Operation Ajax, Iran, 1953

After nationalizing the oil industry, the democratically elected Prime minister of Iran from 1951 to 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh from the National Front party, was toppled by a coup d’état. Indeed, loosing its assets, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum, called upon the British government for action as it owned 51% of the companies shares.

After failure in negotiations to increase the royalties earned by the Iranian state for the exploitation of its oil, nationalization was finally endorsed by Mosaddegh’s government. In his 21 June 1951 speech, Mosaddegh explains:

Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries…have yielded no results thus 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. It has been asserted abroad that Iran intends to expel the foreign oil experts from the country and then shut down oil installations. Not only is this allegation absurd; it is utter invention.

Sir Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of the British government, put pressure on the Iranian government. It has been said that among threatening to impeach any export of Iranian oil through boycott, the use of military force was also brought to the table. Persuading President Dwight Eisenhower about the potential threat of a communist friendly Iran, both the American and British governments agreed upon a plan known as Operation Ajax.

Let us recall that at the time Mosaddegh was entering in confrontation with the British, he was also in a process of reducing the monarch’s power, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, driving the structure of the state toward a constitutional monarchy. At the height of the confrontation, the Shah (Persian for King) fled to Rome after he had been stripped of his powers to rule by referendum.

Consequently, to deal with who they saw as a problem, the MI6 and the CIA worked together to bribe Iranian politicians and military officers to turn against Mosaddegh’s government, as well as street thugs to attack the National Front’s supporters and to finally march on Mossadegh’s residence. On August the 19th, 1953, the coup was successful and the Shah returned to rule as an absolute monarch.

On December the 21st, 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh was trialed and sentenced to three years in jail, before spending the rest of his life under house arrest. Other members of his government were executed by fire squads. We close this chapter on his answer:

The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories. I am extremely grateful you convicted me. Truly tonight the Iranian nation understood the meaning of constitutionalism.