After Obama, the UK needs to officially come clean on the 1953 Iranian coup d’état.

At the recent United Nations annual gathering of world leaders in September, President Barack Obama once again admitted to America’s role in the coup d’état which overthrew the government of the democratically elected Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953.  This is not the first time Obama has mentioned this sore and defining episode in American-Iranian relations. In his 2009 Cairo speech Obama was more explicit in laying out America’s involvement. He acknowledged that during “the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

The reason why Obama may have used the indefinite article, “a role”, in describing America’s involvement is largely because there was another external actor. If America had acted alone in overthrowing Mossadegh’s government Obama may have used the definite article, i.e. “the role”, and by implication claimed full responsibility for the coup. This was rightly not the case as the other actor in this coup was the British.

Indeed, the idea and original plan to intervene in Iran arose during the much vaunted Clement Atlee post-war Labour government. Iran had aroused the ire of Britain’s ruling class by openly and transparently discussing the nationalisation of the British oil company, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in its parliament.

In 1950 AIOC made a £170 million profit, with the British exchequer receiving far more in taxes than the Iranian government in royalties from the company. AOIC was the UK’s singe largest overseas asset. The original concession to AIOC in 1933 had stipulated that the company did not pay any custom duties or income tax to Iran.[1]

Naturally, most Iranians found this arrangement highly disagreeable as it benefited British imperialism far more than they. More so, the Iranian leader who put his name to the original agreement was, at that time, perceived to be a stooge of the British by his countrymen – and he admitted as such.[2]

The Labour government’s initial plan, Operation Buccaneer, was to capture and hold the oil refineries at Abadan, where the oil was being extracted. When the idea was put forward to the Democrat President Truman he rejected it. It is said that the British where within three hours of intervening and capturing Abadan before the mission was aborted.[3]

When Mossadegh eventually nationalised AIOC, it was only natural that the leader of the Conservative opposition and arch-imperialist, Winston Churchill denounced it as an “outrage.”[4] By nationalising the oil industry Mossadegh had denied the British state a source of income while it was in the midst of post-war reconstruction which included building the structures of the new welfare state. More so, if this nationalisation proved to be successful it may inspire others in the Middle East and other parts of the world to throw off the British yoke.[5]

As Chritopher De Bellaigue writes in his account of the coup, “Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup”, “What Mossadegh and his supporters considered a victory of right over wrong was for the British a theft and a violation.”

However, the British finally got their way with the election of a Republican President (General Dwight Eisenhower) in January 1953. Correspondingly, Churchill had been back at the helm in the UK for over a year. This time the British played the communist bogeyman card to win over American support and as such a MI6 officer travelled to the United States to warn on the “dangers of communism”[6] assuming power in Iran. That clinched the deal for the Brits but it didn’t come cheap.

In return for United States support to get rid of Iranian democracy, the British seemed to allow the Americans to “dip their beak” (as the fictional, small time crook Funucci said to the young Vito Corleone in the Godfather) in Iranian oil. American oil companies were to be guaranteed a 40 per cent stake in Iranian oil.[7]

After months of planning the United States and United Kingdom violently overthrew Iranian democracy and Mossadegh in a coup d’état called Operation Ajax, on the 19th August 1953. This operation paved the way for a dictatorship in Iran which lasted until the revolution of 1979. In this new era, AIOC was renamed British Petroleum (BP).

“From an American perspective,” writes De Bellaigue, “the tragedy of Mossadegh is that the United States allowed itself to become Britain’s accomplice and trigger-man.”[8]

As mentioned, Obama has acknowledged the American role on two separate occasions during his presidency, but nothing has ever been forthcoming from the United Kingdom. Indeed, on an occasion David Cameron mentioned Iran at the United Nations it was to chide them on the limitations of their democracy. He claimed that Iranians, “have elections of a sort…” but “we should never pretend that having elections is enough.” “The building blocks of democracy” Cameron obliviously continued “have to be patiently developed from the grass roots up.” Few, if anyone, seems to have noticed the barefaced incongruity. It could have easily been reasoned that Cameron had no moral or historical right to lecture Iranians on the nature of their democracy or elections.

Surely, the first building blocks in commenting on the nature of Iranian elections and democracy would have been for Cameron, like Obama, to acknowledge the United Kingdom’s leading role in overthrowing the government of the democratically elected Muhammad Mossadegh? On the other hand, Cameron, unlike Obama, doesn’t have the comfort of resorting to the Cold War as the prime reason behind the coup d’état.

[1] Christopher De Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup, (London: Vintage Books, 2013), pg. 97 and pg.117

[2] ibid., pg.73

[3] ibid., pg.169 and James Cable, Intervention at Abadan: Plan Buccaneer, (London: Macmillan, 1991),pg.ix

[4] De Bellaigue, op. cit., pg.165

[5] ibid., pg.183

[6] ibid., pg.221.

[7] Stephen Dorril, MI6, (London: Forth Estate, 2000), pg.583 and John Keay, Sowing the Wind, (London: John Murray, 2003) pg.415

[8] De Bellaigue, op. cit., pg.5-6

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