World’s Greatest Spy CapersNewsweek OnlineOPERATION TP-AJAX (1953)
Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, right, sits with U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson in 1951,two years before the CIA orchestrated his overthrow.
Perpetrators: U.K., U.S.A.Target: Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh
With hindsight, all the snags in Iran’s Western-backed 1953 coup probably suggested it wouldn’tend well. In 1952, British intelligence officials contacted the CIA about the prospect of a coup,disapproving of the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his plans tonationalize the country’s oil industry, which had previously been under British control. The plan was for Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh andreplacing him with a royalist general, Fazlollah Zahedi. But the shah proved an unenthusiastic co-conspirator, wary of losing his throne and his own popularity. After months of cajoling (and apower grab by Mossadegh), he assented.To set the stage, the CIA launched an anti-communist propaganda campaign against Mossadegh,including planted newspaper reports, bribes, street demonstrations, and even the bombing of acleric’s home to break the prime minister’s coalition with Iran’s religious community. (It managedto dupe NEWSWEEK into running one of those planted stories.) Finally, on the night of Aug. 15,1953, pro-shah soldiers fanned out across Tehran, snipping phone lines, arresting top Mossadeghofficials, and stirring up anti-Mossadegh demonstrations. But they were unable to grabMossadegh himself, who had been warned about TP-Ajax, as the mission was dubbed. The nextmorning there was no certain government—and also no shah, who had fled to Baghdad and thenRome amid the chaos.But just when the operation seemed an utter flop, royalist officers took control of the radio and whipped up even more fervid street demonstrations, suddenly shifting the national mood againstMossadegh, paving the way for the coup’s success and leaving 300 demonstrators dead in theprocess. Zahedi, who had been hiding just outside Tehran, was brought into the city to assumeleadership, while Mossadegh and the rest of his supporters were rounded up; 22 were laterexecuted, including the foreign minister. The following day the CIA wired $5 million to the new regime. The CIA’s first-ever attempt at regime change was deemed so successful that it became apopular policy option, pulled out again the following year in Guatemala. But as the full extent of CIA involvement leaked out, the unequivocal victory for American spies began to seem awfully shallow. It created a friendly regime but also a half century of fierce anti-American and anti-British animosity among ordinary Iranians.
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