Don’t Just Blame Washington for the 1953 Iran Coup

Declassified evidence shows that Iranians, including clerics, played a significant role in the events of Aug. 19, 1953—and that after an earlier failed coup attempt, the CIA was left in the dark.

Rioters run in the streets of Tehran in August 1953.
Rioters run in the streets of Tehran in August 1953. AFP via Getty Images

In their Oct. 30 article in Foreign Policy, Roham Alvandi and Mark J. Gasiorowski took issue with my 2010 book Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited, seeking to link it to the current hostility between Iran and the United States. Their ultimate goal is to rehabilitate a discredited narrative to which the release of the secret CIA files in 2017 has dealt a devastating blow. The archival evidence presented below should enable readers to form an independent judgment about the circumstances of the fateful overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953.

The first batch of declassified State Department documents, partially related to the Anglo-American coup plot against Mosaddeq, was released in the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series in 1989. CIA files were not included, and direct references to the plot, codenamed TPAJAX, had been redacted. Still, the released material contained valuable insights into the thinking of the Eisenhower administration and the U.S. policies both before and after the event.

U.S. involvement in the overthrow had long been suspected, but the first official admission came in the form of an apology by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in March 2000. Shortly after, the New York Times published a leaked secret CIA internal history of the event compiled by an insider CIA consultant, Donald Wilber.

Written in 1954, the account revealed stunning details about planning and operations. Complete with its five meticulously prepared appendices, the Wilber history remains a major reference source. Finally, in 2017, after years of incessant public demands, the State Department released a trove of some 375 secret documents, the bulk of which were the CIA files copied to the department at the time of the event.

According to Alvandi and Gasiorowski’s narrative, the Iranians were little more than marionettes and hired hacks, and they lacked any agency in the events of August 1953.

Over the past three decades, Gasiorowski has put forward a narrative suggesting that the CIA station in Tehran, under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt Jr., drew up a plan intended to deal Mosaddeq a decisive blow following the failure of the CIA coup attempt on the nights of Aug. 15-16, 1953, and the ensuing flight of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

According to this narrative, Roosevelt sowed chaos in the streets of Tehran by means of faking Tudeh Party-led anti-shah rallies; scaring clerics through propaganda tactics; and bribing high-ranking clerics to deploy thugs and bullies in the streets on Aug. 19 then dispatching hired military units to attack Mosaddeq’s house to overthrow the government. According to this narrative, the Iranians are little more than marionettes and hired hacks, and they lacked any agency in the events of August 1953.

The Gasiorowski account, as was first fleshed out in a 1987 article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, was seeded in Kermit Roosevelt Jr.’s 1980 memoir, The Countercoup—a phantasmagoric spy thriller—and sourced by Roosevelt’s coworkers in Tehran and Washington. To be sure, in his debriefing at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Aug. 28, 1953, Roosevelt claimed that he had secretly planned the second strike in a “council of war” two nights earlier at the U.S. Embassy compound, without the knowledge of Ambassador Loy Henderson. But the declassified documentary record does not support his self-aggrandizing narrative.

In my 2010 book, I contested the above narrative, instead placing the emphasis on internal political forces. This hypothesis was based on the following facts:

After the failure of the Aug. 15-16 coup, Washington decided to abandon the pursuit of TPAJAX and instead mend fences with Mosaddeq. Accordingly, Langley informed the CIA station in Tehran that in the absence of strong recommendations from Roosevelt and Henderson, TPAJAX should be abandoned.

Roosevelt, along with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, embarked on damage control measures, but their orientation was to foment insurrection from outside the capital and to mobilize Iran’s southern tribes in anticipation of a presumed communist takeover. Kermanshah, some 300 miles west of the capital and close to the Iraqi border, was selected for the purpose. Langley had contingency plans for such  a scenario, notably in liaison with the Qashqai tribe, predating the TPAJAX plot.

No bribe to clerics was recorded in Wilber’s detailed history, while payment of any nature to the military officers, was expressly denied.

Roosevelt’s hyperbolic claim that at his so-called council of war on Aug. 17 he arranged for the Kermanshah brigade to move to Tehran for his planned Aug. 19 operations was plainly a logistical impossibility.

The pro-shah military units intervened in the early hours of the afternoon of Aug. 19—an unlikely hour for a preplanned coup d’état.

Henderson, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and the British Foreign Office were on record characterizing the day’s events as spontaneous.

In his writings, Gasiorowski has largely bypassed a major current of opinion in Iran: those who either supported the shah or opposed Mosaddeq. This failure—echoed in the Foreign Policy piece—has driven the authors astray. Ample evidence among the old and the new declassified U.S. documents attests to the existence and vibrancy of the opposition in the run-up to the Aug. 19 coup.

Indeed, in March 1953, weeks before the CIA was mandated to plan for the overthrow of Mosaddeq, an indigenous coup d’état plan, led by Zahedi, was in an advanced phase. A CIA intelligence report from March 31, 1953, states that the coup was tentatively scheduled to take place in two to three weeks, names the main actors while specifying that in the event of success, Zahedi would become prime minister and Gen. Abbas Garzan would become chief of staff.

Separately, a nucleus of revolt among the line officers in the Tehran garrison already existed before CIA and MI6 developed a coup plan. In my 2010 book, I documented how the TPAJAX military planner in Tehran, George Carroll, accidentally learned about the existence of this network. Not only did the CIA planners not need to tempt these officers with bribes, but the Iranian ringleaders also saved Carroll and his plan from a major embarrassment by detecting a lapse that, had it not been rectified, would have foiled the TPAJAX coup prematurely.

Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, the supreme leader of the Shiite religious hierarchy, had immense influence. Borujerdi regarded the institution of monarchy as the custodian of the Shiite faith and hence believed it needed to be safeguarded. As the fall of the monarchy loomed in the days following the flight of the shah to Baghdad on Aug. 16, Borujerdi was ready to wade in, acting through his representative in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Behbahani. The green light that unleashed the clerical juggernaut was a three-word phrase, mamlekat shah mikhahad, which translates as, “the country needs the king.”

The environment in Borujerdi’s household, his bad blood with Mosaddeq, and the way the news of the latter’s fall was received at the summer residence of Borujerdi are graphically described in the memoirs of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was then a young scribe in the service of Borujerdi.

Several files released in 2017 attest to Borujerdi’s support of the shah and his willingness to act. A CIA intelligence report dated April 17, 1953, reads: “On 11 April, Mullah Borujerdi, Kashani, and Behbehani … were reaching mutual understanding on the need to bolster the Shah in his resistance to Mossadeq.” In another assessment on Aug. 17, 1953, Roosevelt cabled to Langley, “According my information he [the shah] has latent support [of the] majority of Iranian population including its most eminent clerics, including, of course, Borujerdi.” In another cable Roosevelt wrote, “Religious leaders now desperate. Will attempt anything. Will try save Islam and Shah of Iran.”

The decisive evidence against Gasiorowski’s narrative is a secret situation report cabled by Roosevelt to Langley in the early morning hours of Aug. 19. Its full and unredacted text was among the 2017 CIA declassified files.

The cable reveals that on the morning of August 19, the day Mosaddeq was overthrown, Roosevelt was in the dark about the momentous events that were unfolding in the streets of Tehran. The Roosevelt situation report—a mixture of complaints, future plans, and talk of a possible insurrection in remote areas of Iran—contained no hint of even a rumor about the events that he subsequently claimed to have planned during his so-called council of war two nights earlier.

While an intelligence operative might feel compelled to conceal a covert move from his superiors, someone of Roosevelt’s stature—the Harvard University graduate grandson of a U.S. president for whom anything was possible and permissible—would not deliberately mislead his superiors. Roosevelt’s previous days’ reporting to Langley and other CIA stations would have in effect been plainly misleading had he truly planned a military-political coup for Aug. 19.

Instead, on the evening of Aug. 17—shortly before his claimed council of war—he sent a message to Langley saying in essence that while Mosaddeq’s position was improving, the opposition policy to him should continue. In another cable, he requested arrangements for the exfiltration of 15 unnamed people and asked Langley whether the station should continue with the TPAJAX plan or withdraw. He did not ask for any extension of his mission.

It is legitimate to ask why the CIA leadership turned a blind eye to these glaring contradictions in Roosevelt’s reporting. One answer, though conjectural, is not far-fetched. TPAJAX was the very first operational assignment entrusted to the CIA. The National Security Act of 1947, by which the agency was created, had given the CIA a limited mandate of intelligence-gathering and analysis. During the administration of President Harry S. Truman and CIA head Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the agency managed to expand that limited role. The failure of TPAJAX would have hence been a severe blow, notably vis-à-vis rival military and State Department intelligence agencies.

Roosevelt’s claim to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat was thereafter adopted by Langley. With the exception of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who likened Roosevelt’s account to a “dime novel,” others inside the Beltway fell for the deceit. In the coming years, whenever the agency felt less secure, it would, through press leaks or historical researchers, tout its achievements. The bulk of the CIA files related to events in Iran in 1953 were destroyed in 1962 in Langley on the dubious grounds that there was a shortage of shelving capacity. The move was more likely designed to protect the agency’s secret in any future congressional inquiry.

Darioush Bayandor is a Swiss Iranian historian, a former diplomat, and former U.N. official. His latest book, The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States, was published in 2018.

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