Literary Review

In 1953, Middle Eastern oil was a booming market that was vital to an increasingly globalized international market. When Mohammad Mossadeq was democratically elected to be the Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 he wanted to nationalize the oil industry and take the control away from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was a British company. The British and the United States feared the loss of access to affordable oil. Therefore, the British Security Service, the MI5, and the United States’ CIA organized a coup to overthrow Mossadeq to ensure that they would continue to have access to affordable oil. This coup is known as Operation AJAX. As time has elapsed since the Operation, the literature regarding it has changed significantly. Contemporaries did not view oil as the primary issue of Operation Ajax. In the 1980’s however, the discussion begins to change. Between 1980 and 2009, some scholars continued to assert that Operation Ajax must be viewed as a coup that was motivated by fear of Mossadeq’s close relationship with Moscow while others claim access to cheap oil was a greater motivation.

In the early 1980s the oil boom was in full swing, and the United States depended on foreign oil tremendously. People began writing secondary sources about Operation AJAX in the early 1980s because the Shah was overthrown in a coup in 1979. The literature regarding Operation AJAX primarily blamed the influence of the oil companies and the strong need for foreign oil on the interference in Iran. In Amin Saikal’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Shah, published in 1980, he discussed how important oil was to the United States. “In October 1953 John Foster Dulles commissioned Herbert Hoover Jr., a petroleum advisor and the son of the ex-president, to find a solution for the Anglo-Iranian dispute, but to make sure that this time the U.S. companies had a share in the Iranian oil industry.”1 This took place a mere two months after the overthrow of Mossadeq, and this action exemplifies exactly why Saikal thought the United States meddled in Iranian affairs. According to John D. Stempel’s 1981 book, in Inside the Iranian Revolution, “five U.S. corporations joined other oil companies to form the National Iranian Oil Company consortium. Though Iran would receive 50 percent of the profits, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of California, Texaco, Socony-Mobil, and Gulf Oil acquired a 40 percent share of the oil production..the U.S. could substantially influence Iranian oil policy.”2 Obviously oil brought in huge revenue for the United States and both Saikal and Stempel argued that oil was the reason the United States went into Iran to overthrow Mossadeq. This point is further discussed in Nikki R. Keddie’s 1981 book, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. “The United States was increasingly hostile to nationalization, and the American oil companies joined an unofficial but effective worldwide major-oil-campanies’ boycott of Iranian oil, sparked by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company after nationalization was declared.”3 All three of these authors believe that oil was the deciding factor to overthrow Mossadeq.

In the early 1990s the argument that the coup was undertaken to impose a friendly regime in Iran was pre-eminent. Louise L’Estrange Fawcett argued the beginnings of a different idea in her 1992 book, Iran and the Cold War: The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946. Events “also helped to draw together the different threads of an emergent Cold War policy: one grounded on changing perceptions of its wartime allies and of the United States’ own world role.”4 Her book was written immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it is unsurprising that literature from that time would pay greater attention to the Soviet Union. She argues that the United States not only feared Mossadeq’s Marxist leanings, but the threat of a Soviet occupation of Iran. The United States “shared Britain’s concern about the possible outcome of the Soviet occupation, but concern would not be followed by action until the Soviet threat assumed far larger proportions, and coincided with the realization of Soviet aspirations in other areas.”5 Fawcett’s argument differs tremendously from Keddie, Stempel, and Saikal of the 1980s. While post-Watergate and post-Vietnam malaise may help to explain the cynicism of American foreign relations scholars in the 1980s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 may help to explain why the role of communism garnered more attention from scholars in the early 1990s.

Presently, the United States leads a unipolar world in which it invests heavily in projecting power and influence abroad. In the literature during the 2000s (all of them are after September 11, 2001), United States foreign policy was the key argument for our reasons to organize Operation AJAX. Mohammad Mossadeq was an Iranian nationalist, and certainly no friend of Britain and the United States. Meanwhile, the Shah of Iran was seen as a pawn for Western interests. Malcolm Byrne writes in the introduction to his 2004 book with Mark J. Gasiorowski, Mohammad Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, “the hopes of the Truman administration and even President Eisenhower that the United States would be seen as the defender of regional aspirations for independence began to seem especially hollow after August 1953…U.S. planners treated TPAJAX as a model for future clandestine operations.”6 Clearly Byrne believed that the United States wanted to implement a leader in Iran who was pro-Western and would cater to the demands of the United States. Similarly, Gholam Reza Afkhami wrote in his 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Shah, that “there were Americans who favored the military as the nexus of U.S.-Iranian relations to assure U.S. security imperatives.”7 During the 1950s the main and most dangerous enemy to the United States was the Soviet Union. The sources written in the 2000s focused on that rivalry, and focused on the security threat posed by the Soviet Union. “In January 1950 the National Security Council prepared a seminal document that asserted the need for the United States to confront communist movements in regions of vital security interests.”8 Obviously after September 11, 2001, security was a driving force in American society, so it makes sense that Afkhami and his contemporaries focus on national security in explaining Operation AJAX.

The overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 was a watershed moment in the 20th century, for resentment of the Shah culminated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The literature of the topic has changed since the early 1980s. When secondary literature first started appearing about Operation AJAX, oil was most often cited as the impetus for the operation. However, as time elapsed, the theses of the books started to shift views of why the United States organized a coup in Iran. By 2009, scholars were paying more attention to broader security concerns, undoubtedly because of the greater focus on national security among scholars in the post-9/11 world.


1Amin Saikal, The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 48.

2John D. Stempel, Inside the Iranian Revolution (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1981), 65.

3Nikki R. Keddie, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), 134.

4Louise L’Estrange Fawcett, Iran and the Cold War: The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946 (Cambridge, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 108.

5Fawcett, Iran and the Cold War, 115.

6Malcolm Byrne and Mark J. Gasiorowski, Mohammad Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004), Introduction 15. This information is also portrayed in a different book. Although the wording is not the same, the points resonate in both sources.

Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921 (London, United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 135-139.

7Gholam Reza Afkhami, The Life and Times of the Shah (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2009), 215.

8Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003), 84-85.

Comments are closed.