In 1953, the popular prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, was forced to resign in a U.S.-supported coup. 

This video will provide a brief introduction to how we define coups, the conditions under which they occur, and the process by which they unfold.  I’ll end with an introduction to the events of the 1953 coup in Iran.

Defining coups

The classic definition of a coup – and description of how they take place – was written by Edward Luttwak in 1969 in Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook.  Coups are a seizure of power through non-constitutional or irregular means by a small group of people.  Key elements of this definition are “small group” – coups are not cases of large groups of citizens demonstrating on the streets for change – and “irregular” – coups do not use established channels of leadership change and often use violence, although less so than civil wars. 

Coups may replace popularly elected leaders, as in the military coup against Mohammad Morsi in Egypt in 2013, but they are also the most common way for monarchs to be removed from power, as with the coup that brought Muammar Qadaffi to power in Libya in 1969.  Some countries get stuck in a cycle of military coups, as with Thailand, which has experienced 13 successful coups in the past century, most recently in 2014.

When do coups happen?

  1. The ruling government is often weak and divided, often due to an economic crisis.  For example, in Iran in 1953, Mossadeq had been weakened by infighting within his faction of support.
  2. Perceived threat against the military’s or other actors’ interests.  For example, military support for Mossadeq declined after a purge of the officer corps in 1951, and the United States increasingly saw Mossadeq as a threat to its interests of maintaining stable oil markets and a united front against communism.
  3. Finally, coups require coordination among different actors.  This is more about how they happen than why they happen, and is our main area of focus today.

Coups as coordination problems

Actors (the people involved in coups) typically exhibit what is called strategic behavior – they observe events, make a cost-benefit analysis, and then decide what action they will take.  In the case of coups, according to Naunihal Singh in Seizing Power, they make a very specific cost-benefit analysis:  that the costs of losing are so high (Mossadeq was sentenced to death after all) that what is most important is to be a part of the winning side, even if you don’t fully agree with their goals.  So what they are looking for when they observe the events of a coup is evidence of who looks like they are going to win.  Coup leaders know this and so they work to send signals that they are going to win.  Sometimes this is literally by broadcasting information over radio and TV.  Sometimes they will take high-risk, high-visibility actions (like seizing a symbolic target or using targeted violence) in order to make this signal more believable (a costly signal, in game theory terms).

Coups will usually involve for types of actions: 

  1. Detain the existing leadership or force them into exile. An initial seizure of power.
  2. Seize the means of communicating with their co-conspirators, potential supporters, and with the public (TV, radio).  This is so they can send those signals that they are in control.
  3. Impose restrictions (like curfews or censorship) on freedom of speech and movement in order to make it harder for a counter-movement to arise.
  4. Maintain visible control (troops on the streets) until control is stabilized or consolidated.

A note on seizing the communication channels.  This is one of the elements of a coup that has changed the most in recent years.  Seizing communication channels used to mean physically taking over the national radio station, and it still does.  But the Internet has made this much more complicated.  Turkish President Erdogan famously thwarted a 2016 military coup against him in part because he was able to FaceTime from his iPhone and send out signals that he was mounting credible opposition to the coup.

So how does the coup against Mossadeq compare to traditional coups?  In some ways it was very typical – perceived threats to military and international interests played a role in generating support for a coup.  In others, it was distinct, particularly in the role the international community played.  And in one way it was very unusual, in that the coup was not against the head of state (the Shah) but was rather used to strengthen a weak dictator by ousting a strong elected leader (Mossadeq, 1951’s person of the year).

As to whether the “how” of the coup – the events that took place – were typical, that’s what we will discuss in class.