'Five Days in August' – The Real Story of Iran's 1953 Uprising


Excerpt from “The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution,” by Amir Taheri:

Mohammed Mossadeq

By 1953, it had become clear that Mossadeq had reached a political impasse of his own making. He had rejected every offer extended to him by the British, including a generous one endorsed by Washington, but had not made any counteroffer. At the same time, he had dissolved the parliament, quarreled with the shah over who should command the military, declared martial law, printed vast sums of paper money and thus provoked unprecedented inflation, and broken with most of his supporters within the political elite.

For their part, the Soviets clearly hoped that Mossadeq would prove to be Iran’s Kerensky, a liberal prime minister destroying the monarchy and paving the way for a Communist takeover. The Soviet secret service, the NKVD (the future KGB), had built an impressive network of agents in Iran. Directly or indirectly, it controlled no fewer than twelve newspapers in Tehran alone [Footnote: There included such popular paper as Mardom (People), Shahbaz (Eagle), Razm (The Fight), Zafar (Victory), Challenger (Ironsmith), and Besuy e Ayandeh (Towards the Future)]. As it was revealed a couple of years later, the NKVD had also recruited over six hundred Iranian army, gendarmerie and police officers and NCOs in the name of “proletarian solidarity.”

Moscow’s chief asset in Iran, the Tudeh (Masses) Party, boasted a card-holding membership of over fifty thousand, making it the largest Communist party outside the Soviet camp and China. An unknown number of NKVD sleeper agents, mostly Soviet citizens from the Caucasus and Central Asia who spoke Persian and could easily pass for Iranians, had created an underground network to be activated for an armed insurrection. Having been forced to withdraw his army from Iran just seven years earlier, Stalin dreamed of making a spectacular return. He had even thought of a legal façade for his planned military interventions. Two treaties signed between Tehran and Moscow, in 1921 and 1941, gave the USSR the right to land troops in Iran when and if Soviet security appeared to be threatened by armed conflict in Iranian territory.

Meanwhile, a coalition of anti-Mossadeq personalities, parties, and associations had taken shape with one of Mossadeq’s former cabinet colleagues, Senator Fazlallah Zahedi, as figurehead. A retired major general and a relative of Mossadeq, Zahedi had been interior minister in Mossadeq’s first cabinet in 1951. Two years later, however, Zahedi had emerged as leader of the opposition in the Iranian senate while also enjoying the support of several members of the lower house of parliament. But how to get rid of Mossadeq and allow Zahedi to become prime minister? The constitution required that the shah dismiss Mossadeq and appoint Zahedi in his place, but the shah would not hear of such a scheme. He had dismissed Mossadeq once before and experienced pro-Mossadeq street riots that claimed thirty-one lives in Tehran. No, he did not want any more bloodshed. Also, the shah did not like Zahedi, a member of his father’s military entourage, who regarded the young monarch as a mere boy. Finally, the shah would not risk provoking an armed conflict that could give the Soviets the pretext to invoke the 1921 and 1941 treaties and send the Red Army back into Iranian territory it had evacuated seven years earlier. With the British out of Iran and turned into sworn enemies because of the dispute over oil nationalization, there was no major power to counter such a Soviet move should it come to pass. To all those who urged him to dismiss Mossadeq, including some Iranians with close ties to the British, the shah always had one answer: Who would protect us against the Russians?

The obvious answer was the United States, the same power that had helped Iran push the Russians out a few years earlier. The problem was that the Truman administration, still supportive of Mossadeq, would not give the shah the guarantee he demanded for dismissing the prime minister. By January 195[3], however, President Truman had been replaced by Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and friend of Winston Churchill, who had replaced Clement Attlee as Britain’s prime minister. John Foster Dulles, the new US secretary of state, was much more of a cold warrior than Dean Acheson, the man he had replaced. He was also the architect of what was to become known as the “quarantine the aggressor” strategy, a more dynamic version of the Truman administration’s doctrine of containment against the USSR. Determined that Iran should not fall into the Soviet orbit, Dulles let himself be persuaded by the British to give the shah the guarantee he wanted. The guarantee eventually came in the form of a coded message relayed by Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to the shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, during a secret meeting in Switzerland, and passed on to the shah through his wife, Queen Soraya, in another secret meeting between the two women in Tehran.

Buoyed by the American guarantee of support against a putative Soviet invasion, the shah signed two edicts, one dismissing Mossadeq and the other appointing Zahedi as prime minister. But when a colonel in the Royal Guard arrived at Mossadeq’s residence to deliver the edict, the prime minister claimed that the document was a forgery and thus unacceptable. The colonel was arrested, and Mossadeq ordered a propaganda campaign around the theme of “an attempted military coup by British agents.” Convinced that Mossadeq was determined to defy the constitution with support from the army, the shah decided to leave the country so as to prevent a direct clash.

At the time, Mossadeq held the post of minister of defense as well as prime minister and had appointed officers related to him by blood ties or political ideas to all key posts within the armed forces. One of his relatives, General Muhammad -Taqi Rihai, a brilliant French-educated officer, served as chief of staff. A few months earlier, Mossadeq had given himself “full powers,” dissolved the parliament, declared a state of emergency (known as Point V under Iranian law), and arrested scores of his opponents, creating the impression that he wanted to impose personal rule or maybe even abolish the monarchy with support from the Communists. Later, he put a prize on Zahedi’s head and dissolved the senate, forcing the senator to go into hiding.

As things heated up, the Tudeh threw its full support behind Mossadeq, the man it had vilified as an “American agent” two years earlier. But the bulk of Mossadeq’s original coalition had turned against him [Footnote: The main pro-Mossadeq group, known as the National Front (Jebheh Melli), split into two factions, only one of which remained loyal to him right to the end. Among those who broke with Mossadeq was Hussein Makki, the front’s most charismatic leader, and Abol-Hassan Haerizadeh, an elder statesman who published an open letter to the United Nations secretary general, Trygve Li, accusing Mossadeq of dictatorship. Other pro-Mossadeq parties that broke with him were Niruy-e-Sevvom (Third Force), led by Khalil Maleki; Hezb Zahmatkeshan (Laborers’ Party), led by Mozaffar Baqai: Hezb Pan-Iranist, led by Mohsen Pezeshkpour; and a number of religious groups loyal to Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassdem Kashani, Hezb Mardom Iran (Party of the People of Iran), led by Dariush Foruhar, also distanced itself from Mossadeq because of the prime minister’s refusal to curb Tudeh activities. Foruhar, however, did not join active opposition to Mossadeq]. His foreign minister, Hussein Fatemi, a firebrand and a magnetic orator, seized the opportunity to call for the abolition of the monarchy at a series of public meetings, thus widening the gap between Mossadeq and the traditional, monarchist elements of Iranian society.

Surprisingly, however, Mossadeq appeared to be paralyzed, often spending most of the day in bed in his pajamas and refusing to see his ministers. When the interior minister, Hussein Sadiqi, arrived to ask what was to be done now that the shah had left the country and there was no parliament either, Mossadeq dismissed him with “a few incoherent banalities.” The old man had simply run out of ideas. He was one of those politicians who have one big idea–his had been the nationalization of oil–beyond which they cannot think. The Tudeh urged him to declare a transitional government with himself as president. But he couldn’t; he had been appointed prime minister by the shah and still pretended that the royal decree dismissing him had been a forgery. It would not have been difficult for him to contact the shah and find out whether the decree was genuine. But he didn’t. He wanted the shah in the system and did not want the shah; he didn’t know what he wanted. Or, rather, there was one thing he wanted above everything else: to preserve his “good name.” Like all populists, he was prepared to sacrifice almost anything to ensure that crowds continued to hail him. In those hot August days, however, Mossadeq’s ambivalence and inertia persuaded the crowds that he was no longer capable of offering leadership in any direction . The crowds now in the streets were no longer Mossadeqist; they were pro-Tudeh mobs, brought to destroy the statues of the shah and his father, ransack the offices of anti-Communist newspapers, and call for a “people’s republic.”

In the meantime, plans by a network of CIA agents, working hand- in-glove with British intelligence “assets” in Tehran, to organize demonstrations against Mossadeq had collapsed. The reason was that the demonstrations were supposed to be triggered by the news of Mossadeq’s dismissal by the shah and Zahedi’s appointment. But when Mossadeq refused the royal decree on the grounds that it might be forged, the transfer of power to Zahedi could not take place. The CIA had established an antenna in Tehran in 1950 to watch the growing activities of its Soviet counterpart, the NKVD. The Americans had managed to bribe a few members of parliament, and made arrangements with two or three minor newspapers to publish stories planted by the agency. There is no doubt that by the time the shah had signed the decree dismissing Mossadeq, the CIA, using whatever assets the British had left behind, was engaged in a number of dirty tricks designed to incite public opinion against the prime minister by creating the impression that the Communists were about to seize power in Tehran.

In the end, the CIA played only a minor role in the dramatic events that led to the August 1953 uprising in favor of the shah. Mossadeq realized that the game was up for him, and as crowds of angry Tehranis moved towards his home, later to loot and ransack it, he climbed his wall with a ladder, still in his trademark pajamas, to seek refuge in the headquarters of the American Point Four next door. Zahedi, who had been in hiding and played no role in the actual uprising, emerged to seize control and invite the shah to return from his brief exile first in Baghdad and then in Rome.

The so-called coup d’état that supposedly brought back the shah happened only in the imagination of anti-American ideologists. The Iranian army did not intervene in the events until after pro-shah demonstrators had seized most key government buildings, and then only to restore public order after the new government had been announced. Many hours of newsreel footage of the events are available in archives, including the National Film Archive in Washington, DC, clearly depicting a popular pro-shah uprising. There are also hundreds of eyewitness accounts by Iranians who observed or took part in the events.


The story, of course, does not end there. It had to be turned into the fairy tale repeated by enemy apologists from former Communist Party, USA head Gus Hall to Ron Paul to the last two Democrat Administrations alike. The main source for their claims are the memoirs of CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, who claimed to have organized the whole event by himself on a limited budget out of the US embassy. Quite an extraordinary feat, considering the fact that – far from being in the embassy – he fled and was hiding in a safe house for the entirety of the event after the messenger delivering the shah’s dismissal to Mossadeq had been arrested by Mossadeq’s men (Mr. Taheri interviewed the man who’s home Roosevelt was hiding in, which is documented in an earlier book). It also conflicts with a surviving internal CIA history of the event from 1954 written by Donald Wilber, the agency’s operational director in Tehran at the time – the one leaked to the New York Times in 2000, which they apparently didn’t read since it doesn’t say what the Times claims it says (the radical-left group that obtained and posted the full document is also misleading about it’s contents, but they do that with most of their information, so you would be doing yourself a favor by ignoring their commentary and going directly to the document if you choose to pursue it).

As Mr. Taheri notes: “Wilber’s report is written in a sober, almost self-deprecating style. He shows that the CIA and the British MI6 did have a plan to foment trouble against Mossadeq after the shah had signed the dismissal decree, but the plan failed as the CIA’s agents and ‘assets’ behaved more like Keystone Kops than professional conspirators engaged in a major big-power clash in the context of the Cold War. Wilber reports that the CIA station sent the message to Washington that ‘The operation has been tried and failed.’ The British followed with their own message of failure: ‘We regret that we cannot consider going on fighting. Operations against Mossadeq should be discontinued.’ Wilber blames the CIA’s Iranian ‘assets’ for the failure. The CIA had prepared ‘a Western type plan offered for execution by orientals [sic]. Given the recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner, we would never expect such a plan to be executed in the local atmosphere like a Western staff operation.'”

There is more to it – like how silly the claim that Mossadeq was “democratically-elected” is (in short, as very eloquently described in a posted comment by “Farah Rusta” on the great forum iranian.com: “In April 1951 the Shah appointed Mossadegh as prime minister through the same constitutional process that all the prime minsters before and since had gone through: a vote of inclination by Majles followed by the royal appointment. Therefore, Mossadegh was appointed as prime minister and not elected. If his appointment was supposed to have been democratic so were the appointments of ALL his predecessors and quite a few of his successors.“) – but if you want to see more, then check out The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, by Amir Taheri.


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