It is impossible to understand modern American history, modern American foreign policy, anti-American anger throughout the Middle East and the developing nations, and the roots of anti-American terrorism, without understanding what happened on this date, in 1953. Any understanding of modern Iran has to begin with an understanding of what happened on this date, in 1953. For on August 19, 1953, the little known and not even six year old Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, installed a new prime minister of its own choosing, and restored to the throne a recently self-exiled Shah. It wouldn’t be long before the Shah seized total local control of his government and established the brutal Savak to crush all opposition.
Mohammed Mossadegh is not widely remembered in this country, but he was Time Magazine’s Man Of The Year, for 1951. The first Iranian to receive an advanced education from a European university, and a man widely renowned for his blunt honesty and impeccable integrity, Mossadegh was brilliant and disturbingly passionate, capable of verbally eviscerating opponents in political or juridical debates, and just as easily capable of breaking down crying, while giving a speech, or even passing out, while in the middle of tense negotiations. His understanding of national and international law became legendary. He often conducted official business while lying in bed.
Iran’s monarchy had had a long, turbulent history, with the corrupt and incompetent Qajar regime being forced to democratize by the 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution, but that effectively came to an end when the Qajars were toppled in the early 1920s, by a British-backed military officer named Reza Khan. In 1925, Reza Khan became Reza Shah Pahlavi, and soon turned the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, into a rubberstamp. Most people don’t understand this, but the final Shah of Iran was heir to a dynasty that had lasted exactly two generations, himself included. Reza Khan’s rule was secular but brutal, and he often clashed with the clergy and just as often eliminated his chief political rivals. But Iran’s monarchy long had been but a compliant puppet of the British, who had controlled much of the Middle East, which had not yet become important because of oil, but was important as gateway to India, the British Empire’s Crown Jewel, which the Russian Empire long had coveted. But in the early Twentieth Century, oil had become important, and the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company controlled Iran’s oil production, creating a sprawling and horrifying slum to house the Iranian workers, with a parallel, segregated country club community for the British executives and managers. Iran was so taken for granted, and the British oil company’s profits were so staggering, that AIOC actually paid more in taxes to its home government than to Iran for the right to steal its oil. During World War II, Reza Shah wanted to remain neutral, so the old rivals Britain and Russia, now allied against Germany, invaded and occupied. In 1941, the Shah was forced to abdicate, and was replaced by his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.