New Details on the 1953 Coup in Iran

by Mark Gasiorowski

In June, the State Department’s historical office finally released a new collection of documents on the US role in the August 1953 coup in Iran, after years of delay. These documents provide interesting new details about the circumstances surrounding the coup, in which a team of CIA officers worked with certain Iranians to overthrow Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, and install retired general Fazlollah Zahedi in his place, establishing a dictatorship that lasted for 25 years. However, the documents do not contain any major new revelations, unlike a memoir published in 1979 by the leader of the CIA team, Kermit Roosevelt, and the first official CIA history of the coup, written by a key planner, Donald Wilber, and published with some redactions by The New York Times in 2000. And they fail to address a number of key unanswered questions about how the coup was carried out.

The collection begins with a note explaining that the CIA destroyed many of its documents on the coup decades ago, making it impossible now to provide a complete account. However, many of the documents published here are extensively redacted, and some are redacted in full. Moreover, the editors of this collection include only a short passage from Wilber’s history of the coup and nothing from the second and third CIA histories, of which redacted versions are publicly available. So although it is impossible now to provide a complete account of the coup, key details nevertheless remain hidden in the CIA’s archives.

The new collection contains interesting new details about the decision-making that led to the coup. The chief early advocate seems to have been CIA Deputy Director (and later Director) Allen Dulles, who called for a major US intervention in Iran even before Mosaddeq became prime minister and advocated the overthrow of Mosaddeq barely two weeks after he assumed office. Surprisingly, the collection does not identify Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as a key advocate and does not mention British lobbying for a US coup, both emphasized in Roosevelt’s memoir and other accounts. And although State Department officials were willing to consider a coup in mid-1952, Secretary of State Acheson and President Truman firmly opposed the idea. There is also no indication in this collection of exactly when US officials decided to begin preparations for a coup, though this seems to have occurred between March 4 and April 2, 1953.

Although the decision to begin preparations for a coup clearly occurred under President Eisenhower, the CIA considered several plans for a coup under President Truman. The first was a rough plan submitted to the CIA in August 1952 by Max Thornburg, a prominent oil industry executive and State Department consultant with long experience in Iran. The second was a plan developed a month later by CIA officer John Leavitt. Third, in response to Leavitt’s plan, CIA consultant Donald Wilber recommended that US officials explore whether Iran’s ambassador in Washington, Allahyar Saleh, a key Mosaddeq ally, might be a suitable successor. After the Eisenhower administration decided to begin coup preparations, Wilber developed a preliminary plan that resembled Leavitt’s plan and focused on installing Zahedi. Wilber and others then produced two revised versions of this plan, which are included as Appendices A and B in Wilber’s history of the coup and are cited but, inexplicably, fully redacted in this collection.

The new documents contain tantalizing details about an apparent plot to overthrow both Mosaddeq and Iran’s monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, led by Acting Court Minister Abol Ghassem Amini in spring 1953, as the CIA was moving forward with its effort to install Zahedi. Amini was plotting with his brother, Mahmoud, who headed Iran’s Gendarmerie (a rural police force), and with the leaders of the powerful Qashqai tribe, who supported Mosaddeq but had close ties with the CIA. The Aminis were descendants of the previous Qajar dynasty and apparently wanted to replace the shah with his half-brother, Abdol Reza Pahlavi, whose mother also was a Qajar. US Ambassador Loy Henderson and CIA station chief Roger Goiran met repeatedly with Amini. In early June, Henderson suggested to CIA officials in Washington that they consider enlisting the Aminis’ support in their effort to overthrow Mosaddeq, and perhaps even back Abdol Reza Pahlavi. The Wilber history indicates that Goiran favored the Aminis as well. A few weeks before Mosaddeq fell, the CIA team decided either to win over or to “neutralize” the Amini-Qashqai group and to make plans to back them if the Zahedi plot failed.

The documents contain some interesting details about how the initial coup plan, which unfolded on the night of August 15-16, 1953, may have been exposed. The newspaper Shojat, which was associated with Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, had published details of an imminent coup attempt on August 13. The Tudeh later claimed that it had learned of the plot and warned Mosaddeq about it. Roosevelt stated on August 17 that General Mohammad Daftari, a key Zahedi ally, may have exposed the plot. But he later claimed that a police official named Naderi had done so. A summary of the CIA’s role in the coup states that the plot was exposed through a leak in the secret military apparatus the CIA team had assembled for the coup.

Beyond this, there are no important new details in this collection about how the coup occurred. Most importantly, these documents do not shed any new light on key questions such as what exactly the CIA team did to undermine Mosaddeq in the weeks before the coup, why station chief Goiran was replaced shortly before the coup, why the shah fled Iran after the initial coup attempt failed, who organized the anti-Mosaddeq crowds that appeared on August 19, and why Mosaddeq’s supporters failed to organize large crowds and take other steps to defend him on that fateful day. Two documents in the collection summarize these events, showing clearly that the CIA played a crucial role in them, but they do not contain any important details not already covered in Wilber’s history or other sources.

Finally, the collection contains interesting material on the efforts US officials made after the coup to stabilize the new regime, providing a useful reminder that the post-coup dictatorship was a result not only of the coup itself but also of subsequent events. US officials made plans before the coup to provide a $45 million emergency aid package to the new government and allocated this aid a few weeks after the coup. Following repeated requests from the shah, they began to develop a large military aid program intended to improve the capability and morale of Iran’s armed forces. They also began a major effort to resolve the oil dispute and encouraged the Zahedi government to reconcile with Britain. US officials in Iran helped persuade Qashqai tribal leaders to cooperate with the new government, defusing a major potential source of tension after the coup. And the CIA helped the Zahedi government manipulate the elections of early 1954, which produced a docile parliament. An important oversight in this part of the collection is the absence of documentation on the CIA’s effort to create a new, effective secret police force in Iran, which also began in the weeks immediately after the coup and evolved into the notorious SAVAK intelligence agency.

Mark Gasiorowski is a professor of political science at Tulane University.  He is the author of US Foreign Policy and the Shah (Cornell University Press, 1991) and co-editor (with Malcolm Byrne) of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2005). Photo: Kermit Roosevelt (Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. What a Shame. Are we ever going to correct our deed and let Iranians know we can be their Friends?! Or are we going to pursue the same hateful tactics!

  2. Esther the US/UK foreign policy will never change. If you’re not a puppet regime reporting to London and Washington, you’re a rogue player and “regime change is ultimately what is best for the country.”

  3. @Newt Rallyt, that is pipe dream!
    Only people have the right to select their own governing body and no one or no country is qualified to dictate or select a type of undesirable government for other nation(s). Only the people of Iran have the right to change their own government when they want to with zero involvement or interference of others. Unfortunately the last time Islamist were governing Iran it was during Safavid dynasty and the dynasty lasted for about 250 years, 1500 – 1750! So please be patient!

  4. wondering why Nissan named one of their automobiles Qashqai.

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