Sixty years later, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency admitted that it staged the coup which toppled the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, replacing him with the more pliable Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The National Security Archive (under the auspices of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act) published declassified CIA documents which detailed the involvement of both U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies in the removal of Mossadegh in the summer of 1953, after the prime minister had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, thereby posing a grave threat to western oil companies and their geo-strategic interests in the Middle East.
In prior years, the CIA released heavily censored and edited documents relating to its 1953 plot in Iran -- now, according to NSA, the agency is for the first time fully admitting to its extensive role in planning and executing the coup that permanently eliminated Mossadegh's voice in Iran’s government.
The CIA was the lead orchestrator of Operation AJAX, the code-name for the coup. CIA officers Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt) and Donald Wilbur executed the operation with help from British intelligence. Indeed, the British played a large role in the conspiracy, but accepted that the U.S. had first right to the spoils of a successful coup. (Reportedly, British intelligence entities have repeatedly sought to suppress its involvement in the plot, fearing it would alienate Tehran.)
The CIA documents discuss how western intelligence recruited pro-Shah military officers, police, royalists, Islamic mullahs, and others, including paid informants and thugs, to destabilize and ultimately overthrow Mossadegh’s young regime. Following clashes between the police, military and pro-monarchy elements on one side and Mossadegh supporters on the other -- which killed hundreds of people -- Mossadegh was placed under arrest. In his place, retired General Fazlollah Zahedi, blessed with the endorsement of the Shah, named himself the new prime minister. (Mossadegh spent the remainder of his life under house arrest and died in 1967 at the age of 85.)
Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City, suggested that western powers were planning to take over Iran’s oil reserves as early as World War II, given that Reza Pahlavi’s father, Reza Shah, had close relations with Nazi Germany. “The tipping point was when [Reza Shah] denied the Allies access to Iranian shipping routes, which Britain and Russia perceived as Iran’s intention of giving Germany control of the Persian Corridor and Iranian oil reserves,” Chandler said. “Indeed, [U.K. Prime Minister] Winston Churchill said afterward that the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran was instrumental to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany.”
By 1953, with the election of Mossadegh, the landscape had changed considerably in Iran. Chandler noted that the CIA took great pains to win the Shah’s support, even though they did not have much confidence in his abilities. An Iranian national named Assadollah Rashidan and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf Sr. [father of the celebrated Gulf War general from later decades] played instrumental roles in the negotiations with the Shah, while the CIA instituted covert measures to convince powerful Iranian politicians and clerics to support the removal of Mosaddegh.
“They paid Zahedi and his military colleagues large sums of money in exchange for their support,” Chandler said. “Mosaddegh’s power grab and CIA pressure convinced the Shah to go along with the coup.” Zahedi also got the military to send tanks into the capital, bomb Mosaddegh’s official residence, and arrest him in August 1953. This ended the Shah’s brief exile from Iran and finished off the influence of Mosaddegh’s supporters. They were arrested and executed by firing squad on Oct. 29, 1953.
The Shah of Iran moved from being a constitutional monarch with limited powers to an authoritarian ruler dependent on heavy financial and military support from the U.S. The CIA even trained SAVAK, the shah’s brutal secret police force and foundation of his power. The Shah used the SAVAK to arrest, imprison, exile and torture his opponents. This created an enormous amount of anger within the Iranian public, which the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini eventually used to foment populist support for his Islamist revolution.
After the coup, the U.S. actively pursued a policy of converting Iran into an anti-Communist beachhead (the Soviets also coveted the vast oil reserves of their southern neighbor) while gaining significant influence over its oil industry. The 1953 coup not only ended Iran's attempt to control its own hugely lucrative petroleum sector, but likely also killed any chances for Iran developing into a democratic society. More importantly, what occurred in 1953 planted the seeds of anti-American hatred in Iran and across the Middle East -- a grim legacy that remains to the present day.
Of course, 26 years after the coup, the outraged Iranian people would overthrow the Shah himself -- with the bitter memories of 1953 prominently on the minds of his determined opponents -- and establish a theocracy led by Khomeini. The newly formed “Islamic Republic of Iran” has served as an intransigent opponent of the U.S. ever since, as well as a bitter enemy of Israel, which Tehran has repeatedly threatened to destroy.
Chandler said Mosaddegh’s overthrow was used as a rallying point for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Mossadegh remains a popular figure in Iranian history, but he is not viewed higher in the pantheon of Iranian heroes because of his secularism and Western education and manners.
From a western perspective, the coup could conceivably be viewed as a temporary success, because it guaranteed the British and Americans easy access to Iran’s gigantic oil reserves for decades and it prevented Iran from falling under the influence (and possible control) of its looming Communist neighbor, the Soviet Union.
But longer term, as illustrated by the coup against the Shah in 1979 and the continued enmity between Tehran and Washington, the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh created a much larger and more dangerous problem: the hostility of Iranians (and much of the Middle East) to the United States that concurrently led to the spread of Islamic militancy. In a book called “All the Shah’s Men,” author Stephen Kinzer wrote: “It is not farfetched to draw a line from [the 1953 coup] through the Shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York [in September 2001].”
But why is the CIA now admitting to it role in removing Mossadegh? Writing in Foreign Policy, Malcolm Byrne, deputy director of the NSA, noted that it is unclear why the CIA is admitting its culpability now, especially given that some UK and US agents, including Kermit Roosevelt, the main engineer for the plot, have already written books on the topic. Even President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Madelyn Albright have alluded to the CIA-backed plot and even regretted it – thus, making the coup an “open secret.”
Alex Vatanka, a regular contributor to The Jamestown Foundation, and an expert on Iran-Middle East affairs, told IB Times that to the hard-liners who control Iran today, the CIA’s admission might not mean much in terms of normalizing the bitter relations between Washington and Teheran. “In the current landscape, I doubt that this admission by the CIA will help to heal relations, he said. “I don’t see it as a breakthrough.” Vatanka concedes that Iranian moderates are likely desperate for any conciliatory gestures from the U.S. government, however they do not control the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy -- suggesting normal relations between these two parties remains a remote possibility.
"This revelation will have no influence over current U.S. Foreign Policy toward Iran," Chandler declared.
Moreover, in Washington, the NSA would like the CIA to divulge more sensitive information. "There is no longer good reason to keep secrets about such a critical episode in our recent past,” said Byrne. “The basic facts are widely known to every school child in Iran. Suppressing the details only distorts the history, and feeds into myth-making on all sides.”
But NSA added that the CIA’s latest revelations should be welcomed and may harbinger further transparency. “One can only hope it leads to similar decisions to open up the historical record on topics that still matter today,” it stated.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.