American Coup: When U.S. versus Iran Really Began


If you really want to understand why the United States’ presidents through Bush and Obama are determined to attack Iran, take a look at the documentary film American Coup. Produced by Matador Films and directed by Joe Ayella, the 53-minute film traces the Central Intelligence Agency’s first coup: the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democracy.

Mosaddegh after nationalizing oil.

That’s right: democracy. In 1951, Iran’s parliament elected Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh-a brilliant lawyer and politician, fierce nationalist and social reformer-as prime minister. You’d think the U.S., which preaches democracy, would love the idea.

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But there was a problem. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the then Shah of Iran, the country’s ruler, had given British businessman William Knox D’arcy permission to search for oil. By 1908, he’d found it, and formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which contracted with Iran to handle oil production and split the profits.

By 1923, APOC’s parent company hired Winston Churchill, later Britain’s prime minister, as a paid consultant. He lobbied the British government, which allowed APOC exclusive rights to Persian oil resources. The Shah went along. And when the Shah got the international community to recognize Persia as “Iran,” APOC went along, changing its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).

Long story short, following World War II, nationalism was rising in Iran, and democracy set in. Mosaddegh, with his electoral mandate, declared that Iran’s old contract with AIOC had been manipulated in favor of the oil company, that Iran was still a poor country because of it. He nationalized all Iranian oil production, basically taking it away from AIOC and ending its free flow to Great Britain. This set the stage for the U.S. entry and eventual clandestine effort.

Director Ayella uses archived footage and interviews with authorities to unfold the ’53 coup. Author Stephen Kinzer (All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror) shares his research and analysis of the coup process. So does Malcolm Byrne (co-editor of the textbook Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran). Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former aide to Gen. Colin Powell, discusses how Churchill-Brit prime minister when Mosaddegh nationalized the oil-urged President Truman to overthrow Iran’s democracy. Truman was irate, Wilkerson notes, and bellowed no. But Eisenhower, who followed Truman in the presidency, feared Iran’s possible communist alignment with Russia, and saw a coup much cheaper than a war. American oil companies also saw threats of other such nationalization efforts possibly rising elsewhere in the Middle East.

Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles

That led to the entrance of the Dulles brothers-John Foster, secretary of state, and Allen, CIA director-who devised the Iranian coup. They brought in Kermit Roosevelt, a son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who went to Iran and, from the basement of the U.S.embassy, masterminded the overthrow. This included bribes to newspapers who painted Mosaddegh a villain, criminals who would form mobs to disrupt the peace, and members of the Iranian military who would eventually arrest Mosaddegh.

The documentary does a masterful job of detailing Roosevelt’s efforts, which set the pattern for future U.S. coups around the globe. It also notes that the coup established Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the new Shah and dictator, and AIOC came back into the mix under a new name: British Petroleum.

But the coup also aroused radical opposition to the U.S.-once seen as the star opponent of colonialism-by the Iranian mullahs, who after 25 years of the Shah’s rule, led the revolt and remain in power, including over Iranian oil (the world’s third largest reserves) and natural gas (the globe’s second largest reserves).

Kinzer ends by bemoaning the coup, saying that it kept true democracy from flourishing in Iran, which might have made the country a stable mainstay in the Middle East today, as opposed to helping create repressive conditions which led to last year’s Arab Spring.

LinkTV, the American satellite channel broadcasting international documentaries, news and entertainment, has been airing American Coup through December. You can find the schedule here.