The US and British governments denied their roles in the 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, for decades. Although western complicity in the toppling of Iran’s government was common knowledge, it was only in 2013 that America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) finally admitted its involvement in the coup. It was the first time that the agency had overthrown a foreign government successfully, but not the last.
According to a declassified document, “The military coup… was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy.” Two main issues are said to have been behind the covert operation: oil and communism.The populist leader Mosaddegh’s decision to nationalise the country’s oil industry in 1951 deprived the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company of revenue; it had been taking the lion’s share of Iran’s oil income. The company is known today as BP. Washington was worried about the continued flow of oil and the Mosaddegh government’s ability to function independently. In those early days of the Cold War, there was also the fear of a communist takeover by the Tudeh Party, which did not always see eye to eye with the nationalist prime minister’s policies.
Mosaddegh was a very popular prime minister. A year before the coup he resigned over disagreements with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi about who should appoint the minister of war. His replacement, Ahmad Qavam, lacked the same broad popular support and mass demonstrations called for Mosaddegh’s reinstatement. The shah buckled under pressure and agreed.
Nevertheless, despite such popular support, by going against foreign interests Mosaddegh simply had to go. After an initial plot to remove the prime minister failed, the shah fled the country. However, the US-funded conspiracy eventually succeeded; Mosaddegh was ousted and replaced by a handpicked general, Fazlollah Zahedi, who reinstalled an increasingly autocratic shah.
Tried on treason charges and sentenced to three years imprisonment, the 72-year-old Mosaddegh remained under house arrest until his death in 1967. During his trial, he said that, “My greatest sin is that I nationalised Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire.”
The shah would rule as an absolute monarch until he himself was overthrown by a populist revolution in 1979, which under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s guidance became the Islamic Revolution. The 1953 coup remains ingrained in the country’s collective memory as it was instrumental in setting Iran on a course towards being a pro-Western dictatorship and then an anti-American theocracy.
In the words of Stephen Kinzer, the author of All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror, “The 1979 revolution was a long-term effect of the increasing repression from the shah, who came to power as a result of the coup. That Islamic Revolution brought to power a fanatically anti-American regime that has spent more than 30 years working to undermine American interests all over the world.”
Today, in the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Pakistan there is a risk of Iran’s experience being replicated to some extent following the “soft coup” on Saturday which ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan after a tumultuous few weeks. He lost a parliamentary vote of no confidence, having been found to have acted against the constitution in seeking to avoid the motion.
Khan’s claims of a US-backed conspiracy to remove him from power, as happened to Mosaddegh, was denied by both Washington and the pro-West Pakistani military. Crucially, Khan fell out with the latter amid reports that he was seeking to replace senior officers. His relationship with the US was damaged by his realignment of Pakistan to get closer to Russia and China.
Hard evidence to support Khan’s allegations is difficult to find, other than a diplomatic cable sent in March following his historic visit to Moscow. Yet, given the CIA’s regime change track record, can there be smoke without fire?
Last year, in an interview with Axios, Khan was adamant that Pakistan will “absolutely not” allow the CIA to use bases within the country for cross-border operations in Afghanistan. This was a bold departure from the previous two decades of support for the US “war on terror”.As recently as last month, Western diplomats published an open letter calling on Pakistan to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Khan criticised the move while asserting Pakistan’s sovereignty. During a public meeting he asked rhetorically, “Are we your [the West’s] slaves? That whatever you say, we will do?”
His language was particularly interesting. During his trial, Mosaddegh said presciently, “I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.”
While Khan’s overthrow was not a military coup, as Mosaddegh’s was in 1953 Iran, there have been three successful such takeovers since Pakistan’s independence in 1947; ultimately, the military is in charge of running the country. Mosaddegh’s successor in Tehran, General Zahedi, was chosen by the US and the British, and if revelations made by the late Pakistani General Hamid Gul are anything to go by, the US has a say in the appointment of the army chief of staff in Pakistan.
Since Khan’s removal from power, there have been huge rallies across the country by those who support him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI). It is arguable that only a charismatic, cricket-legend-turned-politician could prompt such crowds, despite a survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan which found that 57 per cent of respondents approved of Khan’s ousting.
— Siasat.pk (@siasatpk) April 13, 2022
A gathering in Peshawar on Wednesday was also a show of power and popularity by Khan, who has planned a “bigger surprise” later this month in Lahore. It is evident that he is looking to bring about an early election, which was already on the agenda after Khan’s political ally, Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri, dissolved parliament.
Providing that he is permitted to do so, Imran Khan will come back stronger than before, judging by the support he is receiving. His immediate opponent is the so-called “imported government” of his successor Shehbaz Sharif who, like his brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz, has faced numerous charges of corruption and money laundering. Sharif’s appointment represents a return to Pakistan’s domestic politics being dominated by two dynasties with a history of looting the country. This new government, it is said, “Will start its term with great unpopularity and under a serious crisis of legitimacy.” The same claim was made about Mosaddegh’s successor Ahmad Qavam.
Khan’s leadership was not without its faults. As difficult as it would be, more should have been done to rein in the disproportionate power enjoyed by the military and prevent the potential for another military coup.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Pakistan’s economy and inflation, the highest in South Asia. Mismanagement of the economy was what led to the no-confidence vote.
In the event of social and political unrest in the days ahead, the economy will take a hit. Faced with a British-imposed embargo, Mosaddegh also faced an economic crisis, yet he maintained that, “The moral aspect of oil nationalisation is more important than its economic aspect.” Should Khan or the PTI return to power, a principled stance informed by national sovereignty and self-interest may also trump any prospect of short-term economic gains.
Khan has repeatedly vowed to “fight till the last ball” and — to take the cricket analogy further — has not yet been bowled out. As part of its inquiry into the matter, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has reportedly received the “threat letter” sent by the US, in which it is said that Pakistan would face strict sanctions if the no-confidence motion failed.
As with the 1953 coup in Iran, we may only find out whether Khan’s ousting was indeed Pakistan’s “Mosaddegh moment”. If it was, we can expect a more overtly anti-American foreign policy by successive governments in Pakistan and greater distrust of the West. It is also worth remembering that the coup preceded, if not inspired, a revolution. Any short-term gains from Khan’s removal may have serious medium- to long-term consequences.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.