Anatomy of a coup
A desperate attempt to save Iran
A desperate attempt to save Iran
July 23, 2004
July 23, 2004
This article is a result of few interviews conducted last year with some members of the Nojeh coup who managed to leave Iran before it was suppressed. Published anonymously as requested by the author.
Overwhelming majority of Iranians are too young to remember the first and only attempt by Iranian arm forces to overthrow the Islamic Republic. On July 11th 1980 a group of high-ranking and well-trained officers of Iranian arm forces came within few minutes of executing an ambitious and chaotic plan to topple the government of Abolhassan Banisadr. The officers, who were mostly leftovers of Shah's demoralized arm forces, took part in a coup that was poorly planed, compromised, and easily defeated. [Also see: "Nice try", "Top gunned down"]
The core officers who were recruited to start the preliminary planning of the coup came from various sources: infantry, air force, army, ex-Immortal Guards, and former members of the Savak secret service. The officers were chosen carefully based on their experience and level of resentment of the current regime. They were picked based on their access to military facilities, jet fighters, jet fuel, ammunition, maps, and knowledge of regime's military bases. The higher ranking officers were assigned to planning and logistics, while the lower level officers and pilots were given the task of implementing all stages of the coup.
The plan was comprised of three stages: stage one was a combination of twelve-hour air assaults against military, strategic, government, and religious targets in Tehran and five other cities followed by two dozen low altitude supersonic flights over Tehran, Mashhad and Qom. The first stage was to be followed immediately by the second which consisted of dispatching nine infantry divisions to tactical locations such as the State Radio and Television, parliament, headquarters of Revolutionary Guards, and Tehran's grand Bazaar.
The third stage was the most ambitious. It called for cutting off Tehran from the rest of the nation with the help of fifty thousand Balouch, Kurdish, and Turkish fighters under the leadership of an unknown national figure. The interesting and ruthless part of the third stage was to have the fighters outfitted as Revolutionary Guardsmen with a green bandana which had the words "Ya Vatan" (Oh Motherland) embedded on them. That way the coup forces could distinguish the coup fighters from the regime's forces.
The fighters' orders were to create pandemonium and confusion among Revolutionary Guardsmen and the backers of the young Islamic Republic by attacking the government forces that were dispatched from other cities to defend Tehran. There were, however, two problems with the last stage of the plan: one was the fact that majority of Balouch, Kurdish, and Turkish fighters were not familiar with Tehran's landscape, and the other obstacle was that many of them did not speak Farsi.
There is a serious misconception that the coup intention was to facilitate the return of the Pahlavi royal family to power. That is far from the truth. The majority of high-ranking officers involved with the coup considered the Shah a coward who betrayed Iran and Iranians by fleeing and handing the country to Ayatollahs in a silver platter. The actual political leader of the coup was Shapour Bakhtiar who in spite of being the last imperial prime minister, did not have good rapport with the Pahlavi monarchists.
Bakhtiar first explored the possibility of financing a coup in early 1979 by contacting Brigadier General Oveisi. Oveisi who lived abroad and did not wish to participate in any military action in Iran recommended a flamboyant, middle-aged, retired colonel (code-name Ehsan) who was Oveisi's prodigy in the late 60s.
Ehsan was a perfect choice; he was among the very few officers of the Shah's regime who had actual combat experience. Ehsan rose through the ranks in the early years of his career by scoring two major points with the regime: as a young officer he tracked down and captured the legendry Kurdish outlaw Mullah Avareh in the mountains of Kurdistan, and a few years later he captured two of the most famous Pakistani drug lords by the names of Sharif Ali Khan nd Mirza Rasefi who were responsible for trafficking thousands of tons of narcotics to and through Iran every year.
Ehsan was also shot in the shoulder while conducting an operation near the border with Afghanistan. One more fact that played in Ehsan's favor was his early retirement prior to the birth of the Islamic Republic, which made him a shadowy figure and unknown to the revolutionary government.
Oveisi however warned Bakhtiar about Ehsan's flashy lifestyle. Ehsan had a reputation among military elite as a heavy drinking womanizer with a big mouth. Nevertheless, Bakhtiar met Ehsan in Paris in 1979 and was impressed by the Colonel's personality and military knowledge. Ehsan returned to Iran, started planning and recruiting for the coup.
It is estimated that the coup cost somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. The money covered expenses for traveling from Tehran to Paris and Istanbul and most of the was spent on hiring Balouch, Kurdish, and Turkish mercenaries. The money was managed personally by Bakhtiar and no one else. It is not clear where the money came from. Some believe funds were supplied by Israel and the US; some believe that it came from Iraq, and others say the money came from Bakhtiar's Bahai friends and supporters.
It is a known fact that the coup was no secret to Banisadr's government and on the night of July 18th, Banisadr's task force, which consisted mostly of members of the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization, were ready and waiting for the operation to start. Many of the pilots were captured hours before the start of the operation and other officers were arrested on the way to their bases. However it's not known who snitched and how the regime uncovered coup. The circumstances leading to the leak is by far the most fascinating part of this ordeal.
There are many different theories out there making attempts at explaining the circumstances behind the failure of the coup and its leaders. But the most intriguing piece comes from sources who claim that Saddam Hussein's government tipped the Islamic Republic a month before D-Day. It is said that Iraq intentionally reported the details of the operation knowing that the capture and execution of the best pilots and military commanders would seriously weaken the Iranian forces (Iraq invaded Iran two months later). Some even go so far as to allege that the coup was reported to the Iranian government by the U.S. to buy the release of American embassy hostages in Tehran.
Some believe that the success of the coup would have led Iran on the path of a bloody civil war and the assassination of Khomeini would have turned him into a mythical figure. These are legitimate concerns and yet it can not be denied that the failed "Nojeh Coup" of 1980 was conducted by servicemen who deeply cared about their country. No evidence has surfaced so far that links the coup to foreign powers or shows that the officers had illegitimate intentions. The very fact that the coup's resources were not managed efficiently and plans were executed poorly, demonstrates the fact that the movement was most likely homegrown. Many of the officers believed that the country was heading in a wrong direction and in a desperate attempt to save Iran, they lost their lives.
Right or wrong, this is their story.