On July 19, 1953, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Tehran. Kermit, or “Kim” as his friends called him, had little of his grandfather’s famed swagger. Photographs of him from the time show a nearly forty-year-old bureaucrat with a high forehead and black glasses. Roosevelt was described by a colleague as “the last person you’d expect to be up to his neck in dirty tricks.” He was a soft-spoken man from an American family of the highest pedigree, with connections around the world and a good reputation. But his courteous demeanor belied the nature of his work; the aforementioned colleague was British double agent Kim Philby. Roosevelt himself was a career spy. He had come to Iran not as a tourist or a mere visitor. He had arrived, according to his later retelling of the ensuing events, by a circuitous route that took him from Beirut to Iraq and then to Iran under an alias: James Lockwood. Kermit Roosevelt was in Iran to overthrow a government.
What followed from his secretive entrance into the country has long been the stuff of foreign affairs legend, a turning point in history that demarcates a new path not just for the United States but also for Iran. Operation Ajax (or TPAJAX, as it was called in official documentation) was the first covert regime-change operation carried out by Central Intelligence Agency, then only six years old, and it very nearly failed. But in the end, under Roosevelt’s leadership, the CIA carried it off and deposed the popular and populist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically elected leader who sought to reverse decades of foreign influence and exploitation in his country. In so doing, he threatened British oil interests, which set him on a collision course with the world’s preeminent postwar powers. Those powers arrived in 1953, as Kermit Roosevelt began organizing the coup that would force Mossadegh from power and into house arrest.
But the story of Operation Ajax begins long before 1953. It’s impossible to tell the story of the coup without telling the story of the oil and the British national who found it. William D’Arcy, who had made a fortune in mining in Australia and New Zealand, was given a concession to look for oil in Iran in 1901. He had searched for seven years and almost had given up just a month before finally striking oil in Khuzestan Province in 1908. One year later the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was established. In 1912 the company opened one of the largest oil refineries in the world with a capacity of two thousand barrels per day at Abadan. More oil fields were found throughout Iran in the following years. By the end of the 1920s, APOC (which would become the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the 1930s) had secured exclusive rights to Iranian oil. The company negotiated an agreement with the Iranian government in 1933 that addressed growing concerns of exploitation by providing guaranteed payment to the state and other concessions. But it was largely window dressing; the British continued to make astronomical profits while exploiting Iranian resources and labor. Working conditions were horrific, wages were low, and the British never made good on promises that they would train Iranian workers to become leaders in producing their own oil. Annual oil revenues in the early 1950s were around $500 million, the equivalent of around $4.5 billion today.
While the British were establishing their hold on Iranian oil, Kermit Roosevelt was making a name for himself in intelligence. He was born in Buenos Aires, where his father worked in banking, in 1917 but grew up in New York. He graduated from Harvard a year early, in 1937, and joined the military once World War II started. The Office of Strategic Services—the forerunner of the CIA, which was established in 1942—recruited him; according to Kermit’s family, he never revealed what he worked on at the OSS. In 1950 he joined the CIA, where he became known as a rising star in intelligence, a “Churchillian”-style “nineteenth-century warrior,” according to his colleague John Waller.
By 1950, Iranians were eager to gain control of the lucrative oil industry and of their country, which had been dominated by European powers exerting influence through economic concessions since the late 1800s. Mohammad Reza Shah sat on the throne, placed there by the British after they forced his father, Reza Shah, to abdicate in 1941. Amenable as he was to Western influence, arms, and money, Mohammad Reza could not ignore the growing unrest—including protests and the assassination of Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara in 1951—or calls for nationalization of the country’s oil. In 1951 he honored a vote in the Majlis, or Parliament, by appointing as prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, leader of the popular National Front and a longtime parliamentarian known for his populist politics and flair for the dramatic. In a New York Times article about the coup, Mossadegh was described as “internationally famous for his bizarre habits—receiving diplomatic visitors in bed, weeping profusely and fainting in public, bounding upstairs like a rabbit at formal meetings.” But for all his oddities, Mossadegh was an effective politician who set about wresting control of Iran from the West. His career, which began when he was elected to Parliament at the age of twenty-four, included high-ranking positions in the ministries of justice and finance, as well as governorships. By the time he became prime minister, he enjoyed strong support in Parliament and from the public, a powerful mandate that he brought to negotiations with the shah and the British alike.
Over the course of that summer, Mossadegh succeeded in nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and expelling British workers. The action prompted domestic upheaval and international conflict, with the New York Times calling the political situation “completely fluid and a full-scale crisis.” Iranian leadership rejected British attempts to negotiate. One official told the Times, “It’s the same old nonsense.” The British were furious and turned to the United Nations and the Hague for help, claiming the nationalization of AIOC violated the 1933 agreement the government had signed. But their efforts had little effect; the international community didn’t rally around British interests.
The British, perhaps unsurprisingly, weren’t just pursuing official channels. British intelligence reached out to the U.S. government for possible help with regime change, but President Harry S. Truman refused to engage with what he saw as a violation of Iranian sovereignty. He did agree to meet with Mossadegh to see if it might be possible to negotiate a solution, and in October 1951 Mossadegh met with him and secretary of state Dean Acheson. According to Truman’s papers, the conversation was friendly. A summary written after the meeting explained that Truman told Mossadegh, “We were the friends of the Iranians and likewise the friends of the British. We had no national or private interest in the matter other than achieving a fair settlement.” Mossadegh affirmed his understanding before appealing for aid; Iran’s finances were in shambles due in part to a British embargo enacted after nationalization. Truman spoke of the Great Depression, explaining how the U.S. had experienced mass unemployment and the myriad issues that come with large-scale economic struggle. He suggested that, if Iran and Great Britain came to an agreement, the U.S. could help Iran weather their crisis.
Truman refused to do more on behalf of the British. But 1952 was an election year, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was set to take office, bringing CIA chief Allen Dulles into power with him. Along with his brother, secretary of state John Foster Dulles, the CIA director would become one of the most significant figures in Cold War–era American affairs, guiding operations such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The British decided to try their hand with the U.S. again, this time emphasizing to the new president that Mossadegh was a communist and that Iran falling under Soviet influence would be a catastrophic loss in the nascent Cold War. Eisenhower proved more amenable to the idea of overthrowing Mossadegh, and by early April 1953, Dulles had green-lit an initial million dollars to “be used by the Tehran Station in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.”
The plan drafted by the United States and Great Britain came together in three months, with intelligence officers meeting in Cyprus and Beirut to finalize the details. On July 1 British prime minister Winston Churchill approved it. Eisenhower’s final consent came ten days later. Roosevelt was at that point deeply entrenched within the CIA. He set off for Tehran within a week, and Operation Ajax began.
It was supposed to be simple. Before Roosevelt arrived, the CIA had begun to place propaganda in the Iranian press; these tactics were guided by Roosevelt once he was in Tehran. The CIA had drafted royal decrees replacing Mossadegh with General Fazlollah Zahedi, the agency’s chosen successor and an active participant in efforts to remove Mossadegh from office. Zahedi was known for opposing Mossadegh, and he had the benefit of loyalty among the military, who would play a decisive part in backing his accession to office. With Zahedi at the helm, the United States and Great Britain would be able to work out plans for Iran’s oil with little resistance. All the while, working in a basement hideout, Roosevelt was putting together paid mobs and coordinating protests on demand with agents within the Iranian military in order to create a sense of instability, pressuring Mossadegh to leave office. These crowds would help justify the decrees the shah was to sign, as would the articles written and placed by the CIA portraying Mossadegh’s government as weak or ineffective.
But in early August, the shah refused to sign the decrees. Despite Roosevelt meeting with the shah and explaining that the time to act was now—and that should he not move now, the result would be “a Communist Iran or a second Korea”—the shah hesitated. Operation Ajax had hit its first snag.
Mossadegh had by this time been made aware of the CIA operation. His response was what helped Roosevelt’s team get past the significant hurdle of the shah’s noncooperation: Mossadegh called for the dissolution of Parliament due to seeming political subterfuge, an act that would give him significant power even in relation to the shah. On August 13, the shah agreed to sign the decrees. Things started to move quickly, although initially not in the way Roosevelt and his team imagined.
Two days later, Mossadegh refused to leave office. He argued the constitution barred such unilateral action, and his supporters overwhelmed the gangs paid for by the CIA to back up the decrees. Zahedi was forced into hiding and moved between safe houses. The next day, as Mossadegh had coup leaders arrested, the shah fled the country.
Roosevelt and his team spent an anxious night waiting to see the result of their coup. When it became clear that it had not worked, Roosevelt held a number of early morning meetings to determine how to move forward. That decision, however, had already been made for him: the U.S. considered the effort a failure. Leadership telegrammed Roosevelt to abandon Operation Ajax and leave the country immediately. Embassy staff, who had been working with Roosevelt, agreed that it was time to give up. But Roosevelt ignored the message. It was a decision that shaped the future of Iran and its later relations with the U.S. Instead of abandoning the plan, he doubled down on efforts to put Zahedi in office by filling the streets of Tehran with paid protesters.
On August 19, it was announced once again that Zahedi was the rightful prime minister, with copies of the shah’s signed decrees published in newspapers across Tehran. The army, which had been ordered by Zahedi not to obey the Mossadegh government, took to the streets to demand that Mossadegh step down. Around noon, Roosevelt went to the safehouse where Zahedi was hiding, directing him to wait there until he received word of success. Around 4:30 pm, as both supporters of the shah and paid mobs filled the streets, Roosevelt and his team orchestrated Zahedi’s emergence from hiding—on a public street corner, where he then mounted a tank—to become the public face of a movement that seemed to be rapidly spreading. Zahedi’s men violently clashed with Mossadegh’s supporters, and at least three hundred were killed fighting in the street. Mossadegh then went into hiding, and the shah announced he was returning. Over the course of nine hours, the seemingly failed coup was revived and Mossadegh was forced from office.
Mossadegh turned himself in the next day. His later trial put him under house arrest for the rest of his life. In the meantime, as prime minister, Zahedi quickly oversaw the purging of former Mossadegh loyalists and the arrest of the leaders of the National Front and Tudeh Parties, effectively chilling opposition. The shah went on to spend the next twenty-five years consolidating power and ruling through his secret police, SAVAK, which had been established with the help of the CIA. Shortly after the coup, Roosevelt reported to the CIA that tensions stoked by the U.S. continued, and that Zahedi clashed with his own supporters and allies in government.
Eventually Roosevelt’s duties in Iran came to an end. He worked for the CIA until 1958, when he became a lobbyist in Washington. Among his clients was the Iranian government he had helped put in place. In 1979, the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Roosevelt published Countercoup, his memoir of Operation Ajax, which was considered the closest available look at the coup despite a heavy-handed edit by the CIA. When Roosevelt passed away in 2000, many of his eulogies included his role in Mossadegh’s ouster.
Following the coup, the New York Times reported, “In five turbulent days the country passed through a violent revolution. Events followed one another so swiftly that it was almost impossible to determine the sequence.” For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, this characterization of the operation as a messy, tumbling sequence of events was augmented by the widely held understanding that the CIA had overthrown Mossadegh and helped the shah clench his fist around power by propping him up in the years that followed. When students stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979 during the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, they claimed to be doing so because the CIA had overthrown popular governance in the past, pointing to Operation Ajax.
In 2013 and 2017 the CIA declassified documents related to Operation Ajax. By then the world already knew the broad strokes of the strange story of the CIA’s first regime-change operation: the suitcases of cash, the basement office where it was planned, the ignored message calling off the coup, the sudden explosion of violence that saw the end of Mossadegh’s rule, the famed photo of Mossadegh at trial that shows the former leader sitting at a table with his chin glumly resting on his arms.
It was all stranger than fiction, and it was all completely true. It has also not been forgotten, and it casts a long shadow. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted about the coup’s anniversary on August 19, 2018: “65 years ago today, the US overthrew the popularly elected democratic government of Dr. Mossadegh, restoring the dictatorship & subjugating Iranians for the next 25 years. Now an ‘Action Group’ dreams of doing the same through pressure, misinformation & demagoguery. Never again.”