“CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.” So reads the headline in Foreign Policy. If this sounds like news, it’s not–not really.
U.S. involvement in the coup that overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 has long been a matter of public knowledge, described at great length by some of the MI6 and CIA officers who were involved, such as Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt for the CIA and C.M. “Monty” Woodhouse for MI6. President Obama, back in his 2009 Cairo speech, even appeared to apologize for the U.S. role, which he offensively equated with Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” As if the CIA had waged a campaign of terrorism against the people of Iran in the 1950s. In reality even Mossadeq survived the coup, dying at home in 1967 after a long period of house arrest.
All that the CIA has done now is to declassify an internal study from the 1970s that discusses the agency’s role–news only because CIA censors are so far behind the times in opening up documents that have long ago lost any rationale to remain secret. Indeed to say that the CIA is now “admitting” its role is somewhat inapt; the CIA has all but bragged about its role for decades. The real question that concerns events in Iran in 1953 is not whether American and British intelligence operatives tried to orchestrate a coup–clearly they did–but whether their machinations were actually decisive.
There is much evidence that Mossadeq was overthrown because he had lost the confidence of what would now be called the Iranian “street” including the all-important Shiite clergy which feared (as did the CIA and MI6) that Mossadeq was opening an opportunity for the Tudeh Party, as the Communists were known, to seize power. There is, indeed, a strong argument to be made that his overthrow was not even an unlawful coup because it was the shah’s right, as head of state, to dismiss the head of government.
One can make the case that the CIA for decades has actually been trying to claim more credit than it deserved for Mossadeq’s overthrow as well as the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and even Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in 1963. (Why do CIA coups seem to occur in years ending in 3? Should Gen. Sisi in Cairo be worried?) In all those cases, leaders were overthrown by indigenous conspiracies that received the blessing of the CIA. It is unknowable whether the coups would have happened anyway even without CIA blessing, but they might well have. Conversely, it is highly unlikely that the CIA-backed coups would have succeeded absent a large degree of public support or at least acquiescence.
To be sure, the CIA has gotten its share of opprobrium for its involvement–a subject of public controversy ever since the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s. The CIA has been especially and unfairly pilloried by those who mistakenly think that the 1979 Iranian Revolution was a reaction to the events of 1953–as if the shah didn’t have a quarter-century in which to improve his style of governance and thereby win more popular support. In any case the ayatollahs who seized power in 1979 never had much regard for the secular Mossadeq to begin with.
So it might seem bizarre that the CIA would be trying to claim more credit than it might deserve for actions which its critics believe to be reprehensible. But the only thing worse from the CIA’s perspective than being thought to be a vile tool of American imperialism is to be considered to be ineffectual. Whatever the morality of its actions (and its coups all had White House authorization), at least the CIA could come back and tell its political masters that it was a “can-do” agency. A more comprehensive account of the historical forces at play in 1953 Iran and in these other coups could call into question how much the CIA was ever able to accomplish.