Cold War Role in the Iranian Revolution


The Iranian revolution is also called the Islamic revolution. It can also be referred to as the 1979 revolution. This is the year in which the Iranian monarch was ended by the emergence of the Islamic republic. This phenomenon was preceded by demonstration against the monarch in the year 1978.

The main difference with this revolution was the aspect of lack of many customary causes of revolution. Despite this lack of customary causes, the revolution resulted into rigorous changes within a short time. It was a massive and popular revolution that ended up toppling the system of monarch led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Thus, the revolution oversaw the replacement of the modernizing monarch by a theocracy.

It is believed that the cold war was a recipe for the Islamic revolution. The Iranian coup de tat of 1953 set the stage for this Islamic revolution that would come twenty six years later. Britain and the United States had certain interests on the Iranian soil including the oilfields.

When the weak Mosaddeq’s government nationalized a British oil company, the British and Americans responded by helping in the coup to prevent Iran from falling into the hands of the USSR and to recover the oil company. Afterwards in 1979, the virulent anti American Islamic regime ousted the Shah, who was an American sympathizer. It is thus prudent enough to hypothesize that the coup, brought about by the cold war, was the main recipe for the Islamic revolution.

Background of the Study

This study tries to explain how the major superpowers who were once allies during the Second World War influenced the emergence of the Iranian revolution. As a matter of fact, the end of the Second World War heralded the beginning of the cold war. Cold war is a term used to denote the hostile relationships that arose between the United States of America and the former USSR. The conflict arose due to issues related to sharing the plunder of the Second World War.

Since Iran was one of the victims of the plunder, the United States wanted to avoid the fall of Iran into Russia’s hands. The U.S. and Britain buttressed their interests in Iranian oil by overthrowing the democratically elected civil government and helping an American friendly government seize control of Iran. By doing this, Americans were trying to spread their influence into Iranian soil thereby blocking the USSR influence (Nayeri, K. & Nasab, A. 7).

However, more than two decades after, the Iranian government faced strong rebellion because of its monarch system and the anti-American movements. Thus in 1979, the same government of the Shah was overthrown by the Iranian revolution that oversaw the reinstatement of a religious system of governance that persists up to date.

The Iranian coup de tat of 1953

After the Second World War, when the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous Iron Curtain Speech, his former ally, Stalin of Moscow became furious (Gottfried, T. 17). This speech implied that Russia had control of a large part of Eastern Europe. In connection to this, Russia was gaining control on Iran’s oil fields (Gottfried, T. 18). This attempt by Stalin to have control over Iranian oil made the Americans to join the British in the cold war.

It was therefore a battle of control of oil fields in Iran. The 1953 coup marked the first important watershed in post war Iranian history (Gasiorowski & Byrne 1).

The whole essence was driven by the objective of the nationalization of the Anglo- Iranian Oil Company (Gasiorowski, M. 5). Mosaddeq and his colleagues wanted to attain a complete oil independence to establish a lasting democratic government in Iran. This objective was obliterated by the 1953 coup de tat that was carried out by a combination of domestic and foreign forces.

From the beginning, Britain was unhappy with Mosaddeq government because of many factors related to oil independence. In May 1951, when Mosaddeq became the prime minister, Britain started to be actively involved in the politics of bringing him down peacefully by a vote of no confidence. This is because under Mosaddeq’s leadership, Iran had nationalized British property.

The Shah and other Mosaddeq opponents were pretty receptive to these suggestions, thereby putting forward proposals for weakening Mosaddeq’s government. Since Britain wanted to maintain control of the oil industry in Iran, they resorted to many ways of letting Mosaddeq bow to their demands. Thus, they boycotted Iranian oil thereby causing Mosaddeq to lack a source of revenue. Foreign exchange was also cut off since the oil industry was now idle.

Britain preferred not to reach an amicable settlement in which Mosaddeq was willing to negotiate. It should be noted that although Britain never wanted an amicable negotiation with Mosaddeq, it also never wanted a military confrontation (Curtis, M. 15). The main aim of Britain was to bring down the administration of Mosaddeq through all means without bringing in the aspect of military combat.

This opportunity came in 1952 when Mosaddeq resigned in a conflict with the Shah over which of the two had the constitutional right to appoint the minister of war. However, Mosaddeq was restored to office after a popular uprising led by his sympathizers.

Another popular uprising occurred in July 21, 1952. This one was led by Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, the popular movement faction of the Majles, and pro- Mosaddeq parties. This uprising arose because Qavan, the prime minister appointed by the Shah had made a tactical blunder by making a speech threatening repression (Gasiorowski, M. & Byrne, M. 11). This time again, Mosaddeq returned to office. The situation was not encouraging to the Britons because the world court had done some ruling on the oil dispute in favour of Iran.

However, in 1953, the government’s right wings-the Shah and mosaddeq opponents prepared to resort to violent ways as well as peaceful methods to bring down the government. They received increasing encouragement at different levels and with growing firmness and intensity, from the American and British governments through their diplomatic and intelligence staff and agents in Iran.

In August 15, 1953, Colonel Nematollah Nasiri, the commander of the Imperial Guard, confidently announced a decree from Shah of Iran dismissing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh from office. The decree further announced the arrest of the prime minister should he resist the dismissal (Kinzer, S. 1).

It is worth noting that this coup had been organized by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower of the United States of America for several months before its execution. It is surprising enough to learn that the United States President was actively involved during the final plans of the coup. His presence was meant to assure the Shah that the Americans and the British were responsible for pulling the strings and the plan was bound to succeed through their monetary and diplomatic aid.

The Role of CIA

The role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was to ensure that the coup was executed successful without any resistance (Gasiorowski, M. & Byrne, M. 227). The CIA financed the mobs during this coup. The mobs and military units were well prepared to crush any resistance by Mosaddeq against the announcement of his dismissal.

The CIA is reported to be the main financier of this operation because all the leaders of these mobs were on the CIA payroll. The CIA gave General Fazlollah Zahedi, a retired military officer, a large sum of money, amounting to $ 100,000.00 so that he may accept his appointment as the new Iran’s prime minister.

In the commencement of August (1953), crowds attached to the CIA organised protests demonstrating against Mossadegh’s management, marching all the way through the roads holding portraits (of the Shah) and reciting slogans that portrayed loyalty to the British powers that be. Foreign agents in particular from Britain and the U S corrupted members of parliament who were taken to be resourceful in this coup effort.

The CIA also gave financial aid to the Iranian press so that they may attack Mosaddeq by accusing him that he was a communist and also had a Jewish parentage and a secret sympathizer of the British administration (Kinzer, S. 6). Thus, it was revealed that four fifth of the newspapers in Iran were under the CIA influence (Iran Chamber Society 11).

Thus the CIA engineered the coup plot that was originally a British idea. The CIA also guaranteed the success of this plot thereby reinstating the monarchy and Mohammed Reza Shah, who would rule Iran until the revolutionary events of 1979 (Houghton, D. 58).

The Role of Shah Pahlavi

Shah Pahlavi was actively involved in the coup of 1953. He was a pro-American figure who received a lot of support from the United States in return. After the Iranian coup, he began projects that aimed at westernizing Iran in all sectors including academic institutions. The shah wanted the universities to follow after the highly esteemed United States universities.

His strength of leadership was obliterated after the Islamic revolution that oversaw his downfall. The United States did not offer him support because America thought that the revolution was weak and so it did not require any foreign help.

During the 1960s, the shah oversaw an effort to rapidly industrialize Iran by building factories to ensure that goods no longer needed to be imported to Iran. Thus, he wanted the goods to be produced within its borders (Wagner, H. 46). As a result, there were several huge construction projects that were launched in Tehran. Roads, dams, railways, airports and hospitals were built because of this initiative.

Oil output also increased, thereby guaranteeing greater revenue for Iran. To expound on the success of the Shah’s ambitious project, Iran was able to rise from the smallest oil producing and exporting country in 1960, during the formation of OPEC, to one of the largest in 1967. The shah saw Iran’s oil as a way for the country to change the global political dynamics (Hogan, M. 153).

The Revolution and Its Causes

However, not everyone benefited from Iran’s growing riches. There was a widened gap between the haves and the have-nots. Students were alienated. There were many universities that had been built in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was in these universities that many anti-shah protests would be launched. As educational opportunities increased, and the economy grew, unemployment also remained high. Many graduates found it hard to secure jobs. The shah’s security forces responded to student’s protests with brutal attacks.

In 1964, the shah signed a mutual diplomatic agreement with the United States that granted total diplomatic immunity to all American army officials and their family members residing in Iran. This act infuriated a section of opponents of the Shah’s government, led by Khomeini. He therefore called on mass protests arguing that their independence has been compromised by the diplomatic agreement (Wagner, H. 45). It can thus be synopsized that the onset of the Iranian revolution was caused by a series of many revolutions.

First, there was a political revolution against autocratic rule which, although age-old and indigenous, had by then become increasingly outmoded and anachronistic. Second, there was an economic revolution against perceived inequalities in incomes and opportunities which, although endemic and invidious, had become far more visible and thus more intensely resented.

Third there was a social revolution against a growing stratification in outlook, values, interests, and lifestyles among traditional classes. Finally, there was a religious revolution, against fear of the Persian identity (Amuzegar, J. 5). It is worth noting that as it has been explained, the cold war was a causative factor in the Iranian coup, whose consequences include the Islamic revolution.


The cold war between Russia, the United States and Britain, and the Mosaddeq government played a major role in the onset of the 1953 Iranian coup that led to the subsequent downfall of the Shah Pahlavi’s government. Pahlavi was a pro-American figure who had good diplomatic relationship with the United States.

As a result the United States through the CIA helped the Shah oust Mosaddeq from the prime minister’s position through an organized coup. The main reason for this action was because Mosaddeq’s government had nationalized British property. Mosaddeq’s government was also weak and the U.S. and Britain feared that Iran would fall into Russia’s hands.

Shah Pahlavi succeeded in the coup and engaged in major infrastructural and economic developments. However, not every Iranian citizen benefited from his projects. Consequently, students started demonstrating thereby paving way for stronger anti-Shah campaigns. The Americans overlooked the strength of these anti-Shah protests. This led to the Islamic revolution that oversaw the ousting of the Shah in 1979.

Works Cited

Amuzegar, J. The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis’ Triumph And Tragedy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Curtis, M. “The Coup in Iran, 1953.” WordPress, 2007. Web.

Gasiorowski, M. & Byrne, Malcolm. Mohammad Mosaddeo and the 1953 Coup in Iran. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Gasiorowski, M. “The 1953 coup de tat in Iran.” Department of political sciences, Louisiana State University, 1998. Web.

Gottfried, T. The cold war: the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Twenty first century books. Brookfield, Connecticut. (2003).

Hogan, M. The End of the Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Houghton, D. US Foreign Policy and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2001.

Iran Chamber Society. “A Short Account of 1953 Coup.” Iran Chamber Society, 2010. Web.

Kinzer, S. All the Shah’s Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Nayeri, K, & Nasab, A. The Rise and fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today. 2006. Web.

Wagner, H. The Iranian Revolution. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010.