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The Coup Against Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh

Mohammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and was hugely popular for taking a stand against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British-owned oil company that had made huge profits while paying Iran only 16% of its profits and often far less. His nationalization efforts led the British government to begin planning to remove him from power. In October 1952, Mosaddegh declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic relations. Britain was unable to resolve the issue unilaterally and looked towards the United States for help. However, the U.S. had opposed British policies; Secretary of State Dean Acheson said the British had “a rule-or-ruin policy in Iran.”

That changed after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Now, pleas from British intelligence officials and Winston Churchill to oust Mossadegh had a more receptive audience. Beginning in January 1953, the U.S. and the Britain agreed to work together toward Mosaddegh’s removal. 

The plot, known as Operation Ajax, centered on convincing Iran’s monarch to issue a decree to dismiss Mossadegh from office. But the Shah was reluctant to attempt such an unpopular and legally questionable move. He finally relented, after much persuasion and bribes to his family. In early August, Iranian CIA operatives threatened Muslim leaders with “savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh,” thereby giving the impression that Mossadegh was cracking down on dissent.

On August 16, 1953, the Shah formally dismissed Mossadegh and nominated the CIA’s choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as Prime Minister. The decrees were dictated by Donald Wilber, the CIA architect of the plan. Soon, massive protests, engineered by the U.S., took place across the city to assist the coup. Mosaddegh was imprisoned for three years, then put under house arrest until his death until 1967. The coup not only encouraged the Shah’s descent towards dictatorship, it would later become a rallying cry in anti-U.S. protests during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Even now, Mossadegh is one of the most popular figures in Iranian history.

Lewis Hoffacker worked as a third secretary at Embassy Tehran from 1951-1953 and worked with the Shah’s government during Mossadegh’s term as Prime Minister. John Stutesman worked as a consular/political officer while at the embassy from 1949-1952, during which time he was involved in discussions over the possibility of overthrowing Mossadegh. David Nalle was the Director of the Bi-National Center in Tehran from 1960-1963, working Iranian students and professionals teaching English in the years after the coup against Mossadegh. Nalle later returned to the country in the 1970’s as director of the Near Eastern and South Asia Bureau.

Hoffacker was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1994. Mr. Stutesman was interviewed by William Burr beginning in June, 1988. Nalle was interviewed by Dorothy Robins-Mowry beginning in April 1990.

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“Mossadegh was unbalanced, to say the least”

Lewis Hoffacker, Third Secretary, Embassy Tehran, 1951-1953

HOFFACKER: The Shah was on the throne. It was rather shaky because [Mohammad] Mossadegh, the Prime Minister, was hanky-panking with the Commies. And we, Uncle Sam, could not tolerate any of that. Iran was too important. And Mossadegh was vulnerable. He thought he could contain the Communists, but they were all over the place.

So our goal was to support the Shah and to try to contain Mossadegh, who had certain crazy qualities, or what some people would call crazy qualities. He was unbalanced, to say the least. [Ambassador] Loy Henderson, who succeeded Grady, was the greatest ambassador. So I was lucky working under him.

It came to the point where the CIA became very prominent in the process of supporting the Shah and of containing Mossadegh. Mossadegh exiled the Shah and the Shah had to come back. And the Shah was a gentle man, very gentle. We called him a “weak reed” because he needed a lot of guidance.

He was my age, which would have been — maybe 30? thereabouts. And he needed a lot of help, and we helped him, gladly. Of course, he changed to something different later on, and that was a problem, in a way. He was talking about creating a “white revolution,” trying to bring Iran into the 20th century with heavy foreign aid. And we were heavy in foreign aid and heavy in military aid.

There was no problem with the CIA trying to bring down a government or bringing in a government. We did that more or less routinely; this was the pattern in Iran. And it was easy to justify, because you couldn’t give Iran to the Commies, who were there already. The British were kicked out, and we were filling that gap.

I was there when the British were kicked out. It was during that great petroleum crisis.…He [Mossadegh] nationalized oil, and we were caught in the middle of that. [Special Envoy] Averell Harriman came out, and everybody was trying to set up the consortium and so forth.

A republic could have happened any day if Mossadegh had insisted on it — not an Islamic republic, but a republic….But we, Uncle Sam, were not willing to take that chance. I can’t argue with that, in the light of the Commies coming down there, heading for the Persian Gulf.

“The decision was made that Mossadegh should be overthrown”

John Stutesman, Consular/Political Officer, Tehran, 1949-1952

STUTESMAN:  [Ambassador] Grady reluctantly was forced to concentrate on Mossadegh (pictured), and his attitude toward the Shah, I believe, was that the Shah was a secondary factor, Mossadegh was the person to deal with and to influence if he could. I don’t think he scorned the Shah, but I just think he had to concentrate on what he thought was the main objective.

When I was in the political section in the embassy in Tehran and wrote that dispatch on the Shah, which, of course, had to be cleared up through my masters, it came down with a very solid conclusion that the Shah was worth supporting. I certainly didn’t use terms like “linchpin,” but that he was the best of known hopes for the future.

When I was on the desk in Washington, the decision was made that Mossadegh should be overthrown and the Shah should be brought to a firmer status of power. I think rather like what happened in Vietnam, once you have a hand in overthrowing somebody the way [President] Kennedy killed [Vietnamese President Ngo Dien] Diem, then you become much more committed to the person who comes in.

I don’t remember, while I was in Washington, policies being built upon the feeling that the Shah was a linchpin. I think, more, it was a sense that, well, he was the best there is, and he was a legitimate ruler and that he was a popular ruler, which I think he was when I was dealing in those things.

About the time I came to the political section, Mossadegh was becoming increasingly a figure. Grady could not speak Farsi, and Mossadegh did not speak English, but Mossadegh refused to have an Iranian in the room. The embassy had traditionally used a very fine, very honest and reliable man named Saleh, who spoke excellent English and was an Iranian, was the senior Iranian in our embassy. Mossadegh refused to allow him to participate in any of these intimate conversations, because he distrusted any Iranian.

I spoke French. Mossadegh had been educated in Neuchatel back in the late 1800s, and his French was not bad…For a period of time, Grady and Mossadegh had personal conversations with me acting as interpreter in French. It was not the best way to deal with very high policies, but it was the way we did it.

Then as history shows, there were a series of efforts by the Shah to avoid having Mossadegh come to power. As I remember, [Hossein] Ala became Prime Minister for a while [in 1951 and again from 1955-1957]….Mossadegh came to power in this great surge of nationalism, anti-British nationalism. That’s what dominated the period that I was in Iran.

He was an older man [71 years old]. I mean, my God, I don’t think anybody ever knew exactly how old he was, but he was a very elderly man, and he was a very, very successful speaker and whipper-up of emotion. I don’t think he had the slightest intention of coming to terms with the English, and I think he had a great abiding belief that America would eagerly replace the British and, therefore, replace the British on his terms. I think he was truly stunned that the Americans and the British hung together.

In addition, I think that Mossadegh was a man who really did not have a constructive program. He had a program of driving out the British, but I don’t think he had a very clear idea of what would come next.

HOFFACKER: Well, there was sort of a joke: we said he was a personne alitée, a ‘person in bed’; he sometimes received the Ambassador and other ambassadors lying in bed in his pajamas.

And he had other peculiar characteristics. He risked Iranian security. We knew best; we knew the Commies better than he did. We had to put our foot down. And he wasn’t very easy to deal with in that respect. The Shah, of course, was amenable to all these things we had to say, and so the Shah was our man, and Mossadegh was counter to the sort of Iran we were trying to save.

STUTESMAN: Indeed, this just may be my memory, but I don’t think that Mossadegh and the majority of the Persian people who supported him were that concerned about the oil. What they were concerned about was throwing off the British yoke. The oil apparatus was the first thing to strike at, was the clear thing to strike at.

Clearly there had to be an economic element to this, but again, time after time, it seems to me that the Americans — for instance, the fatuous Mr. [Averell] Harriman, whose ridiculous mission [to mediate the crisis] worked on the principle, as I remember, that the Iranians had to have an understanding of the oil and had to have a recognition that they couldn’t just sell oil on the corner — was dealing with people who just didn’t think in those terms.

Mossadegh, I believe, expected to be rescued by the Americans. I don’t think he expected to be left alone. He thought that he could drive out the British, that the Americans, like any respectable competitor, would welcome that, would happily move in and sell his oil. We didn’t do it, and he fell.

“The AIOC used money, used old connection, they used them brutally”

The AIOC [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] was absolutely hand-in-glove with the embassy people. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the AIOC had a much more dominant influence on British policy in Iran than the diplomats in the embassy. The AIOC used money, used old connections, they used them brutally. I don’t mean physical brutality, but just without much deftness. And the British embassy pretty much followed in their wake.

This began to change as it became clear that the AIOC was simply incapable of handling the political difficulties. But for instance, there was the senior man, they called them Oriental Counselors, named Lance Pyman. He spoke absolutely fabulous Farsi, he had been involved with that country for many, many years, and he, as I remember, did not have any particular sense — he certainly had no prescience on the possibility and the probability that the Persians would break the concession and drive the British out. Nicholas Lawford had a much more clear view and, indeed, resigned while he was there and left the British foreign service, partially out of frustration with policy.

[Ambassador] Grady came to Iran from India, where he had been a very important ambassador in a very important country. I don’t think he was thrilled about being appointed to Iran. I think he felt that he had taken a step down. I have no idea what his preferences would have been, but I clearly got the impression when he first arrived that he felt that he had moved from the center court to a smaller court.

But there was no question that Grady was well wired into the authorities in Washington, that he was a distinctly honest American representative, and I think he was a good ambassador. I don’t think any U.S. ambassador could have stopped the rise of Mossadegh or prevented the British being driven out, all things considered.

“I don’t really think it’s just some kook who decides to throw the foreigners out. It’s as inevitable as the sun rising.”

Q: The British were taking an obdurate position in the talks with Mossadegh and the Iranian Government. Did Grady make any efforts to convince the British to take a more flexible approach to the Iranians?

STUTESMAN: Grady would just groan when he would be writing his reports and talking with us. He would groan at the obduracy of the British, the blankness of their minds when it came to dealing with Iranians. I would say he was probably much more angered and frustrated by the English than he was by sweet old Mossadegh. (Laughs) Although Mossadegh was a far more dangerous foe.

The house that I then lived in up in Golhak was part of a garden in which there was another house, and in that other house lived a man named Max Thornburg [American petroleum executive and petroleum adviser to the Department of State]. Max Thornburg was a great buccaneer in the oil world, who had been very successful working with the Sheikh of Bahrain, who, indeed, had given him an island.

In any case, Thornburg was up in Iran, living there during this time. Now, I have absolutely no evidence or proof of this, but I believe that Thornburg had lines of communication with the National Front [the party which opposed Mossadegh].

Thornburg once told me one evening, just sitting around, having a drink, he told me that if you drew a graph — I remember this so clearly because I thought it was so perfect — if anyone draws a graph showing the life of a foreign concession — he meant oil concession — in any foreign country, the graph rises slowly in terms of profits. The graph rises slowly as the investing foreign firm develops and then begins to make money and it rises up. Then there is always, inevitably, an abrupt fall as the concession is closed down. He considered that to be a force of nature, and I do, too.

I think he was proven right. I don’t really think it’s just some kook who decides to throw the foreigners out. It’s as inevitable as the sun rising. So the British, in my opinion, were struggling against a force of nature, as well as Mossadegh-led Iranians. And I doubt very much if officers of the American embassy thought that the British could remain in control for the next hundred years or even 20 years or even two years. [In 1954, the AIOC was renamed British Petroleum.]

I don’t think [the British] were very smart. I don’t really have a great remembrance of details, but they began to send in some very, very powerful intelligence officers — Woodhouse, Briance — men of great experience and real ability.

I have read that they mounted a coup which didn’t come off. I’m not really sure about that, but I do know they had absolute ace personnel in there working on the subversive side, the clandestine side. They didn’t change the quality of their embassy people much, but it sure got better than it had been before, and clearly, the British Government was taking charge of things, and it was no longer just being run by the company.

I think the air was filled with Grady’s telegrams and certainly his constant efforts to negotiate. We’d get an instruction to take something up with Mossadegh, and we’d make an appointment (Laughs) Grady and I would go see the old man lying in his bed, in his pajamas, and then we’d come back and send off a telegram.

I don’t think Grady ever despaired, but on the other hand, realistically, there was very little likelihood that Mossadegh would come to an accommodation with the British on any terms that the British could accept. That’s about it. Then, of course, when the Harriman mission came out, typically Mr. Harriman had nothing to do with the embassy and thought in three days or ten days, whatever it was, he could solve these issues that these “small people” had not been able to deal with.

“Ambassador Henderson had a deep reluctance to have a covert operation displace a chief of state”

Harriman sort of blew in, established himself, and it’s not uncharacteristic of other special envoys. The American embassy in Iran has suffered special envoys long past Harriman’s time.

My own personal feeling is now, and was then, that Mossadegh had absolutely no intention of settling with the British on any terms that the British could accept, despite his several offers of such settlements. I don’t think that Mossadegh ever wanted to do anything except give the British a bloody nose and, along with it, went his abiding assumption that the Americans would take care of him.

But I do remember when I was desk officer, I was at a meeting in Secretary [Dean] Acheson‘s office. I was by far the most junior person there, and sort of sat off to one side, but I do remember they were talking at that moment about two tankers that were en route from, it seems to me, South America, en route to load Persian oil delivered by the Persian-run company. And there was a great deal of alarm and concern.

I remember sitting there in a rather bemused condition, thinking, “Two tankers? Who the hell cares?” But there is no doubt in my mind that the senior policy makers in Washington were very, very alert to preventing the sale of Iranian oil to private entrepreneurs….

It’s an amazing coincidence that the Americans were able to move in profitably, but claim that they had nothing to do with Mossadegh coming to power. However, my personal opinion, based on what knowledge I have, is that the American major oil companies did not in any way suggest to Mossadegh that they would pick up whatever Mossadegh could drive the British off of. So I stand on my belief that the American oil companies did not mount any kind of conspiracy to get the British out of Iran. I do think that Mossadegh expected them to take care of him.

Mossadegh worked in the belief that the Americans would not allow Russia to control Iran. The Americans were the new power and owed nothing to the British, Mossadegh felt that if he kicked out the British and threatened the Americans with Russian hegemony, that we’d rush in. He wasn’t that far wrong; we did in the end. But I don’t think that there was any kind of American oil company conspiracy. It was just a remarkable stroke of luck for them.

By the time Henderson (pictured) came, it had been clear that almost all avenues had been exhausted. So Henderson came in, in my view, with an instruction to do what he could, but mainly to set up lines of communication to Mossadegh and to the Shah, upon which we could build something new.

Of course, that’s what he did. I don’t think he had instructions when he arrived, to develop an overthrow of Mossadegh; I really don’t think that. Your records perhaps could show that I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s what he came instructed to do. I think he came instructed to try to restore some steadiness to a situation which was a very difficult situation.

But I believe that Mr. Henderson had a deep reluctance to have a covert operation displace a chief of state. I think he had a long-term reluctance and a long-term sense of uneasiness about what this might do to the future.

At the same time, I think that he faced a situation where there was very little alternative to the departure of Mossadegh. The line was drawn at the Assistant Secretary level in terms of discussions of plans to overthrow Mossadegh.

Dump him”

The decision to overthrow Mossadegh was made, I believe, by [Walter B.] “Bedell” Smith, who was then Under Secretary and who had come from the post in CIA, and who had been Chief of Staff to Eisenhower, so that you had a very tight family relationship there.

You had Eisenhower as President, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, his brother Allen as the head of CIA, and Smith having been the closest associate of Eisenhower during the war and having been the deputy in CIA, now as the deputy in the State Department. So when Bedell spoke, he spoke not only with direct instructions, but also with a deep understanding of what his principals were thinking.

I certainly was not present, but I’ve been told this by someone who was present, that CIA officers were in his office discussing Mossadegh, and Bedell, who had a very bad stomach problem, may have clutched his stomach and groaned, or he may have said, “Dump him.” (Laughs) But I have a feeling the decision was made that easily and that quickly, and then CIA went to work.

Now, they obviously did not work without involving Mr. Henderson. They changed the Chief of Station in Iran. [CIA official] Roger Gorian, I think, objected. In any case, he was transferred.

It became easily apparent to me that something was going wrong in Washington policy circles and, to some extent, in our actions in Iran, which could only be part of a program to become increasingly offensive to Mossadegh.

There was a very fine man named Joe Upton, who was in INR, which is the Intelligence and Research side. I sat down with Joe Upton and said to him…,”Joe, obviously something is going on, and I have an uneasy feeling that if, indeed, there is to be an overthrow of Mossadegh and the development of a new government, no one is putting any attention on what we do then, that the work right now is all, as far as we know, on the issue of how do you overthrow Mossadegh.”

So he and I sat down and drew up what we called a “what if” paper. What if Mossadegh fell? What would we do then? What would be required? We didn’t do this in an attempt to smoke out our superiors, but more than that, we were concerned that, in fact, something could happen and then everybody would stand around with their thumbs up their ears and say, “Oh, well, what now?”

There were, I’d say, ten people. They were sitting around and, indeed, they were working to some extent from my paper. I remember there was some discussion.

Dulles was not very interested, in my recollection. But the question was how much money to give to [General Fazlollah] Zahedi [Mossadegh’s successor]. I think Byroade asked for, say, 20 million, and somebody else said, “Oh, God, we don’t have that. We don’t have anything.” So Dulles said, “How about 10 million?” And everybody said okay.

So you have these, to me, not atypical decisions. I think that Bedell Smith decided to dump Mossadegh in a brief interview with some CIA officers, and I think that Dulles decided to start passing money to Zahedi in a very casual meeting. That doesn’t mean that a whole lot of people weren’t working constantly, like me, but again, I come back to these concerns that there was some very carefully calculated policy.

I really don’t think that our policy on Iran was worked out, certainly not on the basis of any conspiracy, but on the basis of sort of, “Well, Jesus, what do we do now? Oh, okay, let’s get rid of him. Now — oops! Okay, we’ve got to give him some money. Well, why don’t we give $10 million? Okay.”

And then the workers go to work, Henderson and some of the others. Having said that I believe he was deeply reluctant, Henderson’s role was nonetheless to carry out policy, and he very carefully developed an attitude and helped to sponsor an attitude in Iran that Mossadegh was leading the country to ruin and to Communist control.

Whether Henderson believed that or not, I don’t know, but that’s certainly the way he worked. He did it, including removing himself from the scene. I don’t remember the exact timing, but it seems to me that he was out of Iran.

But there was no doubt in my mind that there was a carefully developed, coordinated State Department-CIA plan leading toward the eventual overthrow of Mossadegh.

[Zahedi’s new government soon reached an agreement with foreign oil companies to form a consortium and “restore the flow of Iranian oil to world markets in substantial quantities”, giving the United States and Great Britain the lion’s share of Iran’s oil. In return, the U.S. massively funded the Shah’s government, including his army and secret police force, SAVAK, until the Shah’s overthrow in 1979.]

“We would not have become the scapegoat, the great Satan”

David Nalle, Director, Bi-National Center, Tehran, 1960-1963

NALLE: The removal of Mossadegh was, in my estimation, a tragic mistake on the part of the United States. We caused, in effect, the Khomeini revolution by doing that. There were additional causes added along the way that made it turn out the way it has turned out. (Pictured: Mossadegh’s arrest)

But essentially, the seeds of that revolution were planted then, because we insulted the Iranians nationally, as a nation. Who knows what might have happened had Mossadegh stayed on, if we and the other forces that removed him had not come into play?

It would have been a mess, because Mossadegh really didn’t have control of the country or its various economic problems. But it would have been an Iranian mess, rather than one we created, and they would have worked it out in some way. It’s a very sophisticated country in many ways. It was then and still is. They would have worked out a path to being a modern country, which they have not become. It might not have pleased us, and they might have been — although I don’t think so — more friendly to the Soviet Union than we would have liked in the Cold War, but they are much more afraid of the Soviet Union than even we are, for good reason.

So we interrupted the normal course of Iranian history. Iran would have gone its own way, and we would not have become the scapegoat, the great Satan, or whatever.