Chalmers Johnson wrote in 2001 about “blowback” that it “is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government's international activities that have been kept secret from the American people. The CIA's fears that there might ultimately be some blowback from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well founded.…. This misguided ‘covert operation’ of the US government helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy.” (The Nation, October 15, 2001).
The CIA initiated overthrow of the regime of Mohammed Mossadegh sixty years ago on August 19, 1953 was precipitated by what Melvin Gurtov called “the politics of oil and cold war together.” Because it was the leading oil producer in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world and it was geographically close to the former Soviet Union, President Eisenhower was prevailed upon to launch the CIA covert war on Iran long encouraged by Great Britain.
The immediate background for the ouster of Mossadegh was Iran’s nationalization of its oil production. Most Iranians were living in poverty in the 1940s as the Iranian government received only ten percent of the royalties on its oil sales on the world market. The discrepancy between Iran’s large production of oil and the limited return it received led Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, a liberal nationalist, to call for the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. Despite opposition from Iran’s small ruling class, the parliament and masses of the Iranian people endorsed the plan to seize control of its oil. Mossadegh became the symbol of Iranian sovereignty.
Ironically, Mossadegh assumed the United States would support Iran’s move toward economic autonomy. But, in Washington, the Iranian leader was viewed as a demagogue, his emerging rival the Shah of Iran (the sitting monarch of Iran) as “more moderate.”
After the nationalization, the British, supported by the United States, boycotted oil produced by the Iranian Oil Company. The British lobbied Washington to launch a military intervention but the Truman Administration feared such an action would work to the advantage of the Iranian Communists, the Tudeh Party.
The boycott led to economic strains in Iran, and Mossadegh compensated for the loss of revenue by increasing taxes on the rich. This generated growing opposition from the tiny ruling class, and they encouraged political instability. In 1953, to rally his people, Mossadegh carried out a plebiscite, a vote on his policies. The Iranian people overwhelmingly endorsed the nationalization of Iranian oil. In addition, Mossadegh initiated efforts to mend political fences with the former Soviet Union and the Tudeh Party.
As a result of the plebiscite, and Mossadegh’s openings to the Left, the United States came around to the British view; Mossadegh had to go. As one U.S. defense department official put it:
“When the crisis came on and the thing was about to collapse, we violated our normal criteria and among other things we did, we provided the army immediately on an emergency basis….The guns that they had in their hands, the trucks that they rode in, the armored cars that they drove through the streets, and the radio communications that permitted their control, were all furnished through the military defense assistance program…. Had it not been for this program, a government unfriendly to the United States probably would now be in power.” (Richard Barnet, Intervention and Revolution, 1972).
The Shah, who had fled Iran after the plebiscite, returned when Mossadegh was ousted. A new prime minister was appointed by him who committed Iran to the defense of the “free” world. U.S. military and economic aid was resumed, and Iran joined the CENTO alliance (an alliance of pro-West regional states).
In August, 1954, a new oil consortium was established. Five U.S. oil companies gained control of forty percent of Iranian oil, equal to that of returning British firms. Iran compensated the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company for its losses by paying $70 million, which Iran received as aid from the United States. The Iranian ruling class was accorded fifty percent of profits from future oil sales. President Eisenhower declared that the events of 1953 and 1954 were ushering in a new era of “economic progress and stability” in Iran and that it was now to be an independent country in “the family of free nations.”
In brief, the United States overthrew a popularly elected and overwhelmingly endorsed regime in Iran. The payoff the United States received, with British acquiescence, was a dramatic increase in access by U.S. oil companies to Iranian oil at the expense of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The overthrow of Mossadegh and the backing of the return of the Shah to full control of the regime led to U.S. support for one of the world’s most repressive and militarized regimes. By the 1970s, 70,000 of the Shah’s opponents were in political prisons. Workers and religious activists rose up against the Shah in 1979, leading to the rapid revolutionary overthrow of his military state.
As Chalmers Johnson suggested many years later, the United States role in the world is still plagued by “blowback.” Masses of people all across the globe, particularly in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and East Asia, regard the United States as the major threat to their economic and political independence. And the covert operation against Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran is one place where such global mistrust began.