Various sites are reporting that the CIA has finally come clean about its role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeq. Monday, on the sixtieth anniversary of the coup, the National Security Archive published on its website The Battle for Iran, a report prepared in the mid-1970s by an in-house CIA historian. Writing in Foreign Policy, deputy director and director of research at the National Security Archive Malcolm Byrne explains that, “the document was first released in 1981, but with most of it excised, including all of Section III, entitled ‘Covert Action’—the part that describes the coup itself. Most of that section remains under wraps, but this new version does formally make public, for the first time that we know of, the fact of the agency's participation: "[T]he military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy.”
As Max Boot remarks at Commentary, “to say that the CIA is now ‘admitting’ its role is somewhat inapt; the CIA has all but bragged about its role for decades.” Indeed, CIA officers like Kermit Roosevelt, credited as leader of the plot, and their colleagues in British intelligence wrote well-known memoirs of the operation, which leads Boot to wonder if the CIA is “trying to claim more credit than it deserved for Mossadeq’s overthrow.” “It is unknowable,” Boot continues, “whether the coups would have happened anyway even without CIA blessing, but they might well have.”
But we do know. As Ray Takeyh explained in THE WEEKLY STANDARD (“The Myth of an American Coup,” June 17) two months ago, the CIA was a bit player at best. As Takeyh wrote:
the events of 1953 have been routinely depicted as a nefarious U.S. conspiracy that overthrew a nationalist politician who enjoyed enormous popular support. This narrative, assiduously cultivated by the Islamic Republic, was so readily endorsed by the American intellectual class that presidents and secretaries of state are now expected to commence any discussion of Iran by apologizing for the behavior of their malevolent predecessors. At this stage, the account has even seeped into American popular culture, featuring most recently in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Argo. The only problem with this mythologized history is that the CIA’s role in Mossadeq’s demise was largely inconsequential. In the end, the 1953 coup was very much an Iranian affair.
Takeyh explains how with the Iranian economy hit hard by a British oil embargo, Mossadeq’s National Front coalition began to crumble, and his rivals seized the main chance.
The prospect of toppling Mossadeq was promoted by a coterie of Iranian politicians who saw that, given Mossadeq’s dictatorial penchant, there was no legislative means of removing him from power. General Fazollah Zahedi, a onetime member of Mossadeq’s cabinet turned oppositionist, offered himself to the U.S. embassy as a possible solution. As a member of the armed forces with ties to the clerical establishment, Zahedi assured the embassy that a robust anti-Mossadeq network already existed and could discharge its functions with minimal support from the United States.
And the support they got was indeed minimal, Takeyh argues, and in parts disgraceful. The U.S.-backed propaganda campaign put out stories about Mossadeq’s corruption and hunger for power, and fabricated others about his supposed Jewish ancestry. If that last proved harmonious with the all-too-common strains of Middle Eastern anti-Semitism, it also gives evidence of the CIA’s own vicious prejudices at the time. Perhaps the agency’s greatest contribution was in recruiting the shah and convincing him to replace Mossadeq with Zahedi. However, as Takeyh remarks, the shah’s dismissal of Mossadeq contradicts the notion that the prime minister was toppled by Western agents. “For all the talk of a coup,” Takeyh writes, “the reality is that it was Mossadeq who broke the law. The shah had the constitutional authority to dismiss his prime minister—refusing to step down in contravention of the monarch’s orders was an illegal act.”
When Mossadeq outmaneuvered the shah, Washington lost its nerve, writes Takeyh, but “Zahedi and his co-conspirators renewed their efforts, largely independent of Roosevelt and the CIA.” As pro-shah demonstrators took to the streets, Mossadeq “ordered the military to put an end to the disturbances—a military whose loyalty was suspect. Armed units took over key installations and eventually moved against Mossadeq, forcing him to flee.”
The CIA, writes Takeyh, was “startled.” It reported to the White House that “an unexpectedly strong surge of popular and military reaction to Prime Minister Mossadeq’s government has resulted, according to the latest dispatches from Tehran, in the virtual occupation of the city by forces professing their loyalty to the Shah and to his appointed Prime Minister Zahedi.”
With Mossadeq turning himself in, it wasn’t the victors who wrote history, but their auxiliaries, the CIA. As Takeyh writes:
In the ensuing decades, Kermit Roosevelt and other CIA alumni would embellish their role in toppling Mossadeq, but the U.S. government’s after-action assessment was much more modest. The CIA itself noted that it was the shah’s departure that turned the tide against Mossadeq. “The flight of the Shah brought home to the populace in a dramatic way how far Mossadeq had gone and galvanized the people into irate pro-Shah force,” a CIA cable read. Similarly, the U.S. embassy reported that “not only members of Mossadeq regime but also pro-Shah supporters were amazed at latter’s comparatively speedy and easy initial victory which was achieved with high degree of spontaneity.” Eisenhower, who as supreme commander of Allied forces during World War II knew something about covert operations, dismissed Roosevelt’s narrative as “more like a dime store novel than historical fact.”
So the National Security Archive has provided another chapter to the story of the 1953 coup, which as it turns out is a counter-narrative. As such, the CIA’s over-dramatizing its role in the affair would seem to contradict the argument the agency customarily rolls out when it’s caught with its guard down. The CIA’s failures are public, says agency advocates, but its successes are kept secret. In fact, its successes are well publicized, and aren’t even always their own.