The 1953 Operation Ajax in Iran

Iran, like many countries in the Middle East, has played a major role in world politics. Its strategic location between Asia, Europe, and the Near East, for instance, led to the “the great game,” a supremacy battle between Britain and Russia, during the world wars. In the 1900s, Iran had a booming oil industry. Explorers estimated that the country had the second largest deposit of petroleum in the world, making it one of the richest countries at the time. The economy of Iran, however, was in shambles. Britain, which had a stake in the Anglo-Iranian oil company British Petrol (BP), a major player in the Iranian oil sector, enjoyed a higher percentage of the cash proceeds (through income tax, etc.) gotten from the oil exploration activities in the country. Iran, on the other hand, only received royalties from the oil wells in its soil, leaving many of its citizens reeling in abject poverty. Worse, the Anglo-Iranian oil company mistreated many of its workers. It denied them sick leave and occasional vacations as agreed in the 1933 concession. The work environment was also inhospitable. Finally, the company paid its workers “peanuts” (50 cents per day), for hours of backbreaking work. The level of neglect and the neo-colonialism BP had introduced in Iran angered its leadership. Mohammad Mossadeq, the prime minister then, moved a motion in the Iranian parliament citing the breached 1933 concession, to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, stop oppression, and as a result, boost the country’s crumbling economy. Formation of the National Front in 1951, exile of Pahlavi Mohammed Reza Shah (after the unsuccessful first coup attempt), and Mohammad Massdeq’s unwillingness to negotiate with British conspirators cut an income source the British were unwilling to lose.

In collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America (USA) and the newly inaugurated president of Iran, Eisenhower; the prime minister of Great Britain then, Winston Churchill, formulated and then initiated a coup d’état called operation Ajax, in August of 1953, to overthrow Mohammad Mossadeq. Operation Ajax was successful. Americans handed power to Iran’s previously exiled royal monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and crowned him new president of the country. Under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s 25-year reign, oil revenue in Iran increased dramatically. The economy also stabilized. His high handedness, however, and his attempt to westernize a predominantly Islamic Iran using government funds made him less popular among citizens. Anti-American and anti-Shah sentiments heightened over the years, leading to his ouster in 1979. All professionals in the oil sector stopped working, reversing the gains made. University students from all over the country also poured into the streets in protest of the president’s bad governance structure. Mohammad Pahlavi Shah had to flee Iran for a second time, paving way for a new democratically elected president, Ruhollah Khomeini. Ruhollah changed Iranian constitution to create an imperial president and a government influenced/ controlled by only a small group of elite individuals.

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