1953 CIA SUPPORTED COUP IN IRAN:  The removal of Mossadegh  (the leftist Iranian Prime Minister in 1951) was, in my estimation, a tragic mistake on the part of the United States. We caused, in effect, the Khomeini revolution by doing that. But essentially, the seeds of that revolution were planted then, because we insulted the Iranians nationally, as a nation. So we interrupted the normal course of Iranian history… Iran would have gone its own way, and we would not have become the scapegoat, the great Satan, or whatever.      David Nalle, Director, Bi-National Center, Tehran, 1960-1963









IRAN IS THE HISTORICAL NAME OF PERSIA: Its history is intertwined with the history of the Middle East. Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, the Persians have been described as  “the first historical people” with a history dating back 7,000 years. Iran was ruled by a system of monarchy for 2,500 years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The diverse tribal peoples of Persia were unified as a nation in 625 BC with Cyrus the Great founding the first world empire which spanned three continents. The Persian empire eventually comprised 40% of the global population, the only civilization ever to include 49.4 million of the total global population of 112.4 million people. Successive governing empires over almost 1000 years, made Iran a world power until succeeded by the Roman Empire. Multi cultural Persian civilizations were not lost but absorbed over centuries, creating a rich and diverse national identity.

The spiritual leader Zoroaster (also known as Zarathushtra) founded the first state religion of the Persian empire, the roots of which date back to the 2nd millenium BC.  Zoroastrians believe in one God, compassionate, just, the creator of the universe. 

The Muslim conquest of Persia, 651AD led to  the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion. It has been said that “Iran was indeed Islamized, but it was not Arabized”. Persians remained Persians, inheriting a heritage of thousands of years of civilisation and a distinct political and cultural entity. Sunni and Shia  are sects within Islam, they share fundamental beliefs from the Q’uran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad but differ in their practice. After the death of the prophet in 682 AD, disagreements arose over who would succeed him as Caliph ‘the deputy of God’. The majority sided with Abu Bakre, a close companion of the prophet and became known as Sunni i.e. those who follow the ‘Sunna’, the sayings, teachings, deeds and traditions of the prophet.  A minority opted to follow Ali, the son in law  and cousin of Muhammad, becoming known as Shia, from Shiat Ali meaning ‘partisans of Ali’. 

The Sunni Muslim creed dominated for nine centuries with the greatest philosophers, metaphysicians, astronomers, logicians, mathematicians, scholars and scientists contributing to technology, science and medicine and influencing the rise of Western science. Following the reunification of Iran as an independent state in 1501, Shia dynasties arose, eventually replacing Sunni as the official religion of the empire.  Sunni Muslims are guided by the recorded teachings of the Prophet while Shiites additionally follow the guidance of their ayatollahs whom they see as Gods representatives on earth. Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the pilgrimage site honouring his birth. The Baaka (meaning cube in Arabic) marks the focal point of procession for more than 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.


During WWll, Iran remained neutral, anticipating that Germany would win the war, it rejected British and Russian demands to expel the Germans and they invaded as a result. Their purpose was to secure Iranian oil fields to secure Allied supply lines. The Allies deposed the Shah who they considered to be friendly to Germany, replacing him with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlav. The hope that post occupation Iran would become a constitutional monarchy was not realised, parliament held initial elections but the Shah’s autocratic regime was renowned for bribery and corruption leading to unrest.


In 1951, nationalist Muhammad Mossadegh was appointed Prime Minister of Iran and was hugely popular for taking a stand against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British-owned oil company that had made huge profits while paying Iran only 16% of its profits and often far less. In October 1952, Mosaddegh declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic ties, nationalizing the oil company. The British government enforced an economic blockade and sought help from the US to remove him from power. The US had previously opposed British policies as ‘rule or ruin’, however, from 1953 the newly elected President Eisenhower, along with Churchill and British Intelligence, plotted a coup (Operation Ajax) to oust Mossadegh. The coup succeeded on August 19, 1953. Thousands of Iranians were paid to be demonstrators to create a massive anti-government rally on the day of the coup. Pressure and bribes were applied to the Shah who reluctantly dismissed Mossadegh, nominating the CIA choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi as Prime Minister.  Iran’s nationalist hero was jailed for three years then held under house arrest until his death in 1967.

The monarchy was restored under the Western-friendly Shah and Anglo-Iranian oil (renamed British Petroleum) set about  reclaiming its oil fields. BP’s origins date back to the founding of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1908, established as a subsidiary of Burmah Oil Company to exploit oil discoveries in Iran. In 1935, it became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and in 1954 adopted the name British Petroleum. The pro Western Iranian government entered into agreement with an international consortium of foreign companies which ran the Iranian oil facilities for the next 25 years. Profits were divided fifty-fifty but Iran was not allowed to audit accounts or have members on their board of directors. Modernisation and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fuelled by Iran’s vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the world.


  • A republic could have happened any day if Mossadegh had insisted on it — not an Islamic republic, but a republic….But we, Uncle Sam, were not willing to take that chance. Lewis Hoffacker, Third Secretary, Embassy Tehran, 1951-1953
  • When I was on the desk in Washington, the decision was made that Mossadegh should be overthrown and the Shah should be brought to a firmer status of power. I think rather like what happened in Vietnam, once you have a hand in overthrowing somebody the way [President] Kennedy killed [Vietnamese President Ngo Dien] Diem, then you become much more committed to the person who comes in.John Stutesman, Consular/Political Officer, Tehran, 1949-1952
  • But the question was how much money to give to give General Zahedi  [Mossadegh’s successor]. I think Byroade asked for, say, 20 million, and somebody else said, “Oh, God, we don’t have that. We don’t have anything.” So Dulles said, “How about 10 million?” And everybody said okay.   David Nalle, Director, Bi-National Center, Tehran, 1960-1963


In 1963 the Shah implemented an aggressive campaign of social and economic Westernisation which was met with intense popular opposition. By the late 1960s the Shah relied on SAVAK to quell dissidence. The Shah’s pro-Western policies alienated certain Islamic religious and political groups. In June 1963 Ayatollah  Khomeini  was arrested for a speech attacking the Shah, several days of massive rioting followed. Khomeini was exiled for 12 years, from then until the revolution of 1973 with Iran ruled as an autocracy under the pro western Shah with American support.

Following the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, Iran did not join the Arab oil embargo against the West and Israel. Instead, it used the situation to raise oil prices, using the money gained for modernisation and to increase defence spending. In 1978 Iranians resorted to rioting, mass demonstrations and strikes to protest the Shah’s authoritarian rule. In response, he enforced martial law. The revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France, forcing the Shah into exile.  


On November 4 1979, Islamic students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking hostage 52 American employees, demanding that the Shah return from receiving medical treatment in the United States to face trial in Iran. American military attempt to rescue the hostages failed, fifty-two hostages were held for 444 days until January 1981. The hostage situation humiliated the US, ignitIng a crisis between the United States and Iran, creating a powerful anti-Iranian backlash in America, relations between the two countries have remained deeply antagonistic. Ayatollah Khomeini served as Supreme Leader of Iran from 1979 to his death on June 3, 1989. During this time Iran’s rapidly modernising, capitalist economy was replaced by populist and Islamic economic and cultural policies. Much industry was nationalised, laws and schools Islamicised, and Western influences banned.


During 2005 and 2006, there were claims that the United States and Israel were planning to attack Iran, to curtail their civilian nuclear energy program which it was feared could lead to a nuclear weapons programme. China and Russia opposed military action of any sort and opposed economic sanctions. Supreme Leader Ali Khomenei issued a fatwa (a formal ruling) forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. The fatwa was cited in an official statement by the Iranian government at an August 2005 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

On 15 June 2013, Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Iran promising to recalibrate Iran’s relations with the world. On April 2 2015,  protracted negotiations over 12 years, culminated in eight days of discussions between Iran and six world powers (United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia plus Germany) who signed an agreement providing a provisional framework to limit Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran’s long-range missile programme was stalled as part of the deal. When Donald Trump was campaigning to become President of the US, he repeatedly said he would abandon the Iran nuclear deal despite assurances by European signatories of Iran’s continued compliance. After he was appointed president, the USA announced its withdrawal from the agreement on the 8th of May 2018. In 2019 Iran gave notice of intention to withdraw from the earlier agreement.

Iran is a major military power having the largest missile forces in the Middle East, comprising mainly short-range and medium-range missiles in addition to an estimated 534,000 active personnel in the army, navy, air force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Global Firepower Index, an online military ranking website, ranks Iran No. 13 in the world out of 136 countries.


See also: LINES IN THE SAND – Who created the Middle East?

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