Six Myths about the Coup against Iran's Mossadegh

Setting the record straight on this monumental event. 

The United States government, namely the CIA, is often blamed for the August 1953 coup removing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh from power, however a careful examination of older studies, in addition to newly accessible information, reveal that common conceptions of the events and chronology are flawed, despite their prevalence.

One reason why these misconception exist is that many files from US government sources relating to this time period, and in particular to this event, remain classified or are otherwise inaccessible (most CIA documents regarding the events have allegedly been destroyed). Under United States law, special exceptions can be made allowing documents to be classified for 50 or 75 years rather than the normal 25 years. It has now been over 60 years since the events took place. This means that on at least two occasions, the documents have been determined to be too sensitive to release.

More documents regarding this series of events will be revealed later this year, when the State Department’s FRUS (Foreign Relations of the United States) Iran 1952-54 is re-released including newly declassified documents. While imperfect, these documents are the most reliable and most accessible. It is important see these documents (as well as those previously released) in context, and to correct widespread misconceptions about the coup and the parties involved.

These misconceptions are problematic because of how they have engrained themselves into our understanding of the events. The preeminent scholar of Iran, Richard Cottam—who himself lived in Iran for many years and was an employee of the CIA as well as the State Department—wrote in the 1960s edition of ‘Nationalism in Iran” (also included in the 2nd edition published in 1979) that "The distortions of the Mossadegh era, both in the press and in academic studies, border on the grotesque.”

Since this time there have been many new accounts, ranging from Kermit Roosevelt’s fundamentally flawed yet influential memoir ‘Countercoup’, to the scholarly work of Mark Gasiorowski, to Stephen Kinzer’s highly popular “All the Shah’s Men” and the most recent revisionist histories of Dariush Bayandor and Ray Takeyh. Though the academic work is considerably more accurate than that of Roosevelt and Kinzer, there are still significant errors in both traditional and revisionist narratives, which have affected the mainstream understanding of this monumental event.

Misconception #1: The United States wanted Iran’s oil

The United States had no oil interests in Iran (it was the British that did). The primary goal of the Americans was to prevent the spread of Communism, and to secondary was to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible (see National Security Council document NSC 136/1). This is not to say that the United States did not have a vested interest in Middle Eastern oil (e.g. Saudi Arabia), but rather that from the American side, co-opting Iran’s oil interests was not the motivation for a coup. Since at least 1943, US policy had been to develop Middle Eastern oil because North American and Caribbean oil would be easier to defend in war. If anything, a quick resolution was the most important factor to the American; something clearly reflected in their efforts to reach a negotiated settlement.

Misconception #2: Mohammad Mossadegh was a democratically elected Prime Minister

While Mossadegh was elected to the Majles (the Iranian Parliament) by democratic means (Iran at the time was not a democracy by any means, though some aspects of it were democratic in nature), the office of Prime Minister was nominated from amongst the Majles deputies by the Shah. In turn, the Majles members either voted for or against the nomination (In his initial appointment Mossadegh was approved by a tally of 79-12). Mossadegh enjoyed massive popularity at different times during his political career, but his position as Prime Minister was never due to a nationwide poll (he was PM on two separate occasions).

This is not to say Mossadegh’s position was not legitimate. He was chosen by his constituency to be a Majles deputy, this is indisputable. He was not however, chosen by the Iranian people to be Prime Minister. This also does not account for the fact that the Majles was mostly comprised of feudal landowners, intrinsically opposed to Mossadegh and his populism. Before Mossadegh became Prime Minister, the Iranian public was unhappy with the state of affairs in Iran; Mossadegh with his sincere populism was seen by the Shah as a clever alternative to yet another feudal landowner or military officer. This is also a key factor in Misconception #6.

Misconception #3: The Eisenhower Administration was determined to remove Mossadegh from power from Day 1