LEADING UP TO THE 1953 COUP. Since the discovery of oil in the Middle East in the early twentieth century, the British monopolized Iran's oil economy. The British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (ALOC) was the country's only oil source. The Pahlavi family, headed by the Shah, swept into power in the 1920s and was more than happy to cooperate with the West.
London occupied Iran's oil fields during World War II and prevented them from falling into the hands of Nazi Germany. In the early 1940s the British ousted the Shah's father, a Nazi sympathizer, whom they feared would ally Iran with Germany. London placed his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, on the "peacock" throne. Approximately the same time, Mohammed Mossadegh became a popular member of Parliament with large support for his nationalistic position on Iranian oil. Yet the British retained control over Iranian oil after World War II by forming the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
In 1951 Iran's Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry. The next month Mossadegh was elected prime minister by Parliament, and the role of the Shah was reduced. Parliament voted almost unanimously to nationalize (AIOC). Meanwhile, the new prime minister offered the British company 25 percent of its net profits as compensation, as well as guaranteeing continued British jobs in Iran. When the British refused the offer, they erected an economic blockade of Iran, freezing all Iranian assets in the British empire. Subsequently, Iran's economy began to plummet. The British also attempted to intimidate Iran by sending a fleet of warships into the Indian Ocean.
Fearful of the new law to nationalize oil, London began to press the United States to mount a joint operation to remove Mossadegh. With the nationalization of oil as well as having 1,000 miles of a disputed border with the Soviet Union, the CIA was more than eager to help.
CIA DOCUMENTS DETAIL THE COUP. In the 1980s and 1990s CIA directors Robert Gates and James Woolsey promised to declassify records of the agency's early covert actions that included the 1953 coup. But then the agency said in 1997 that relevant documents had been destroyed in the early 1960s. Three years later -- on April 14, 2000 -- the CIA changed its story. An agency spokesman said that the about 1,000 pages of documents related to the coup were kept and that papers destroyed in the early 1960s were duplicates and working files.
Since 1992 CIA directors Robert Gates and James Woolsey pledged to declassify some of the agency's documents, one of which detailed the 1953 coup which overthrew Mossadegh. The CIA's records were believed to have the potential to add depth and clarity to the intelligence operations. In addition, Gates vowed to release the files on the CIA's role in overthrowing the democracy in Guatemala in 1953 and its aborted invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In June 1997 it was revealed that nearly all the documents had been "conveniently" destroyed in the early 1960s. Former Director Woolsey stated: "I had every reason to believe in 1993 that the full historical record, anything important to the historical understanding, was there and available. I had no notion that anything important had been destroyed." Presumably, Woolsey was delighted that the records of the Mossadegh coup had been destroyed.
Also, in June 1997 a former CIA historian, Nick Cullather, said that the files had been eradicated by "a culture of destruction" at the agency. In addition, Cullather stated that records on other major cold war covert operations had been deliberately destroyed. In addition to the CIA-sponsored Iranian coup, the former agency's historian claimed that secret missions in Indonesia in the 1950s and a CIA coup in Guyana in the early 1960s had been wiped out. Cullather stated that only "a small body" of Iran records, which were not critical of the CIA's role, could be located. Cullather continued by stating that "there's no grand conspiracy in the CIA to destroy documents."
Brian Latell, the CIA official who runs the Center for the Study of Intelligence at the agency, also maintained in June 1997 that most of the covert records on Iran were destroyed or lost in the 1960s. Latell stated that CIA officials told those who were responsible for the Iran records "that their safes were too full and they needed to clean them out." Latell continued, "This was the culture in the early 1960s. No such culture exists any longer and hasn't existed for some time."
In April 2000 more information detailing the 1953 coup was released by James Reisen in the New York Times (April 16, 2000). The classified document obtained by the New York Times in April 2000 showed the first detailed account of a coup that was nearly botched by the CIA. The secret history was written in 1954 and was provided to the New York Times by Dr. Donald N. Wilber, a former CIA official who was one of the leading planners. Wilber's memoirs were heavily censored by the CIA.
THE COUP. Plans for the coup to overthrow democratically- elected Prime Minister Mossadegh originated with the British in 1952. The ISS, the British secret police, initially planned the coup operation that was code-named TP-Ajax. The United States immediately rushed to Britain's side, showing an interest in maintaining the West's control over Iranian oil. In May 1953 the CIA sent Wilber to Cyprus to meet Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iran branch of British intelligence, to make initial coup plans. However, the CIA ran into several roadblocks. First, Darbyshire said that Iranian oil should be a secondary issue. The CIA document said that the CIA delegation did not trust the British, claiming that they lied about the importance of Iranian oil. Second, the CIA station in Teheran reported that "the Shah would not act decisively against Mossadegh." Third, the CIA and ISS handpicked General Fazollah Zehedi to lead the coup, but then the agency was told that he "appeared lacking in drive, energy and concrete plans."
Despite the hurdles faced by the CIA, the agency still moved ahead with covert plans for the operation despite not yet getting a green light from President Eisenhower. In early June CIA and ISS officials met again, this time in Beirut, and fine-tuned their plans to orchestrate the coup. Then the CIA picked Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, and a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, to direct it.
In March 1953 the CIA's Teheran station reported that an Iranian general had approached the American Embassy about supporting an army-led coup. Additionally, it was reported that support for Mossadegh was crumbling and that the influence of the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, was increasing. The Tudeh Party called for democratic elections and urged Mossadegh to form a coalition government which would assure a position for the Shah. They disseminated propaganda throughout the capital city and urged Iranians to call for the return of the Shah and "democracy." With the help of the CIA, the Tudeh Party gained support of the top echelon of the Iranian Amy.
As a result, the CIA stepped up its timetable to overthrow the prime minister. CIA Director Allen Dulles approved $1 million on April 4. The CIA document released in April 2000 said that those funds could be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh." It continued: "The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party. The document also read: "A Shah-General Zahedi combination, supported by CIA local assets and financial backing, would have a good chance of overthrowing Mossadegh particularly if this combination should be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and if a sizable portion of the Teheran garrison refused to carry out Mossadegh's orders."
Even though the CIA knew from the start that the Shah was reluctant to participate in the coup, the agency still continued to lobby him for his support. However, he refused to sign CIA-written royal decrees to change the government. Then the CIA arranged for the Shah's twin sister, Princess Ashraf Pahlevi, and General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Desert Storm commander, to act as intermediaries to try to convince the Shah to support the coup. The British also tried to persuade the Shah to support the CIA and ISS. In late July Asadollah Rashidian of the ISS asked the Shah to record anti-Mossadegh remarks that later would be broadcast at prearranged times on the BBC's Persian-language program. But the Shah refused to make remarks in support of the covert operation.
On July 11 Eisenhower approved the covert operation. At about the same time, CIA and ISS officers visited Princess Ashraf on the French Riviera and persuaded her to return to Iran and tell her brother to follow the plans for the coup. When the unpopular princess returned to Teheran, Mossadegh supporters went to streets to protest against her. And the Shah was furious that she had come back without his approval and refused at first to see her.
In early August the CIA stepped up pressure against Mossadegh by stirring up anti-communist sentiment within the country's Islamic community. The agency's Teheran station worked directly with royalist military officers to recruit Iranian citizens to demonstrate in the capital city of Teheran. They posed as members of the Communist Party to direct havoc against the Mossadegh government. Protesters harassed religious leaders, and in one instance the CIA staged the bombing of one Muslim cleric's home. The CIA planted "grey propaganda" -- anti-Mossadegh articles and cartoons in newspapers. The CIA gave one leading newspaper owner $45,000 to publish propaganda.
On August 1 the Shah met with Schwarzkopf and again refused to sign the CIA-written decrees authorizing the dismissal of Mossadegh and the appointment of Zahedi. The CIA document said that the Shah was so convinced that the palace was bugged that he "led the general into the grand ballroom, pulled a small table to its exact center" and got onto it to talk, insisting that the general do the same. Relentless pressure was placed on the Shah by Roosevelt and Rashidian at subsequent meetings.
When Mossadegh learned of the CIA plot, he moved to consolidate power by calling for a national referendum to dissolve Parliament. On August 4 the prime minister won 99.9 percent of the vote. Because of the prime minister's enormous popularity, the CIA thought that the Shah would immediately sign the decrees to eliminate Mossadegh and to place Zahedi in power. But the Shah still refused to budge. On August 10, the Shah agreed to see Zahedi and a few army officers involved in the plot, but he still refused to sign the decrees. Finally on August 13, he signed the decrees on August 13. Subsequently, word that he would support an army-led coup spread rapidly among the army officers backing Zahedi.
Two days later, the coup was underway. But Mossadegh got word hours earlier when he was informed by an Army officer. He sent his chief of staff, General Taghi Riahi, to the barracks of the Imperial Guard where he was promptly arrested. Former CIA official Risen explained that the coup was so poorly planned by the CIA that agency officials were set to flee the country. Several Iranian officers recruited by the agency acted on their own and took command of a pro-Shah demonstration in Tehran and seized the government.
Pro-Shah soldiers infiltrated Teheran's streets and began arresting other senior officials. Telephone lines between army and government offices were cut, but they inexplicably continued to function, allowing for Mossadegh to communicate with his senior supporters and to rally some of the Army's commanders to his side. When pro-Shah soldiers went to arrest Mossadegh at his home, they instead were captured. The top military officer working with Zahedi fled when he saw tanks and loyal government soldiers at Army headquarters.
The CIA document said that on the next morning, the Tehran radio announced that a coup against the government had failed. Mossadegh moved to strengthen his hold on the Army and key installations. The document stated that CIA officials in Teheran "were flying blind" and that they had "no way of knowing what was happening." Roosevelt left the embassy to meet with Zahedi who was in hiding north of Tehran. They both agreed that the coup had not yet failed and that the public could be persuaded that Zahedi was the "lawful" prime minister. To accomplish this, they would have to get out the news that the Shah had signed the two decrees.
The CIA station in Tehran sent a message to The Associated Press in New York, asserting that "unofficial reports are current to the effect that leaders of the plot are armed with two decrees of the shah, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other appointing General Zahedi to replace him." The CIA and its agents also arranged for the decrees to be mentioned in some Tehran papers. However, several CIA officials already had been arrested or were in hiding in Teheran. That afternoon, agency operatives prepared a statement from Zahedi that they hoped to distribute publicly. But they could not find a printing press that was not being watched by forces loyal to Mossadegh.
On August 16 the CIA suffered another blow when it was learned that the Shah had fled to Baghdad amid fears in the new Eisenhower administration that Iran might move too close to Moscow. Believing that the coup had failed, CIA headquarters cabled Teheran urging Roosevelt to leave immediately. However, Roosevelt refused to follow orders, insisting that there was still "a slight remaining chance of success," if the shah would broadcast an address on the Baghdad radio and if Zahedi took an aggressive stand.
Then the CIA began hearing reports that Iranian soldiers had broken up Tudeh. Additionally, Mossadegh made a fatal error by dissolving Parliament after the coup. On the morning of August 17, the Shah finally announced from Baghdad that he had signed the decrees. Nevertheless, Mossadegh recalled most of his troops who he had stationed around the city, believing that the danger had passed.
That night the CIA arranged for Zahedi and other key Iranian agents and army officers to be smuggled into the embassy compound. They agreed to start a counterattack on August 19, sending a leading cleric from Tehran to the holy city of Qum to call for a holy war against communism. Using travel papers forged by the CIA, key army officers went to outlying army posts to persuade commanders to join the coup.
However, the Shah let down the CIA again when he left Baghdad for Rome. Newspapers supporting Mossadegh reported that the Shah's dynasty had come to an end. The Teheran CIA station cabled Washington for advice as to whether operations against Mossadegh should continue.
At the same time, Teheran newspapers hit the streets with a story of the Shah's decrees. Events were moving too fast for the CIA. An Iranian Army colonel who had been involved in the plot several days earlier suddenly appeared outside Parliament with a tank, while members of the disbanded Imperial Guard seized trucks and drove through the streets. Over 100,000 prople took to the streets in Teheran. The CIA document said, "By 10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military personnel at all the main squares." By noon the crowds began to follow a few pro-Shah officers involved in the plot. Within an hour the central telegraph office fell, and telegrams were sent to the provinces urging a pro-Shah uprising. After a brief shootout, police headquarters and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell as well. Army officers seized the Tehran radio station, and news of the coup's success and the reading of the Shah's decrees were announced.
Zahedi emerged from hiding and an Army officer drove him to the radio station where he spoke to the nation. Mossadegh and other government officials were arrested, and supporters of the coup were placed in command of all units of the Army. Mossadegh was initially imprisoned and then sentenced to three years in prison. He ended up under house arrest at his estate at his estate in the walled village of Ahmadabad west of Teheran. Eventually, he bought the village and grew crops, founded an elementary school, and began a public health project. In March 1967, in his mid-80s and weakened by radium treatments for throat cancer, he died.
In 1958, Roosevelt left the CIA and went to work for Gulf Oil. Roosevelt was able to negotiate for Gulf Oil having access to Iran's oil fields. In 1960 he was named vice-president of Gulf Oil. As a reward for American participation in Iran, Britain gave the United States 60 percent of its holdings in Iran. They were parceled out to Gulf Oil, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of California, Texas Oil, and Socony-Mobil. In addition eight smaller American corporations were given drilling rights in Iran.
Over a period of 25 years, the United States portrayed the Shah as a democratic and humanitarian ally and not as an autocratic and oppressive dictator. The United States sold him billions of dollars of the most sophisticated military weapons and in return purchased billions of dollars of his oil. He was portrayed as a modernizer of a nation and not as an autocratic leader and a plunderer. Until his overthrow in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran had remained one of America's "twin pillars" -- along with Saudi Arabia -- in the Middle East.