“But the MI6 man will not be seen; he declined to be filmed to protect his anonymity.”Nigel Hawkes 26 May 1985
Observer 26 May 1985
How MI6 and CIA joined forces to plot Iran coup
NIGEL HAWKES reveals the true story of the 1953 ‘Operation Boot’
For the first time the full story has emerged of how Britain and the US collaborated to overthrow the government of Muhammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953
Evidence provided by a former MI6 man has clarified many of the murkier corners of the coup which ousted Mossadegh, an ardent nationalist who had infuriated the British by seizing the oil interests of the Anglo-0Itanian Oil Company (now BP).
He makes clear, for example, that it was agents acting for the British who kidnapped Mossadegh’s police chief and then shot him dead –though this was not part of the plan.
The successful coup, he says, cost Britain £700,000 – ‘I know because I spent it’ – a substantial sum of money at the time. But even more money had been spent in earlier, unsuccessful attempts to remove Mossadegh.
The money was mostly channelled through a prominent family of Iranian businessmen, strongly pro-British and described in earlier accounts of the affair simply as ‘The Brothers.’ In fact, their names were Seyfollah, Qodratollah and Affadollah Rashidian, and they acted throughout as British agents inside Iran, dispensing bribes to officials and politicians and paying for strong-arm men and hired mobs. All three are now dead.
The new evidence about the coup – perhaps the last time Britain contrived to remove an unfriendly government in a nominally independent country – has come from a series of interviews carried out by Granada Television for its ‘End of Empire’ series. The programme about the coup in Iran will be broadcast on Channel 4 tomorrow evening.
But the MI6 man will not be seen; he declined to be filmed to protect his anonymity. His evidence provides background for building up the picture of how the Foreign Office and MI6 managed to draw the Americans into the plot to overthrow Moddasegh, and how the coup was carried out.
Mossadegh had been appointed Prime Minister of Iran in April 1951 by the Shah, then (and later) a weak and indecisive man. Mossadegh, then 70, was a democrat and a nationalist who could move even opponents to tears with his oratory. But to the British, who treated Iran much like a colonial possession, he cut a peculiar figure. He often conducted meetings from his bed, and when he did get up frequently wore pyjamas and a dressing gown, even in public.
Mossadegh moved quickly to nationalise Iran’s oil assets, greatly alarming the British. The action was immensely popular in Iran, but back in Britain, Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison denounced it as illegal. The Royal Navy cruiser Mauritius was dispatched to Abadan.
Under American pressure, Britain drew back from military intervention, resorting instead to subversion. In charge in Tehran was Robin Zaehner, an academic figure who later became Professor of Eastern Religions at Oxford. According to the MI6 man, Zaehner ‘used to carry biscuit tins with damn great notes.’
‘The money was going via the Rashidian brothers to people to keep them sweet and see what they could do….he spent a lot but did not succeed in 1951.’
In July 1952, Britain’s Chargé d’Affaires in Tehran, George (later Sir George) Middleton sent a telegram to London which concluded that ‘Mossadegh’s megalomania is now verging on mental instability….. he was never very amenable to reason but lately he has had to be humoured like a fractious child.’
‘It now looks as if the only thing to stop Persia falling into Communist hands is a coup d’état. I do not think that such a step would be faintly practicable for at least two to three weeks….there is no outstanding candidate, though General Zahidi has apparently entered himself into the lists and might well be adequate.’
Within a few weeks Mossadegh, apparently aware of what Britain was planning, had broken off diplomatic relations and expelled all British diplomats. Contact with the Rashidian brothers was maintained by radio from Cyprus, and the supply of money continued.
Early in 1953 the new Foreign secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, began to get cold feet and cancelled ‘Operation Boot’ – as the proposed coup was called. It was saved only because the Americans, under the new Eisenhower Administration, were persuaded that if Mossadegh stayed in power there was a danger of a Communist takeover in Iran,
In April, royalist army officers operating for the Rashidians kidnapped Mossadegh’c police chief, General Mahmud Afshartus. According to the MI6 source, who admits for the first time that the kidnapping was part of Operation Boot, the purpose was to boost the morale of the opposition and show Mossadegh’s supporters they could not have it all their own way.
‘He was kidnapped and held in a cave. Feelings ran very high and Afshartus was unwise enough to make derogatory remarks about the Shah. He was under guard by a young army officer and the young officer pulled out a gun and shot him. That was never part of our programme at all but that’s how it happened. ‘
It remained to persuade the Shah top dismiss the popular Mossadegh. The MI6 men went to Paris with Colonel Stephen Meade of the CIA to visit the Shah’s twin sister, Princess Ashraf, living there in exile. She was persuaded to go to Tehran and convince the Shah that the plans which had been put to him by Affadollah Rashidian had the support of both London and Washington.
‘When I produce a great wad of notes her eyes alighted….. We said: ”Here is your first-class ticket and you are booked forte day after tomorrow.” She went.’
By August the Shah had been persuaded to sign the decree dismissing Mossadegh. It was delivered to Mossadegh, but when his supporters heard of it they took to the streets. The Shah fled and it looked as if the coup had failed.
But then the networks built up by MI6 and the CIA swung into action. The Rashidians and the CIA’s agents infiltrated their men into the crowds, inciting them, pretending to be Communists and attacking mosques and pulling down statues of the Shah. ‘Then it snowballed, which is what we intended to do,’ said the MI6 man.
In the chaos, royalist officers were persuaded by the CIA to try again. They attacked Mossadegh’s house, and after a battle lasting several hours and costing more than 100 lives, Mossadegh surrendered.
General Zahidi, once imprisoned by the British for pro-German sympathies but now Britain’s preferred candidate fro Prime Minister, emerged to take charge. The Shah returned in triumph. Operation Boot (or Ajax, as the Americans called it) had succeeded.
It did little good, either to Iran or British interests. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company got some of its concessions back, but had to concede part of them to American companies. In Iran, the Shah began to gain in strength, his autocratic rule leading eventually to the 1979 revolution and the rule of the ayatollahs.
And Britain, having seen off Mossadegh, was encouraged to believe it could do the same with a much more formidable opponent in the form of President Nasser – an illusion which led to the disaster of the Suez invasion, and the end of imperial pretensions in the Middle East.
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