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The Myth of an American Coup

What really happened in Iran in 1953

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By RAY TAKEYH
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Zahedi and his co-conspirators renewed their efforts, largely independent of Roosevelt and the CIA. Zahedi took two initiatives. He sought first to publicize the fact that the shah had dismissed Mossadeq and appointed him prime minister, and therefore Mossadeq’s claim to power was unconstitutional. Next, Zahedi contacted commanders of armed units in the capital and provinces that remained loyal to the shah and told them to prepare to mobilize their forces.

In late summer, military units began to clash with Tudeh activists, while pro-shah protesters took to the streets. It is true that the CIA paid a number of toughs from the bazaar and athletic centers to agitate against the government, but the CIA-financed mobs rarely exceeded a few hundred people in a country that was now rocked by demonstrators numbering in the thousands. As Henderson cabled from Tehran, the protesters were “not of hoodlum type customarily predominant in recent demonstrations in Tehran. They seemed to come from all classes of people, including workers, clerks, shopkeepers, students.” In the end, the CIA-organized demonstrations were overtaken by a spontaneous cascade of pro-shah protesters. 

In a sense, Mossadeq expedited his own demise. Determined to restore order, the premier 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. A startled CIA 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.” 

Mossadeq was too much a man of the system to remain on the run. He turned himself in to General Zahedi’s headquarters, where he was treated with courtesy and respect. Before the advent of the Islamic Republic, Persian politics were still marked by civility and decorum. 

The coup that would be subject to so much historical controversy was not so much an American conspiracy as a reassertion of Iran’s traditional classes alarmed about the radicalization of national politics. The street that Mossadeq had relied on rebelled against him. Many chroniclers of these events refuse to acknowledge that the shah was at the time a popular figure and the monarchy a trusted institution. Army officers, landowners, mullahs, and average citizens alike had confidence in the monarchy and were fearful that its absence would pave the way for the dreaded Communists.

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.”

It is often suggested that the events of 1953 made the 1979 Islamic Revolution inevitable. This is another mythological narrative with little relationship to the facts. The shah, returning from exile, had the support of the public, the endorsement of Iran’s important social classes, and the validation of a superpower benefactor. While continuing his drive to modernize Iran, he could have assembled an inclusive government and thereby built a resilient state capable of withstanding the revolutionary tremors of the 1970s. Instead, he opted for the path of autocracy and corruption that proved his undoing. Neither the Truman nor the Eisenhower administration should be blamed for not foreseeing, much less preventing, the shah’s subsequent misfortunes. Nor should current American policymakers continue to operate under the illusion, as flattering as it might be to their vanity, that the United States singlehandedly toppled an Iranian leader. Mossadeq’s fall was largely a matter between Iranians.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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