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Mohammad Mosaddeq and
the 1953 Coup in Iran

Edited by Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne

New Volume Reexamines a Seminal Event
in Modern Middle Eastern History

A Joint U.S.-British Regime-Change Operation in 1953 that Holds Lessons for Today

New Documents Shed Further Light on Secret U.S. Policy

June 22, 2004

For further information Contact
Malcolm Byrne 202/994-7043
mbyrne@gwu.edu

"This book … sheds vital new light on issues that remain crucial to the evolution of U.S.-Iran relations and to continuing questions about unilateralism and secrecy in U.S. foreign policy."

Nikki Keddie, UCLA

"Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne have assembled a stellar array of talented scholars … This is an exceptional collection dealing with a uniquely important event."

Gary Sick, Columbia U.

"This multinational, multiarchival history is a magnificent addition to the literature on post-World War II international history."

Melvyn Leffler, U. of Virginia.

On the morning of August 19, 1953, a crowd of demonstrators operating at the direction of pro-Shah organizers with ties to the CIA made its way from the bazaars of southern Tehran to the center of the city. Joined by military and police forces equipped with tanks, they sacked offices and newspapers aligned with Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and his advisers, as well as the communist Tudeh Party and others opposed to the monarch. By early afternoon, clashes with Mosaddeq supporters were taking place, the fiercest occurring in front of the prime minister's home. Reportedly 200 people were killed in that battle before Mosaddeq escaped over his own roof, only to surrender the following day. At 5:25 p.m., retired General Fazlollah Zahedi, arriving at the radio station on a tank, declared to the nation that with the Shah's blessing he was now the legal prime minister and that his forces were largely in control of the city.

Although official U.S. reports and published accounts described Mosaddeq's overthrow and the shah's restoration to power as inspired and carried out by Iranians, this was far from the full story. Memoirs of key CIA and British intelligence operatives and historical reconstructions of events have long established that a joint U.S.-British covert operation took place in mid-August, which had a crucial impact. Yet, there has continued to be a controversy over who was responsible for the overthrow of the popularly elected Mosaddeq, thanks to accounts by, among others, former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Zahedi's son, who later became a fixture in the Shah's regime. Those versions of events virtually ignored the possibility that any outside actors played a part, claiming instead that the movement to reinstate the Shah was genuine and nationwide in scope.

Now, a new volume of essays by leading historians of Iranian politics, the coup, and U.S. and British policy presents the most balanced, detailed, and up-to-date assessment of this landmark event to date. Based on new documentation and extensive interviews of participants, Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2004) offers an abundance of new information, analysis and insights into the staging of the overthrow as well as the historical, political, and social context which made it possible.

Among the book's main conclusions is that Iranians and non-Iranians both played crucial parts in the coup's success. The CIA, with help from British intelligence, planned, funded and implemented the operation. When the plot threatened to fall apart entirely at an early point, U.S. agents on the ground took the initiative to jump-start the operation, adapted the plans to fit the new circumstances, and pressed their Iranian collaborators to keep going. Moreover, a British-led oil boycott, supported by the United States, plus a wide range of ongoing political pressures by both governments against Mosaddeq, culminating in a massive covert propaganda campaign in the months leading up to the coup helped create the environment necessary for success.

However, Iranians also contributed in many ways. Among the Iranians involved were the Shah, Zahedi and several non-official figures who worked closely with the American and British intelligence services. Their roles in the coup were clearly vital, but so also were the activities of various political groups - in particular members of the National Front who split with Mosaddeq by early 1953, and the Tudeh party - in critically undermining Mosaddeq's base of support. The volume provides substantial detail and analysis about the roles of each of these groups and individuals, and even includes scrutiny of Mosaddeq and the ways in which he contributed to his own demise.

The "28 Mordad" coup, as it is known by its Persian date, was a watershed for Iran, for the Middle East and for the standing of the United States in the region. The joint U.S.-British operation ended Iran's drive to assert sovereign control over its own resources and helped put an end to a vibrant chapter in the history of the country's nationalist and democratic movements. These consequences resonated with dramatic effect in later years. When the Shah finally fell in 1979, memories of the U.S. intervention in 1953, which made possible the monarch's subsequent, and increasingly unpopular, 25-reign intensified the anti-American character of the revolution in the minds of many Iranians.


Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
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Sample Documents

The following documents are examples of materials that have recently come to light through Freedom of Information Act requests or research at the National Archives. One of the difficulties of coming to final conclusions about the 1953 coup is the fact that so many documents were destroyed, mainly by the CIA, during the 1960s. (See the discussion at http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB28/index.html) At least two internal histories are known to exist--still--but only one of those is available in meaningful form. That document, written in March 1954 by coup planner Donald Wilber and originally published in 2000 by The New York Times, provided considerable new and useful information, and served as an important source in the new volume of essays. Wilber's account appears elsewhere on this web site. The second, much more recent, history appears below.

The Archive continues to pursue access to materials from Iranian, British and Russian sources, although each situation presents its own challenges.

Document No. 1: National Security Council, NSC 136/1, "United States Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran," Top Secret Report, November 20, 1952
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, "Records relating to State Department Participation in the Operations Coordinating Board and the National Security Council, 1947-1963," Lot 63D351, National Security Council, Box 68, Folder: "NSC 136: U.S. and Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran"

This was the last policy statement on Iran prepared during the Truman administration. Truman and his top advisers always focused on working out an oil agreement between Mosaddeq and British. To the end, they believed that Mosaddeq represented the most effective barrier to a communist takeover in Iran. This view differed sharply from the Eisenhower administration's, which held that Mosaddeq's inability to withstand Tudeh subversion or a coup made him a liability that had been removed. Truman's fears about the deterioration of conditions in Iran grew while he was in office, leading him to declare, as in this document, his readiness to deal militarily with a communist coup. But he never reached the point of considering an anticipatory move as Eisenhower ultimately did. Still, the steady progression of his views raises the interesting hypothetical question of whether, had he remained in office for another term, Truman might have eventually followed the same path.

Document No. 2: State Department, "First Progress Report on Paragraph 5-a of NSC 136/1, 'U.S. policy regarding the present situation in Iran'," Top Secret Memorandum, March 20, 1953
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, "Records relating to State Department Participation in the Operations Coordinating Board and the National Security Council, 1947-1963," Lot 63D351, National Security Council, Box 68, Folder: "NSC 136: U.S. and Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran"

One of the points of interest about this memo is that it is a progress report from the Eisenhower period on a policy adopted by President Truman. It is of particular importance because it focuses on a series of specific covert measures the U.S. planned to take in the event of "an attempted or an actual communist seizure of power" in Iran - one of the aspects of US policy that long remained out of reach for historians because it was classified. In fact, the section under discussion, paragraph 5-a of NSC 136/1 (see previous document), was redacted in the policy document itself but has been included - and of course elaborated on in detail - in this follow-up report.

Document No. 3: State Department, "Measures which the United States Government Might Take in Support of a Successor Government to Mosadeq," Top Secret Memorandum, March 1953.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, Records of the Officer-in-charge of Iranian Affairs, 1946-1954, Lot 57D529, Box 40, Folder: Policy

This fascinating memo lists several proposed steps to take in the event - apparently still hypothetical at this stage - of a coup against Mosaddeq by "a successor government we wish to support." The document is referred to in the CIA's "Zendebad Shah!" history (below) in footnote 66 on page 19. The gist of the memo's recommendations is to make sure the new government and the Shah were aware that the United States was ready to offer support. But the authors make clear that any substantive measures would have to be taken outside of the public eye since it "would be literally fatal to any non-communist successor to Mosaddeq if the Iranian public gained an impression that the new premier was a 'foreign tool'."

Document No. 4: State Department, "Proposed Course of Action with Respect to Iran," Top Secret Draft Memorandum, August 10, 1953
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, Policy Planning Staff 1947-53, Box 42, Lot 64D563, Folder: Record Copies, July-Aug 1953

Written just five days before the initial launching of the coup, this memo reflects several interesting points. For one, it shows how completely out of the picture some parts of the U.S. government were regarding the operation. Months after Eisenhower's top advisers had given up on winning an oil settlement with Mosaddeq, this paper continues to recommend steps in that direction. Equally interesting are the author's assessments of Iran's political and economic situation, which are at odds with the views of top policy-makers that led them to approve the coup. Specifically, the author downplays the likelihood of a Tudeh overthrow attempt, saying the party is not "sufficiently strong or well-organized to attempt a coup." He does point up the longer-term threat of the Tudeh building power and prestige, as did those who supported the intervention. The author of this memo also indicates that Iran's economy, while deteriorating, is "in balance" in several areas and continues to allow the government to "meet its fiscal needs."

Document No. 5: CIA, "Zendebad, Shah!": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, August 1953," Top Secret Draft History, History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, June 1998.
Source: Freedom of Information Act lawsuit

This 139-page internal history prepared by the CIA's History Staff became available in highly redacted form after the National Security Archive filed a lawsuit with the CIA in 1999 for materials relating to Iran in 1953. At first it was denied in its entirety, then upon review sections already marked Unclassified were released (for the most part), along with a single section previously marked Secret (but apparently based primarily on a published account). The document is potentially of great historical value because it was prepared by a trained historian with the benefit of a variety of still-classified supporting documentation and many years of historical perspective. As such, it would be extremely useful to compare it with the only other extant internal history, which by contrast was written by one of the coup's main architects, Donald Wilber, just a few months after the operation. In its current largely inaccessible state, however, the document is mostly a testament to the continuing obstacles faced by researchers to a more complete understanding of the coup.

 

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