At the start of the 1950s, a British company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), controlled much of Iran’s prodigious oil fields. Believing that the trade deal benefited the company at the expense of the Iranian economy, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the head of the National Front party and newly-elected prime minister, demanded a renegotiation of the standing agreement and became the driving force behind an attempt to nationalise Iranian oil reserves. Britain accused him of violating the company’s legal rights and orchestrated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil, plunging the country into financial crisis.
Britain’s MI6 teamed up with the CIA and, under the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, engineered a coup that eventually toppled Mossadegh’s democratically elected government in August 1953. They bribed influential figures, disseminated false information in newspapers and provoked uprisings, ultimately persuading the young, insecure Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh as prime minister. By the end of Operation Ajax, some 300 people had died during the fighting in the streets of Tehran. Mossadegh had got wind of the conspiracy and a first attempt at a coup failed. The Shah, fearful that his life was in danger for his participation in the attempted overthrow, fled into exile. The second attempt was successful. Mass protests were organised and pro-Shah forces destroyed Mossadegh’s house after a prolonged assault. This enabled the Shah to return victoriously to Iran to commence a 25-year dictatorship supported by the United States. Mossaddegh was sentenced to death, but the Shah never dared to carry out the sentence and the former prime minister died in his residence near Tehran in 1967.
Operation Ajax was considered a resounding success until 1979, when the Iranians finally revolted and replaced the monarchy with an anti-West Islamic Republic. This revolution was led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who overthrew the Shah and took hostage US Embassy workers, many of whom had originally been involved in Operation Ajax (this became known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis). Until the declassified documents described the operation in detail in 2013, the American people had been misled about the reasons behind the anti-West sentiment that blew up in Iran at that time.