Misreading the 1953 Coup

Brian Hook (New America via Flickr)

 by Gregory Brew

On May 8, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) invited U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook to an event commemorating one year of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

During the event, Hook briefly touched on the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in the infamous coup of August 1953. “Mossadegh was overthrown by the religious establishment, the military, and the political leaders,” said Hook. “We have declassified a range of materials that speak to this,” referring to the retrospective volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) released in 2017.

Hook’s comment, though brief, is quite revealing. It references a position recently taken by a number of revisionists, who argue that the U.S. role in the downfall of Mossadegh was insignificant, and that the clerical class, the very same faction that would take over Iran after the 1979 revolution, was ultimately responsible for the coup of 1953.

Revisionists have gone so far as to label most of what is known about the coup as “myths,” ultimately disproven by a closer examination of the historical record, including the new FRUS volume.

This interpretation flies in the face of decades of scholarship. It represents an overt attempt to mislead, confuse, and misdirect people regarding the contents of the 2017 FRUS volume, which Hook either hasn’t read or is deliberately twisting to fit current U.S. policy.

There is considerable evidence that key clerical figures were involved in the plot against Mossadegh. But it’s misleading to argue that they played a preponderant role in a way that somehow links to the current politics and policies of the Islamic Republic.

Mossadegh had become quite unpopular with various sections of Iranian society by August 1953. His most important rival was Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, a popular cleric who had a considerable street following. Other figures, such as Ayatollah Mohammed Behbehani, also conspired against Mossadegh.

Kashani was a powerful figure chiefly due to his involvement in the campaign to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which had been led by Mossadegh’s political coalition, the National Front. Kashani broke with Mossadegh for a variety of reasons, but few of them related directly to the former’s stature as a religious leader. More important clerical figures, particularly Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, the county’s most senior Shi’a cleric, took no part in the coup.

Finally, there is evidence to suggest that both Kashani and Behbehani received money from either the British or U.S. governments in order to secure their support in the campaign to oust Mossadegh.

The scholarly consensus around the coup has been quite consistent since historian Mark Gasiorowski’s groundbreaking 1987 article. The United States was heavily involved in the coup against Mossadeq. Indigenous factions were instrumental in Mossadegh’s overthrow. But the coup would not have taken place (or, at the very least, would have been significantly delayed) without funding, planning, and encouragement from U.S. officials.

The CIA had few assets inside Iran that could be used against Mossadegh. However, once the decision to mount a coup had been made, the British intelligence services handed over their Iranian network to CIA control. The British had wanted Mossadegh gone for years, yet British leaders knew that a covert operation was unlikely to succeed without American help.

The CIA disseminated propaganda designed to undermine Mossadegh. It bribed politicians and provided backing to General Fazlollah Zahedi, who coordinated pro-shah military forces on the day the coup and became prime minister once the operation ended.

The United States chose Zahedi not for his political ability but rather for his confidence and his willingness to take part in the coup. The Iranian leader openly admitted that U.S. help was needed, “that it is impossible for Iranians to remove the present government by their own efforts.” Zahedi also seemed amenable to negotiating an agreement with Western oil companies once he was in power.

The United States felt that any coup against Mossadegh would fail without the involvement of the shah. And yet the Pahlavi monarch had to be convinced, over a period of several months, to take part in the operation. The shah, understandably cautious, felt that even with U.S. help, the operation was dangerous and likely to fail.

The shah also argued that without a promise of U.S. economic aid, no change of government would be “preferable.” He would only participate if the United States promised to back his regime. The Eisenhower administration furnished the shah with a billion dollars of economic and military aid in the years immediately after 1953.

Documents in the FRUS volume indicate how the United States played a role in Iran’s internal politics before the coup. American officials were entangled in the July 1952 crisis and the February 1953 showdown between the shah and Mossadegh. In the latter instance, U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson broke diplomatic protocol and sided with the monarchy against Iran’s prime minister.

The downfall of Mosaddegh was a complex, multi-tiered event that brought together disparate actors. Religious leaders played a role in the coup, and it would be a mistake to claim that the United States engineered Mosaddegh’s downfall single-handed. But the historical record is clear: without U.S. involvement, Mossadegh’s opposition would not likely have succeeded in August 1953. This was understood by key actors like Zahedi and the shah, and it is acknowledged by scholars today.

Hook notes that Iran’s current leaders “don’t want to remind people that the religious establishment at the time supported [Mossadegh’s] overthrow.” Indeed, the current regime has an ambivalent attitude toward Mossadegh, who is still an immensely popular figure among Iranians.

But Hook clearly hopes to conceal crucial facts. By shifting the blame for the coup he can absolve the United States of any lingering guilt over the toppling of Mossadegh. Through the weaponization of declassified documents, Hook and others in the Trump administration can use history to justify its current policy towards Iran. This kind of willful misinterpretation must be opposed if a broader understanding of the legacy of the 1953 coup is ever to be reached.

Gregory Brew is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, where he studies the history of U.S.-Iranian relations and international energy. His work has appeared in International History Review and Iranian Studies. Follow him at @gbrew24

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  1. Ali Mostofi, you “Ghalat kardi ba ein harfhaye draghinat”. This is indicative of you have been and still are a “nokare khaneh Zade” Pahlavi, the Brits and your then and the current master CIA!

  2. I recommend Stephen Kinzer’s book “all the king’s men”. It is a short book but it tells vividly how Kermit Roosevelt organized the coup. It is a shameful chapter in Iran’s history; that Iranian prime minister Mossadegh actually believed the outright lie that the US ambassador told him the day before coup. I am concerned that Iranians did not learn their lessons , repeated their gullibility and put their trust in the Obama team while negotiating JCPOA. . It reminds me of Arafat in Oslo negotiations. The people of Middle East deserve better and well informed politicians who have read Machiavelli!
    PS.. At least Zarif can speak English fluently.

  3. Dear Editor what happened to my comment–which I sent twice, because I made some corrections?

  4. The Coup against Mossadegh was because of Mossadegh’s own doing. He was an arrogant Ghajar family noble (the dynasty that was overthrown by Reza Shah Pahlavi). The man stretched his hand in a fight where he could not have punched his opponents since this was way above his weight. He also undermined the democratic institution that was the national parliament of Iran (aka Majles Shorayeh Melli) by dismissing it for almost an entire year before his downfall. He managed the country through zigillions of executive orders during that time in the absence of any democratic counter weight to his power.

    The Shah was totally committed to upholding the constitution and it was Mossadegh’s illegal actions that violated the constitution that gave the Shah the opening he used to sign General Zahedi’s nomination as the new Prime Minister. It has been documented that the Shah consulted heavily with all the legal constitutional scholars before signing that act since he knew that stepping out of the boundaries of that constitution would lead to weakening Zahedi’s hand right from the start.

  5. EHSAN

    Without a doubt, Mossadeq committed major blunders.

    Without US & UK, there would be no coup d’etat and Iranians – with or without either Zahedi or Mossadeq – would have gone on with their chaotic political culture.

    What Americans did was that they destroyed the legitimacy of the Shah. Subsequent years convinced the Iranian people that only the mullahs were committed to the preservation and defense of their interests.

    That has not changed – almost all of the non-religious people who publicly write about Iran, in Persian, French, English, are demonstrating an undeniable weakness in safeguarding of the Iranian Power and Sovereignty. They care more about being on the right side of the West than being supportive of Iran’s interests.

    Ayatollah Khamenei has staunchly defended Iranian interests using all instruments of the Iranian power over the last 20 years, while that Noble Laureate, Shirin Ebadi – has acted like a traitor in her speeches over the past few months.

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