Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Coup

America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford.

For a century and a half before [Archie Roosevelt’s] arrival there, Iran had been a playing field in the Great Game.  Its location, adjoining Afghanistan (the classic arena of Anglo-Russian rivalry), British India, and Russia itself, ensured this.

During World War II, a truce in the Great Game was declared between the British and Soviet Allies; in order to secure Iran for its oil fields and as a supply route for Lend-Lease supplies, the Allies deposed the shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi (later to be replaced by his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi).

Post-war, the Great Game returned, with concerns that Stalin would not easily leave the Persian land; Azerbaijan established a new communist government, the Kurds were also after their own independent nation-state. 

After the war, when the date for Allied troops to depart Iran came and went, the Soviets remained (they withdrew a few weeks later).  This was at the same time as Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech; the Cold War was in full swing.

August 1953

Kim Roosevelt led a coup, deposing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq and securing the throne once again for the young shah.  This, on top of being a plaything of the west for almost two centuries, ultimately led to the overthrow of the shah and the taking of the US embassy in 1979.  But, I am getting ahead of the story.

Despite western views to the contrary, Mosaddeq was no fan of the communist Soviets; at the same time he was no fan of Anglo control of Iranian oil.  In other words, Mosaddeq merely wanted to expel all great power control over Iran. 

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where the oil revenues were split 50-50 between the British and the Saudis, in Iran no oil revenue was shared.  Shortly after the shah appointed Mosaddeq as prime minister, he seized the British-controlled oil fields.  From this, the idea of a coup was born in London; the US didn’t take much convincing.

Project TP-AJAX (TP, code for Iran; AJAX…apparently the household cleanser) was born.  Churchill signed off on July 1; Eisenhower on July 11.  On July 19, with CIA and MI6 agents fomenting agitation in Tehran, Kim Roosevelt was able to slip into the country from Iraq.

The plan was to force a constitutional crisis, pitting the shah against the prime minister.  Pressure was applied to the shah, to get him to sign an order replacing Mosaddeq.  He would not do so initially.  Pressure was then put on the shah’s strong willed sister – eventually even by General H. Norman Schwartzkopf (yes, his father).

The shah signed the order on August 13, and then retreated to a royal resort on the Caspian Sea; the coup was planned for the 15th.

Things didn’t go as planned.  Mosaddeq arrested the officers who were to arrest him.  Washington ordered the evacuation of all AJAX operatives.  These orders were slow to reach Kim; it seems the British didn’t pass the orders along in a timely manner.

Kim pushed on, threatening to have his Iranian collaborators killed if they didn’t continue with their anti-Mosaddeq activities.  By August 19 the tide turned, with crowds in Tehran chanting and carrying signs of the shah.  The shah, by now having retreated to Rome, returned on August 22 – at the same time that Mosaddeq was arrested.

Kim Roosevelt was triumphant.


With the CIA’s assistance, the shah established an authoritarian regime.  Lacking any democratic outlets, those opposed to the shah acted in 1979:

The Iranian Revolution) refers to events involving the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States…

Holding 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days played a role in helping to pass the constitution, suppressing moderates, and otherwise radicalising the revolution.


  1. Great story!! The 79 revolution was BS too just ask George Hansen what happens when you screw up there plans.

    Owyhee Cowboy

  2. And with constant USA interference in Middle Eastern Politics for the next 40 years, the USA and allies are now much worse off in getting access to Iranian and Persian Gulf oil and gas as Iran now controls or has significant control of all territory where the USA could run pipelines from the Persian Gulf to customers in Europe.

  3. In the words of General Petraeus: Tell me how this ends!

  4. I have read Wilford’s book “The Mighty Wurlitzer” about CIA manipulation of the intelligentsia. It was mostly good but you always have to be careful with books written about the CIA that major publishers are willing to touch. Will check this one out if you are finding it useful BM, enjoying your articles on it.

    1. Your concern applies equally to this book. It is often what is unsaid - in-between the lines, contradictory, and unexplained - where the most light can be found.