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Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited Print E-mail

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Photo by Fariba Amini, Ahmad Abad, August 2004

"Ayatollah Kashani called me one early morning to go see him in a village where he was staying, between Aqdasieh and Gardaneh Quchak. He told me to tell Dr. Mosaddeq that he wanted his sons to be appointed as Majlis deputies. I said but deputies are elected by the people and are not appointees. He said go tell Mosaddeq if they are not elected, 'I will bring him down' [in the most crude way]. When I told Dr. Mosaddeq, he said go tell the Ayatollah that if he likes I can resign and he can take over. I am not in the business of selecting people's deputies. The choice is with the people." -- Memoirs of Nosratollah Amini, Mayor of Tehran, 1951-1953, Harvard Oral History Project, July 1983

"We honor the memory of the exalted Ayatollah Kashani and request the Iranian nation to participate in the commemoration ceremonies that will be held tomorrow and in the following days; on the same occasion we should express indignation over the injustice done to him and the Islamic movement by the nationalists and the blow inflicted by them on the Islamic movement in one episode of Iran's history." -- Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, March 13, 1983

"Even to imply that Dr. Mosaddeq was Laic [secular] is itself a new phenomenon which has occurred after the Islamic Revolution. It manifests itself in nationalism versus Islamism. This is in direct correlation to the attitude of the National Front vis is vis the Islamic Republic and not necessarily on the differences between Dr. Mosaddeq and Ayatollah Kashani in contemporary history on religious matters but more so on political issues." -- Mohammad Ghouchani, "Why We Should Not Be Laic?", Mehrnameh, April 2010

History Revisited: on Mosaddeq, the Clergy and the Coup in Iran

The fall of Mosaddeq and the role of foreign forces and Iranians are still debated among scholars and politicians alike. Fifty seven years after August 19, 1953, the debate remains as fresh as the day that changed Iran. Darioush Bayandor has come up with a new book Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited, in which argues the issues surrounding the events that led to the coup d'etat from a different perspective. Mr. Bayandor was an Iranian diplomat who held various posts at the United Nations during the Shah's government. He was also a lecturer at Tehran and Melli universities in Iran. I had a chance to speak to him about his book.

What made you write this book?

The short answer is my frustrations with the foreigners distorting our history! By that I don't just mean the chapter on Dr Mosaddeq's twenty-seven months in office. What I mean is that hardly anything written about the history of Iran's past fifty years, including by well known academics, has been free from errors or ideological slant. Our history became a victim of foreign-made clichés and reduced to bumper-sticker statements. The sad part is that our compatriots take stuff published in the West as gospel. We Iranians love conspiracy theories be it about the fall of Mosaddeq in 1953 or the fall of the monarchy in 1979. The fall of Mosaddeq of course involved foreign manipulation; the CIA and MI6 had indeed something to do with it but only by default. The coup d'état they had planned (TP-AJAX) failed to ignite on 16 August 1953. This set in motion internal political dynamics that led to fall of Mosaddeq three days later. This is the contention of my study. The point I am making is that the Americans did not have a plan B: When their TP-AJAX failed they moved "to snuggle up to Mosaddeq" in the words of General Walter Bedell Smith who ran the show then in Washington.

Whereas most scholars have argued or implied that the CIA and the MI6 were the main factors behind the fall of Mosaddeq, you say that in fact, Iranian domestic forces, especially clerics, were involved. You say, "in other words, the CIA indeed had a role in the overthrow of Mosaddeq, but mainly by default." You claim that Kim Roosevelt overstated and exaggerated his role. Does that mean that you don't believe that he single-handedly decided to go on with the coup even though there were specific instructions from Washington on Aug 16 to let go and return to the US?

As I just mentioned, the literature in the West on this episode has been based on the allegations by Kermit Roosevelt. Shortly after the publication of his book in 1979, scholars expounded that flawed narrative, mainly through interviews with former CIA operatives or by drawing on memoirs of British secret service operatives like Christopher Woodhouse or Sam Falle; the latter two were not even present at the time of events in Tehran. The former CIA operatives - I don't want to characterize them as I have met none - helped themselves to chivalrous tales, NONE of which was later confirmed when the CIA's own secret account of the episode leaked to the New York Times in the year 2000. This document is not however shy about admitting the details of the plot including the bribing attempts at earlier stages of the plot. Every single act the CIA and its agents had done between mid- April to 19 August 1953 has been detailed. I have devoted a full chapter (Anatomy of 19 August) in which I discuss the CIA duty-station's activities in Tehran between 16 to 19 August, the role of their Iranian agents, the alleged grey and black propaganda in those four days and how Washington, London, even the American Embassy in Tehran, were taken by FULL surprise when Mosaddeq was overthrown on Wednesday 19 August. My narrative is based mainly on archival US and UK documents to a lesser extent on memoirs of the main Iranian protagonists, be it Dr. Mosaddeq himself, his minister of interior Dr. Sadiqi, Ardeshir Zahedi, or the Tudeh party leader Dr. Nureddin Kianouri. The secondary and tertiary evidence has always been checked for consistency with primary evidence. On that basis I have arrived at the conclusion that Roosevelt's narrative borders on prevarication. Regretfully this narrative, fantastic as it is, has anchored in collective consciousness not just of Iranians, who really matter, but also of the western intelligentsia.

What about internal opposition forces and the dynamics within?

By focusing on the internal opposition and dynamics by no means do I endorse the claim by the late Shah and his imperial regime that the fall of Mosaddeq was the result of a qiam'e melli or spontaneous national uprising. I have argued that the commotions on 19 August were the result of some manipulations but not the way the current literature assumes. In the earlier chapters of the book I describe the character and the composition of the internal opposition, both secular and religious. Mosaddeq had stepped on too many toes. His reform of the system did not spare any of the big stakeholders. This he did when he was also engaged in an existential conflict with the super power that Britain was at that time. The secular opposition did everything to destabilize the government; some of them joined the TP-AJAX plot. The other part of opposition to Mosaddeq belonged to clerical ranks. Activist clerics, (Kashani, the Fadiyan-e Eslam of Navvab Safavi and the then mid-ranking Ruhollah Khomeini) turned against Mosaddeq for different reasons. But the members of the quietist strain among the ulama, led by Grand Marja Ayatollah Boroujerdi, initially were not against him. Mosaddeq however allowed a free sway to the Tudeh party in part because he used them as a scarecrow vis-à-vis Washington. Gradually and especially after the incident of Noheh'e Esfand ( 28 February 1953) the quietist perception and their attitude towards Mosaddeq changed. Mosaddeq's conduct, in the eyes of Boroujerdi, raised the specter of republicanism of the Turkish variety, to be followed, maybe, by a communist takeover. A regime change was unacceptable to the quietist ulama; you will recall the episode of 1924 when the clerical establishment prevented prime-minister Reza khan to create an Ataturk-inspired republic. Since the early nineteenth century - I am talking about chronicled cases - clerics have systematically been in a position to mobilize, at short notice, the rabble and make them pour into the streets in the service of their politico-religious objectives. This is what they did on 18 and 18 August which sparked a fatal blow. Military coups are normally planned and executed at dawn. In this case no military unite entered the arena until the start of the afternoon. A full subsection in the book discusses the military aspects of the overthrow concluding that no organic link between the TP-AJAX coup and action by uniformed forces on 19 August had existed.

Photo by Fariba Amini, Ahmad Abad, August 2004

What is your take on the role of Tudeh Party and its leader, Kianouri?

At the time, Kianouri was only one member of an eight-member executive committee of the Tudeh (part of the Central Committee was in exile) with direct responsibility for the Tehran provincial committee. The initial assessment of the Tudeh when Mosaddeq's National Front was formed in 1949 was that it served the interests of the US and should be countered. Kianouri later claimed that soon after Mosaddeq took over in late April 1951, he started gradually to soften his position, although in public he followed the hostile line of the majority of the Tudeh leadership. But the attitude of the party itself evolved. By September 1952, their slogan was the formation of a United National Front in cooperation with Mosaddeq's anti imperialist campaign. Why this change came about and the story of the Tudeh post-mortems and regrets in later years merits a separate book. What is important to mention here is that Mosaddeq played up the Tudeh to persuade Washington that if the nationalists failed, the communists would take over. This was a double-edged sword but it was a tactic that eventually backfired. The Tudeh had deeply penetrated the armed forces. They blew the whistle on the coup. Kianouri, through his wife Maryam Firooz, had family links with Mosaddeq and personally tipped him off on the plot. After the flight of the Shah the next day, the Tudeh started a major campaign to achieve regime change.

On pages 46-47 you talk about George McGhee and Dean Acheson, arguing that, while Truman and Acheson were interested in supporting Dr. Mosaddeq's government, they changed their tune. You state that while in Europe, Acheson was slowly influenced by Anthony Eden. Can you elaborate on this?

One of the challenges of the Truman, later the Eisenhower, Administration was how to balance its policies in relation to Britain and Iran. Britain was America's closest ally in the cold war. The loss of Iranian oil had placed Britain in dire financial straits, at the verge of bankruptcy if we believe the Tory chancellor of exchequer Richard Butler. Americans were aware of that but feared that if Mosaddeq could not override the oil crisis Iran might fall to the communists. Fear of Iran 'going Commie' became a larger than life nightmare scenario for Washington. The State Department under Acheson- McGhee was sympathetic to Iran and managed to dissuade Britain from occupying Abadan militarily. But Britain had an astute ambassador in Washington in the person of Sir Oliver Franks who did effective lobbying, and at one point in May 1951 the Department was overruled by the NSC in what was seen as a skewed pro-Iranian stance. The policy synthesis was that Washington must actively work to break the oil logjam; this set in motion a series of mediation efforts that I have fully covered in the book. Then in October 1951 when Mosaddeq was in Washington, the Tories won the elections in Britain and Churchill replaced Atlee while to Eden became foreign secretary. He had a much higher stature than his labor predecessor Morrison. During the tripartite ministerial meeting in Paris in November 1951 Eden seemingly convinced Acheson to abandon that balanced policy line and stonewall Mosaddeq both on an oil deal [that McGhee had prepared] and on Mosaddeq's loan request. It seems, though there is nothing in the records to make it certitude, that Eden convinced Acheson that British subterfuges against Mosaddeq would work. As I have explained in the book, paradoxically, the British diplomacy was totally out of touch with realities in Iran mainly because of an incompetent Ambassador in Tehran, Sir Francis Shepherd, and the attitude Ann Lambton et al in London who virtually dictated the Iran policy. Several times they thought they could replace Mosaddeq by their favorite politician Seyyed Zia or later by Ahmad Qavam. Buying into these assumptions led to a volte- face by Acheson against Mosaddeq who was then sent back to Tehran empty-handed. It is about this time that the pro-Mosaddeq US ambassador Henry Grady was replaced with Loy Henderson while McGhee become ambassador to Turkey.

Why did Truman decide not to give the loan that Mosaddeq had requested? I have seen a communiqué in the British archives from just before the coup, in which the British ask the Americans not to give the loan to Mosaddeq. On Aug 23, another communiqué was sent from the British Embassy to the US State Department suggesting to them to go ahead and give the loan to the Zahedi government.

For reasons already explained the US decided to tie any financial aid (over and above Point 4 and limited military aid) to Mosaddeq to tangible progress in oil negotiations. In other words as long as Mosaddeq remained adamant on an oil settlement no aid was forthcoming; this was clearly a means of pressure. They were on the other hand prepared to be lot more generous towards a replacement to Mosaddeq who would resolve the oil issue. In July 1952 they had agreed to generously help what turned out to be an ephemeral Qavam Government. Later Mosaddeq complained to Henderson about this negative attitude. By the same token the American had pledged and did in fact financially help the Zahedi government when Mosaddeq was finally overthrown.

Do you believe that the CIA did not pay hooligans such as Sha'ban bi mokh to instigate the anti- Mosaddeq demonstrations in Tehran? You claim that he was in jail at the time? Why was he in jail?

There is no evidence in the CIA's own secret history document to support the proposition that the CIA money was disbursed at any time AFTER the failure of the TP-AJAX on 16 August 1953 for crowd manipulation of bribing of Iranian actors. In fact the weight of evidence suggests that after that failure, the CIA chief operator Roosevelt started to wrap up and close down the shop and leave Tehran. He requested an ex-filtration arrangement for fifteen people (presumably to rescue people involved in the failed coup), opined in a cable to Washington that in the immediate future Mosaddeq was reinforced and enquired from the CIA/Washington whether TP-AJAX should be carried out or abandoned? CIA sent out circulars that the coup had been tried and failed. It ordered Roosevelt that, "in the absence recommendation to contrary by Henderson and himself" to leave Iran immediately. As for Shaaban Jafari ( Bimokh), he was then serving a one year prison sentence for having attempted to force his way to Mosaddeq's residence, bumping his jeep into the grill on noh'e Esfand 1332 (28 February 1953).

On page 81 you talk about General Zahedi. But in my opinion you are too soft on him. Was he not a corrupt man? Was he not a grain hoarder as many claim he was? What was his role?

As I clearly stated in the preface of the book (page xvi) it has not been my intention to pass value judgment on the protagonists, only write what I consider factual history. The career path of General Zahedi clearly is not a focus of my study but facts related to him have been stated as he was a main player in that saga. No matter how his detractors view him, one cannot deny that he was the man dispatched by Reza Khan (later Shah) to Mohammareh (later Khoramshar) in Khuzestan in 1924 to put an end to centrifugal tendencies of the British- backed Sheikh Khaz'al. Zahedi actually delivered Khaz'al to Tehran peacefully where the latter spent the rest of his life as a state guest. Also in Gilan later in Fars General Zahedi commanded pacification campaigns in 1920's and in 1946. Finally, as head of the national Police in 1948-49 he ensured a flawless parliamentary elections in Tehran that led to the election of Mosaddeq and seven other of his National Front companions to the 16th Majles, something that prompted Mosaddeq to appoint him the Interior minister in his first cabinet. General Zahedi has also been accused of corruption, be it debauchery or financial wrongdoings, by his detractors something that I have also mentioned together with the categorical denial by his entourage.

Why do you think many of Iran's clergymen never mention the name of Mosaddeq in a positive way? Why this animosity towards a man and a political leader who had the Iranian people's interest at heart throughout his life?

The answer lies in the fact that there is a direct ideological lineage between some of Mosaddeq's most ferocious foes and the founders of the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khomeini in person, according to research conducted by the Sorbonne scholar Yann Richard, was involved in anti Mosaddeq campaign, side by side with Ayatollah Kashani around the time of Mosaddeq's referendum (to dissolve the majles) in July- August 1953. Both were spiritual guides of the Fadayan'e Eslam of Navvab Safavi who threatened to have Mosaddeq killed. Together with his accomplices Navvab Safavi was in jail during the latter part of Mosaddeq's rule for ordering the assassination Dr. Hossein Fatemi. The remnants of the Fadayann in 1963, at Khomeini's behest, created Jamiat'e Motalefeh'e Eslami which became one of the pillars of Islamic revolution and government. The current leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his auto-biography published on his official website proudly admits that he was jolted into the political arena inspired by Navvab Safavi who became an instant martyr icon the Islamic revolution triumphed. This is why Mosaddeq is a persona non grata in the Islamic republic.

How would you characterize Dr. Mosaddeq in a few words? Should the young people of Iran accept him as a model for secular democracy and an exemplar of the rule of law?

Young Iranians should laud Mosaddeq and proudly treasure his legacy. Mosaddeq belongs to the pantheon of Iran's long history. He stood for the rights of a most fragile and weak nation confronting the supper-power that Britain then clearly was. Mosaddeq is also in the vanguard of the third word emancipation from the yoke of imperialism. That said, Mosaddeq was certainly not infallible. He has been stereotyped in the West as the "democratically elected leader" overthrown by the CIA after which it then put the shah back on his throne. In reality Mosaddeq was a product of the prevailing oligarchic system which brought him to power. Mosaddeq was secular and must have been a democrat at heart but the oligarchic system did not lend itself to democratic ways in the western understanding of the term. In order to effectively govern he trampled all the state institutions and towards the end created a system of governance that resembled more a benevolent dictatorship. He allowed legitimacy, which was undisputedly his, to trump legality. More importantly his strategic errors in handling of the oil dispute prompted the Eisenhower administration to join hands with Britain and with his internal detractors to plot his overthrow. This proved profoundly consequential for future course of Iran's history.

Would you not say that under the circumstances, Mosaddeq would not have been able to stay on because the British did not want to set an example for the rest of the Middle East? He was not corruptible and at some point they would have brought him down?

From day one the Brits did everything they could do to undermine Mosaddeq and have him replaced. They did not succeed in their subversive track. They did not succeed in their subversive track. The TPAJAX became possible when Mosaddeq broke off the oil talks on 11 March 1953. The Americans despaired and joined hands with the Brits but even that did not succeed due to internal factors. The plot planners had not reckoned with the Tudeh. Having penetrated all army units, the Tudeh blew the whistle on the coup. The coup plan itself, drawn by Anglo-American spymasters, was sloppy and had it not been for their Iranian counterparts (Karimi-Zand) it would have prematurely been blown off. Why do we give so much credit to foreigners? My take is "Az Ma'st keh bar ma'st."

Do you believe the Shah was a weak leader? Do you think as he states in his memoirs, it was the West who decided it was time for him to leave the peacock throne?

The Shah reigned for over 37 years from the age of twenty-two to sixty. One cannot pass a judgment over such wide canvass with a single brush. Up until the end of Mosaddeq's rule the shah broadly maintained a healthy, at time constructive, posture on state affairs. The Shah did not like Mosaddeq or for that matter any strong prime- minister that could overshadow or, worse, unseat him. But he still remained a constitutional monarch. He successfully resisted several serious attempts by Britain, later joined by the Americans, to dismiss Mosaddeq. These episodes happened in October 1951 and in May 1952. Even a year later when the America Ambassador Henderson approached the Shah in the context of the TP-AJAX to sound him out about the appointment of General Zahedi, the Shah balked and pleaded to Henderson to support Mosaddeq financially to let him handle the oil crisis. These come from official records of the state department. Later in order to enlist the shah's support for the TP-AJAX coup plot, the Americans literally resorted to blackmailing the shah. Details based on American archive documents are given in my book. After Mosaddeq's overthrow in august 1953 the shah started committing grave errors. One was to agree to put Mosaddeq on trial and imprison him. Later in 1959 but especially after his first clash with clerics over land reform and women's status in 1962 the shah turned again to the National Front and tried to reach a modus vivendi with them. The left wing of the Front - including Mehdi Bazargan - rejected the shah's overture. After that, the shah went on with his White Revolution, having arrived at the conclusion that he could do it alone. A period of authoritarian reign, heighted in later years by a measure of megalomania, threw the country into the chaos and darkness of which our girls and boys in Iran to-day are the victims. The shah mismanaged the crisis in 1978 which was of his own making; from this vantage point, yes, he was indeed a weak leader. This said, he was also a leader replete with positive ambitions for Iran who worked hard to achieve them. His is a mixed bag of avoidable failures and impressive successes (oil and foreign policy in particular) ending as a protagonist in a Greek tragedy.

In 1999, Madeleine Albright made a public apology admitting to the US meddling in Iran under the Eisenhower administration. How do you reconcile this admission with your conclusion that the fall of Mosaddeq was the result of mainly internal dynamics?

What Madeleine Albright and later President Obama, in his Cairo speech, alluded to is of course historically accurate. The U.S. did try to overthrow Mosaddeq and their plot or meddling (as Albright puts it) set in motion a process that eventually led to the fall of Mosaddeq on 19 August. As a result of the Shah's departure, political forces from the left and the right clashed generating dynamics that resulted in the fall of Mosaddeq. I am simplifying a highly complex set of events in one phrase but the point is that the eventual fall of Mosaddeq's government was in effect the backwash of that inappropriate meddling Albright refers to. This is not to say that the CIA operatives' later claims correspond to reality. Now, the more interesting aspect of Albright's statement is why it was made. It surely was not an act of Christian repentance to lighten the burden of a guilty conscience. The Clinton administration was preparing the ground for the normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic. The recent White House documents released under the Freedom of Information Act which are available on the web clearly show this policy line. Mr. Khatami, a moderate, was then the President. The assumption in Washington, inculcated by some American historians, was that the regime's unremitting hostility towards the United States was at least in part related to the US being behind the fall of Mosaddeq. Just as leaders from time to time make historical apologies for past misdeeds, the Clinton White House thought such a statement would go a long way to clear the air. If anything the apology should have been unequivocally addressed to the Iranian people.

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