Anglo interest in Iran has always centered around oil and gas, which is unsurprising. The British discovered oil early on in the 20th century and promptly set up shop. Fast forward to 1941, and in the midst of World War II, Iran was once again strategically important. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had been in power since 1925 sought to modernize Iran, and in doing so had invited German assistance so as to reduce the British oil-centric influence.. This became a problem for the British from the onset of war, and after the Germans attacked the Soviets, Iran became vitally important to both countries as an conduit for arms supply between them.
The shah refused to cut ties with the Germans however, proclaiming that Iran was a neutral country. So the Soviets and British put the squeeze on him, invaded Iran and forced him to abdicate the throne so that his son, the more amenable Mohammed Reza Shah, could take over. After the war, both the British and the Soviets withdrew their troops (although the latter required some ‘coaxing’), and the arrangement went back to how it had been before. The British controlled the oil interests, and the Shah went about implementing modernizing reforms as his father did.
In doing so, he came into conflict with factions which wanted to nationalize the oil, and who were concerned with the Shah’s growing power accumulation versus a more equal relationship with Parliament. This came to a head in the early 1950s, when the Mohammad Mossadegh spearheaded the Parliamentary move to nationalized the oil, against the wishes of the Shah (and of course The West). On the back of this, Mossadegh became Prime Minister and sought to kick the British out, while attempting to consolidate power himself and thus weaken the monarch.
In the process, Mossadegh also came into conflict with the religious clerics (mullahs). Although they approved of the nationalization of the oil, and opposed the Western-influenced secularization and modernization efforts of the Shah, they were concerned that their role and influence would be even further diminished in a new Mossadegh-led order as opposed to the standard quo of the monarchy. So they joined the growing chorus concerned that Mossadegh was getting too big for his britches (as the shah himself was also accused of), and supported his ouster.
This came in 1953, and included help from the British and the CIA, who of course were interested in the oil above anything else. Much has been made of this 1953 ‘coup,’ but the reality was that even though there was CIA involvement, it wasn’t a clean operation. Furthermore, to the extent the CIA intervened, it was in line with the domestic trend of the day, which was to get rid of Mossadegh.
One aspect that caused a lot of consternation, and opened the door for a lot of historical revisionism was the fact that the shah was quite feckless and indecisive. He had every right under Iranian law to get rid of Mossadegh, and even though he wanted Mossadegh out, if it had come from his hand it would have reinforced the growing idea that he was an authoritarian riding roughshod over the rule of law. Thus, he sought support from the British and Americans in fomenting internal discord before doing what he had the right to do on his own.
This dynamic has been twisted a bit in contemporary accounts of 1953, which almost universally state that Mossadegh was a ‘democratically elected’ leader who was overthrown by the CIA. This is not accurate. Mossadegh was democratically elected to Parliament. From there, however, he was nominated by the Shah to become Prime Minister, and approved by the rest of Parliament in a vote. ‘The people’ had no say in Mossadegh ascending to the premiership, and it had always been the shah’s right to nominate and get rid of Prime Ministers at necessary.
Indeed, all it takes is a cursory glance at the list of Iran’s Prime Ministers to see that during Mohammed Reza Shah’s 36 year rule, there were 33 different terms. One was lucky to be in the job for more than a year. PM’s coming and going had always been the way of things, and Mossadegh’s order to leave was no different.
The fact that Mossadegh arrested the officials who informed him of the Shah’s decree, and the shah’s subsequent fleeing to Italy is suggestive of the fact that a coup was going on – but one led by Mossadegh, who at that point was illegally in the office. This was August 13th. By August 16th, Mossadegh had surrendered under the weight of pro-shah protests and the realization that many officials both in government and the military supported the shah. Recall that Mossadegh himself was viewed as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and his actions in 1953 were probalby seen as confirmation of that. CIA influence or not, the Iranians themselves ultimately preferred the Shah to Mossadegh.