Takeyh’s History Lesson: Mossadegh and 1953

As noted in today’s Talking Points, former (and briefly, at that) Obama administration official and current Council on Foreign Relations fellow Ray Takeyh has an interesting op-ed in today’s Washington Post. The piece centers an unusual take on history: that the famous intervention of the CIA to bring down Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 — and re-install the U.S.-friendly authoritarian Shah — was actually a bungled attempt, and the real culprits of the coup d’etat were Iran’s clerics. Therefore, asserts Takeyh, the true enemies of democracy in Iran are the always-amorphous “mullahs.”

(For an opposite — and vastly overwrought — view of this history from the left, check out this post from Matthew Taylor at Mondoweiss.)

This reading of history may or may not be true — I can’t say I have the personal documentation to prove it either way. (Certainly, some of Iran’s clerics — but not all; some opposition figures are mullahs, too — have culpability in last summer’s repression of democracy, as Takeyh rightly adds at the end of his piece.) But I can say that all I have read on the subject presents the CIA efforts — “Operation Ajax” — as a major part of the coup. Stephen Kinzer’s excellent book, “All the Shah’s Men,” is one such source, as is the memoir of CIA operative who organized the covert actions, Kim Roosevelt (Takeyh mentions the latter, and dismisses it as a self-serving inflation of the U.S. role).

But another question about this op-ed is, why now?

It is fair enough to ask the historical question at the anniversary of the event — if the clerical structure did play such a role, it should cop to it, of course — but it seems out of place, amid the heated rhetoric of bombing runs on Iran, to blame the “mullahs” for sins that the last two Democratic administrations have admitted to. In 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright confirmed a U.S. role in the 1953 overthrow and in his Cairo speech in June of 2009, Obama admitted it as well (“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.”).

As noted before here at LobeLog, Takeyh wrote another Post op-ed last month that seemed to be enabling the hawks who call for a strike — a step-by-step of how to prepare the diplomatic and military logistics of such a bombing run. The fact that Takeyh is a liberal-leaning centrist, and a Democratic adviser casts his positions on Iran in a different light.

If this article were to be accepted as policy, as the ideas of think-tank scholars are meant to be, the roll-back of previous U.S. admissions would certainly feed into the paranoia of both the clerics currently in charge as well as ordinary Iranians. The U.S. administration of Barack Obama, so far as they would be concerned, would obviously not be trustworthy, immediately quashing any potential further negotiations.

It may be that the trust deficit between the United States and Iran is already too great. But why, at this late stage, push the sides further apart?

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. The notion that in 1953 the mullahs would succeed where the CIA could not, in conspiring to get the Pahlavi family back into power, is so patently ridiculous that the Washington Post might as well pay to have Kim Kardashian to write their next Iran op-ed. There is not a shred of evidence anywhere to support Mr. Takeyh’s utter nonsense.

  2. Ray, the 53 coup lead by Kermit Roosevelt was a remarkably modest campaign as I understand it. The coup consisted of a few dozen “protesters” set up with coordination of a few reporters who where there to photograph these staged protests. These stories were published and given far outsized prominence in the press.

    The Pahlavis were obviously keenly interested in this opportunity. It’s hard to imagine coordination between the Shah and the Mullahs, but, why don’t the clerics today celebrate Mossadegh’s story. His story justifies their suspicions of the West, yet they’ve never embraced his story.

    For such a modest plan to succeed may have featured some coordination with the Mullahs, though I have no evidence of it. But, it wouldn’t be the first time we reached out to religious hardliners for our own Machiavellian ends.

  3. Ali, I think you made a typo in the 3rd paragraph “Kim Roosevelt”

    Missed this in an editing class a professor wrote Mary Twain, who were we to judge? We were editors, it was Mark Twain of course. I just did a google search and there are many Mary Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemons. It wasn’t that clear in our exert, and it was an in class exercise, all before the interwebs.

  4. I have not read Takeyh’s piece, but it sounds like it’s a gross misinterpretation of the facts. The coup was set in motion by the CIA and MI6 with the objective of restoring the Shah so that Mossadegh’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be reversed. It is true that the coup succeeded all too easily and with the support of at least some clerics, but that speaks to the weakness of Iranian institutions in 1953; it does not refute the fact that the U.S. and Britain instigated the overthrow of a democratic government.

    We are supposed to blame the mullahs of today for the sins of 1953? That’s like saying I’m to blame for the My Lai Massacre, even though I was only 12 at the time. I don’t make a case for clerics in Iran or anywhere else, but Takeyh’s thesis seems rather a stretch.

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