The British state and Operation Ajax: why Britain continues to hide its role in the 1953 Iranian coup


In the summer of 1953, crowds including Iranian soldiers gathered in the streets of Tehran protesting the rule of Mohammad Mossadegh, the serving prime minister. The protests, sparked by his alleged republicanism and his links with the left-wing Tudeh Party, gained strength throughout the summer, and eventually lead to Mossadegh's overthrow, a move welcomed by both Downing Street and the White House. Replacing him, on 19 August 1953, was Fazlollah Zahedi, an Iranian general and statesman and his premiership was seen as a triumph against despotism, halting Iran’s slide towards communism. Two years earlier, Mossadegh had nationalised the Iranian oil industry, previously a British monopoly. His removal was celebrated as a return to business as usual for international capital in the Persian Gulf. But Zahedi’s time in office would be also be short-lived, and it quickly became clear that the prime ministership was effectively a ceremonial role. The real source of power was the Shah, an autocrat feared more than loved until his own removal in 1979.

That, at least, was the story that was fed to the world. It did not take long for it to begin to unravel. Less than a month later, on 16 September, Indian journalist GK Reddy used a Times of India article to refer to allegations of foreign meddling in Iranian affairs and to suggest that the revolt against the prime minister was, in fact, a foreign orchestrated coup. Rumours continued to circulate in Iran and elsewhere about foreign meddling in the events of 1953, although any mention of a coup was long suppressed. Several decades later, a 1979 LA Times article was most forthright, claiming that Eisenhower’s White House was central to the planning and execution of the removal of Mossadegh.

It wasn’t until 2000, when The New York Times published a special report based on a leaked CIA internal history, that the extent of American culpability was finally revealed. In response, the then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could do little to deny the charges, admitting the coup was “clearly a setback for Iran’s political development.” President Obama agreed, and in 2013 the CIA admitted culpability, explicitly referencing ‘TPAJAX’ (Operation Ajax) – the code for the American operation in Iran, in an internal history released by the agency. In 2017, the publication over 1,000 files concerning American activity in Iran were released through the Foreign Relations of the United States’ series, confirming beyond all doubt long-running suspicions as to foreign involvement. From the documents now available, it is clear that the CIA and their Iranian assets collaborated closely with the Shah, Zahedi, and Iran’s most reactionary forces to force Mossadegh from office.

Among the debates the American government’s turn towards transparency has not settled, though, is Britain’s involvement in the affair. The Foreign Office acknowledges that files concerning operations against Mossadegh exist, concluding “that they should remain withheld as they fall under FOIA Section 23(1) ... information supplied by or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters.” Appeals against this decision have been unsuccessful, and the British Government has gone to impressive lengths of obscure its role in the affair. In the late 1970s, as State Department historians began to prepare documents for public release, Foreign Office mandarins rushed to limit the publication of information that may continue sensitive or “very embarrassing things about the British.” In a 1979 message, simply titled “IRAN: RELEASE OF CONFIDENTIAL RECORDS,” diplomats in Whitehall urged colleagues at the Washington Embassy to impress upon the American government the importance of suppressing the release of any files that may be damaging to British prestige and interests.

The predominant foreign power in Iran before Mossadegh came to office in 1951, Britain – through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) – had long monopolised Iran’s vast oil wealth. The fruits of this arrangement were unequally shared, with the company’s vast refinery at Abadan, the empire’s single largest asset, standing as a testament to Britain’s power and influence in the country. In response, the company found itself increasingly the target of a popular insurgency, with Mossadegh at its head. Several years earlier, in 1946, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin reflected on the rising tide of Iranian nationalism, asking. “what argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country?” The answer of his successors – whether from the right or left – was simply to dispense with diplomatic niceties in favour of blunt, imperial force. When Mossadegh nationalised AIOC on 1 May 1951, its loss was felt as a humiliating defeat for the Labour government, one that then Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison hoped to respond to by force. Defence Secretary Manny Shinwell agreed, suggesting that fleeing from Abadan would inevitably lead to the loss of Suez, even if the State Department dismissed the idea of landing British troops as “sheer madness”.

Steadfastly opposed to military action, Prime Minister Clement Attlee instead endorsed a programme of subversion. The extent and intricacies of this operation is still to be fully understood, however, it is clear that the British government whether under Labour or the Conservatives, cultivated sometimes contradictory alliances in an effort to destabilise Mossadegh and his coalition of support. While ambitious trade unionists were sponsored to distribute anti-government newssheets, fascist thugs were given financial aid through British agents and contacts who themselves ranged from a Zoroastrian Oxford don to mercenaries recruited in gyms of Tehran. Anti-government tribal groups, meanwhile, were furnished with arms at the same time as the Shah was built up as an alternative source of authority to the democratically elected prime minister.

In Iran the unspoken convergence of state and corporate interests in the defence of British property can be seen clearly. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had long maintained a private security force staffed by ex-intelligence officers and was kept up to date with machinations against Mossadegh. These forces were complemented by the training of Iranian security forces by MI5’s Overseas Service. The company also served to broker relations between Iranian trade unionists and their British counterparts, a curious relationship for an organisation which had itself undertaken union busting activities against the Transport & General Workers Union. More active still was the BBC, which served as a font for British propaganda and communication through its Persian Services. These activities were not ad hoc, but deeply integrated and tied to British intelligence networks operated by MI6 and their Iranian assets.

Ultimately, the story about British involvement in the 1953 coup cannot be told through government archives, and evidence from the Tehran Embassy’s closure in 1952 to late 1953 concerning British activities in Iran is scant. The wall of silence thrown up by failed FOI requests is such that even former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has complained about the inaccessibility of information. Yet, through leaked documents, memoirs, and foreign documentation the depth of British culpability starts to become clear, even if Whitehall remains adamant that it will neither confirm nor deny British involvement in actions to topple Mossadegh. Popularly framed as an American effort, Operation Ajax, or Boot as it was known in London, fulfilled of a long-standing British ambition. Even today, for many Iranians Britain remains the “little Satan,” an imperialist power that siphoned off so much of its wealth and interfered in its governance at the basest level.

The course of recent events, whether with the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s or the wave of anti-government protests in Iran, should perhaps give us pause to evaluate Britain’s legacy in Iran and why it is so distrusted – not only by intractable Ayatollahs but by many ordinary Iranians as well. By proactively releasing the files – even in a redacted form to protect those assets who are still alive – the British Government could make clear its role in Mossadegh’s defenestration and provide a new basis for discussions as to why this was carried out. This is not a question of post-imperial guilt or a chance for self-flagellation, but an opportunity to examine an imperial issue of particularly lasting consequence more critically.

Jack Taylor is a social and economic researcher based in Scotland. His first book Oil, Nationalism and the Collapse of British Power in Iran, 1941-1953 is due to be published by Bloomsbury in 2023