In the Wikipedia article 1953 Iranian coup d'état it claims:

According to the CIA's declassified documents and records, some of the most feared mobsters in Tehran were hired by the CIA to stage pro-Shah riots on 19 August

But it has no source.

Reverse lookup only finds it in False Flags, Covert Operations, & Propaganda by Robert B. Durham, but that book was published in 2014 while the sentence has been on Wikipedia since at least 2012

Is there any evidence for or against the claim?

  • I removed the mention of Shaban Jafari, because I couldn't see how the claim related to him at all. Happy for him to reappear if the connection to the claim can be shown.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 23:52
  • 2
    The next sentence after the claim is related, and there is a reference to "Zulaika, Joseba (2009). Terrorism: the self-fulfilling prophecy. University of Chicago Press. p. 139" I imagine that is intended to support both sentences. I haven't seen the contents though, so I can't be sure.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 23:53
  • One mans most feared mobster is another mans freedom fighter
    – daniel
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 0:23
  • 3
    I have to believe that coming up with a reliable answer to this is impossible. Even if you can find a bona fide CIA document asserting it is true, it is not unreasonable to believe that the CIA might have what they feel is valid justification for lying. Likewise for other sources. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 1:51
  • 3
    @LGBTQIAxyz - To not expose a mole. To discredit another actor. Many possibilities. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 13:20

1 Answer 1


That is very complicated to answer. It depends on definitions of exactly how and when everybody implicated was involved. While focusing on a specific date, like 19th August alone, might make the question more answerable in an exact manner, this moment will then distort the proper view of that tumultuous process that took quite a bit longer than a (few) single day(s).

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a historian to gain access to the CIA archives on the 1953 coup in Iran. These archives remain inaccessible even though half a century has passed, the Pahlavi dynasty has fallen, the Cold War has ended, most participants have died, and materials from other covert actions, such as Guatemala, have been released. What is more, an Executive Order from 1995 instructs government departments to “automatically” declassify documents after 25 years. In the early 1990s, the CIA sought more time to release the 1953 documents on Iran on the grounds it lacked funds to catalog these bulky files. In the late 1990s, however, it claimed these same files could not be released because they had been destroyed “unknowingly” in the early 1960s. […]
Although the original CIA materials remain inaccessible, the main pieces of the 1953 puzzle can be put together from diverse sources: from British Foreign Office archives in the Public Record Office in London (although sanitized, these archives contain over 1000 files on Iran, including photocopies of U. S. documents); from memoirs written by Iranians (after the 1979 revolution numerous nationalist and leftwing officers came forth with their reminiscences); from two oral history projects (one with leftists (Ahmadi, 1985–95), the other with members of the old elite (Ladjevardi, 1993)); from accounts written by the two key coup planners (Kermit Roosevelt (1979), the CIA head of the venture, and Montague Woodehouse, his counterpart in the British MI6 (Woodehouse, 1982)); and from scraps of information dropped by lesser CIA and MI6 operatives, especially to academic researchers such as Mark Gasiorowski (1979) and Stephen Dorril (2000).[…] The Rashidians themselves had useful contacts in the bazaar: with Sha‘ban Jafari, nicknamed Sha‘ban Bimokh (Brainless), the most dangerous gang leader; with guild elders among butchers, bakers, confectioners, and sugar loaf–makers; and with middle-ranking clerics associated with the conservative Mojahedin-e Islam and the terroristic Fedayyan-e Islam (FO 248/Persia 1952/38572). Woodhouse estimates that the Rashidians funneled every month at least 10,000 pounds sterling to these clerics, politicians, and newspaper editors. (Note: this is referring to 1951.)

The British and Americans got in, tried to get their hands dirty and did that, quite successfully. But apart from getting really dirty hands and spending a lot of money their success in influencing the outcome of Iranian politics is seen as limited in recent times, as most other forces at play apparently marched into that direction anyway. But still: there is no single reliable source about the events out there and isolated facts together with often contradictory accounts still form a puzzle to solve. The conventional history is as follows:

Roosevelt, however, was not so easily discouraged. He had built up a far-reaching network of Iranian agents and had paid them a great deal of money. Many of them, especially those in the police and the army, had not yet had a chance to show what they could do. Sitting in his bunker beneath the American embassy, he considered his options. Returning home was the obvious one. He even received a cable from his CIA superiors urging that he do so. Instead of obeying, he summoned two of his top Iranian operatives and told them he was determined to make another stab at Mossadegh.
These two agents had excellent relations with Tehran's street gangs, and Roosevelt told them he now wished to use those gangs to set off riots around the city. To his dismay, they replied that they could no longer help him because the risk of arrest had become too great. This was a potentially fatal blow to Roosevelt's new plan. He responded in the best tradition of secret agents. First he offered the two agents $50,000 to continue working with him. They remained unmoved. Then he added the second part of his deal: if the men refused, he would kill them. That changed their minds. They left the embassy compound with a briefcase full of cash and a renewed willingness to help.
That week, a plague of violence descended on Tehran. Gangs of thugs ran wildly through the streets, breaking shop windows, firing guns into mosques, beating passersby, and shouting "Long Live Mossadegh and Communism!" Other thugs, claiming allegiance to the self-exiled shah, attacked the first ones. Leaders of both factions were actually working for Roosevelt. He wanted to create the impression that the country was degenerating into chaos, and he succeeded magnificently.
Mossadegh's supporters tried to organize demonstrations on his behalf, but once again his democratic instincts led him to react naively. He disdained the politics of the street, and ordered leaders of political parties loyal to him not to join the fighting. Then he sent police units to restore order, not realizing that many of their commanders were secretly on Roosevelt's payroll. Several joined the rioters they were supposed to suppress.
Roosevelt chose Wednesday, August 19, as the climactic day. On that morning, thousands of demonstrators rampaged through the streets, demanding Mossadegh's resignation. They seized Radio Tehran and set fire to the offices of a progovernment newspaper. At midday, military and police units whose commanders Roosevelt had bribed joined the fray, storming the foreign ministry, the central police station, and the headquarters of the army's general staff. (From Stephen Kinzer: "Overthrow. America's Century Of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq", Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2006, p126-127.)

Hiring "mobsters" to do yet other dirty work seems to be via an indirect route and especially those mobsters involved inflated their role – if they got around to give their own account of events.

With Musaddiq's only remaining allies gone, the conspirators were able to activate their web of intrigue with relative ease. The 'Boscoe Brothers' had their contacts within the military and the clergy. The Rashidians in the meantime had organized a network which included members of Parliament, police and army officers, mullahs, merchants, journalists, and mob-leaders. The Bakhtiari tribes in the south also joined up with the pro-Shah forces, allegedly owing to British propaganda which played on their fear and hatred of the Soviet Union by portraying Musaddiq as a tool of the Communists.
With the streets finally clear, the following day (19 August) Shaban 'the Brainless' Jafari and two to three hundred large men with bulging biceps from the zurkhaneh (a traditional wrestling and body building club) led a large, rowdy demonstration from southern Tehran to the city's central square. Instead of quelling the riots, this time the police participated. Some of the demonstrators passed out small bribes for bystanders to join in."' The 'Boscoe Brothers' took control of the radio station and by evening General Zahedi's men had disarmed Musaddiq's loyalists. Zahedi triumphantly paraded through the streets, getting his wallet stolen in the process. That evening the change of government was secured and a new cabinet immediately appointed. The Americans were terribly indiscreet about their success. (From Moyara de Moraes Ruehsen: "Operation ‘Ajax’ revisited: Iran, 1953", Middle Eastern Studies, 29:3, 467-486, 1993)

A much more thorough analysis and weighed interpretation of events and actors comes to slightly different conclusions:

Note that the following source is an analysis that explicitly tries to paint an apologetic picture, emphasising Iranian internal factors. As an additional argument or version it is not to be dismissed. As a lonely "source" it looks too lopsided.

From Darioush Bayandor: "Iran and the CIA. The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited", Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke, New York, 2010:
By the mid-nineteenth century a solid alliance between the traditional urban middle class, mainly bazaar merchants, and the Ulama had been forged. The bazaaris saw to the pecuniary needs of clerics through religious taxes (Khoms), while Ulama defended the interests of the bazaar merchants and guilds against the arbitrariness of Qa ̄ja ̄r monarchs and their henchmen. The Ulama also wielded economic power through exploitation of the Vaqf (or property endowment by the pious rich to religious charities). Many clerics also benefited from the court prebends and sinecures. Further, through a network of mosques, neighbourhood vigilantes, mob honchos and the like, they could field throngs of zealots into the streets on religious processions or occasionally for non-religious motives. The tradition of bast (taking sanctuary in an inviolable locale) and, less frequently, exodus to other Shiite poles was resorted to as a means of pressuring the central authority. (p 19)

The role of Iranian agents
In its narrative the CIA internal history, Overthrow, lauds the Iranian agents working under the TPAJAX. Their efficiency and ability to act on their own, making the exact right moves are highlighted.28 This assessment may well be true; it is not excluded that these agents may have displayed verve and creativity on Wednesday by seeking to direct street mobs or acting as agents provocateur. Yet like other facets of the CIA role in the actual downfall of Mosaddeq a closer scrutiny of these activities is called for. (p 77) It will be recalled from a previous chapter (‘The British Two-Prong Strategy’ in Chapter 3) that the British covert network was handed over to the Rashidian brothers after Mosaddeq broke off diplomatic ties with Britain in October 1952. When by May 1953 the Anglo-American coup plan was being elaborated, the brothers were placed under the supervision of the CIA station in Tehran. They were known by both the American and British services for unethical business practices. The level-headed CIA station chief in Tehran, Roger Goiran, and his successor Josef Goodwin both believed their potentials had been exaggerated by their British handlers; a point seemingly conceded by [their handler] Robin Zaehener himself in his meeting with Eden to which we referred in an earlier chapter. They were, however, well-connected in Tehran’s society and as such deemed useful assets. The brothers were also inveterate anti-Mosaddeq activists in their own right. (p 126)

The most robust evidence refuting this claim emanates from the CIA’s own internal history, which makes no such claim. This has not prevented two subsequent publications in the United States covering the CIA role in the overthrow of Mosaddeq from repeating the old claims. In a similar vein, some Iranian authors have maintained that clerics, notably Behbahani and Kashani, used CIA money to mobilize thugs in popular neighbourhoods on the day of Mosaddeq’s fall. There is little doubt that some manipulation took place along familiar crowd-mobilization methods by clerics, a point that we shall take up next in Chapter 7 under the rubric: ‘Where did the spark come from?’ It may not be totally excluded – although there is strictly no evidence to support the contention – that prior to the TPAJAX coup and as part of its preparations, some CIA or MI6 money may have reached Kashani or Behbahani through channels created by the Rashidian brothers, who would not disclose the source to the recipients. Needless to say, anyone could make a payment to a top cleric in the Shiite system of religious taxes or alms for the poor (Khoms, Zaka ̄t, kheyra ̄t and Nazr).74 This study contests the prevailing assumption that CIA money could have been disbursed to recruit crowds after the failed 15 August coup. Here are the reasons why such an assumption is deemed farfetched:

  • As just noted Wilber, who detailed all CIA station activities in Tehran before and after TPAJAX coup, makes no reference to any payment made by the CIA for crowd mobilization. This same source, however, makes mention of bribery attempts to win over the Majles deputies and efforts by the CIA to plant propaganda material and cartoons in the popular and subsidized press in Tehran prior to the failed coup.
  • The same CIA account specifically mentions that attempts under TPAJAX to get the religious leaders to play a specific role, notably staging bast (taking sanctuary) in the Majles, were inconclusive. These activities had been envisaged to create a favourable climate for the putsch. Had Behbahani or Kashani been bribed for that purpose it would have been recorded in that secret internal document like other similar activities.
  • Appendix E of Overthrow (dealing with the evaluation of military aspects of the plan) categorically states that no money for bribery was needed or used to recruit Iranian army officers.75
  • For whatever it is worth, Kim Roosevelt has put the total CIA disbursement for the entire TPAJAX operations at about $10,000.76 Though Roosevelt’s pronouncement ought to be taken with caution, even a multiplication of this estimate hardly leaves room for financing a contrived uprising and other ‘master strokes’ that brought the government down.
  • Strictly from an accounting point of view, it is questionable whether Roosevelt could have disbursed additional funds for undeclared, hence unauthorized, activities of which the outcome was far from certain. As noted earlier in this chapter, Kim Roosevelt later claimed that he had deliberately withheld from the CIA and SIS/MI6 headquarters all information regarding activities he initiated following the coup failure on 16 August for fear of being disavowed or reprimanded.
  • It must be noted that ruffian types and mercenaries recruited by the likes of the Rashidian brothers rarely put their lives on the line. As stated before, the clashes around the Mosaddeq residence and elsewhere resulted in several dozens of dead and many more wounded among civilians.77 Kennett Love of The New York Times put this figure at 300 dead in his dispatch of 19 August, which made a banner headline. Most casualties occurred in front of Mosaddeq’s residence. While the assailants must have mostly originated from the urban underclass in southern neighbourhoods – given the fact that they proceeded to a strip-to-the-wire pillage of Mosaddeq’s house – it is inconceivable that they risked their lives for the few bucks that conspiracy theorists claim was their prime motive. Mosque-driven crowds, on the other hand, have a different behavioural pattern. At its roots, back in the seventh century, war booty was the flipside of martyrdom.
  • A final point merits reiteration. In their respective reporting, both Henderson and Wilber – as indeed Richard Cottam in his 1964 book78 – described the crowd in positive terms, differentiating them from the ‘hoodlum types’ presumably seen in previous day rallies. While the opposite view has gained currency, a careful examination of evidence reveals a motley crowd from different walks of life. Among them notorious underworld figures were later identified and named, but it is incorrect to dismiss the crowds as a whole as ruffian mercenaries.79 (p 136)

This study independently confirms the existence of a hate-mail campaign to scare and alienate clerics in the period prior to the TPAJAX coup on 15 August. The study is more circumspect about claims by the Iranian agents of the CIA to have faked the Tudeh crowds – notably in the days following the coup failure – in an attempt to smear the Tudeh Party. The study maintains that the two principal CIA agents, Kayvani and Jalali, were manipulating a network comprising small fascist and ultra-nationalist gangs and possibly a few mobsters, who systematically harassed the Tudeh crowds rather than faking them. The full size of the network did not exceed a few hundred individuals whose faces were known to security authorities as well as to Tudeh cadres. The Tudeh leader Kianouri has flatly denied the existence of fake Tudeh in their ranks during that episode. His denial came some forty years later, in reaction to specific claims in existing American literature about fake Tudeh moves in the days prior to the fall of the Mosaddeq government. We noted in this connection that Kianouri had strong personal reasons to confirm, even aggrandize, the fake Tudeh phenomenon to shield himself from criticism levelled against him by his Tudeh peers for his role within the party leadership during that episode. (p 170)

For a folksy account of such interaction, narrated by the notorious mob honcho Shaban bimokh (Shaban the brainless), see Homa Sarshar, Kha ̄tera ̄t’e Shaba ̄ n Jafary (Memoirs of Shaban Jafary), (Tehran: Sa ̄les Publishers, 1381/2002), pp. 77–89. Homa Sarshar’s laid-back account of Shaban’s recollections, supported by an album of photos, provide some interesting insights into activities carried out on the political fringes, apart from enriching Persian-language folk literature.
In his published memoirs, the mob leader Shaaban Jafari confirms that he received his marching orders on the morning of 28 February directly from Kashani; Jafari quotes Kashani as having said that, ‘if the Shah goes so goes our turbans’ (see Homa Sarshar, 2002: 123–4). (p 206)
For whatever it is worth, the mob-leader Shaban Jafari, who, together with a quirky army colonel, Aziz Rahimi, rammed his jeep into the gate of the prime minister’s residence, insists (in his recollections collated by Homa Sarshar, 2002: 126) that he had no intention whatsoever of harming Mosaddeq and only wished to plead with him to prevent the Shah’s departure. Mosaddeq’s guards, he goes on, would not let them in so they tried to force the entrance!
79: As noted earlier, contrary to a widely held assumption, the notorious mob leader Shaban Jafari was serving a prison term at that time and could have played no role in crowd mobilization.
Some of the more notorious mob leaders such as Tayyeb Haj-Rezaie, known to have played a role in the 19 August anti-Mosaddeq riots, reappeared in a pro-Khomeini uprising ten years later on 5 June, 1963 (15 Khordad 1342).

Conclusion: The CIA apparently tried to get mobsters hired, successfully, paid good money on their operatives and even the originally mentioned Shaban Jafary got his share in money and street action. If the original question asks specifically for the actions and instructions this man had on 19th August then his role behind bars must be considered rather limited.

Mobsters like Shaban Jafary did get money from covert operations intended to instigate a coup. Whether that played a significant role as they might have needed that money as self-motivation – or whether they handed most of it over for bribes and financing the coup otherwise – remains undecided.

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