Reason Interviews

Taghi Amirani on the Legacy of the U.S.-Backed Coup in Iran  

Amirani argues that the 1953 coup became the "playbook" for future U.S. covert actions in countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, and Chile.


Almost 70 years after a U.S.-backed coup deposed Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and replaced him with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, relations between the two countries remain at a fever pitch.

In the documentary Coup 53, writer and director Taghi Amirani tells the story of how British and American secret agents overthrew Mosaddegh after he nationalized his country's oil industry, starting a series of events that would eventually enable the rise of the autocratic, U.S.-hating Islamic regime that reigns to this day. Beyond its tragic effects on Iran and the Middle East, Amirani argues that the 1953 coup became the "playbook" for future U.S. covert actions in countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, and Chile, changing the face of global politics.

In September, Amirani spoke to Reason's Nick Gillespie about his film.

Q: You make the case that this is the beginning of a pattern of American foreign policy and intervention throughout the world. 

A: Very much so. The CIA was a relatively new organization in 1953. It was a new kid on the block, and it had money, and it was, you know, "We want to play." And [British intelligence service] MI6 said, "Well, come out and play in Iran. We'll give you some oil in return, if you help us get our oil back." On paper, it was a huge success. It was quick. It was cheap. No American lives were lost. Don't forget at the time America was fighting a hot war in Korea, even considering dropping a nuclear bomb. This was a trouble-free, easy way of changing leaders.

Q: In the film, you talk about how Mosaddegh was essentially a nationalist who didn't want to have foreign powers meddling in the country.

A: Yeah. At the same time that he was trying to get the Brits out of Iran, he was also trying to push the Russians out. He was standing for Iranian independence and control of its raw resources, no matter what the resource was or who was trying to get control of it. He was a truly secular democrat.

Q: What links the coup of 1953 with the overthrow of the shah in 1979?

A: The shah came back [after Mosaddegh was removed], and he was a weak leader at the time. He was very young when he was put on the throne. He wasn't as powerful and authoritative as his father, who was a soldier and pretty strict. The Americans realized, "We need to keep him in power," because the moment something went wrong [in 1953] he got on a plane and left. So that's when they sent their military intelligence people to Iran [to set up] SAVAK, which became the most brutal, frightening secret service in the world, trained in torture techniques both by MI6 and the CIA.

[The shah] became more self-confident and more authoritarian and ruled with an increasingly iron fist until 1979, [when] the state of fear that existed blew up. The moment the revolution happened, people came onto the streets holding Mosaddegh portraits, and they started selling his portraits on the sidewalk. Under the shah, you could not talk about Mosaddegh. Even having his books on your shelf was an arrestable crime. You could not put his portraits up.

Q: I'm sorry to put this crudely, but at what point does a country like Iran have to own its own tyranny?

A: I think that those kinds of internal problems should be owned by the internal structure. That kind of behavior can be exacerbated and amplified by the attempts from outside to undermine, battle, and create a sense of attack. When outside forces are trying to undermine you, trying to attack you politically or physically, [that] unifies the people inside and also strengthens the hand of the leader.

I'm simplifying, and we're both being very crude about this. It's much more complex than that. But an external power unifies the internal machinery and also can do away with some liberties. You know: Wag the dog.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.

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  1. BP had the clout to have UK & US do its bidding.

    1. Talk about simplifying and crude.

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  3. And the CIA has been a criminal organization ever since. All things are permissible in the name of “preserving democracy” even though everything they do is the exact opposite of preserving democracy. Who guards the guardians? Don’t be silly – nobody guards the guardians, they’re guardians for God’s sake, they don’t need any guardians!

    1. Dont let lefties off the hook for blaming every Iranian problem on the CIA backed coup.

      The CIA can be a fucked up incompetent organization AND Iran can be a tyrannical regime too.

      1. It’s not likely Khomeini and the Iranian Islamists would have been able to gain power if the CIA/MI6-imposed Shah had any popular support. No one liked the Shah. The Islamists, not the liberals, were the only ones with enough resolve to mount a fight. Had the Mossadegh government or its likey democratic/liberal successor not been overthrown, it likely would have had enough popular support to withstand or pre-empt the Islamists.

        1. Mossadegh wouldn’t have had any ” likey democratic/liberal successor”.

          There were only five outcomes available in August 1953. The already-declared dictatorship of Mossadegh, rule by the Shah, a military junta, an Islamist government, or a pro-Soviet Communist government. And the first was not strongly distingished from the last, because Mossadegh was so dependent on the Tudeh (that is, Communist) Party for support.

  4. “Amirani argues that the 1953 coup became the “playbook” for future U.S. covert actions in countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, and Chile.”

    At some point we also need to own the fact that we won the Cold War, and winning it wasn’t a coincidence. No doubt, we won in spite of some of the horrible mistakes we made, but reading Jeane Kirkpatrick, for instance, watching what we did in Chile, and then seeing the results, there’s really no walking away and thinking, “Well, that was just a coincidence, Chile would have ended up prosperous and democratic for decades afterwards anyway”. She called, “Eight ball, corner pocket”, and then she made the bank shot.

    The fact of the matter is that there were only a few ways the totalitarian communism of the 20th century could have survived into the 21st century, and the path of least resistance was expansion throughout the developing world. Vietnam was an error. If Chile wasn’t a success from that perspective, then what does success look like? Everything we did to successfully frustrate communist expansion with relatively little effort helped us successfully win the Cold War.

    From the perspective of 1979, suggesting that we shouldn’t frustrate Soviet expansion by working with the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan and in no small part, thereby, win the Cold War–sans nuclear exchange–because 30 years later, one of its constituent groups might launch a terrorist strike against us in New York?! That would have been an absurd argument. The only reason that argument would make sense in 1979 is if you believed that frustrating Soviet expansion wouldn’t help lead to the collapse of the USSR, and if you believed that, you were wrong.

    1. I agree, even though oil was definitely a huge factor, Britain and the US had a pile of other geopolitical motives for wanting the Shah installed.
      Unfortunately the basis for the machinations of both Foggy Bottom and the British Foreign Office are academic and theoretical and have always fucked things up in the real world.

      1. They make mistakes! And they can make mistakes in doing nothing. Certainly, just because Vietnam was a mistake doesn’t mean that watching Argentina and Chile fall to communism would have led to a successful conclusion of the Cold War either. We didn’t invade Argentina and Chile like when we sent troops to Vietnam, and that was smart. However, there were negative consequences to consider in doing nothing, as well–so we didn’t do nothing.

        Bloomberg just squandered $100 million trying to turn Florida blue only to be frustrated by the refusal of emigrants from Latin America, who wanted nothing to do with the Democrats’ socialism because of their experiences with Castro, FARC, Chavez, and Maduro. These people would seem to have fled from the alternate universe that supposedly would have been better if only Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala had fallen to communism, and they don’t seem to think that alternate universe is a better world.

        The scale and depth of our mistakes in each of those four countries (Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala), were by no means equal, but there’s also little question but that there would have have been tragedy if they’d fallen to communism, as well. Communist dictators have a consistent way of not asserting themselves as dictators until after they take power and people start resisting their programs, and yet they all seem to react in the same ways.

        Before the U.S. became the largest foreign donor to Egypt during the Cold War, that distinction was held by none other than the USSR. It was hard to unwind some of our Cold War legacy Pinochet like relationships when the Cold War was over, and the Arab Spring certainly helped that along. But it was different when we were dealing with communism itself in the western hemisphere rather than squabbling over oil in a zero-sum, pre-fracking revolution economy.

        I’m trying to imagine the Cold War ending the way it did if South America and Central America had gone communist in the 1970s and early ’80s. It changes the whole complexion of the conflict. How concerned are we about western Europe at that point? Are the Europeans letting us deploy Pershing missiles? What’s our negotiating position? Eventually, the communists are setting their sights on Mexico. Again, it wasn’t a question of sending in U.S. troops to take over Argentina and Chile. And I have a hard time imagining that the way we won the Cold War wasn’t partially a result of these decisions.

        Leo Strauss is famous for making an argument about the need for noble lies in our nations’ founding myths to justify our right to its land–most of which is actually acquired through conquest and injustice. Maybe people feel the same way about justifying the things they need to do to keep their people safe from their enemies. I hate noble lies. Totalitarianism is nothing but noble lies from top to bottom. I like ugly truths.

        The truth is that the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect our rights, and one of the legitimate purposes of foreign policy is to protect our rights from foreign threats. There are horrible, stupid, and awful mistakes that can be rationalized on that basis–from our support for atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala, on one hand, to the firebombing of civilians in Tokyo, on the other hand, and our support for the awful government of South Vietnam.

        I weigh those against attempts to keep Iranian oil from disappearing into the Soviet war machine or to keep Chile from going communist with hardly any expense or effort, and it seems to me that the legitimate purpose of our foreign policy to protect our rights from a legitimate threat can, in fact, be justified in those terms. The Soviet Union was a serious and dangerous threat to our rights, and those who wished to avoid becoming our enemies shouldn’t have allied themselves with our enemies. Ugly truths are still the truth.

        1. +10000000

          Watched a documentary on fabian society. Communists still live among Americans and are sinister fuckers.

          War is hell and fighting communists has been going on for over 100 years.

    2. 2001 is 22 years after 1979, not 30.

      1. Thank you.

    3. Hell, Mosaddegh had a lot of opponents to start with, and then managed to piss off many of his former supporters with his dissolution of parliament stunt. It was inevitable that there were going to be domestic efforts to overthrow him, efforts that very well might have driven him to ask the Soviets for support or resulted in the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party taking power. With the result of making Iran a base for Soviet forces on the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

      Sure, the hostility of the Iranian regime has been a thorn in the side of the US ever since the Shah was overthrown, but it’s never been a serious threat to the US. On the other hand, Soviet bases in Iran would have been a major problem during the Cold War. Imagine a version of the Cold War where the Soviets have massive power over the price and production of oil, and Al Qaeda starts its terror attacks in 1960 because US troops are deployed in Saudi Arabia.

  5. These days, our intelligence agency apparatchiks foment coups right here in the USA.

    1. It was all practice for the day when they overthrow an American president I suppose.

    2. Which “coup” is that? The impeachment “coup” which would have resulted in a President Pence?

      Or the current election “coup” in which even Giuliani has attributed no role to the US intelligence?

        1. Not going to click on your blind YouTube links. Please provide some indication of what you are linking to.

          1. How you formulate your ideas. It’s amazingly insightful.

            Also, “blind YouTube links”, hahaha.

            1. Got the term from JesseAz, who said he wouldn’t click on a “blind” link I provided a few days ago.

              1. Was it Youtube?

                1. Nope.

                  1. So do you realize why that makes it different, and why Mother’s was laughing at you?

                    1. I would never link to a video without giving an idea what it is.

                    2. Unreason bots are funny. Their offshore programmers dont always make WK believable.

              2. A YouTube link isn’t going to get your computer confiscated and your kids taken away like clicking on one of Jeff’s.

                Also, the “YouTube” bit makes it not blind.

          2. You probably wouldn’t get it anyway.

    3. Well, COVID travel restrictions and all that.

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  7. ” Democratically elected” Mossadegh cancelled his reelection, as so many *One Man, One Vote, One Time” Marxists do, packed the legislature un-democratically, threw out the Constitution, snd ignored the courts.

    He wass a great statesman – like Maduro. Mosaddegh needed to go, like most dictators. The Islamists did not come to power pining for Mosaddegh. This is laughable.

    Anyone who starts their thesis this way should be ignored.

    1. Also, at a certain point, I have a hard time respecting “Something bad was done to us…67 YEARS AGO…and that (and tat alone) is why we became an epic shithole.”

      1. The religion of peace always helps.

    2. Where did you get this revisionist “history” from? Would you please share a link?

      1. More popular than ever, a greatly strengthened Mosaddegh convinced parliament to grant him emergency powers for six months to “decree any law he felt necessary for obtaining not only financial solvency, but also electoral, judicial, and educational reforms”.

        I guess what was historical fact becomes revisionism in woke 2020.

      2. GFY, gaslighter

      3. Just because you are ignorant doesn’t make well-established facts “revisionist ‘history'”.

        It’s an undisputed fact that Mohammad Mosaddegh, his coalition facing defeat during the vote-counting in the 1952 Iranian elections, used his incumbent position of power to end the counting of rural votes and thus leave 57 of 136 seats (likely to be filled by his opponents) in the parliament empty.

        It’s also undisputed fact that he had the rump 79-seat parliament give him the power to rule by decree.

        It’s finally undisputed fact that he used that power to rule by decree to hold a blatantly rigged referendum to dissolve the parliament entirely and make himself dictator.

        Frankly, to compare him to Chavez or Maduro is unfair to those men. Even Adolf Hitler had substantially more democratic legitimacy than Mosaddegh, if you dig into the details of the power consolidation in each case.

    3. America bad.
      orangeman bad.
      Americans bad.

      Its a common theme among the commie propagandists that work for unreason.

    4. Iran was a model of progressive, stable, center-left democratic benevolence until the US showed up.

  8. Q: You make the case that this is the beginning of a pattern of American foreign policy and intervention throughout the world.

    Conveniently forgetting the banana republics of the 1920s and 1930s, the various Mexican wars, the various almost-wars with Britain/Canada, and the many many real wars with Indian tribes.

    But yes, otherwise, if you forget everything prior to WW II ending in 1945, a US-made coup 8 years later may be the first one of its post-WW II kind.

    And not to be too pedantic, but the US sure didn’t invent meddling in other countries.

    Then there’s the whole business of all the borders in the Middle East being made up from thin air by foreigners anyway, so why shouldn’t said foreigners meddle a little more, and why should the people there pay much attention to foreigners’ borders?

    1. Left out forcing Japan to open its borders in 1854, the open door policy imposed on China throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, and the war with Spain in 1898. About the only bright spot was leaving Cuba “independent”, and giving the Philippines independence in 1946.

  9. The US, UK & many of their allies lecture many nations on not being democracies & not giving equal rights to everyone but they support authoritarian regimes when it is convenient to them & they violate their sovereignty with coups or wars to make them have leaders suitable to them even if they are not suitable to the majority of people in those nations.

    1. You.
      First, your blanket claim of “allies” is bullshit; during WWII, the USSR was an “allie” so, you’ve already established your position as a bullshitter.
      England, historically, was a colonial empire, so of course they are not, historically, ‘blameless’.
      Nor is the US, but condemnations absent any sort of comparisons again makes your rep as a bullshitter.
      If you’d like to be taken as other than a lefty shit, please compare and contrast, oh, the USSR and the US in the 20th century.
      Or you could admit you’re an un-lettered lefty ignoramus and fuck off and die.

  10. The way I see it, Iran has to own its own history of tyranny, but that does not in any way let Britain and the US off the hook for interfering and making things worse. It’s a lot like the War on Drugs. If you want to choose to completely derail your life with heroin or whatever, it’s your choice and you must own the consequences like a big boy. No need to have militarized police busting down doors at the wrong addresses in a vain attempt to undo your own idiotic life choices. That just exacerbates the fallout. Likewise, if you want to choose or continue to tolerate some religious fanatic or commie dictators running your country, there is no need to have the US military come in and try to “rescue” your country, that just exacerbates the fallout. As a libertarian, I believe in leaving individuals and nations alone.

    1. The situation in the Cold War, where we were facing a foe that was explicitly dedicated to extinguishing our domestic liberty and was actively converting other countries into its satellites in order to gain the position and resources to further that goal, is not remotely analogous to the War on Drugs.

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  12. He was a truly secular democrat.

    True democrats don’t make themselves dictators. If you’re telling that blatant lie, what else are you lying about?

  13. It’s a little surprising anybody bothered to write about it. Of course Amirani’s right, but who hasn’t figured that out? Iran was the most signifcant Cold War “victory” (until 1979) for US intelligence. Certainly, it became the playbook AND the justification for the many atrocities that followed. US intelligence is a disgrace. It is a major factor for the unfavorable opinion of this country that is prevalent today.

  14. Note that Britain allied with the Soviet Union to invade Iran in 1941 to steal its oil. American troops arrived the next year and took over Iran. The 1953 coup allowed continued American control with the puppet Shah.

  15. And the CIA has been a criminal organisation ever since. All things are permissible within the name of “retaining democracy” even though the entirety they do is the complete opposite of keeping democracy. Who guards the guardians? Don’t be silly – nobody guards the guardians, they’re guardians for God’s sake, they don’t need any guardians!

  16. It’s a touch surprising anybody afflicted to write about it. Of route Amirani’s right, but who hasn’t figured that out? Iran was the maximum signifcant Cold War “victory” (until 1979) for US intelligence. Certainly, it have become the playbook AND the justification for the many atrocities that followed. US intelligence is a disgrace. It is a major issue for the detrimental opinion of this country this is general today.

  17. Huh, article seems to have brought out CIABOT 1.0

  18. All lies. Iran was a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Mossadegh was not popularly elected but made Prime Minister by a vote of Iran’s parliament who had to be approved by the Shah which the monarch did.

    When things started getting heated, the Shah asked Mossadegh to step down, but he refused which was in violation of the law.

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