United States Propaganda in Iran: 1951-1953



Using Jowett and O’Donnell’s system of propaganda analysis, the present case study concentrates on America’s dominant propaganda messages, techniques, and media channels used in Iran during the time period between 1951 and 1953.  The chosen period is of historical significance since it entails the Iranian nationalization of oil crisis and the 1953 coup against the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.  The coup was the first CIA-sponsored covert operation against a foreign government and served as a model for subsequent operations elsewhere.

An examination of the official correspondence of the major U.S. actors involved, as documented in the tenth volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, reveals that the primary objective of U.S. policy in Iran was to maintain Western control of the country’s oil resources as a means to curb Soviet power in the region.  American officials realized that nationalism was a real and potent force in the country and that Mosaddeq enjoyed overwhelming public support.  Frustrated with the failure of a negotiated settlement, the Truman administration began to secretly plan for covert action.  The coup was eventually implemented under the Eisenhower administration.

The nationalistic nature of Iranian public opinion which equated Russian and British forms of imperialism ran counter to American policies in the region.  To mitigate this counter-productive mentality, the United States planned its propaganda programs to raise the desire of the Iranian people to resist communism.  Thus, in the three years before the coup, U.S. propaganda messages concentrated on spreading an anti-communist ideology.

In the months preceding the coup, the United States spent more than $1,000,000 in part to buy the allegiance of influential Iranian figures, such as deputies of the parliament, and to purchase the services of the controllable Iranian press.  The CIA relied on black propaganda to reduce Mosaddeq’s popularity and legitimacy by, among other things, alleging that his actions were in line with the Tudeh Party (the Iranian communist party) and that he was an anti-religious individual.  As a whole, the thesis shows the centrality of propaganda to U.S. foreign policy.

Excerpt from pp. 69-70

The Tehran station sent out propaganda guidelines to U.S. stations in “Karachi, New Delhi, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Beirut that the Zahedi’s government was the only legal one.”280  Meanwhile, rumor spread that the coup was staged by Mosaddeq’s government in order to give it a pretext to move against the Shah and abolish the monarchy.  CIA agents put out a broadsheet that “documented” the rumor that Mosaddeq had arranged the coup to force out the Shah.  Several of the paid newspapers, including Dad and Shahed, were put to the service of the new line of propaganda.

On August 17, the opposition newspapers, including Dad and Shahed, publicized the CIA propaganda that the coup was Mosaddeq’s plot to remove the Shah.  Figure 5 is an image of the front page of the August 17th copy of Shahed, which was the official newspaper of the Zahmatkeshan Party (The “Toilers” Party).  The headlines on this page read as follows: “Mosaddeq’s coup d’etat show is still to continue,” “The government’s faked coup d’etat for changing the regime,” “The horrific specter of bullying and communism haunts Iran,” “To complete Mosaddeq’s coup d’etat [i.e., the referendum to dissolve the Majlis], they brought about this coup d’etat.  Our party opposes any coup d’etat against the constitutional parliamentary regime,” “A puppet show: How the coup d’etat plot was revealed,” and “People!  Don’t you be fooled.  The coup d’etat is the second stage of the referendum comedy.”281

Figure 5.  The front page of the anti-Mosaddeq Tehran-based newspaper Shahed dated August 17, 1953282

280 Ibid.

281  Abdullah Shahbazi, “Barresiye Asnad Va Manabe’i Koudeta: Mosahebeh Ba Vizhenameyi Rouznameyi Hamshahri Be Monasebati Panjahomin Salgardi Koudetayi 28 Mordadi 1332 (Analyzing the Documents and Sources on the Coup D’etat: An Interview with the Special Edition of the Hamshahri Newspaper on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the August 19, 1953 Coup D’etat),” The Personal Webpage of Abdullah Shahbazi.

282  Ibid.

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Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria received her master’s degree from the Manship School of Mass Communication at the Louisiana State University.  The above is the abstract of and an excerpt from her thesis United States Propaganda in Iran: 1951-1953.  She defended this thesis on 3 April 2009.

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