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The 1953 ‘Coup d’etat’ in Iran and Mosaddeq’s Alternative Plan

Ali Mirfetros

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1953 “Coup d’etat” in Iran


Mosaddeq’s Alternative Plan


      This article is a condensed and revised version of the writer’s “Mohammad Mosaddeq: Pathology of a Failure” in Persian (4th Ed, 2014). It highlights, in some detail, the salient events and developments that led to the collapse of the government of the Iranian Prime Minister on 19th August, 1953.

     I would like to take the opportunity to express my gratitudes to Dr. Hormoz Hekmat for his unrelenting assistance and role in the translation and editing of this article.

   I am also grateful to my dear friends , Dr. Behrouz Behboodi , Dr. Mehdi Kordestani and Sh. Jalil for their support and invaluable suggestions.


The available literature on this historic event has generally accentuated the role of “foreign conspirators,” while overlooking the salient internal events and developments that contributed to Mosaddeq’s downfall. The most important oversight pertains to his alternative plan of action that prepared the ground for the precipitous collapse of his government. In fact, there is ample evidence to support the claim that three parallel plans of action were pursued concurrently in the period leading to Mosaddeq’ fall from power:

  1. a) Anglo-American plan (TPAJAX) for staging a coup d’etat;
  2. b) Shah’s dismissal of the Prime Minister and;
  3. c) Mosaddeq’s plan to derail the pro-communist movement in Iran.



Supporters of Tudeh party on Aug. 16, 1953

On 19 August 1953, Mosaddeq faced a life and death dilemma. He had to follow one of the two options: (1) Continue to challenge Shah’s authority which could have had serious consequences for Iran’s national interest, or (2) Emulate his own model of “a true statesman in momentous times who selflessly dares to make difficult and timely decisions.”[1] The latter choice meant trying to restrain and pacify his agitated supporters. On this day, he did not consult with even his closest of colleagues and did not reveal his thoughts to anyone, “as if he was determined to carry the burden of responsibility only by himself.”[2]

          According to one of his aides, Ahmad Zirakzadeh, who had been in Mosaddeq’s residence since early morning of August 19th:

Mosaddeq had his own plan and was unwilling to change it. Clearly, he did not wish to see crowds demonstrating in the streets. But when the news of widespread disturbances trickled in, every one of his colleagues who had gathered in his residence besieged him to let them call on his followers for help. He refused to accept their advice. In fact, he did not even permit us to have the radio broadcast the news. I still remember his Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi’s angry face and his parting shout: “This old man will eventually lead us to a deadly trap. [3]

It seems that Mosaddeq was well aware of an impending “coup d’etat” and knew the identity of its organizers. He refused, however, to call on his supporters to try to forestall the downfall of his government through massive street demonstrations. He also ignored the offer of the leaders of the Tudeh party to challenge any attempt to ouster him. His refusal to accept, or call for, help was a clear indication that he had thought of other plans to deal with the impending events. According to Zirakzadeh[4] and Gholam Hossein Sadiqi, his Minister of Interior,[5] “Mosaddeq had his own plans and was unwilling to change them.” Mosaddeq’s decision, on 19th August 1953, to appoint his nephew, Brigadier General Mohammad Daftary as the Commander of the Border Guard, Chief of the National Police and Tehran’s Military Governor, was meant to help implement his alternative plan concurrently with the other two.

Babak Amir Khosravi, a prominent member of Tudeh Party’s central committee, has described the Party’s explicit and widespread calls for the establishment of a republican form of government. These calls heightened public fear and concern for the country’s future:

The Tudeh party and its provocative activities drew the attention of urgent objective. On 18th August, Mosaddeq and members of his Security Commission had made a number of decisions pertaining to Mosaddeq and the concern of the government’s military and security organs. Suppression of such activities became government’s most urgent task. Consequently, Tehran’s Chief of Police and Military Governor banned all street demonstrations. Mosaddeq followed by ordering all security and military personnel to prevent any demonstration by Tudeh Party followers that call for the establishment of a republican system of government in Iran. [6]

It seems that on the 19th of August, Mosaddeq had become doubtful and apprehensive about the dangers posed by Tudeh Party. There was some doubt. 25 days earlier Mattison, (US attaché in Tehran) had pointed to it in reference to “Mosaddeq’s choice of his future path.”[7] The most organized pro Mosaddeq party, Third Force Party (Khalil Maleki), had emerged in the context of “cooperation between Mosaddeq’s government and Tudeh Party.” [8]

            Karim Sanjabi, a member of Mosaddeq’ inner circle, believed that the Prime Minister still enjoyed the support of the armed forces and was surprised that the government had called on the public to refrain from participating in street demonstrations. According to Sanjabi: “On the fateful day, 19th August of 1953, there were no signs of Mosaddeq’s supporters demonstrating in Tehran’s streets.”[9]   Mohammad Ali Amou’i, a member of the Tudeh Party military organization, has also expressed his surprise at the inaction of Mosaddeq’s government, despite its considerable base of popular support.[10]

          Mosaddeq’s decision not to challenge his dismissal forcefully was due to the prevailing political circumstances, on the one hand, and to his malleable personae, on the other. Despite his sensitivity and unruly temperament, Mosaddeq was basically more of a reformist than a revolutionary. In his political life, he had often displayed a tendency to withdraw from political confrontations. For example, in the summer of 1953, following a dispute with the Shah over the appointment of the Minister of War, he submitted his resignation as Prime Minister without publicizing it and without letting his closest colleagues and aides know the reasons for it.[11] According to Homa Katouzian:

This is another example of two dialectical forces-at once opposite and united- in his nature: to fight fearlessly and with boundless energy when he thought there was still hope; and to go through an equally forceful reversal of mood, bearing future retreat, when he felt all that was lost.[12]

Mosaddeq’s retreat from his original positions[13] and his claim that “the public will not support a government which has remained in power too long,”[14] were the tell tale signs of his awareness of the political impasse that afflicted his government. The following events and developments were the basic components of his alternative plan:

  1. Tudeh Party’s increasingly forceful presence on the political scene and the overt anti-monarchist activities of its members and followers, had become a source of serious concern for the public. According to Khalil Maleki, the leader of a nationalist and pro-Mosaddeq movement:

Iranian intellectuals and university students, along with the middle class, had started to worry about the long term prospects of Iran. They were wondering if their country was on the road to becoming a communist country.[15]

  1. On 20th of July 1953, General Fazlollah Zahedi — who had sought asylum in Majlis following the publication of an official warrant for his arrest—was mysteriously whisked out of Majlis and taken to a safe house, apparently by Mosaddeq’s order. In hiding, Zahedi began his covert contacts with his supporters. For months, he had become the presumptive candidate of Mosaddeq’s opponents for the office of prime minister.
  1. Mosaddeq, Hossein Fatemi, his Foreign Minister, and the leaders of the Tudeh Party characterized the events of 16th August as a coup d’etat. However, Mosaddeq himself had desperately tried–according to his son, Gholam Hossein– to contact the Shah in order to plead with him to return to Iran. “Now that he has dismissed me, where has he gone, what shall I do, and to whom shall I trust the fate of the country?”[16]
  1. At the time, some of Mosaddeq’s radical aides, along with the leaders of the Tudeh Party, advocated the change of regime by convening a Constitutional Assembly. Mosaddeq, however, cognizant of the destabilizing consequences of such a move, was looking for the formation of a Royal Counsel in order, according to Ali Shaygan, to deny anti- Shah elements any chance to realize their dangerous schemes. [17]
  2. On the morning of 18 August, Tehran Military Governor banned, on Mosaddeq’s order, all anti-monarchical demonstrations.[18] The ban clearly targeted Tudeh Party’s anti-Shah demonstrations which had become unusually vociferous following the news of Shah’s departure from Iran. On the afternoon of 18th August, Mosaddeq had come to believe that: “We must request His Majesty the King to return to Iran as soon as possible.”[19]
  1. The number of arrests and violent dispersions of demonstrators peaked in the afternoon of 18th August and coincided with Mosaddeq- Henderson meeting. There is little doubt that the government’s firm stand against the demonstrators were intended to assure the American ambassador that the government is in control of events and the Tudeh Party will not be allowed to pose any danger. But, in this meeting, Henderson–while expressing his concern about Tudeh Party’s show of force and alluding to Mosaddeq’s dismissal by the Shah – warned Mosaddeq that: “the United States is unable to continue to recognize the legitimacy of his government.”[20] Following his meeting with Henderson, Mosaddeq confirmed his order for the dispersion and arrest of Tudeh Party’s leaders.[21] As a result, nearly 600 leaders and cadres of the Tudeh Party were arrested thus severely impairing the Party’s open and underground networks.[22]
  1. On 18 of August, Mosaddeq rejected Ayatollah Kashani’s letter offering his help in challenging the “coup d’etat.” In his short and clearly humiliating response to the Ayatollah, Mosaddeq wrote: “Your letter has been received. I am counting on the nation’s support and trust.”[23]
  1. On the 19th of August, however, Mosaddeq pleaded with his supporters to stay in their homes and refrain from participating in any political agitation or demonstration. Being fully aware of the readiness and forceful presence of the Tudeh Party on the political scene, [24] Mosaddeq had correctly assumed that continuing his refusal to acknowledge his dismissal by the Shah would not be either in his interest or the nation’s. He also ignored Dr. Fatemi’s advice to order the chief of staff to arm the members of the Tudeh Party.[25] He also rejected the Party’s request for the delivery of 10,000 pieces of light weaponry to be used in the defense of his government.[26] According to Sepehr Zabih, the editor of a pro-Mosaddq journal, Bakhtar-e Emruz daily:

A delegation from the Tudeh Party failed to secure Dr. Mossadegh’s permission to arm the extremist nationalists and communists to fight the opposition. It is reported that the prime minister had told this delegation and his handful of loyal deputies that he would rather be lynched by the mob than risk a civil war the outcome of which was totally unpredictable.[27]

Lieutenant Amou’i– a high ranking member of the party’s military organization– claims that:

On 19 August 1953, officers of the Party’s military organization expected, more than ever, to be given the mission for which they had long been trained. The Organization’s Executive Board had also declared a state of alert. After saying goodbye to their families, the officers, who were fully armed, depart for their respective designated gathering hideaway.[28]

Fereydoun Azarnour, a high-ranking officer of the Party’s Military Organization, believes that 243 officers stationed in Tehran, represented nearly all branches of Iran’s armed forces including the air force, artillery, infantry and gendarmerie.[29]

  1. On the same day, apart from rejecting Tudeh Party’s offer of military assistance to encounter the plotters’ “coup d’etat”[30], Mosaddeq tried to render the Party’s military Organization confused and eventually ineffective by killing time.[31]

Expressing his gratitude for Mosaddeq’s refusal to accept any offer of help and thereby saving the country from the scourge of communism, Zirakzadeh claims that: “In the period between 1945 and 1953, the Tudeh Party could take control of Tehran at any time it decided to act. Indeed, by refusing Tudeh Party’s help, Mosaddeq had rendered a great service to the Iranian people.”[32]

  1. According to Colonel Hosseinqoli Sarreshteh, Mosaddeq’s loyal and energetic chief of Tehran’s Military Police:

  In the morning of 16th August 1953, I was assigned to arrest, Abolqasem Amini, the Court Minister. I could not, however find him in any of the Shah’s palaces. While searching for Amini, I encountered Colonel Hosseinqoli Ashrafi, Tehran’s Military Governor, who had arrested Ernst Perron [33] in order to take him, along with his wireless radio, to the military governor’s headquarters.[34]

Perron, however, was released on Mosaddeq’s order and instead Ashrafi, the arresting officer, was detained, despite the fact that he was not in collusion with the plotters.[35]

          Thus, until noon of 19th August, Tehran was without a military governor. Faced with the spread of street demonstrations across the city, Mosaddeq appointed his nephew[36], Brigadier General Mohammad Daftary, who was suspected of being closely involved with the plotters[37], as Tehran’s Military Governor and Chief of Police. It seems that in making the appointment Mosaddeq was trying to set up a familial security shield to keep himself and his aides safe from possible assault by his opponents. [38] The appointment could also help prevent bloodshed and even save Iran from a civil war.[39] Furthermore, Mosaddeq had ordered the security guards protecting his residence, to stop resisting the hostile crowd and leave their posts. [40]

  1. In early morning of 19th August 1953, the street demonstrations in Tehran took on a completely different character.[41] Having declined the invitation of Khosro Khan Qashqa’i, an influential tribal leader in Fars province,[42] Mosaddeq called upon his supporters- including university students and Bazari merchants- not to participate in any demonstrations.[43] Meanwhile, the recently appointed military governor of Tehran was ready to disperse anti-Shah demonstrators and restore order.[44]

According to Manouchehr Farmanfarma’ian– a well known politician and a close relative of Mosaddeq’s– on 19th August 1953 the mantra of demonstrators had changed to “Long live the Shah!” “It was quite a strange scene for us. How could they dare to shout such slogans and why they were totally ignored by thousands of spectators around them. We were indeed witnesses to a profound turn of events.” [45]

مردم در28مرداد

Aug. 19, 1953: Tehran residents over taking a military tank

   In their report, Henderson, Cabell and Wilber claimed that a powerful and unexpected movement– consisting of both pro Shah demonstrators and members of the security organizations– has been able to control Tehran. Not only Mosaddeq and his close aides but ordinary people with differing political orientations have been taken by surprise.[46] Colonel Nejati, a pro-Mosaddeq officer in the Air Force, rejects Kermit Roosevelt’s claims about the significance of his role in the events of the 19th August. In fact, Nejati asserts that: “The lightening success of the “coup d’etat” even jolted Roosevelt and his co-conspirators.[47]

Nejati, who had rushed to Mosaddeq’s residence to protect him, further recalls: “Thousands of Tehran residents were witnessing the commotion around Mosaddeq’s house from the sidewalks or their rooftops, waiting for the finale.”

            Sepehr Zabih, a well-known and pro-Mosaddeq journalist claims:

These concerns, which were abetted by the excess which the Tudeh elements manifested in the four days preceding Dr. Mossadegh’s downfall, genuinely alarmed the major sector of the politically minded populace to a point where they would rather witness the downfall of the still popular Dr. Mossadegh than risk a potential Tudeh victory. Indeed most nationalist groups had shown a marked alertness to the inherent threat of the Tudeh party in the course of the postwar political developments. Whenever this was sensed, the public had reacted sharply and unreservedly to thwart an imminent Tudeh danger. [48]

مردم در28مرداد32

Aug. 19, 1953 Another tank taken over by Tehran residents

According to Mehdi Qani a pro- Mosaddeq university student and a member of the Society of Islamic University Students:

As religious activists, we were concerned with the increasing influence of the Tudeh party and the prospects of Iran dominated by a Communist regime. Our concern was heightened by the Shah’s dismissal of Mosaddeq. We decided, therefore, to remain neutral in this period of uncertainty.[49]

Ebrahim Yazdi, an active supporter of 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran believes that: “In those eventful days when the choice was either the Shah or the Communists, most Iranians would have opted for the Shah.”[50]

One of the most incisive observations about the events of 19 August 1953 were contained in a declaration authored by Khalil Maleki, one of Mosaddeq’s loyal colleagues and the leader of the Third Power Party that had adopted Tito’s neutralist stance in the Cold War. In the declaration, he warns Mosaddeq: “The road you are treading will is the road to Hell, but we will follow you to the end anyhow.”[51] Maleki does not characterize as a coup d’etat the events leading to the downfall of Mosaddeq. Neither does he allude to the possibility of his return to power.[52]

          In a recent conversation with the writer, Babak Amir Khosravi expressed similar points of view: “The downfall of Mosaddeq’s government had nothing to do with an Anglo-American instigated coup d’etat.[53] According to Zirakzadeh, in various street confrontations between competing groups on 19 August 1953 there were only a few casualties. Had Mosaddeq followed the path of resistance, hundreds if not thousands of Iranians would have lost their lives.[54]

Mosaddaq, in his comment to Jalil Bozorgmehr, his loyal and patient defense attorney, had thus summed up that fateful day: “We could not have wished for a better ending.”[55]

[1]. Jalil Bozorgmeh, Taqrirat-e Mosaddq dar zendan [Mosaddeq’s Utterances in Prison], Tehran, 2005, p 130.

[2] Mohammad Ali Movahhed, Khab-e ashofte-ye naft [the Maddening Nightmare of Oil], Tehran, Karnameh, 2005, vol. 2, p 857.

[3]. Ahmad Zirakzadeh, Porseshha-ye bi pasokh dar sal haye estesna’i[Unanswered Questions in Exceptional Years], Tehran’ Neeloofar, 1997, pp 140 , 304 and 311

[4]. Zirakzadeh, Op.Cit., p 311,

[5]. Gholam Reza Nejati, Jonbesh-e melli shodan-e San’at-e naft-e Iran va koodeta-ye bisto hashtom-e mordad [Oil Nationalization Movement of Iran and 1953 Coup D’etat], Tehran, Enteshar, 1994, p 541

[6]. Babak Amir Khosravi, Nazari az daroun be naqsh-e hezb-e tudeh-ye Iran, [An Insider’s View of the Role of Tudeh Party of Iran], Tehran, Ettela’at, 1996, pp. 617-618.

         [7]. Mattison to the Department of State, July 25, 1953, telegram


         [8]. Mattison to the Department of State, August 12, 1953, telegram 788,00/8-1253

[9]. Karim Sanjabi, Omidha va na-omidiha” [Hopes and Desperations], London, Jebhe, 1988, p 10.

[10]. Mohammad Ali Amou’i, Dord-e zamaneh” [The Times of Suffering], Tehran, 1998, p 73.

[11]. For further examples of Mosaddeq’s withdrawals and trepidations see:Mohammad Mosaddeq, Khaterat [Memoirs], p 248; Mosaddeq, Name ha [Letters], vol. 1, p 105-106; Hossein Makki, khaterat-e siassi [political memoirs], p 184; Makki, Vaqaye’ si-ye Teer 1331[Events of 21 July 1952], pp 16-17.

[12]. Homa Katouzian, Musaddiq and the struggle for power in Iran ,p 14. See also p 6.

[13]. Mosaddeq, Letters, vol. 1, p 105.

[14]. Movahhed, Op.Cit., vol. 1, p 432.

[15].Khalil Maleki, Nehzate melli va edalat-e ejtema’I [Iran’s nationalist movement and social justice], Tehran, Nashr-e Markaz, 1998, p 205.

[16] . See: Dr. Gholam Hossein Mosaddeq, Harvard Oral History Project, p 12 (tape no. 12)

[17] . Mosaddaq dar mahkemehye nezami ]Mosaddeq In Military Court[, op.cit., vol. 2, p 690.

[18]. Ettela’at daily, 18 August, 1953.

[19]. Mosaddeq, Political Memoirs, pp 272-273 and Sanjabi, Op.Cit., p 148.

[20]. New York Times, August 19, 1953. See also: Khaknaniha weekly, no. 96, 22 August 1953; Mansour Atabaki and Ahmad Bani Ahmad, Panj rouz rastakhiz-e mellat [Five Days of National Uprising], Tehran, 1953, pp 187-189; Movahhed, vol 2, pp 827-828

[21]. New York Times, Ibid. See also: Kayhan Daily, 20 August 1953; Atabaki, Ibid., p 116.

[22]. Nooreddin Kianori, Khaterat Nooreddin Kianoory [Kianoori’s Memoirs, Tehran, Ettela’at, 1990, p 268.

[23]. For the text of Kashani’s letter see: Katouzian, Op.Cit., pp 213 and 218.

[24]. Kianoori, Op. Cit., p 278.

[25]. Hossein Makki, Khaterat-e siasi-ye Hossein Makki [Political Memoirs of Hossein Makki], Tehran, Elmi, 1989, pp. 411-412.

   [26]. Foreign Relations . . .vol. X, no. 362n, p 784.

[27]. The Mossadegh era: roots of the Iranian revolution. Lake View Press (Original from: University of Michigan),p121, Compare with Javanshir, Op.Cit., p 307.

[28]. Amou’i, Op. Cit., pp 71-72.

[29]. Amir Khosravi, Op. Cit., p 712.

[30]. Kianoori, Op. Cit., pp 276-277. See also: F. M. Javanshir, Tajrobe-ye bisto hashtom-e mordad [The Experience of 19 August 1953], Tehran, Nashr-e Hezb-e Tudeh, 1960, pp 311-313; Maryam Firuz, Khaterat [Memoirs], p 106.

[31]. Javanshir, Ibid, pp 308-309.

[32]. Zirakzadeh, Op. Cit., pp 322-325.

[33]. Gholam Reza Nejati, Op. Cit, pp 362-363.

[34]. Sarreshteh, Op. Cit., pp 110-111.

[35]. Ibid. pp 120-121.

[36] . Zirakzadeh, Op. Cit., p 141.

[37]. Nejati, Op. Cit., pp 604-605.

[38]. Movahhed, Op.Cit., vol 2, pp 867- 868

[39]. Zirakzadeh, Op. Cit., p 313

[40]. Ettela’at daily, 19 August 1953.

[41]. Baqer Aqeli, Ruz shomar-e Tarikh-e Iran az mashruteh ta enqelab-e eslami [The Chronological History of Iran From the Constitutional Movement to the Islamic Revolution] Tehran, Goftar, 1980, vol 1, p 351.

[42] . Mosaddeq, Letters, p 404.

[43]. Mansour Atabaki and Ahmad Bani Ahmad, Panj rouz rastakhiz-e mellat [Five Days of National Uprising], Tehran, 1953, pp 187-189. See also: Sanjabi, Oral History, p 1069. Movahhed, vol 2, pp 827-828; Amir Khosravi, p 618; Maleki, p 105; Katouzian, p 234.

[44]. Mosaddeq, In Military Court, vol 2, p 481.

[45]. Manouchehr Farmanfarma’ian, Az Tehran ta Caracas, Tehran, Nashr-e Tarikh-e Mo’aser-e Iran, 1994, p 722.

[46].Foreign Relations of the United States, volume X, ,docs 348, 349؛ Wilber, Overthrow of Premier Mosaddeq of Iran (November1952-August1953).Central Intelligence Agency,  March 1954, pp 66-67

[47]. Nejati, Op. Cit., p 439.

[48]. Zabih,p.179

[49]. Shahrvand weekly Septmber 2007, no. 12.

[50]. Sokhanrani-ye Ebrahim Yazdi dar talar-e Sheikh Ansari [Yazdi’s Speech in Sheikh Ansari Hall, Tehran University, February 2005.

[51]. Maleki, Khaterat, p 104

[52]. Mas’oud Hejazi, Ruydadha va davari ha. [Events and Judgments] Tehran, Niloufar, 1996, pp 115-118. For the text of the declaration see: Maleki, Khaterat, pp 129-135.

[53].Conversation with Babak Amir Khosravi. 15 May 2011.

       [54]. Zirakzadeh, Op. Cit., p 313. Compare with Sadiqi’s viewpoint in: Nejati, p.537; Amouie, p 7.

[55]. Abdollah Borhan, mosahebeh ba sarhang Jalil Bozorgmehr: kharnameye hezb tudeh va raz-e shekast Mosaddeq, [Interview with colonel Jalel Bozorgmehr: Tudeh Party’s Report Card and the Secret of Mosaddeq’s downfall] vol. 2, p 190.

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