How The CIA Overthrew Iran's Democracy In 4 Days : Throughline It's no secret that Iran and the U.S. have a history of animosity toward each other. But when and how did it begin? This week we look back at four days in August 1953, when the CIA orchestrated a coup of Iran's elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

How The CIA Overthrew Iran's Democracy In 4 Days

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August 15, 1953.


Shortly before midnight in Tehran, Iran's capital city, the air was thick with anticipation. Something big was about to happen.

ABDELFATAH: The elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, was sitting at home waiting. He knew something was coming.

ARABLOUEI: And he had no idea if he'd still be prime minister by morning.

ABDELFATAH: So with each tick, tick, tick of the clock, he knew that the future of Iran was at stake.

STEPHEN KINZER: One truckload of presidential guard soldiers were going to Mossadegh's house at midnight.

ABDELFATAH: Their mission was simple.

KINZER: Go to Mossadegh's house in the middle of the night.

ARABLOUEI: Knock on the door.

ABDELFATAH: Tell him he's fired.

KINZER: Mossadegh would then protest, undoubtedly, and say, you can't fire me; I'm elected.

ARABLOUEI: And at that point...

KINZER: You would arrest him.

SANAM VAKIL: That failed because Mossadegh found out about the arrest.

KINZER: News of it leaked out.

VAKIL: Then there was a bit of panic among the army that was supposed to come out and support the arrest of Mossadegh. The phone lines were supposed to be cut. They were not cut. So there were a number of missteps that took place.

KINZER: And when the soldiers arrived at Mossadegh's house to arrest him, other soldiers jumped out of the woods and arrested those guys.

ARABLOUEI: Mossadegh's forces had foiled the coup attempt. He would stay prime minister.

ABDELFATAH: But little did he know, that night was just the beginning of a much bigger battle to come. And it would change the future of Iran and America.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Iran's British-hating premier, Mossadegh, arrived in Cairo, where he...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Former Premier Mosaddegh's ruined house is a mute testimony to three days of bloody rioting, culminating in a military...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Fundamentalism took hold with a fury and a force that helped ignite...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: For the first time, now, the CIA has released documents that show its role in the 1953 coup.

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE.

ARABLOUEI: Where we go back in time.

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey, I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And welcome to the first episode of THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: I'm not going to lie, I'm still a little bit shocked that they gave us a show.

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) I know. I can't believe we're here.

ABDELFATAH: But we're really excited and really glad that you decided to join us for this ride.


ABDELFATAH: Because Ramtin and I have been talking about this for a while. Like a lot of you, we're news junkies. And we were just pretty frustrated with the lack of historical context around a lot of the headlines we were reading.

ARABLOUEI: And we would end up in these Wikipedia wormholes, trying to figure out the history behind things. So we wanted to create a show where you, the listeners, and us could go on this journey every single week and become better informed about the world around us.

ABDELFATAH: And do it in a way that wasn't boring. (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: Yes, exactly.

ABDELFATAH: So in this first episode, we're going to take you to Iran and the story of four days in 1953.


ABDELFATAH: All right, Ramtin, you were born in Iran. And you've spent a bunch of time there. So I'm curious. How much had you heard about this American coup growing up?

ARABLOUEI: I definitely heard stuff about it, especially from my father, who would remind me all the time, like, the only reason we're here in the U.S. is because what the U.S. did to our democracy in 1953, right? And I would always just kind of, like, brush it off, like, whatever. That couldn't have happened. That's just this, like, Iranian conspiracy theory stuff, right? But as I grew up, I realized the U.S. actually did interfere in Iran's politics in 1953.

ABDELFATAH: I'm going to be honest. Like, I didn't have much of an idea about this going into the episode. And it's, like, a really big, shocking thing to not have much of an idea about because I always thought that 1979 was the real pivotal moment - right? - that the Iranian revolution that happened that year and the hostage crisis at the American Embassy, those were the things that really set the tone for, like, this very tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. I mean, that makes sense. Like, why would you or any other American think differently, right? Because 1979 was such an important year. But 1953 is really when it all goes down.

ABDELFATAH: Doesn't it suck that your dad was right?

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) Yeah, it really does. It does.

ABDELFATAH: OK, I want to get into it. It's a great story. So we're going to take you back to that pivotal moment, more than 65 years ago, to understand what happened during the coup.

ARABLOUEI: Why the U.S. made that decision.

ABDELFATAH: And how this event redefined the U.S.-Iran relationship and changed the world.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) They call you lady luck.

ABDELFATAH: August 16, 1953.


SINATRA: (Singing) But there is room for doubt. At times, you have a very unladylike way of running out.

ARABLOUEI: In the early morning of August 16, 1953, American agents were hiding out in a safehouse at a secret location in Tehran, listening to this song, "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" (ph).


SINATRA: (Singing) Luck be a lady tonight. Luck, be a lady tonight.

ARABLOUEI: They were waiting to hear whether the coup they had engineered had worked. And the mood was electric - music blasting, booze flowing. Everyone's celebrating a job well done.

ABDELFATAH: Now, remember, this is 1953. So there were no breaking news alerts, no email, no good way to deliver information fast.

ARABLOUEI: So as far as these guys knew, the coup had gone off without a hitch.

ABDELFATAH: And there was one guy who was especially happy, Kermit Roosevelt.


VAKIL: So Kermit Roosevelt was chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division.

KINZER: Like many of the figures in the early CIA, he had been born into privilege, gone to Ivy League schools. His grandfather had been Theodore Roosevelt.

VAKIL: Distant relative of FDR as well. He was called in to help facilitate this transition.

KINZER: So on July 19, 1953, Kermit Roosevelt crossed over into Iran.

ABDELFATAH: This is Stephen Kinzer. He wrote a groundbreaking book on this coup called...

KINZER: "All The Shah's Men."

ARABLOUEI: And Sanam Vakil.

VAKIL: Oh, OK, now you can hear me. Hello, how are you?

ARABLOUEI: A research fellow at Chatham House in London, where she leads the Iran Forum Project. And they were our guides through this story.

ABDELFATAH: OK, so Kermit Roosevelt entered Iran on July 19 with a pretty big mission ahead of him - stage a coup to get rid of Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

ARABLOUEI: And we'll explain why in a bit.

ABDELFATAH: But the first question Roosevelt had to answer...

KINZER: I've asked myself this question.

ABDELFATAH: ...Was, how?

KINZER: So you're sent into a foreign country. And your assignment is overthrow the government. What do you do? Like, what do you do on the first day? Nine o'clock, you get to the office. How do you start?

ABDELFATAH: Even though the CIA had devised a plan for Roosevelt, no one was sure it would actually work. It was suddenly up to Roosevelt to destabilize a whole country.


ARABLOUEI: Step one.

KINZER: Seize control of the Iranian press.

ARABLOUEI: Basically buy them off with bribes.

KINZER: It turned out that the press was quite corrupt.

ARABLOUEI: And soon enough, Roosevelt had columnists, editors and reporters from most of Iran's newspapers on his payroll. Then anti-Mossadegh propaganda began printing everywhere.

KINZER: Mossadegh was a Jew, a homosexual, a British agent, anything that they thought would - would outrage people.

ARABLOUEI: There was such an appetite for these stories that Iranian journalists just couldn't keep up. So Roosevelt had to recruit CIA agents back in Washington to write some of the articles for the Iranian press.

KINZER: In fact, one of them later wrote a memoir. And he talked about how bizarre it was at the CIA. You had the people plotting the Iran coup. And then you had analysts on the other side who weren't aware of the covert action. And he said, I would write an article about how Mossadegh was an atheist, and he hated God. And then, a couple of days later, a guy from the other side of the hall in the analysis division would run over to my office holding up an Iranian newspaper and saying, wow, you won't believe how the newspapers in Iran are denouncing Mossadegh. Look at this article. And I couldn't tell him, I wrote that article.

ABDELFATAH: Step two, recruit allies on the ground, most importantly the Islamic clergy, or mullahs, who held a lot of power in Iran.

KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt made strategic payments to a number of important mullahs in exchange for them delivering sermons denouncing Mossadegh from the pulpit as against God and irreligious.

ARABLOUEI: Step three, get Iran's king, the shah, on board.

VAKIL: And convince the Iranian shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that Mossadegh was a threat.

ARABLOUEI: This part took some persuading, though.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah because in theory, at least, the shah and the prime minister were meant to work together.

ARABLOUEI: But there was a lot of tension between them because for decades, Iran's Parliament and shah had a tough time sharing power. It would be a big deal for the shah to help overthrow the prime minister. But Roosevelt saw an opening to turn them against each other.

ABDELFATAH: That included bribing the shah's sister in exchange for her help convincing the shah to sign on. And there are reports that a fur coat was even part of the deal. But that tactic failed.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, Roosevelt took matters into his own hands and began meeting with the shah almost every day, at midnight in a taxicab, always in a different location. During these late-night meetings, Roosevelt managed to convince the shah that Mossadegh death was a threat. And so the shah agreed to the coup.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, step four, go to Mossadegh's house in the middle of the night, arrest him and consolidate power in the hands of the shah, who was more friendly towards the West than Mossadegh.

ARABLOUEI: But remember, the coup attempt failed.

ABDELFATAH: At this point you're probably wondering why the U.S. went to all this trouble - sending Roosevelt to Iran, having him stir up chaos in the country and ultimately, trying to carry out a coup. Why were they so hell-bent on getting Mossadegh out of power?

ARABLOUEI: Well, the truth is the U.S. was dragged into the situation by Great Britain all because of one thing.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A fifth of the world's oil supply was cut off.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: And nationalist feeling ran high against Britain and the Western democracies.

KINZER: We sometimes say that countries are blessed with resources. But sometimes, resources can be a curse, particularly if you're a country that's weak because there are always strong countries that want to come and take what you have.

ARABLOUEI: And Iran was cursed with a lot of oil. Oil was discovered there in 1908, and almost immediately Great Britain took an interest. And at that time, Britain was the world's biggest superpower. So they decided to strike a deal with the Iranian Shah. And they needed a lot of oil.

KINZER: This deal between the British and Iran was completely one-sided.

VAKIL: Great Britain was taking well over 80 percent of the revenues, while Iran was receiving about 10 to 12 percent of the revenues from its natural resource.

ABDELFATAH: Wait, wait, a deal like that makes no sense though. Why did Iran agree to that?

ARABLOUEI: Well, yeah, it makes no sense unless you're in desperate need of money. And Iran's government in the early 20th century was desperate.

KINZER: Iran, during the early part of the 20th century, was still ruled by the old Qajar royal dynasty. So it was a very corrupt dynasty, and it supported itself by selling off anything of value in Iran.

ARABLOUEI: They sold off the transportation industry, the tobacco industry, the caviar fisheries. They even sold off the country's treasury and banking industries. It was basically a free-for-all. And the British were first in line. Oil was by far their most valuable acquisition. And here's a fun fact. The company that controlled all of that oil was originally called the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which would later become...


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Every day, BP supplies the fuel...


ABDELFATAH: Oh, British Petroleum.



UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Vehicles all over the earth.

ABDELFATAH: So this was obviously very lucrative for them.

ARABLOUEI: Very lucrative. And during World War I and II, Iranian oil pumped life into the British war effort. So it was absolutely essential to Britain's future.

ABDELFATAH: OK, this all really helps explain the next part of the story - right? - because before he's even prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh got to work lobbying against this unfair oil deal, hoping to get a better deal for Iran.

ARABLOUEI: He tried to negotiate a new deal with the British that would allow Iran to keep a bigger share of the profits.

ABDELFATAH: Which I'm sure freaked out the British.

ARABLOUEI: And when negotiations broke down, the British imposed a worldwide embargo on Iranian oil. Eventually, in 1951, Mossadegh convinced the Iranian Parliament to nationalize Iran's oil. And a month later, he was elected prime minister, which really sent the British through the roof.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Premier Mossadegh, spearhead of the oil nationalization program, took his case to the United Nations, where he remained adamant in his stand...

ARABLOUEI: So the British decided that the only solution was to get rid of Mossadegh and put in a more favorable government. And Mossadegh, sensing the British were up to something, shut down their embassy in Iran.

ABDELFATAH: And here's where I'm assuming the U.S. enters the picture, right?


KINZER: So they called the Americans for help. And President Truman said, no, not going to do it. He actually sent a mediator to Iran. He had Mossadegh come to Washington to try to persuade him. But when nothing worked, he essentially told the British, there's nothing you can do. You're going to have to swallow this, like we had to swallow Mexico, nationalizing its oil industry in the '30s. We didn't like it. You're just going to have to live with this.

ARABLOUEI: But the following year, Dwight Eisenhower became president. And his thinking was a little different.

KINZER: Suddenly, you don't have an American president who forbids military action. But on the contrary, you have a new team that's eager to show that it's going to roll back threats to the United States. And that played right into the British hands.

ARABLOUEI: Plus, this was right around the time when the Cold War was heating up. And Iran happened to share a border with the Soviet Union.

KINZER: So what can he do to show that he's fighting communism? Well, he can't bomb Moscow. He's not going to invade China. You can't go after the real enemy. It's not possible. So you have to go after somebody else.

VAKIL: Iran, also in this period - and I think it's important to mention - there was a communist party known as the Tudeh that was active in Parliament, was supporting Mossadegh.

ARABLOUEI: And even though, by all accounts, Mossadegh was not a communist himself, the U.S. was still on high alert. So all these factors...

KINZER: A, the British want us to do it.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually convinced the U.S...

KINZER: B, Mossadegh is threatening the world economic order.

ARABLOUEI: To get on board with Britain's plan...

KINZER: C, we're desperate for a victory.

ARABLOUEI: To stage a coup and overthrow Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.


SINATRA: (Singing) And yet before this evening is over, you might give me the brush. You might forget your manners.

ABDELFATAH: At 6 a.m. the morning after the coup attempt, Roosevelt and his men, tired from a night of partying, tuned into the radio. But all they heard was silence. And Roosevelt knew something had gone wrong. Then suddenly, the radio crackled on.


ABDELFATAH: Military music started playing, and Mossadegh announced victory over an attempted coup.


MOHAMMAD MOSSADEGH: (Speaking foreign language).

ABDELFATAH: He noticed that the shah was nowhere to be found and immediately suspected that the shah was behind the coup attempt. Meanwhile, the shah knew this might happen. And, fearing Mossadegh would come after him, hopped on his private plane and flew to Baghdad.

KINZER: And from there, he went on to Rome, where he told reporters, I'm probably going to have to look for work now because I'm obviously never going to be able to go back to Iran.

ABDELFATAH: So to recap, at the end of Day 2, the Shah had left Iran. Mossadegh was still in power with no idea that the U.S. was behind the coup attempt. And Roosevelt had failed. But even though his bosses back in Washington told him he could go home after the coup failed...

KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt was not willing to give up that easily. I think it came a little bit from the old CIA can-do mentality. I think he also sensed how weak the Iranian political establishment was. He thought he still had assets that he hadn't used.

ABDELFATAH: Mossadegh wasn't out of the woods just yet.

KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt had not given up and would actually - was having a plan B.


ARABLOUEI: August 17, 1953.


ABDELFATAH: A couple days after the failed coup attempt, crowds of supporters packed the streets chanting the words, Mossadegh has won and, victory to the nation. It seemed like the worst was behind Mossadegh. He survived a coup attempt and lived to tell the tale. But this was the calm before the storm. Backroom dealings were happening out of sight. And the threat to Mossadegh was still very real. And we'll get to that.

ARABLOUEI: But during this momentary calm, we want to give you some insight into the man who was at the center of this whole thing, the man the U.S. and Britain were terrified of, Mohammad Mossadegh.

EBRAHIM NOROUZI: You'd get the feeling that this is a kind, fatherly person who cares about the people. And he's very respectful of people. He talks to people with respect. For the first time...


MOSSADEGH: (Foreign language spoken).

NOROUZI: That an Iranian politician would address them as, dear fellow citizen.

ARABLOUEI: This is Dr. Ebrahim Norouzi.

NOROUZI: I'm a retired physician.

ARABLOUEI: Dr. Norouzi was born in 1942, in a town in Iran called Kasvin. And he's a Mossadegh super-fan. He even created a website to honor him. Dr. Norouzi became very interested in politics from a young age.

NOROUZI: I have no idea exactly why because we didn't even have radio in our house when I was a kid, you know, when I was in elementary school. Maybe - I was very tiny, and I was bullied a lot. Maybe it's so I wanted some sort of justice in the world.

ARABLOUEI: Dr. Norouzi, like a lot of Iranians, sees Mossadegh as kind of a national hero, a sort of Gandhi for Iran. He's really become a mythical figure. But to really understand Mossadegh, we have to find the man behind the myth.


KINZER: So Mohammad Mossadegh was an Iranian aristocrat.

ABDELFATAH: Again, Stephen Kinzer.

KINZER: His father had been finance minister for decades under the Qajar regime. His mother was a princess.

VAKIL: He held various positions.

ABDELFATAH: That's Sanam Vakil.

VAKIL: Minister of foreign affairs, minister of finance, elected twice to the Iranian Parliament.

KINZER: He went off to be educated in Europe. He came home and began campaigning against the agreement by which the British were trying to subjugate Iran and became quite outraged at the injustices he saw around him.

VAKIL: And Mossadegh was known to be very dramatic. There are these anecdotes where he used to receive visitors in his bed, in his pajamas, for example.

ABDELFATAH: Mossadegh was a pretty eccentric guy, prone to outbursts and dramatic speeches where he would cry, even pass out. And the U.S. and Britain saw him as kind of erratic and unreliable, difficult to negotiate with, even if he was a fan of democratic ideas.

VAKIL: Very much believed in the democratic ideals and checks and balances that were necessary to curtail monarchical power at the time. And he came of age during a time where these changes also influenced the political system.

ABDELFATAH: The biggest political change he witnessed happened when Mossadegh was in his 20s. Between 1905 and 1911, Iran went through a constitutional revolution.

KINZER: This was a remarkable moment in Middle Eastern history and in the history of the developing world. Iran developed a constitution in 1906. There are countries in the Middle East that don't even have a constitution today.

ABDELFATAH: The revolution sought to make Iran more democratic, with things like a parliament, a constitution and a free press.

ARABLOUEI: See, for centuries, the country had been ruled by Shahs, or kings, with power passing from fathers to sons. But by the turn of the 20th century...

ABDELFATAH: By the turn of the 20th century, the corrupt, irresponsible business dealings of the Shahs were driving the Iranian economy straight into the ground, which made the Shahs really unpopular among the people.

ARABLOUEI: And this wasn't like normal corruption. We're talking crazy, excessive spending.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. Like, one Shah had a harem of 1,600 people.

ARABLOUEI: Sixteen-hundred.

ABDELFATAH: One-six-zero-zero. And he and his many, many sons would use the national treasury as their personal piggy bank, taking money out whenever, you know, they wanted to travel around Europe.

ARABLOUEI: He also demanded that people call him one of the following names...


ARABLOUEI: Shah of Shahs.


ARABLOUEI: Asylum of the Universe.


ARABLOUEI: Subduer of Climate.


ARABLOUEI: Guardian of the Flock.


ARABLOUEI: Or, Shadow of God on Earth.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) I could see you wanting to be called Guardian of the Flock.


ABDELFATAH: Or would you prefer Shadow of God on Earth?

ARABLOUEI: I personally like Subduer of Climate. That just feels...

ABDELFATAH: What does that even mean?

ARABLOUEI: I don't know. But it just feels like a very...

ABDELFATAH: We need a subduer of climate right now.

ARABLOUEI: We actually - we do need one right now. You're right.

ABDELFATAH: Anyway, point is, the shahs were out of control, and the Constitutional Revolution united people across Iran against the shahs, in favor of a more representative government.

VAKIL: A coalition, if you will, of intellectuals, people from the bazaar, the clergy.

ARABLOUEI: When that coalition stood up to the monarchy, violence broke out.

ABDELFATAH: And one of the most interesting stories that I came across, Ramtin, that I don't think I've told you about yet was the story of this American guy who actually fought in Iran's Constitutional Revolution.

ARABLOUEI: What? Really?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. His name was...

NOROUZI: Howard Baskerville.

ABDELFATAH: Howard Baskerville.

NOROUZI: Who was a graduate of Princeton University seminary school.

VAKIL: Baskerville was an American missionary. And in this period, there was a lot of missionary activity coming from the United States. They would support education in various countries throughout the Middle East.

NOROUZI: He came to Iran, and he identified with their plight. And Baskerville wanted to go and fight.

ABDELFATAH: On the side of the constitutionalists?

NOROUZI: Exactly.

ABDELFATAH: But the U.S. representative in Iran begged Baskerville not to join the fight.

NOROUZI: He came to him and yelled at him, no, you can't do that, you know. You shouldn't get involved in civil war of other countries. You came here to help, you know. But he wouldn't listen. And then he threatened him that, if you go and involve yourself in the war, I take away your passport.

He said, OK, this is my passport. He threw it at him. He said, no, just because I was born in America, that doesn't mean I'm better than them. I'm like them. I'm going to fight for them, for their cause, and that this is a good cause.


NOROUZI: Unfortunately, he dies, just the first hour of a battle. And by the way, Baskerville, his sculpture was installed in constitutional hall in Tabriz, and his tomb is like a worship place. So Iranians extrapolated this missionary's action to America as a government. So what I'm saying is that American left a very good impression in Iran. Iranians loved it.

ABDELFATAH: I had never heard of this guy, Howard Baskerville.

ARABLOUEI: Neither had I before this. I mean, it's really wild to think that this guy would have laid down his life for Iran's Constitutional Revolution. Like, think about it. How many Americans at that time even knew where Iran was, let alone go over there and fight?

ABDELFATAH: Right. And it's interesting because at that time, Britain and the shah were the bad guys, but America was kind of an ally in their fight.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. Yeah, exactly - until they got involved.


ARABLOUEI: In the days after the coup attempt, however, all that seemed to matter was that Mossadegh was a man of the people and that he was still in power. But out of sight, a new plot against Mossadegh was brewing.

ABDELFATAH: Kermit Roosevelt's plan B.


ARABLOUEI: August 19.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Attention is focused once again on the Middle East, where events in Iran have taken a dramatic double twist.

ARABLOUEI: During the three days after the shah fled and Roosevelt's coup attempt failed...

ABDELFATAH: ...Roosevelt set the stage for his second coup attempt. And on August 19, it began.

ARABLOUEI: Hundreds and hundreds of rioters filled the streets of Tehran. And, in a word, it was chaos.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Three hundred killed and hundreds wounded is a conservative estimate.

KINZER: And his plan was this. First of all, hire gangs of Iranians through people who controlled criminal protection rackets, and pay them to go out on the street and cause chaos.

ABDELFATAH: So Roosevelt actually paid criminals and gang members to storm into the city.

ARABLOUEI: Beat up people in the streets.

ABDELFATAH: Break shop windows.

KINZER: Shoot your guns into mosques.

ABDELFATAH: And while doing all that, yell...

KINZER: We love Mossadegh. We love communism.

ARABLOUEI: And then...

KINZER: He hired a second mob to attack the first mob.

ARABLOUEI: Which led to bloody, violent clashes between the two mobs.

ABDELFATAH: And the really trippy thing was that everybody involved...

KINZER: Everybody involved in the battles was being paid to be there. But what they didn't know was they were being paid by the same source.

ARABLOUEI: The CIA. And all of this was designed to create confusion and to signal that Mossadegh was the source of the violence in the country, that he was losing control, which was becoming more and more true.

KINZER: Mossadegh refused to send the police out because he said, well, they're peaceful demonstrators. People should be allowed to say what they want. He truly was too naive to grasp what was happening.

ABDELFATAH: And this brings us to the final part Roosevelt's plan, to get rid of Mossadegh once and for all. Roosevelt ordered both mobs to head to Mossadegh's house.

KINZER: So a giant crowd surrounded Mossadegh's house.

ABDELFATAH: Shouting insults and throwing stones.

KINZER: Then who should show up but several police and military commanders, including a couple with tanks, people who Kermit Roosevelt had bribed to participate?

ABDELFATAH: Those officers began opening fire on Mossadegh's house while, inside, Mossadegh and a few of his closest advisers huddled together.

KINZER: Tells them, I want to die here in the house.


KINZER: But somehow they managed to drag him out a back window. They got him over a fence. He fled. The house was looted. And immediately thereafter, Kermit Roosevelt went to get his savior general, who he'd been hiding in a safe house, brought the guy to a radio station. And the guy proclaimed himself as the new leader of Iran.


FAZLOLLAH ZAHEDI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: So this guy, General Zahedi, was put in power as a placeholder until the shah - who, remember, had fled to Rome - could return. Mossadegh eventually turned himself in. And just like that, with a couple of chess moves, Kermit Roosevelt's plan ushered Iran into a new era.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The shah, who had fled to Rome, comes home backed by a General Zahedi, military strongman, who engineered his return to power.

ARABLOUEI: Everything Mossadegh was, the shah was not.

ABDELFATAH: Which isn't really surprising given the corruption of the shahs.

ARABLOUEI: The shah then ruled over Iran like a dictator for 25 years. And the Western powers, including the U.S., didn't really care because he gave them easy access to Iran's oil.

ABDELFATAH: During that time, the shah did everything in his power to get rid of any trace of the Mossadegh era.

NOROUZI: Mossadegh's name was banned.

ARABLOUEI: Again, Dr. Norouzi.

NOROUZI: You don't hear anything about Mossadegh after the coup. And that was - that was the time I was actually in high school. I don't remember anything, you know, much.

ARABLOUEI: Mossadegh, the coup, they were off-limits, things that the Iranian government wanted people to forget.

ABDELFATAH: Under these conditions, Mossadegh became a sort of legend, a symbol of Iran's lost potential.

ARABLOUEI: The CIA only officially acknowledged its role in the coup in 2013, 60 years later.

ABDELFATAH: In case you're wondering what happened to Mossadegh...

KINZER: So he turned himself in.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: In the quick shift of power, Mossadegh was finally apprehended and awaits trial for treason.

KINZER: And was placed on trial, was convicted of treason and sentenced to a prison term followed by life under house arrest. A couple of his closest advisers were executed. There were hundreds of other executions of people who were suspected to be disloyal in the military. And Mossadegh remained almost a taboo figure, almost - for the rest of his life.

ABDELFATAH: As for Kermit Roosevelt...

KINZER: Kermit Roosevelt stayed in Tehran to wait for the shah to come back from Rome and then arranged a farewell meeting with the shah before leaving Iran. The shah greeted him with a toast. And he said, I owe my throne to God, my people and you. He was right - although, it might not be the right order.

So Kermit Roosevelt went home. And of course, he was welcomed jubilantly back in Washington as kind of a conquering hero. He went on to more years at the CIA, then later left, became an oil consultant.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, and speaking of oil, the holy grail of resources that started this whole thing, as you might expect, Iranians still ended up with a pretty bad deal after the coup was said and done.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Iranian oil may again flow westward.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: OK, so given all this...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: Fundamentalism took hold...

ARABLOUEI: ...Resentment built up against the shah.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: The shah declared martial law in most of Iran...

ARABLOUEI: And in 1979...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: Iranians reached a breaking point and revolted against the shah.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: The crowd shouted, death to the shah.

ARABLOUEI: The shah fled Iran. And the clergy assumed control of the country. That same year, a hostage crisis unfolded at the American Embassy.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: CBS News. Young Iranians described as students acting with the blessing of Ayatollah Khomeini have occupied the American Embassy in Tehran.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: After 30 days of unsuccessfully trying to get the American hostages out of Iran, the government of the United States is now trying to get the deposed Shah of Iran out of this country. And there is no sign tonight that either problem is likely to be solved soon.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: So in 1979, the 1953 coup was invoked as justification for seizing the American Embassy. The argument was, at the time, that these diplomats, these American diplomats inside the embassy, were about to do what Americans had done in Iran overthrowing Mossadegh and restoring the shah. And they were about to do the same thing, and therefore, they justified to the public why they needed to shut the embassy down.

ABDELFATAH: This is Roya Hakakian. She writes a lot about this time in Iran's history, and the subject is deeply personal for her.

HAKAKIAN: As someone who was born and raised in Iran during the tumultuous years of the Iranian revolution and its aftermath.

ABDELFATAH: And Roya challenged everything we thought we knew about this story because up until now, we thought the basic story was this. Pre-1953, U.S. and Iran are pretty chill. Britain is the bad guy. 1953 coup happens. The U.S. installs a dictator in Iran. And eventually, the people respond with a revolution and hostage crisis. And the U.S. and Iran become mortal enemies.

HAKAKIAN: So that is the narrative that was presented at the time. It was wrong for the U.S. to intervene. But at the same time, this isn't the whole story. And it tells only a very small part of why Iran has been stuck in this place for so long.

ABDELFATAH: Roya says that narrative lets one group off the hook way too easily - Iran's clergy.

HAKAKIAN: A piece that's missing from the way this narrative has been told is the fact that Kermit Roosevelt decides - very wisely, obviously - to go pay a visit to the Grand Ayatollah Behbahani in Tehran. And, you know, history changes course after he does that.

ABDELFATAH: So remember when Roosevelt got help from the mullahs to carry out his plan B after that first coup attempt failed? Well, Roya thinks that moment was the real game-changer. She says Iran's clergy has been conspiring behind the scenes for a long time to oppose democracy in Iran.

ARABLOUEI: She says they saw a chance to undermine democracy in 1953. And then, in 1979, when it seemed like democracy would be the result of the revolution, they saw another opportunity to take power. And they did this all while invoking Mossadegh's name.

HAKAKIAN: Yes. Yes, it's really, truly ironic because by 1979, Mossadegh is long dead. But his legacy is not. So while he himself was completely axed by the clerical powers at the time, his narrative, his legacy, became very useful to the regime.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, it's a mistake to put all the blame for Iran's problems on the U.S. intervention in 1953, that the Iranian clergy have played a part too.

ARABLOUEI: I hear what Roya's saying. Iran's mullahs have definitely done a number on the country. And there's plenty of blame to go around between the U.S. and Iran, especially since 1979.

ABDELFATAH: There's a long list of back-and-forth grievances that have added to and fueled the tension.

ARABLOUEI: But you can still make the argument that the original sin of the U.S.-Iran relationship was what happened in August, 1953.

ABDELFATAH: And that that set the tone for everything to follow.

KINZER: In the United States, U.S.-Iran relations begin and end with the hostage crisis. That's the moment that is the key turning point and the source of everything. From the Iranian perspective, things are very different. Iranian and American perceptions, they're like parallel train tracks that just keep running parallel. They never coincide.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for our first episode. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: Our show was produced by me and Ramtin.

ARABLOUEI: Our team includes...




MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, yo, it's Michelle Lanz.


ARABLOUEI: Thank you also to Larry Kaplow for his editing help and Greta Pittenger for her help fact-checking.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And special thanks to Anya Grunmann.

ABDELFATAH: Chris Turpin.

ARABLOUEI: Mathilde Piard.

ABDELFATAH: And Steve Nelson.

ARABLOUEI: For working so hard to make this show a reality.

ABDELFATAH: And Nader Arablouei, Ramtin's dad, who helped us out with some translations.

ARABLOUEI: Finally, a big...

ABDELFATAH: ...Huge...

ARABLOUEI: ...Massive shout out to Guy Raz.

ABDELFATAH: Jeff Rogers.

ARABLOUEI: Neva Grant.

ABDELFATAH: Sanaz Meshkinpour.

ARABLOUEI: And the whole TED Radio Hour and How I Built This team.

ABDELFATAH: For teaching us how to make radio.

If you like the show, please leave us a review on iTunes.

ARABLOUEI: And tell your friends to subscribe. And let's keep the conversation going. If you have an idea or thoughts on the episode, hit us up on Twitter, @throughlinenpr, or send us an email to

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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