Sixty five years ago, on August 19, 1953, a CIA backed coup d’etat overthrew the popular nationalist leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq, yielding disastrous consequences that nation and the United States continue to deal with in 2018, as President Donald J. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton all appear determined to put Iran it its place militarily and economically.
It did not have to be this way, and the United States’ longstanding penchant towards secrecy regarding our history of such decidedly undemocratic foreign interventions continues to haunt us.
In June of 2017 the U.S. State Department quietly released a retrospective of U.S. involvement in the Iranian coup. Read on for more of that history.
As zealots in Washington intensify their preparations for an American attack on Iran, the story of the CIA’s 1953 coup – with its many cautionary lessons – is more urgently relevant than ever. All the Shah’s Men brings to life the cloak-and-dagger operation that deposed the only democratic regime Iran ever had. The coup ushered in a quarter-century of repressive rule under the Shah, stimulated the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, and exposed the folly of using violence to try and reshape Iran.
- The back cover blurb from the 2008 edition of Stephen Kinzer’s history of the U.S. coup. This remains remarkably relevant ten years and two U.S. administrations later.
More than half a century has passed since the United States deposed the only democratic government Iran ever had. This book describes that fateful operation and its disastrous consequences. It tells a story that should serve as an object lesson. Violent intervention in Iran seemed like a good idea in 1953, and for a time it appeared to have succeeded. Now, however, it is clear that this intervention not only brought Iran decades of tragedy, but also set in motion forces that have greatly undermined American national security.
As militants in Washington urge a second American attack on Iran, the story of the first one becomes more urgently relevant than ever. It shows the folly of using violence to try and reshape Iran. In 1953, the United States sought to promote its strategic interest by attacking an Iranian regime of which it disapproved. The results were exactly the opposite of those for which American leaders had hoped.
If the United States had not sent agents to depose Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, Iran would probably have continued along its path toward full democracy. Over the decades that followed, it might have become the first democracy in the Muslim Middle East, and perhaps even a model for other countries in the region and beyond. That would have profoundly changed the course of history – not simply Iranian or even Middle Eastern history, but the history of the United States and the world. – From the preface of the 2008 edition of All the Shah’s Men.
From the National Security Archive:
Iran 1953: State Department Finally Releases Updated Official History of Mosaddeq Coup
Formerly Secret Documents from State, CIA Provide New Information about Covert Operations Planning and Implementation Plus Contemporaneous Analyses
Long-Awaited Volume Supplements Earlier Publication that Whitewashed U.S., British Roles
Washington, D.C., June 15, 2017 – The State Department today released a long-awaited “retrospective” volume of declassified U.S. government documents on the 1953 coup in Iran, including records describing planning and implementation of the covert operation. The publication is the culmination of decades of internal debates and public controversy after a previous official collection omitted all references to the role of American and British intelligence in the ouster of Iran’s then-prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. The volume is part of the Department’s venerable Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.
For decades, neither the U.S. nor the British governments would acknowledge their part in Mosaddeq’s overthrow, even though a detailed account appeared as early as 1954 in The Saturday Evening Post, and since then CIA and MI6 veterans of the coup have published memoirs detailing their activities. Kermit Roosevelt’s Countercoup is the best known and most detailed such account, although highly controversial because of its selective rendering of events. In 2000, The New York Times posted a 200-page classified internal CIA history of the operation.
In 1989, the State Department released what purported to be the official record of the coup period but it made not a single reference to American and British actions in connection with the event. The omission led to the resignation of the chief outside adviser on the series, and prompted Congress to pass legislation requiring “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record” of U.S. foreign policy. After the end of the Cold War, the CIA committed to open agency files on the Iran and other covert operations, and the State Department vowed to produce a “retrospective” volume righting the earlier decision.
But it took until 2011 for the CIA to – partially – fulfill its commitment, and even then it was only in the form of a previously classified segment of an internal account of the coup that for the first time included an officially released explicit reference to the agency’s role in “TPAJAX,” the U.S. acronym for the operation. Roughly two years later, after years of research by historian James C. Van Hook, as well as internal negotiations between State and CIA over access to the latter’s records, the Office of the Historian at the Department produced a draft of the retrospective volume, which then had to await top-level clearance.
What explains the refusal by two governments to acknowledge their actions, and the inordinate delays in publishing this volume? Justifications given in the past include protecting intelligence sources and methods, bowing to British government requests and, more recently, avoiding stirring up Iranian hardline elements who might seek to undercut the nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and other P5+1 members in 2015.
This Foreign Relations retrospective volume focuses on the use of covert operations by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations as an adjunct to their respective policies toward Iran, culminating in the overthrow of the Mosadeq government in August 1953. Moreover, the volume documents the involvement of the U.S. intelligence community in the policy formulation process and places it within the broader Cold War context. For a full appreciation of U.S. relations with Iran between 1951 and 1954, this volume should be read in conjunction with the volume published in 1989.
“This is going to be an important source for anyone interested in the tortured relationship between Washington and Tehran,” said Malcolm Byrne, who runs the National Security Archive’s Iran-U.S. Relations Project. “But the fact that it has taken over six decades to declassify and release these records about such a pivotal historical event is mind-boggling.”
Read the National Security Archive’s extensive collection of material on Iran here.