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CIA Pushes Counter-Narrative of the 1953 Iran Coup

10:54 AM, Aug 21, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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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.”

Truman with Mossadeq in 1951

Truman with Mossadeq in 1951

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.”

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