Secrecy and Spectacle in the Overthrow of Mossadegh

Chris Emery LargeA guest post from Christian Emery, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth. Chris completed his PhD at the University of Birmingham and has held teaching positions at the University of Warwick and the University of Nottingham. Between 2010 and 2013 he was a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. His research covers several areas but is primarily situated at the intersection of International Relations, Diplomatic History, and Foreign Policy Analysis. He is interested in all aspects of post-war US foreign policy, with specific expertise in US policy in Iran. His latest book is US Foreign Policy and the Iranian Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, coming this October) and he is also the author of pieces in Cold War History, The Iran-Iraq War (Routledge, 2013) and commentary in The Guardian. His next journal article will appear in Diplomacy and Statecraft.


This week an organisation dedicated to expanding public access to US government information, and publishing its former secrets, released documents proving the CIA’s involvement in an illegal covert action. Sound familiar? In this case, however, the authors had no fear of landing themselves in solitary, a foreign embassy, or (worse still) a Russian airport. The organisation lifting the lid was the National Security Archive (I will not indulge in the ironic use of acronyms) which, despite the official sounding name, receives no government funding. The NSA (ok, just once) fights for greater transparency and accountability in US foreign policy within a legal framework. Its primary weapon in fighting for open government is the Freedom of Information Act, and its bluntness may be part of the reason why others have taken more drastic action. I will return to the prescient topic of government secrecy later on, but first a few words on the content of these documents.

The documents are significant for a number of reasons, but the headline news is this: ‘CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.’ The most significant line taken from these documents is from a CIA internal history from the mid-1970s: “the military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved of at the highest levels of government.”

A legitimate response is:

Nicholas Cage You Don't Say

Quick historical recap. In August 1953 the CIA (working with MI6) orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh and installed Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in his place. The specific motivation for the coup (codenamed TPAJAX) was that Mossadegh was attempting to nationalise Iranian oil. The more pressing fear was that his government was unstable and Cold War thinking dictated that this made Iran vulnerable to Soviet influence. This anxiety was heightened by Iran’s huge oil resources, geographic proximity to the Soviet Union, and the existence of a large and well established Iranian communist party (the Tudeh). The plot to topple Mossadegh initially failed, spooking the Shah into premature exile, but a few days later US and UK agents managed through a variety of nefarious tactics to put a decisive number of pro-Shah supporters onto the streets. Mossadegh’s supporters were rounded up and the great man himself was sentenced to death (the sentence was never carried out – he died in Tehran in 1967). After the coup, Iran’s concession to Western oil companies was renegotiated and for the first time American petroleum companies were granted access to draw Iranian oil.

The coup is still considered in Iran to be America’s ‘original sin’, an unhealed wound that inflicted twenty five years of brutal authoritarian rule and established America’s determination to topple any government daring to assert control over Iran’s sovereign resources. When an Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the Pahalvi regime in 1979, a generation of Iranians had grown up to believe America would try and put their man back on the Peacock Throne. In short: the 1953 coup immediately poisoned relations between the United States and post-revolutionary Iran (for more read this or this). The operation also had a lasting effect on US foreign policy. Considered an overwhelming success at virtually no financial cost, it sparked a decade of sequels in Guatemala, Tibet, Indonesia, Cuba, and Brazil, and Congo. The CIA, which had not initially been given a mandate for covert operations in the 1947 National Security Act, was placed at the vanguard of the Global Cold War and firmly established as a favourite tool of Executive Power.

But proof of American culpability is hardly news, is it? Suspicions were perhaps first aroused when the CIA agent responsible for planning the coup, Kermit Roosevelt, published a lurid account of the plot in his memoirs. Moreover, these ‘new’ documents are not the only official CIA records in the public domain proving its involvement. They are not even the most damning.

Time Magazine Mossadeq

So why the fuss?

For historians of the period, the new documents do fill in a few gaps. They confirm, for example, that in the immediate aftermath of the coup several senior clerics (who happen to still enjoy good posthumous reputations in the Islamic Republic) remained chummy with Prime Minister Zahedi, the Pahlavi loyalist who replaced Mossadegh. This has some significance for contemporary Iranian politics (more on this later), but in truth, their collusion has already been widely written about.

We do now have a better idea of how complicated the plot was and how much it depended on Iranian help to succeed. However, despite the sensational packaging of ‘new revelations’, these documents don’t really take us much further. We know quite a lot about the planning of the coup, but the CIA still refuses to release thousands of documents describing the critical events that followed the initial failure of the coup on August 15-16 and the true extent of Iranian and British involvement.

So do these documents carry a wider political significance in the context of contemporary US-Iranian relations and debates on government ‘openness’?

The purported significance is that for the first time the CIA has admitted what everyone already knew. The more revealing Wilber Report was leaked to The New York Times in 2000. The CIA has only officially declassified a single, innocuous page (out of 200) of this account. So perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the significance of the CIA finally releasing sources which amount to a mea culpa?

But hang on – didn’t President Obama acknowledge in his 2009 Cairo speech that “the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government”? And didn’t this follow similar statements during the Clinton administration? It seems strange to suggest that the CIA was collectively crossing its fingers during these statements, or that a full acknowledgment requires confirmation from all the various arms of the state involved.

Nevertheless, given Obama and Albright’s precedent of using fleeting confessionals as part of a soft power offensive, perhaps this is a diplomatic gesture chimed to fit a potential diplomatic opening with Iran’s new and disconcertingly reasonable president, Hassan Rohani? Perhaps we are inching towards what many Iranians would dearly like: not just acknowledgment but an apology?

If this expectation has been raised inside Iran (and some have unfairly criticised the National Security Archive because they believe it has), then Iranians should prepare to be disappointed. This is not exactly John Brennan on the lawn fighting back tears in a set piece apology. This could be more accurately described as faceless bureaucrat in the CIA’s declassification office ticking a box after 15 years of FOIA requests and subsequent litigation. In any case, researchers accustomed to making FOIA requests would likely dismiss out of hand the idea that the process is efficient enough to be capable of acts of political expediency. What’s probably most significant about the timing is that the National Security Archive, which has invested much time and money into this project, has gone for maximum publicity by publishing the documents on the 60th anniversary of the coup.

Sorry Post-It

It’s worth considering whether an apology would actually help. Is contrition a vital ingredient for reconciliation? There are ample cases of reconciliation occurring without either side saying the hardest word. Evidence from the Japanese and other cases even suggests that contrition can provoke a domestic backlash that alarms former adversaries. And in the case of US and Iran, where would the apologies stop? It’s one thing for Obama to offer an apology for events that occurred before he was born, but would Iran apologise for the 1979-81 hostage crisis? Iran also demands an apology for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet by an American warship in 1989, killing all 290 civilians on board. Given the damning evidence against the captain of the USS Vincennes, this may not seem unreasonable, but what would be the wider political and legal implications of opening up these old wounds? There are also interesting questions about whether a state can even be contrite. Is contrition meaningless without a discernible change in collective memory? I digress.

So these revelations don’t reveal much we didn’t already know, their release is unconnected to any diplomatic initiative, they do not represent the first official acknowledgement of US involvement, and they certainly do not amount to an apology.

I would argue they are still interesting and significant.

The way these documents come into the public domain is as important as what they actually say. Those writing on Iran have got used to using documents obtained through a range of legal and not so legal channels. As already noted, the most comprehensive guide to US involvement in the 1953 coup was an internal CIA account leaked to The New York Times in 2000. More recently, US embassy traffic obtained by wiki-leaks told us the Saudis wanted to bomb Iran. Even more recently, slides leaked by Edward Snowdon reveal the amount of data collected from Iran using data mining software. To give a nakedly self-serving example, my upcoming book on US foreign policy and the Iranian Revolution relies on documents that only came into the public domain because they were stolen from the US embassy during the 1979-81 hostage crisis and were subsequently published inside Iran.

It’s not just private citizens who gobble up illicit morsels of sensitive information. The governments of America, Israel, and Argentina have all built legal and political cases against Iran using secret documents obtained (in circumstances unknown) by the MEK, a rather sinister Iranian opposition group that was until 2012 designated a terrorist organisation.

The bizarre and shadowy way in which documents normally reach observers of US-Iranian relations is symptomatic of a much deeper problem. The essential feature of the US-Iranian confrontation is mutual mistrust. The US government’s obsession with secrecy, its refusal to release documents that could have been safely declassified years ago, only reinforces the cloud of conspiracy and myth that shrouds its dysfunctional relationship with Iran. CIA officials still claim that most of the records were either lost or destroyed in the 1960s. They say with a straight face that this was because the record holders’ “safes were too full”. So when a smattering of documents turn up from the period, as they have this week, we are left wondering what is really still left?

The US government’s record in releasing documents on Iran is simply appalling. In 1989 the State Department had the temerity to release an Iranian volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the official record of US foreign policy, without any reference to America’s role in the coup. So outraged was the chairman of FRUS’ adversary panel, an independent historian, that he resigned. Congress subsequently passed a law that required future volumes to be a complete and accurate report. This was so effective was that 23 years later we are still waiting for the next FRUS series on Iran!

Government Secrecy Report In Out Shhh Trays

The CIA’s record is even worse. Declaring a new spirit of openness with the end of the cold war, three successive DCIs vowed to open up files on a number of Cold War-era covert operations. Turns out they were lying. In 1999 the National Security Archive had to file a lawsuit to force the release of the Wilber report. The CIA fought tooth and nail and eventually released a single page. The futility of this was demonstrated when the entire report was leaked to the NYT the following year.

US classifiers insist that there is stark difference between documents that become publicly available through unofficial channels and what the government formally acknowledges. In some circumstances this justification probably stands up; but not, however, when the President has already publicly acknowledged it. The bottom line is that if American classifiers had their way, they wouldn’t release a single document, even those already in the public domain. If there is a new willingness to release sources then this be a major boon to diplomatic historians, but it should also be welcomed by those who want to see an improvement in US-Iranian relations. That’s because a pathological obsession with secrecy is not just legally unjust, it’s downright dangerous. Malcolm Bryne hits the nail on the head: “The basic facts are widely known to every school child in Iran. Suppressing the details only distorts the history, and feeds into myth-making on all sides.”

In any information vacuum, conspiracy theories and politically motivated revisionist ‘scholarship’ flourish (see this). The revisionist narrative portrays Mossadegh as an incompetent dictator whose foolish policies provoked a wide coalition of Iranian society to seek his removal. It claims that, while the CIA and MI6 were certainly aware of the plan, and offered some assistance, this was an Iranian show. In the end, the Shah had the legal right to change his prime minister. Finally, revisionists point to Khomeini’s eclipsing of the secular nationalists, and the lack of official veneration of Mossadegh, as evidence that this era did not represent some kind of alternative path towards a secular and democratic Iran that was stifled by foreign agents.

It’s a narrative that gains support amongst an influential and rampantly anti-Iranian lobby in Washington that is in the business of preventing any kind of reasonable settlement between Iran and the United States. So it is in this context that I for one welcome any new revelations, however small and begrudgingly given, that debunks politically motivated revisionism and promotes a narrative of US involvement in the coup grounded in historical fact. This must also be at the core of the argument in support of greater transparency and access. In this case, government secrecy is clearly undermining US interests.

Another reason why these documents are significant is because they reveal how America has sought to protect UK interests in Iran and by extension the ‘special relationship’ (to think you all thought it was dead!). Some of the most interesting documents describe a crucial point in 1978, just when some US officials had decided the Shah was finished. It was at this point that US officials tell their British counterparts that they are considering the release of documents from 1950-53. The horror. One document records how Henry Precht, who led the State Department’s Iran desk, warned of “possibly damaging consequences” should America reveal documents showing the extent of British involvement in Operation TPAJAX. Although some British diplomats were prepared to weather the storm, and did not oppose their release, ultimately the British government pleaded for the documents to be withheld. Washington agreed.

Neither party appears to have changed their mind much since. Nearly all the documents showing the nitty gritty of British involvement are still under lock and key. What we do have is British and American documents, as well as the testimonies of Archivists, describing the lengths US officials have gone to avoid embarrassing their UK allies. This doesn’t seem an obvious decision. Nobody in the British government is denying our role, which is ultimately a matter of historical record. We have former British foreign minister Jack Straw listing the coup amongst examples of Britain’s ‘interferences’ in Iran.

So why the secrecy? It’s tempting, and probably quite reasonable, to view this in the context of ongoing revelations about the extent of US-UK intelligence cooperation. Let us not forget that the British government is so anxious to prevent any public disclosure of evidence their American allies wouldn’t approve of, that they pushed for secret courts in terror cases. Withholding information about Britain’s role in a covert operation where all the main facts are known may appear a rather long hanging fruit when it comes to maintaining their side of the bargain, but they say it’s the small gestures that sustain any long term relationship. Of course it also gives US censors an argument they can present when the National Security Archive takes them to court for not releasing documents. The 2011 storming of the UK embassy in Tehran probably strengthened this argument.

Tehran Skull Stars and Stripes

The final reason why the release of these documents is interesting is because they illustrate the chronological gulf between the two countries’ narrative of their bilateral relations. If Iran exists in the consciousness of the average American, it is more likely to conjure up images of post-revolutionary radicalism; of anti-American hostage takes; terrorist supporters and nuclear proliferators. Professor Gary Sick, the White House’s principal aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution, wrote that even as the Shah’s authority collapsed the 1953 coup had ‘all the relevance of a pressed flower’. A generation or two later, it’s not difficult to understand why the American public is ambivalent to ‘news’ that Eisenhower helped topple a prime minister in Iran in 1953. The story was picked up in CNN and a few other places, and Malcolm Byrne promoted his findings in Foreign Policy and Huff Post, but key outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and (gulp) Fox News passed (almost) no comment. At the time of writing, I am not aware of any US government statement on the subject.

In Iran, however, the story was huge news. With the 60th anniversary of the coup already making headlines, editors were now offered the irresistible headline: ‘CIA admits hatching Iran coup’. Press TV, the IRI’s state-owned English language channel, wasted no time in appropriating Mossadegh’s legacy to mount a thinly veiled attack on ongoing US sanctions as a subterfuge for regime change. According to this framing, the CIA finally mounted a coup in 1953 after worldwide economic sanctions failed to prevent Iran from trying to control its sovereign energy resources. I imagine the editors were picturing leopards and spots.

The prize for the most prominent, yet perhaps more ironic, coverage of the ‘revelations’ must go BBC Persian. The station is widely watched in Iran, and for this reason bitterly resented by the authorities. They may also have remembered that BBC Persian service played an important role in the coup by spreading anti-Mossadegh propaganda. Undeterred, the Beeb placed the story as its lead item.

The National Security Archives’ website is freely accessible inside Iran and several outlets, started to translate and editorialise parts of the material. In most cases, the headlines were triumphant. A pro-regime historical institute proclaimed that: “The CIA has finally admitted its role in the coup.”

As we might expect, in some cases material has been selectively published, and the presentation of their meaning politically motivated. And not just by the usual suspects. The reformist paper, Shargh, deliberately omitted any reference to documents which are particularly sensitive inside Iran. These are the documents (numbers 14-19) which detail the apparently friendly relations between two key Ayatollahs, Kashani and Behbahani, and Fazlollah Zahedi, a key plotter who replaced Mossadegh as prime minister. Kashani in particular has been promoted in Iran as an opponent of the coup and champion of the nationalisation cause, thus offering a clerical alternative for those who find Mossadegh’s secular nationalist credentials difficult to reconcile with their Islamic national narrative. This image has become harder to sustain in the face of evidence that Kashani was engaged in anti-Mossadegh activities immediately before the coup. Whether he was actively involved in the plot is a subject of great controversy in Iran, but more evidence that he was friendly with Zahedi in the immediate aftermath of the coup presents some highly embarrassing questions. Not least for Kashani’s two sons, who are still reasonably prominent (though not influential) in Iranian politics. Ahmad is a former MP who tried (unsuccessfully) to stand in the 2013 presidential election. Mahmoud, as former Iranian delegate to the ICJ, is a professor at the prestigious Shahid Beheshti University.

Ayatollah Kashani and Mosaddegh

The Shargh’s special issue on the coup has already mounted a defence of Kashani, including an interview with his nephew repeating his long-standing claim that he hand delivered a letter from his uncle to Mossadegh warning him of the impending ‘second coup’ on August 18. The actual letter, which only surfaced shortly before the Revolution, is surrounded with controversy and considered by many to be a fake. So Shargh’s decision to publish the interview, and omit any reference to these new revelations, must have been a calculated political act.

This story is likely to keep running in Iran. But this process of translation, analysis, and dissemination is far from complete. At least one UK-based historian is assisting the translation of documents into Persian. The full picture of how they will play inside Iran is thus yet to emerge. The Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) may even decide to pass comment. Even then, his comments would be unreliable indicators of his own thinking. Khamenei has vacillated between qualified praise and ardent criticism of Mossadegh. His instinct will be to attack America, and place the coup within a wider narrative of nefarious American activities in Iran, but he is conscious that many Iranians, including many outside Iran, hold Mossadegh as an icon of the secular and democratic Iran they hope for. For this reason, these documents are significant because they reveal the extent to which Mossadegh’s legacy is contested and how the state struggles to construct an inclusive image of his contribution to Iran’s political development.

So there we have it; a set of documents have been released that confirm what everybody already knew. Sensational headlines that suggest otherwise are misleading. They may even be damaging if millions of Iranians now expect some kind of resolution to the affair. Diplomatic historians will undoubtedly feel quite underwhelmed. Yet, what they say is not just what they reveal. It seems important, therefore, to extend any discussion of their significance beyond how ‘new’ their content is to scholars of the Mossadegh era.

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