Coupdunnit

What Really Happened in Iran?

For as long as the shah of Iran occupied the Peacock Throne, his relations with the United States depended on a mutually accepted falsehood. Neither side stood to gain from acknowledging that Washington’s favorite dictator owed his position to American skullduggery. So regarding the events of August 1953, when the shah fled his country after unsuccessfully challenging its constitutionally elected prime minister, only to be restored a few days later after a military coup, both sides stuck to the story that the shah’s loyal subjects were responsible for his salvation.

But after 1979, when Islamic and secular revolutionaries overthrew the shah, not everyone felt compelled to maintain the lie any longer. A stream of histories, memoirs, and eyewitness accounts emerged that revealed how American and British spies, and not Iranian royalists, had played decisive roles in the plot to oust the prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Now, Ray Takeyh (“What Really Happened in Iran,” July/August 2014) has tried to rehabilitate the same discredited myths that prevailed during the shah’s time.

To get at the truth, it is necessary to go back to 1951, when Mosaddeq outraged the British by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, which was then run by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the precursor to British Petroleum (now BP). Mosaddeq went on to thwart British attempts to topple him, most notably an embargo the United Kingdom placed on Iranian oil, a move that was supported by the United States. In late 1952, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government appealed for more American help in removing Mosaddeq, arguing that Iran was in danger of falling into the Soviet orbit -- a line that the incoming Eisenhower administration readily swallowed. 

The coup that took place the following August was a catastrophic success. It extinguished the brief democratic experiment that Iran had enjoyed under Mosaddeq; entrenched the shah, who had already begun to show despotic inclinations; and elevated the United States to the role of top Western power in Iranian affairs (in lieu of the United Kingdom). All these factors contributed to the Iranian Revolution a quarter of a century later and to the widespread perception that the United States had perverted the course of Iranian history.

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