On This Day in History: The Iranian Coup

One August 19, 1953 the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was a modernizing and secular leader committed to Iranian nationalism and preventing Iran from become a theocracy, was overthrown in a British and CIA backed military coup that replaced him with the Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a totalitarian king.

The pertinent CIA documents were declassified in 2011, and they explicitly revealed that “the agency helped to plan and execute the coup”.

Why? Why did the UK and the USA overthrow a democracy and institute a king? The short answer is – for the benefit of American and British oil companies.

“Mossadegh had sought to audit the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a British corporation (now BP) and to change the terms of the company’s access to Iranian petroleum reserves. Upon the refusal of the AIOC to co-operate with the Iranian government, the parliament (Majlis) voted to nationalize the assets of the company and expel their representatives from the country … With a change to more conservative governments in both Britain and the United States, Winston Churchill and the Eisenhower administration decided to overthrow Iran’s government, though the predecessor Truman administration had opposed a coup. Classified documents show that British intelligence officials played a pivotal role in initiating and planning the coup, and that the AIOC contributed $25,000 towards the expense of bribing officials … Following the coup in 1953, a government under General Fazlollah Zahedi was formed which allowed Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran … to rule the country more firmly as monarch. He relied heavily on United States support to hold on to power until his own overthrow in February 1979. In August 2013, 60 years after, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it was involved in both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out “under CIA direction” and “as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government” … The tangible benefits the United States reaped from overthrowing Iran’s elected government included a share of Iran’s oil wealth and ensuring the Iranian nation remained under the control of an allied dictator.”

How much of Iran’s oil wealth went to the US? A big chunk, as it turns out. The Shah “as thanks for the American help, signed over 40 percent of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies.”

Basically, BP and sundry American oil companies wouldn’t be so rich, and gasoline wouldn’t have been so cheap for all those years, if the governments of America and Britain hadn’t overthrown a democracy. In thanks, the oil companies have done everything they can to avoid paying taxes and suck up more profit for themselves. The average oil company in America pays a 11.7% tax rate. As a comparison, the average American who makes at least 36,000 a year will pay 14.3% of his or her income, and the average U.S. household that owns a home will pay about 27% of their total income.

The coup turned out to have been a bad idea for everyone but oil companies. The Shah had actually done a fairly decent job of running the country, and had instituted progressive secular reforms, but the public could not forget he was a Western puppet that put the interests of Iran second to the interests of Western businesses. Thanks to public resentment of the Shah and his regime, Iranians rallied around conservative anti-Shah religious leaders to protest. As a result, when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, his  “pro-Western semi-absolute monarchy [was replaced] with an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy based on the concept of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (or velayat-e faqih).” Theocracies have always sucked, and Iran’s ruling religious extremist nutjobs are no exception.  It has gone from a country with peace and prosperity to a quagmire of human rights abuses and patriarchal authoritarianism and suppression of women.

America and Europe are still trying to dig themselves out of the quicksand they unleashed in 1953. Lately, there have been some positive strides, including a new peace treaty and nuclear arms deal. Unfortunately, that deal does not bring basic human rights back to Iranians or ensure autonomy to Iranian women. It does not return Iran to the democracy it enjoyed in 1953.

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