Coup 53

I strongly recommend the investment of a couple of hours to watch the new film, Coup 53, available on-line, for an uncertain time.  All information is here.  I watched it Wednesday, as well as a one hour conversation with the films producer, etc., and a 26 minute YouTube special presentation by the film’s editor (here).  It is very interesting.

The topic is the 1953 Iran Coup ousting Mohammed Mossadeq engineered by England’s MI6 and the U.S. CIA, as enabled by the U.S. and British governments.  The film is engrossing.  Maybe a summary might be “Dead men do tell no tales, but sometimes leave tracks….”

The issue was oil, who has it, who got it.


I am college graduate, with an active interest in ‘stuff’.  As we all know, in this Information Age, everyone needs to be a specialist, even amateurs like myself.  It is not easy to be ‘informed’. There is simply too much to know, so we must rely on others, and bits and pieces, as this film is, are required to get past disinformation which is pervasive.


The film led me to recall a visit to England in October 2001, not long after 9-11-01.  It was a trip planned and ticketed before 9-11.  We booked a bed-and-breakfast in easy walking distance of places like Parliament.  It was a perfect venue for first time tourists to London.  We met England shortly after the 9-11-01 events upset the American psyche.  It was an unintended bonus of the trip, which was more than a one-week duration.


At our walk-up flat, in the hallway, was a set of old Encyclopedia Britannicaa which caught my attention.  My recollection is that it had a 1927 copyright – I had looked specifically for that data.

Quite by chance, I found a Britannica length article about Petroleum production.

In 1927, petrol had a limited history in terms of actual use.  As I recall – I could be wrong – this edition of the encyclopedia recorded that the United States had 75% of the world’s petroleum production at the time.  Its net production far exceeded the demand.

More to the point of the film, the Middle East of that time had only one oil producing area, that in coastal Persia (Iran).  At the time, of course, there was a limited market for petroleum.  The Age of Oil was really in its infancy,  not yet ubiquitous.


Today I looked up Petroleum in my 1978 edition of Britannica; and also the history of Iran.  In its way, that set has become its own historical artifact.  I remember when I bought it, when it was new.

In 1978 (ironically, the time of the Iranian hostage crisis in the Carter years), my Britannica reveals the U.S. had 31.4% of the demand, and 23.7% of the supply of petroleum; so we had become a net importer of oil.

My Britannica devotes only 9 lines of type to the Mossadeq affair out of nearly 27 pages of text about Iran.  What happened, Britannica said, was “In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil and the British Oil Company withdrew, but regrettably the disturbed political situation during Mossadeq’s premiership, and the grip held by western oil companies on the marketing of the commodity, turned Mossaddeq’s premiership, and the grip held by western oil companies on the marketing of the commodity, turned Mossaddeq’s nationalization triumph into a Pyrrhic victory.  His period in office ended in turmoil in 1953; but by 1961 the Shah was able finally to take the initiative.” 

Coup 53 essentially takes the story in a direction quite different from the official version which Britannica seems to have faithfully presented in my volume in 1978.  The discovery process for the filmmaker took nine often frustrating years and the film seems to have resulted from an unintended discovery of what amounts to treasure from a “dumpster dive” into what most of us would consider junk in a basement. You need to watch the film for the next chapter (which a good friend says does not at all complete what really happened next).

I will append that theory at this space perhaps a couple of weeks from now for anyone interested,  Check back here, in two weeks, if interested.  Add your own thoughts or theories….

The relevant paragraphs of the Britannica article are in the lower left quartile of page 861 of Volume 9, which you can read here: Iran Hist Brit Vol 9 1978 Ed20200821 (two pages, click to enlarge text).


Do take in Coup 53.  I think you’ll find it eyeopening, as I did.

COMMENTS: (More at the end of this post)

from a long-time friend in England:

Thanks for the alert about the film, it might be quite interesting?

The repercussions of that coup reverberate to the present day – the law of unintended consequences in this case meant that 26 years later a regime much more antagonistic to the UK & the US was installed in Iran . . . & the beat goes on. “And men still keep on marching off to war”

Funny you should ask, an article appeared in UK’s Guardian a few days ago – which mentions the film as well: here   “A first-hand account of Britain’s role in the 1953 coup that overthrew the elected prime minister of Iran and restored the shah to power has been published for the first time.

There has been a lot of ink expended on the overthrow of Iran’s Mosaddegh in 1953.

I suppose NPR recently provided a good summary & a set of links (all paragraphs below from that site): here

How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days By Lawrence Wu and Michelle Lanz

On Aug. 19, 2013, the CIA publicly admitted for the first time its involvement in the 1953 coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

The documents provided details of the CIA’s plan at the time, which was led by senior officer Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Over the course of four days in August 1953, Roosevelt would orchestrate not one, but two attempts to destabilize the government of Iran, forever changing the relationship between the country and the U.S. In this episode, we go back to retrace what happened in the inaugural episode of NPR’s new history podcast, Throughline

Mohammad Mossadegh was a beloved figure in Iran. During his tenure, he introduced a range of social and economic policies, the most significant being the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. Great Britain had controlled Iran’s oil for decades through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. After months of talks the prime minister broke off negotiations and denied the British any further involvement in Iran’s oil industry. Britain then appealed to the United States for help, which eventually led the CIA to orchestrate the overthrow of Mossadegh and restore power to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.

According to Stephen Kinzer, author of the book All the Shah’s Men, Roosevelt quickly seized control of the Iranian press by buying them off with bribes and circulating anti-Mossadegh propaganda. He recruited allies among the Islamic clergy, and he convinced the shah that Mossadegh was a threat. The last step entailed a dramatic attempt to apprehend Mossadegh at his house in the middle of the night. But the coup failed. Mossadegh learned of it and fought back. The next morning, he announced victory over the radio.

Mossadegh thought he was in the clear, but Roosevelt hadn’t given up. He orchestrated a second coup, which succeeded. Mossadegh was placed on trial and spent his life under house arrest. The shah returned to power and ruled for another 25 years until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The 1953 coup was later invoked by students and the political class in Iran as a justification for overthrowing the shah.

If you would like to read more on the 1953 coup, here’s a list: 

“All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” by Stephen Kinzer

“Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran” by Kermit Roosevelt Jr

“Secrets of History: the CIA in Iran” from The New York Times (a timeline of events leading up to and immediately following the coup)

“CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup” from The National Security Archive (CIA documents on the Iran operation)

“64 Years Later, the CIA Finally Releases Details of Iranian Coup” from Foreign Policy magazine.

September 6, 2020:

Some last thoughts on the film (at least in this space).

Dick: My friend in 8th grade (1953-54), and still a friend today, was part of a large and vibrant Syrian Moslem community in rural North Dakota.  I apprised him of the film, which I don’t think he watched, but he did watch the YouTube interview referenced at the beginning of this post.  His main comments, both about August 21, were these (he has preferred that his name not be used):

Hi Dick, when I listen to the trailer they talk about 300 killed and large numbers wounded.  Is that what is said in the two hour film, or do they talk about the 3 million killed as admitted by our CIA leadership in the 1998 PBS documentary?  It also talks about a 1953 Coup, whereas I remember my Dad lamenting about the slaughter that started taking place shortly after Iran won its independence from the British and established their democracy in 1949.  If the movie doesn’t report the true story, it will just be an attempt to downplay the horrors that we really imposed upon the Iranians, just as we did in the Vietnam fiasco. Please let me know your thoughts,”t

Hi Dick, the YouTube video was interesting [see first paragraph of this blog] , but a bit long. It was also a bit melodramatic and more about filming process, but might be worth watching. And it is based on info from MI-6 [British intelligence] which you can never trust.  And as I had mentioned to you, there were Iranians that did very well under British rule and they put forth a very different view of things.  Stephan Meade headed our CIA activities during the Coup.  He was on the 1998 PBS documentary, and his story was consistent with what my Dad was seeing in his international news papers.  It won’t be til somewhere around 2040 when the data is declassified and the truth will be known.

Dick: conversations like these, and other sources of information, like the film, and miscellaneous sources of information, are how I learn, often by “bits and pieces”.

My family migrated often, so we only lived in my friends tiny community for a single year, 1953-54.  The previous two years, 1951-53, we were in a similarly tiny community perhaps 100 miles away.  The larger city of Minot was between our two towns.  (Our next stop, 1954-57, was several hundred miles away, so we lost contact for years.)

It occurred to me, that I had seen Dwight Eisenhower in person, in a motorcade, on the Main Street of Minot, probably in the summer of 1953.  He had just been inaugurated President in January, 1953, and his likely reason for visiting Minot was that it was the site of a new major Air Force base.

Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in WWII, and he worked closely with Winston Churchill.  They had a working relationship in one of the worst global conflicts in human history.

The Iran Coup officially took place 19 August 1953, right before my friend and I would have met in an eighth grade classroom in rural ND.  He was a farm kid, and worked with his Dad and they talked, as Dads and sons talk.  My parents were teachers. We never talked about things like Iran, but I did have the opportunity to actually see Eisenhower’s then-Air Force One fly overhead into Minot ND, most likely that same summer.  In short, my friend and I had rich frames of reference, however limited, and Coup 53 this year for me was an opportunity to fill in more data points.

What my friend says, above, is as true as what I say, and what anybody else has to say who was proximate to the events which led to the coup in 1953.  It may be personal experience, or stories from ancestors, but it is real to the participants.

International relationships are extremely complicated for reasons we all know.  Communications, particularly in these days, is often abused.  We don’t know what is “true”.

Thanks for the conversation.

2 replies
  1. Gail Hughes
    Gail Hughes says:

    Interesting – thanks, Dick!  It would also be interesting to see how the 1953 coup in Iran was portrayed in our mainstream media at the time – in, say, the NY Times.  I’d be willing to bet a substantial sum that all mainstream media portrayed Mossadegh negatively (as a Communist), and the coup by the Shah as a positive.  The film conveys a different ‘official story’ than what was put out at the time.  Perhaps part of the reason why the coup against Iran has become quite well known is that the CIA agent tasked to accomplish it – Kermit Roosevelt, the nephew of Teddy Roosevelt – wrote about what he did later on in a book whose title I don’t recall.  So it couldn’t be ‘swept under the rug’ as long as perhaps usual.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica of yesteryear (and other encyclopedias) served as the original ‘Publication of Record’, deemed to convey The Truth (i.e. the U.S. ‘official story’).  The NY Times also claimed that role.  They have since been replaced by Wikipedia.  We should consider the possibility that our newspapers and other media, and Wikipedia, are as biased now about current events as The Encyclopedia Britannica and newspapers of the day were biased about breaking stories of those times.  That’s why I always seek counter-stories, especially the voice of the ‘Other’ – the country or leader that’s being demonized in our media at present.  If Americans had sought and found (tough in those days) the perspective of Mossadegh and his supporters, they would have heard a 180-degree different ‘story’.  


  2. Leila Habashi
    Leila Habashi says:

    The Coup of’53 is a painful event to recall for Iranians, because it was an earnest attempt to lay the foundation for a more democratic society for Iran. It was the right of Iran to claim the real value of oil for its own people by wanting to nationalize it. The Coup took that chance away from Iranians. They misread the signs and acted prematurely as they are doing now on another context.
    It’s encouraging to have this conversation because history is not only the story of the past but I believe it still is shaping the future. Thank uou


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