Iran 1953: MI6 plots with Islamists to overthrow democracy

Mark Curtis

Declassified British files highlight a little known aspect of the joint MI6/CIA coup against Iran’s democratically elected government in August 1953 – UK covert action in support of leading radical Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini.
    British officials wanted “a non-communist coup     d'état” in Iran to install a “dictator” who would    promote UK oil interests
    UK and US governments backed Islamist forces    to stir up unrest and even considered installing    Ayatollah Kashani as a client leader following a    coup

In many accounts the CIA is regarded as the prime mover behind the 1953 coup in Iran, yet Britain was in fact the initial instigator and provided considerable resources to the plot, which UK planners named ‘Operation Boot’.

In the early 1950s, the Anglo–Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), or BP as it is now known, was run from London and owned jointly by the British government and private citizens. It controlled Iran’s main source of income, oil, and by 1951 had become, according to one British official, “in effect an imperium in imperio [an empire within an empire] in Persia”. Iranian nationalists objected to the fact that the AIOC’s revenues from oil were greater than the Iranian government’s. Britain’s ambassador in Tehran, Sir Francis Shepherd, had a typically colonialist take on the situation. The declassified files show his writing:

💬 “It is so important to prevent the Persians from destroying their main source of revenue…by trying to run it themselves.” He added: “The need for Persia is not to run the oil industry for herself (which she cannot do) but to profit from the technical ability of the West.”

Of course Iran was perfectly capable of running its own oil industry. In March 1951 the Iranian parliament voted to nationalise oil operations, take control of the AIOC and expropriate its assets. In May, Mohammed Mossadeq, the leader of Iran’s social-democratic National Front Party, was elected as prime minister and immediately implemented the bill.

Britain responded by withdrawing the AIOC’s technicians and announcing a blockade on Iranian oil exports. Moreover, it also began planning to overthrow Mossadeq. “Our policy”, a British official later recalled, “was to get rid of Mossadeq as soon as possible”.

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