Donald Trump

Taghi Amirani: How the U.S.-Backed 1953 Coup in Iran Is Still Changing Global Politics

New documentary explains why installing the shah in 1953 led to ruinous American covert operations throughout the Cold War and beyond.


Almost 70 years after a U.S.-backed coup deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and replaced him with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the leader of Iran, relations between the two countries remain at a fever pitch. Just days ago, President Donald Trump, responding to unspecified intelligence reports, threatened that "any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!"

In the new documentary Coup 53, Taghi Amirani tells the story of how British and American secret agents overthrew Mossadegh after he nationalized the oil industry, starting a series of events that would lead to the rise of the autocratic, U.S.-hating Islamic regime that continues to reign to this day. Beyond its tragic effects on Iran and the Middle East, Amirani argues that the seemingly easy 1953 coup became the "playbook" for future U.S. covert actions in countries such as Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, and beyond, forever changing the face of global politics.

In a wide-ranging conversation about immigration, foreign policy, and filmmaking, Amirani tells Nick Gillespie that Trump's policies, like those of all U.S. leaders, are "the product of the military-industrial complex and that, ultimately, matters more" than whatever a president enters office thinking.

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63 responses to “Taghi Amirani: How the U.S.-Backed 1953 Coup in Iran Is Still Changing Global Politics

  1. The military-industrial complex is certainly a factor for evil, but they are just a small part of the Statist complex. The Deep State, as it were, is a very real thing, and the Framers were at fault for not imagining that government people in different branches would pull together in the face of external danger, just as Marines and sailors will always join forces to fight the army or air force.

    1. And the Army and Marines will join up to make fun of the Air Force. Because the Air Force deserves it this fucking pansies. Except maybe PJs and Combat Comm. They’re okay but they’re practically grunts anyhow.

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  2. Wait a minute, I thought the Balfour Declaration was the cause of all the problems over there, which is it?

    Meanwhile of course, still absolutely no acknowledgement or even mention whatsoever of the Abraham Accords, and how Trump’s radical shift in policy from recent decades is completely changing the entire dynamic over there.

    How does Reason explain the fact that most of the other countries in the region despise the Iranian mullah regime just as much as we do? Oh right, they don’t want a serious discussion of these things, they want the simplistic leftie approach of blaming everything that goes wrong in the world on America.

    No big surprise; Reason has been completely 100% dead wrong on practically everything that has been going on over there from the so-called “Arab Spring” right up until now.

    1. I’m going to guess that the argument is that the Mullah and Islamic revolution wouldn’t have gained any traction without the meddling of western forces in Iran. Blowback.

      Anyone should tiptoe very carefully when making any grand narrative statements about Iran and the factors in the 1979 revolution that took place.

      1. The coup that is not talked about is the president Carters in pulling the rug from under the Shah. For some that have long memories 50’s were the cold war between the West and Communism. The west feared that Mossadegh was a populist with leftist tendencies and by kicking the West out of Iran would eventually give access to the Persian gulf which at the time was the prime source of oil for them. It wasn’t just the US that participated in returning the Monarch back. It worked for a long time. President Carter, a nice man but naive in the real politics of the region believed that Islam was the best way to counter communism and “arranged” for shah’s departure and the return of the Ayatollah. The “revolution”, the fighting in the streets between the shah’s army and the revolutionaries was led and involved elements of PLO and elements of today’s Hezbollah, and other Islamists and anti Israelists. Many Iranians observed that many fighters did not speak Farsi. So here we are! The author refers to Mossadegh as “democratically elected” as if that by itself is an all inclusive virtue! The people of Venezuela also democratically elected Chavez! Democracy will work if it is the fruit of an informed electorate. The Founding fathers did not want “democracy” rather a constitutional republic that would include the sentiment of the people but would not have direct democracy.

        1. I have also not heard any analisys about Mossadegh’s election and whether it was the result of a corrupt election process. I think we pretend that the entire election apparatus was totes on the up-and-up in the 1950s. It may have been a fully legitimate election– it may have also been a shit show.

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          2. Interesting how the overthrow of the Shaw, in 1941, by the British and Russians is never mentioned. This article frames the issue as a coup, it could just as easily be framed as restoring the Shaw.

        2. To add, it has been a commonly repeated bit of wisdom that I’ve heard all of my adult life, that the US Meddling and installation of the Shah ’caused’ the 1979 revolution and resulted in the Islamic government. The idea being that Iranian public institutions up through the 1950s were unblemished, gilded and untarnished institutions which were completely beyond reproach, until the US corrupted the system.

          I have strong doubts as to whether the US could successfully corrupt a country with a degree of high trust and internal accountability. For instance, try as we might, I have a hard time believing that US counterintelligence could successfully topple the democratic institutions of say, the Netherlands.

          I believe that to be successful in such endeavors, it requires a high degree of existing tinder to catch light after you strike the subversive flint.

        3. A very real strategy of the USSR was to gain a warm water port like they have with Syria now. Almost all other USSR ports were bottlenecks or frozen in winter.

          America wanted to keep the USSR from controlling oil and having that Persian Gulf or Arabian Ocean port.

  3. Iran taught the CIA that it was easy, as well as fun and profitable, to overthrow regimes. They haven’t noticed that all their attempts at regime change since then have been abject failures, probably because the fun and profit is all they care about. How much do they care? Well, let’s just say that they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you if you fuck with them, and JFK found out the hard way what one of those ways is. Trump better watch his ass, the Russia collusion hoax was amateur hour because they badly misunderestimated him, they won’t be making the same mistake twice. You fuck with their money train and they ain’t going to just walk away from that.

    1. Iran taught the CIA that it was easy, as well as fun and profitable, to overthrow regimes.

      That wasn’t so much an initiative of the CIA, as it was a change in policy that Eisenhower instituted. It’s far easier, and cleaner, to use operatives to oust foreign leaders that won’t play ball than it is to send people to war to fight over it, and with the Cold War kicking into high gear during his administration, Eisenhower wasn’t interested at all in sending troops into battle if he could help it. That was a big reason he hung Britain out to dry when Egypt nationalized the Suez.

      1. The reality is Eisenhower pretty much completely committed the defense budget to massive retaliation through SAC so there wasn’t any money for ground troops.

        And Suez was a lot more complicated than that- he didn’t just hang them out to dry he threatened to destroy the value of the pound. Eisenhower like most narcissist thought he should be the one to solve all the problems as was mad at the French English and Israelis for taking the intiative. He also had no idea how intractable Arab nationalism would prove to be and figured he could defuse it with his personal diplomacy.

  4. Trump’s policies, like those of all U.S. leaders, are “the product of the military-industrial complex and that, ultimately, matters more” than whatever a president enters office thinking.

    So “ship the Iran government pallets of cash in hope they will be nice to us” and “promise retaliation if they follow through on a threat to kill a US diplomat” are both from the same foreign policy playbook?

    Or maybe we just can’t admit that Trump is actually doing things a bit differently because orange man bad.

    1. Depends if Iran crosses that red-line or not and then how Trump responds. I’d say the Syrian threat by Obama would be more inline with Trumps recent statement regarding the potential threat of assassination.

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Trump will react in the way Obama did but whether his reaction is “correct” is hard when we only have the hyperbolic statement 1000 times greater magnitude. That could be a nuclear strike (extremely unlikely), killing 1000 Iranian diplomats (literal), attacking some military targets (most likely), invasion and regime change (god, I hope not), sanctions, or taking it to the UN (worst option).

      1. We saw that.
        Trump took out their star General.

  5. So, Reason is now coming out in SUPPORT of nationalizing industries. Good to know.

    And it’s always fascinating to see how an event 63 years ago is the sole cause of all problems in an entire part of the world decades later.

    1. I’d put the biggest event as the partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire by the British 100 years ago. The British wanted warring factions to prevent the country from becoming a major power. They got their wish. We’re paying for it now.

  6. So then after 40 years why is Iran still a theocracy run by jihadist schmucks funding terrorism? The US is still to blame here? You mean they couldn’t just go back to what they were before the Shah took power?

    Yeah it’s hard but keep trying.

  7. 1953? Might as well go to the 7th century , when Islam conquered Persia or 3rd century BC when Alexander the Great conquered Persia or 1620 when all hell broke loose on the world . Persia /Iran’s been a pain in the Ass for a long long time.

  8. The 1953 coup certainly led to an increase in covert ops by the US. And since those have tended to be based on both incompetence in DC and corruption abroad, it has led to a lot of problems and blowback.

    But I don’t buy that it had much influence on the Iranian revolution at all. Not one whit beyond the takeover of the embassy which was clearly a result of the US allowing the Shah into the US. At that point they clearly feared a coup and took over the embassy to find evidence – and then stayed.

    I lived in Iran as a wee kid in the late 60’s when there were miniskirts in north Tehran and chadors in south Tehran. THAT was the Westernizing cultural split which along with attempts at rural land reform created a backlash by fundamentalists and traditionalists. Khomeini was exiled because he opposed the White Revolution and specifically allowing women to vote. But both Mossadegh and the Shah would have gone in that direction and the real driving cultural influence then was more French than American.

    1. A pretty decent summation.
      My question is, and I am not implying you said it was a good or bad thing, was the US justified in granting the Shah asylum? The alternative would have been what happened to Gadafi. Or in a best case scenario, Hussein, but I think that is less likely.

      1. The Shah was already in exile and near death at that point. But because he had been lying about his health, there was an obvious perceived possibility that he would be reinstalled in a coup. Remember – Iranians knew about the coup then, Americans did not despite signs written in English all over the embassy yapping about the coup. That is the heart of blowback. Where one side (Iran in this case) understands what happened while the other (US) thinks that a reaction (the embassy takeover) to the unknown (the 1953 coup) is completely out of the blue.

        That said – that could all have ended with the Shah’s death and release of hostages a few months later. There is no coup with a dead shah and the internal conflicts about their revolution would have worked themselves out like all revolutions do.

        What really changed US-Iran relations permanently from naturally unfriendly to completely hostile was 1982. When over the course of a couple months, the US decided to side with Iraq (a Soviet proxy then with a then-oppressed Shia majority) against Iran in that war – and when Israel was complicit in the Sabra-Shatila massacre (Sabra being the Shiite neighborhood surrounding the Shatila refugee camp). Martyrdom is central to Shiism – see Ashura. Hezbollah was a direct outcome of Sabra-Shatila. And again – Iran knew this all at the time and the US STILL doesn’t. But the combo of Iran acting all big brothery re Shia outside Iran and the US now looking at Iran as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Well that’s permawar. No longer a US-Iranian conflict about Iran itself.

  9. And it’s always fascinating to see how an event 63 years ago is the sole cause of all problems in an entire part of the world decades later.

    My favorite part was where Trump was crammed into the article.

    I just wish the CIA could settle on a decent kind of leader to be our S.O.B. in every toilet around the world. Between the banana republics, competent kleptocrats like Syngman Rhee, incompetent kleptocrats like Chiang Kai-shek and whatever kind of incompetent Ngo Dinh Diem was, we can’t seem to buy an anti-communist government worth what we end up paying.

    1. Not just merely “crammed into”; for some bizarre reason the entire fucking article is filed under the category “Donald Trump”. Who according to my math was 7 years old when the coup took place.

      If this seems a little bit deranged to you, that’s because it is.

      1. See he was an effective leader even as a 2nd grader.

  10. “Taghi Amirani tells the story of how British and American secret agents overthrew Mossadegh after he nationalized the oil industry”

    It’s hard for people to remember what it was like when our economy was subject to oil shocks–not to mention what it was like when vast amounts of oil could disappear from the world market into the closed economy of the Soviet Union.

    Suffice it to say that the ramifications of the emergence of fracking were more than just economic. As recently as the Obama administration, presidential approval ratings were still dragged down by spiking oil prices–he was never so unpopular as he was during the gulf oil spill.

    The reason we built bases in Saudi Arabia during the Cold War was to protect the Saudi oil fields from incursion by the Iranians after the revolution–because if that oil disappeared from the world market, it would have been devastating to the U.S. economy. The reason Bush Sr. responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was for the same reason.

    Winning the Cold War was an economic struggle, and our economy didn’t just win because we had markets. We also won because we had access to a healthy supply of oil to distribute through markets.

    Anybody who wants to ban fracking should account for this. Economics will ultimately trump other considerations–just as people are overcoming their fear of the coronavirus to work because of the economic considerations. Foreign adventures are one of the historical alternatives to fracking, and it’s an alternative that can be easily wrapped up in patriotism and marketed as self-defense.

    1. Reason thinks if you are a dude that raped fourteen kids and then bought off the judge to serve a few months of house arrest that it is all water under the bridge and if you want to apply for asylum that’s just fine. But also perpetual blood guilt accruing to all white Americans for anything bad in this country’s history.

    2. The reason we built bases in Saudi Arabia during the Cold War was to protect the Saudi oil fields from incursion by the Iranians after the revolution

      I think you have your timelines confused–we didn’t have troops in SA until Desert Storm, pulled out of there in 2003 to avoid blowback from the Saudi population due to the Iraq invasion, and sent them back earlier this year as a deterrent to Iran.

      1. No the US had a frequently changing number of planes stationed at Dhahran (which of leased) throughout the Cold War.

      2. The United States pretty much built the entire military infrastructure of the Saudis going back to the 1970s. That building of bases and the sale of military hardware accelerated in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.

        When we deployed U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm, it was to bases that had been built for the deployment of American troops should Iran threaten the Saudi oil fields.

        The threat to the Saudi oil fields ultimately came from Iraq rather than Iran, but the bases and infrastructure we built there were intended to defend Saudi Arabian oil from the Iranian threat.

        When we sent 500,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, we already had the infrastructure in place to do what we needed–and that wasn’t a coincidence. We built their infrastructure with that objective in mind.

        1. P.S. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, it would have been incompetent not to be ready to defend the Saudi oil fields on pragmatic grounds.

          I have principles and you have principles, but we’re talking about politicians here.

          There’s something to this about fracking, too. They don’t want fracking and they want Biden’s Green New Deal? Um . . .

          People aren’t taking a recession or a hit to their standard of living lightly. And there are alternative ways to keep energy flowing–some of which involve American empire, defending vicious dictators, and the negative consequences of that.

          Funny how easy it is to justify a foreign adventure on the basis of liberation theology (neoconservatism), as well. Why, the Iraqis want us to bomb, invade, and occupy their country–because they’re so oppressed! People on the left who don’t like that kind of thing might take this to heart.

        2. There is a massive massive difference between the US supplying parts and training to a SAUDI air force v the US bombing a third country from bases in Saudi.

          1. “There is a massive massive difference between the US supplying parts and training to a SAUDI air force v the US bombing a third country from bases in Saudi.”

            Not sure I understand the point of this statement.

            My point was that the U.S. economy’s dependence on a reliable supply of oil streaming to world markets from the Middle East made defending the Saudi oil fields a vital strategic interest for the United States–and that the Islamic Revolution in Iran presented a serious threat to Saudi oil fields in 1979.

            And we didn’t just build airbases, ports, etc. for the Saudis. We build them in Saudi Arabia for the deployment of U.S. troops. That isn’t all we did either. Between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and before 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we had backed Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran (ended in ’88, I believe)–for the same reason and so did the Saudis.

            The reason Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait was because his country had been economically devastated by the Iran-Iraq War, and the Saudis and the Kuwaitis both refused to restructure the debt they forwarded him to fight the war against Iran–and refused to raise his oil quota to pump the oil necessary to pay them back either. So, he, . . . um . . . elected to “pay Kuwait back” using their own gold sitting in their own banks.

            Before that, Saddam Hussein was more or less a cold war ally of the United States (a la Pinochet) and Saudi Arabia–and we backed Saddam Hussein for the same reason we built the Saudi military infrastructure (bases, ports, etc.) to support the deployment of U.S. troops–to defend the Saudi oil fields from incursion by the Iranians, especially, who were allies of the Soviet Union.

            We perpetrated the Iranian coup of 1953 because the new government threatened the flow of oil to world markets, and we built bases for ourselves to defend Saudi oil from the communists, too.

            Whether we bombed anybody from Saudi bases is beside the point. The point is that we built those bases and made defending them a top priority because our economy depended on their oil reaching world markets–as was made all too obvious during the oil shocks of the 1970s. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979–the Iranians presented a serious, Soviet allied threat to the American economy by way of Iran taking the Saudi oil fields. About 20% of Saudi Arabia is Shia even today, and what’s the point of being an Islamic Revolutionary if you don’t want to control Mecca?


      3. Finally you have said something that is 100% accurate about the Middle East re Saudi. Not only is that the accurate timeframe – it is also specifically mentioned in bin Ladin’s 1996 and 1998 fatwas where he declared war on the US. He wasn’t pissed off about something from 15-20 years before. He was pissed off that the US forces weren’t withdrawn after Desert Storm. That the US was now seen as an infidel occupier of ‘the land of the two holy places’. Which is precisely why most of the 9/11 muscle were Saudis.

        1. Of course, the problem was that however anemic the post-Desert Storm Iraqi army was by US standards, it was still enough to roll over the combined military forces of the Arabian Peninsula. So the US’s strategic choices were:

          1) Let Saddam Hussein conquer the Arabian Peninsula.

          2) Overthrow Hussein.

          3) Keep US troops indefinitely in Saudi Arabia.

          When the Gulf War failed to result in #2, the US government swapped to #3. When #3 provoked a series of major attacks culminating in 9/11, the US government swapped back to #2.

          Now, here’s where the mainstream critics of George W. Bush get dishonest. They first say that the Iraq War had nothing to do with 9/11, because all we really had to do was stop doing #3. They then turn around say that Hussein wasn’t a threat to do #1, because he was “contained” . . . a situation that only existed because of #3.

          I’m fine with critics of the Iraq War who will honestly come out and say, “Yeah, sure, we should have continued pissing Saudi radicals off, provoking more attacks in the series of the Khobar Towers-Embassies in Africa-USS Cole-9/11 attack.” And with those who will say, “Yeah, in fact, we should have just gotten out, and never mind that that meant letting Saddam Hussein gain control of the cheaper-to-extract half of the world’s oil, become the custodian of the holy places of Islam, break free of sanctions because of those two items, and use the money to fund a military buildup and the production of nuclear weapons.”

          It’s the assholes who pretend that we didn’t have to pick which of the three was the least evil that piss me off.

    3. And from a CO2 and environmental impact reduction aspect, drilling oil and natural gas in the US (and shipping it by pipeline, which most environmentalist oppose) is far better than drilling it in the Middle East and shipping it half way across the globe.

    4. Good analysis! For most Americans, their middle-east knowledge is limited to what the two parties have fed them in support of their own agenda!

  11. It was 70 years ago. Find another excuse

    1. Also, didn’t we win the Cold War?

  12. the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh

    Oh, for fuck’s sake, this propaganda again.

    Iranian dictator Mohammad Mossadegh was, at one point, democratically-elected, sure, in that he was appointed Prime Minister by the head of state because he was the leader of the largest party in a governing coalition elected in an approximately free and fair election.

    Then he openly and blatantly stole the next parliamentary election by prohibiting the counting of votes from areas that were opposed to his coalition and refusing to seat any legislators from those regions.

    Then he held an openly rigged referendum (there were separate polling locations for “yes” and “no” votes) to abolish the parliament and make himself dictator.

    So, his dictatorship managed to be less democratically-legitimate than Adolf Hitler’s, who became Chancellor the same way, whose parliamentary election after taking office wasn’t nearly as blatantly rigged, and whose referendum to make him dictator was moderately less blatantly rigged.

    So, if you make a point of describing Adolf Hitler as democratically elected, such that you would say “Almost 80 years after U.S. forces deposed the democratically elected Fuhrer Adolf Hitler . . .”, then, fine, it’s neutral for you to characterize Mossadegh as “democratically-elected”.

    If, on the other hand, you wouldn’t describe Hitler that way, you’re clearly engaged in propaganda when you describe Mossadegh as “the democratically elected Prime Minister” instead of as “the Iranian dictator”.

    1. Hitler didn’t have a referendum the Diet passed the Enabling Act.

      1. Um, yes, he did have a referendum, on August 19, 1934.

        The exact legal effects of the referendum was different in 1953 Iran than the one in 1934 Germany, but “Get elected, steal the next election, have a referendum to eliminate institutional checks” happened in each.

  13. Oh Gillespie, so ignorant about history. So hysterical to blame Trump and “resist” Trump.

    Iran mullahs took over in 1979 from the shah, so anything Iran has done in the last 41 years is on them. Before that Britain and Russia invaded Iran during WWII. Before that they were invading India and Greece as Persia.

    Blaming America for Iran being aggressive doesnt work.

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  16. Politicians who steal the property of its rightful owners – which is what Nationalizing an industry is – are criminals and just targets of counter-attack. Doesn’t Reason believe in international property rights?

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