the election campaign with bribes to destabilize Iran. In July 1952, with Iranians becomingly increasingly hard-pressed by a devastatingly effective blockade the Royal Navy intercepted the Italian oil tanker Rose Mary and forced it into the British protectorate of Aden on the grounds that it was carrying ‘stolen property’.

Clearly the best men in Iran were opposed to such blatant thievery and for their support of Mossadeq and nationalisation they were later hounded out of office and subjected to a brutal crackdown as and when the Shah was reinstated. They had to wait 25yrs before they could get their chance to reverse this enforced coup d’etat and by that time the clerics had the upper hand purely because the temples, madrassas and other religious outlets were the only public spaces left unsolicited by the secret police.

When Madeleine Albright, who in 2000 became the first US official to even acknowledge that there was CIA involvement in the 1954 coup, characterised it as a setback for democracy’ it made you wonder at the time whether there were white kites in the offing between Tehran and Washington – until you realised of course that it was Clinton’s last month in office and they were evidently passing that particular hot potato to the Gore camp should he prevail.

For all the talk of Obama sitting down without preconditions you may wonder at the old disaffected Mossadeq supporters and their political lineage; are they not entitled to an apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement at least of hardships endured? And, like most people most everywhere I felt a warm glow of contentment as I watched President Obama taking the oath of office but when he asks the Muslim world to stop blaming ‘the West’ for its problems you have to wonder how comprehensive is his understanding of the Middle East.

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