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Iran: Remembering the 1953 Coup

GB Geo-Blog

Iran: Remembering the 1953 Coup


August 19th marked the 56th anniversary of the Anglo-American-orchestrated coup d’état of 1953 that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, which derailed Iran’s early experimentation with democracy. The towering figure of Prime Minister Mossadegh represented hope for Iranians – hope for independence, prosperity and a more just system of government. The 1953 coup brutally torpedoed these national aspirations.

Why is this event of a distant past so important to today’s state of affairs in Iran? Nationalization of Iran’s oil by the Mossadegh government in 1951 precipitated a chain of events that are central to the understanding of Iran-US relations today, as well of Tehran’s general angst in respect of the West. The overthrow of Mossadegh and his party – the National Front of Iran – worked to undermine Iran’s democratic development internally, while indelibly souring Iran’s relations with the outside world. The subsequent perversion of the coup’s memories by ‘colonized (mistrustful) minds’ within the ruling elite in Tehran has only served to revictimize the Iranian people by silencing any indigenous voices of dissent.

The 1953 Mossadegh coup is a textbook reference point for policy-makers wishing to learn what not to do when devising foreign policy towards other nations; this at a time when the international community is at work attempting to devise an effective – and, one hopes, sensible – policy toward Iran. The short-term strategic policy ‘gains’ of the coup long ago gave way to one of most powerful and ironic blowbacks in American foreign policy, the most obvious expression of which is Iran’s current obdurate positioning on the nuclear question. Furthermore, the coup significantly handicapped the political and democratic development of the country – a fact recognized by Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, and most recently by President Barrack Obama. And while it is no doubt true that it is Iranians themselves who are ultimately responsible and accountable for how they shape their country’s destiny, there is no question that irresponsible foreign tampering in Iranian internal affairs has generated direct and indirect injurious consequences that continue to haunt the Iranian psyche to this very day.

The tragic coup of 1953 needs to be revisited, and its consequences fully appreciated. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage [and sagacity], need not be lived again.” (Maya Angelou)


Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is a legal advisor with the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Global Brief. The views expressed in this article have been provided in the author’s personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC. A detailed history and discussion of the 1953 coup, buttressed by historical correspondence and seldom-seen archived photos made public for the first time were recently published by the author at the MIT International Review.

Banner photo courtesy of the International Court of Justice. All rights reserved.

Prime Minister Mossadegh, seated with other members of the Iranian legal team before the International Court of Justice during the proceedings of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (United Kingdom v. Iran). Iran successfully defended the Majles’ (national parliament’s) decision to nationalize the country’s oil industry, resulting in a favourable Court decision on July 22, 1952. The foreign-sponsored coup occurred on August 19, 1953 – a year after this judicial ruling.