Six Myths about the Coup against Iran's Mossadegh

Setting the record straight on this monumental event. 

One of the fundamental misunderstandings concerns the Eisenhower Administration’s decision to remove Mossadegh from power. A cursory reading of the documents supplied in the FRUS volume concerning Iran, reveals that the President was most concerned with the specter of Communism above anything else. Eisenhower even said in a National Security Council meeting that if he had $500,000,000.00 to spare, he would have preferred to give $100,000,000.00 to Iran so that the financial troubles brought on by British sanctions could be alleviated. Eisenhower was likely influenced by the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State and Director of the CIA), but for a considerable period of time the president opposed a coup. He was afraid of destabilizing Iran and the region, which in his estimation, would inevitably lead to a communist takeover.

Misconception #4: The CIA coup was successful

It is clear from the record that the attempted coup (code-named TPAJAX) which was undertaken on the night of August 15th, 1953, was a dismal failure. Not only did the Iranian military officers fail in their task to arrest Mossadegh, the CIA did not have a backup plan. Even though Kermit Roosevelt claimed to have magically turned the situation around in only 3 days, the circumstances of what really happened between the failed coup of August 15/16 and the successful one of the 19th is highly contentious. How did the situation turn around so quickly, despite the early setbacks including the arrest of pivotal Iranian conspirators such as Colonel Zand-Karimi, the conduit for communicating with Tehran-based commanders? Roosevelt’s version of events is difficult to accept without reservation, not only because of the style and substance of his writing, but also because of his well-known questionable reliability.

Misconception #5: CIA documents corroborate each other

There is an recurrent idea that the CIA is all-powerful, and that classified documents from the CIA are inherently truthful and accurate. Again this ignores the context of the documents. This was the CIA’s first attempted coup, and especially for those involved there was a strong incentive to downplay the failures of the plan and to exaggerate any potential successes. In the various accounts declassified by or leaked from the CIA there are several inconsistencies which calls into question to accuracy of the different accounts.

Perhaps most striking (though ignored in historiographies) are those found in the most recent CIA history ‘Zendebad Shah’, published internally in 1998 and partially released following FOIA requests from George Washington University’s National Security Archive. In this document, it is written that British Foreign Minister Eden “found the Americans much more receptive to the British viewpoint than they had been under Truman and Acheson. The collapse of the Anglo-Iranian oil negotiations had changed the American’s attitude.” These events however, are taken out of chronological order; the negotiations did not in fact collapse until days after the meeting between Eden and the Americans. On the same page the author also wrote that the US administration ‘abandoned the search for a negotiated end to the crisis.’ Without context, this implies that the US broke off negotiations, while in fact it was Mossadegh that did so.

It is unclear if this is poorly researched document, if the person responsible for it made mistakes in his writing, or if the CIA truly does not have a comprehensive understanding of what happened. Of all the declassified CIA documents on the coup, this one is the most recent (there was another document declassified after this one, but it was written decades prior). Is it unrealistic to expect the newest one to be the most accurate?

Misconception #6: Westerners and Royalists were the only ones who wished to remove Mossadegh from power

This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of all. While Mossadegh had enjoyed great popularity earlier in his term, his coalition had come under great pressure, and former allies had begun to oppose him. Chief amongst these was Ayatollah Kashani, the speaker of the Majles, and a vital influence for the next generation of politicized clerics, significantly, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I personally find it very interesting that the US has not made an effort to publicize these connections. Given the tensions between the governments of Iran and the United States since 1979, one would think that undermining the Iranian clerical leadership through showing the links to the coup would be in the interests of the United States.

During the oil crisis, Mossadegh became very unpopular. Things were so bad that when it was clear that his now fractured party would not gain a majority, he cancelled parliamentary elections. In February 1953 there were mass demonstrations against Mossadegh (possibly arranged for or instigated by foreign agents including the CIA); demonstrations of enough severity for Mossadegh to increase security measures in Iran.

The tendency is to blame the CIA and Americans because we know from the record that there was an attempt to overthrow Mossadegh, but this does not absolve the other participants. There are instances in both the Wilber Report and FRUS where an Iranian general and the former Prime Minister of Iran (allegedly on behalf of a group of military officers) separately contacted US officials inquiring on their interest in conducting a coup d’etat.

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