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Management skills Mohammad Mossadegh

What was the motivation behind US policy with respect to the government-sanctioned overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Iran in 1953?

On August 19, 1953, the United States sanctioned its first, peacetime use of covert action to overthrow the constitutional government of a sovereign nation, successfully orchestrating the overthrow of Iran`s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and restoring the Shah to his throne. The question is — why?


This paper will argue that the Marxist framework of international relations — namely that economic interest determines politics and political structure, and that the goal of economic (and political) activity is the redistribution of wealth and power — provides the most effective explanation as to the driving force behind the US governments fateful decision. The paper will reconstruct the information available to the Eisenhower administration up to the planning and execution of Operation Ajax, as the coup came to be called by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), so as to ascertain the key elements that would have factored into the governments foreign policy decision-making process prior to the event. It will then illustrate the aptness of Marxist theory, first, of its own accord, as well as through offering a comparative analysis of an alternative Realist theory. Finally, the paper will conclude by distinguishing between the US governments motivation versus its justification for the coup, thereby demonstrating not only why but also how this particular foreign policy decision was undertaken.

Two prevailing theories have been posited to explain the rationale behind the US governments decision to topple the Iranian government in 1953. The first is a Realist notion, a key proposition of which is the balancing of power between states. This argument proposes that US decision makers concluded that the regime of Mohammad Mossadegh posed a sufficient threat to US national interests to merit overthrow. This explanation claims that, given the Cold War fears prevalent at the time, that the United States suspected Mossadegh of having Communist sympathies and saw him as becoming increasingly alienated from the West and more closely allied with Irans Soviet-dominated Tudeh Party, and so feared Iran would likely fall within the Communist orbit. Therefore, Realism, saw international anarchy as having fostered competition and conflict among states, and states as having had survival as their core interest. Thus, the Realist explanation positions the US-backed coup of Iran as essentially a struggle for power between the Cold War superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, played out on Iranian soil.

The second theory is the Marxist belief, which says that Mossadeghs real crime, in the eyes of US officials, had been to nationalize Irans oil industry. Marxists say the political motives at work can only be expressed in terms of the economic, given that every conflict is one of power and power depends on resources. This explanation claims that what was, in fact, threatened was not Irans ideological sovereignty but the huge, potential profits of foreign oil companies which were, given Mossadeghs nationalization scheme, excluded from operating in Irans vast oilfields. Marxists contend that in pursuit of wealth and power, nations, whether capitalist, socialist, or fascist, contend over the territorial division and exploitation of the globe. Therefore, US policymakers were driven by the desire to ensure that US oil companies would gain a share in Irans lucrative oil production.

Mohammad Mossadegh
Since both theories rest heavily on the US? assessment of the Iranian Prime Minister and the decisions he was or was not likely to take — whether as a potential Communist sympathizer or as an economically-savvy, and therefore menacing developing country leader — it is important to establish who Mohammad Mossadegh was and how he was perceived by the United States. Mossadegh was a lawyer and wealthy landowner who had been a prominent political figure in Iran since the early 1900s. In his long years in public service, Mossadegh had gained a reputation as a liberal democrat and an ardent nationalist. A New York Times article, published in 1952, noted that prevailing opinion among detached observers in Tehran Mossadegh is the most popular politician in the country.

By the late 1940s, he had identified himself with two main issues: a desire to transfer political power from the royal court to the parliament, and a desire to increase Iran`s control over its oil industry, which was then controlled by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). These two issues eclipsed all others in 1949, when a new oil agreement favorable to the AIOC, which was made possible by the refusal of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to renegotiate or nationalize the AOIC concession, was announced and when the Shah tried to rig the 16th Majlis (parliamentary) elections. These actions enraged the opposition. Large demonstrations ensued and an organized known as the National Front was formed to coordinate opposition to the Shah and to the British. Mossadegh soon emerged as its de facto leader In March 1951, Mossadegh submitted a bill calling for nationalization of the oil industry to the Majlis, which was passed by a unanimous vote in the Iranian parliament and was supported by the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people, for reasons of both economic justice and national pride. A month later, the Shah, yielding to a rising tide of popular pressure, appointed Mossadegh to be Prime Minister on April 29, 1951. Two days later, and immediately after taking office, Mossadegh signed the nationalization bill into law.

The nationalization law quickly brought Mossadegh into direct conflict with the British government, which owned 50 percent of the AIOC?s stock. The Mossadegh government attempted to placate the British, first by offering to set aside 25 percent of the net profits of the oil operation as compensation, then by guaranteeing the safety and jobs of the British employees, and finally by offering to sell its oil without disturbance to the control system, which was valued highly by the international oil giants. However, the British would accept nothing short of the 50-50 profit sharing arrangement they had enjoyed prior to the nationalization law.

In retaliation, the British adopted a three-track strategy designed to reestablish their control over Iran?s oil. First the British pressured Mossadegh through direct negotiations. Unsatisfied, they appealed to the International Court, the United Nations, and the United States for intervention. When that did not produce the desired results, the British navy commenced military maneuvers in the region, which were accompanied by the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran, a British-led international boycott, and a freezing of Iranian assets — all of which combined to bring Iran?s oil exports and foreign trade to a virtual standstill and plunged the already impoverished country to near destitution. Finally, without having achieved their intended objective, the British opted to remove Mossadegh from office altogether. Hearing of a cabal to oust him, and suspecting British involvement, Mossadegh expelled the remaining British workers from Irans oilfields on September 20, 1951, prompting the British to make plans to invade Iran at Abadan. US President Harry S. Truman opposed an invasion and instead recommended negotiations. The lack of US support, and Trumans personal intervention, were largely responsible for causing the British to abandon their attempt to overthrow Mossadegh at this time.

Realism: Assertions and Analysis
Was the 1953 coup d?etat in Iran a Realist power struggle between the Cold War superpowers, played out on Iranian soil? Was the chief, motivating concern of both parties, in fact, driven by external security?

The Cold War was at its height in the early 1950s, and the Soviet Union was viewed as an expansionist power seeking world domination. The USSR exploded the atomic bomb in September of 1949, leading to a vast American military buildup between 1950-1953, triggering a Soviet counter-buildup. President Harry S. Truman and his advisers came to view Stalins regime as brutal, relentlessly expansionist, and bent on the destruction of Western capitalism. The Kremlin, in turn, charged the United States with capitalist imperialism and accused the Truman administration of trying to encircle the Soviet Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made the Soviet Threat a key issue in the 1952 elections, accusing the Democrats of being soft on communism and of having lost China. Unsurprisingly, Iran, which shares a border more than 1,000 miles long with the Soviet Union, was soon under the spotlight.

The perceived threat of the Tudeh Party of Iran (Irans version of pro-Soviet Communist Party) and the possibility of Iran going to the Communist camp was the Realist rationale behind the coup. Established in 1941, the Tudeh grew to become a popular political organization by the late 1940s. According to a CIA estimate in 1952, the Party had 20,000 hard-core members, 8,000 of whom were in Tehran. Estimates on the number of officers involved in the Military Organization varied from 466 to 700.

So what was the perceived possibility that the Tudeh Party might have overthrown Mossadegh in a coup or through gradual infiltration and subversion of the government? The Party was illegal at that time, therefore it was forced to operate clandestinely. Most Iranians were extremely wary of the Tudeh, and Mossadegh had taken strong measures against the Party as late as August 18, 1953. The Tudeh was still much weaker than it had been at the height of its peak in 1946. Factional infighting had been part of the Tudeh existence since its inception. In addition, the Tudeh had no representatives in the Mossadegh government.

The CIA had, by this time, penetrated the Tudeh at a very high level, so the Agency would have had considerable insight into the Partys level of power and plans. However, the Tudeh was depicted by the CIA as an agent of international Communism, ready to deliver Iran to the Soviet camp. An alarming situation was presented to the American and British public: that Irans Communist Tudeh Party was about to take over a strategic country bordering the Soviet Cold War foe, and that Mossadeghs moves were a threat to Western oil access. However, in fact, all oil-exporting countries, even Communist ones, were eager to sell oil to the West, which was their most important market.

While there were many demonstrations occurring in the lead-up to the coup, it is important to note that most were largely fake, having been orchestrated and financed by the CIA in an effort to undermine Mossadegh. Furthermore, the US embassy was deliberately overstating both the strength of the Tudeh and the degree to which Mossadegh was cooperating with the Party in its public statements in this period. Therefore, while it is true that Mossadeghs support base was eroding considerably — especially in the months just prior to the coup — it is important to question whether such instability would have resulted without the intervention of outside forces, namely British and American intelligence officers. Furthermore, Mossadeghs position was not as precarious as the intelligence agencies were making out.
As for the Iranian economic situation, it had been described by US analysts as desperate in late 1951, thanks largely to the British having plotted against Mossadegh almost continuously since September of that year, backing three major, protracted efforts to oust him. As mentioned earlier, Britain had also instituted an oil embargo and a variety of other economic sanctions against Iran. However, stimulative fiscal policies begun in the summer of 1952 had produced a modest recovery by the end of the year. Efforts were made to sell oil to countries such as Japan and Italy in early 1953. Business was described as brisk in May 1953 by the US commercial attach in Tehran, and both agriculture and non-oil exports were reported to be doing well.

Initially, it is perhaps arguable that the British, having failed to secure President Trumans and therefore US backing of the plot on the basis of Britains economic concerns, knowingly capitalized on American sensitivity to the Communist threat at that time, and fed into American fears by embellishing accounts of the Soviet influence in Iran as a means of securing US backing of the coup. In fact, it was imperative for the British to secure US backing, because on October 16, 1952, Mossadegh would break diplomatic relations with Britain, after having discovered another British plot — this time to conspire with a group of Iranian military officers, including arms and MI6 assistance, to overthrow the Prime Minister. Lacking a base for operations inside Iran, the British henceforth would be forced to rely on the United States to deal with Mossadegh.

However, US involvement in Iran had increased considerably by early 1951. In 1950 the gradual reemergence of the Tudeh, growing unrest caused by the oil dispute, and a severe recession within Iran, caused primarily by ongoing British intervention, led US policymakers to become increasingly concerned about Iran. Realists say this concern was over Irans susceptibility to Soviet takeover. That concern prompted the US to sign a $23 million per year military aid agreement. A $25 million Export-Import Bank loan was also approved, and a $10 million International Bank loan request was supported. The CIA and embassy staffs in Tehran were also increased. Therefore, given the US? increased staffing and multi-million-dollar aid packages, there was sufficient time — two and a half years — and financial resources committed to Iran prior to the actual execution of the plot for the US to have compiled its own intelligence, which would have indicated serious doubts as to the existence and/or seriousness of a Soviet threat.

Iran was not of great concern to US policymakers in the late 1940s. For one thing, the Tudeh Party had been seriously weakened in the 1945-46 Azerbaijan crisis and Iran was relatively stable. For another, Anglo-US military strategy called for Britain rather than the United States to defend Iran in the event of a Soviet invasion.

Even still, the CIA, under the Truman administration, commenced Operation BEDAMN in 1948 to counter Soviet and Tudeh influence in Iran. BEDAMN was a propaganda and political action program, funded at $1 million per year. CIA participants have described this as ?an orchestrated program of destabilization and an all-out effort.

There were numerous incidents of widespread unrest and demonstrations — almost all of which were fomented by British or American intelligence officers operating in Iran at the time — however which Mossadegh consistently managed to contain and control, with the help of loyal army units. The Tudeh had, in fact, been very active in some of the riots, leading Mossadegh to order a wave of arrests. Despite the Partys increased visibility, however, the Tudeh apparently did not gain in strength during this period.

So, if the Tudeh did not pose a sufficient threat from within Iran, what about the threat of Communism from the Soviet Union itself? After an attempt on the Shahs life in February 1949, many Tudeh leaders had to flee the country in order to avoid arrest, while many others were arrested. This development split the Tudeh leadership into two groups — namely those who were abroad and those who resided inside the country. There was no strong, systematic contact between the groups until, ironically, after the coup.

Furthermore, the 1953 coup occurred at a time when the Soviet Union was going through profound internal change.

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