In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency helped plan and then participated in a coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Much mythology surrounds the episode.
In the decades since, for example, hagiography has painted Mosaddegh as a democrat and the rightful ruler of Iran. In reality, he was neither: He was a democratic only like Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti was a democrat—perfectly happy to utilize the rhetoric of democracy but those who disagreed with him might have found themselves lynched.
Then there’s the issue of legitimacy. A couple months ago, I debated former Ambassador Chas Freeman at Brown University. In the question-and-answer session which followed, an audience member argued that the United States committed original sin by overthrowing Iran’s rightful ruler and placing the dictatorial shah in his place. This also misreads events. The prime ministers in Iran serve at the pleasure of the shah. The shah had the power to appoint and dismiss prime ministers. Mosaddegh refused to step down when dismissed. In effect, Mosaddegh sought to stage a coup against the rightful head of state, which is why intelligence officer Kermit Roosevelt called his narrative of subsequent events Countercoup.
Roosevelt, too, bears some responsibility for subsequent inaccuracies. In Washington, ego trumps truth, and Roosevelt, an intelligence officer, seeking to cash in on his actions placed himself front and center in historical events, exaggerating the role of the CIA and downplaying the roles of others. This isn’t to absolve the CIA, but rather to argue that the first draft of history may not be fully accurate.
Lastly, conventional wisdom often ignores the co-conspirators. The idea for the coup was British in origin, and was hatched once Mosaddegh repeatedly refused to negotiate after nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It ignores the role of the clergy, who sided with the coup conspiracy because, as religious conservatives, they distrusted the Soviet-leaning Mosaddegh. This is why, the shah in his memoirs, spoke of the red (communists) vs. the black (clergy). It was also part of the irony surrounding Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2000 apology to the Islamic Republic for the coup because, in effect, she was apologizing to America’s co-conspirators who were happy to feign grievance for their own advantage.
Now, however, there is another resource to examine the run-up and execution of the coup. The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian has released a volume of Foreign Relations of the United States including key documents leading up to and immediately after the coup. “Iran, 1951-1954” is downloadable, here. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations certainly were not angels when it came to Iran, but reading the original documents can be a useful corrective to agenda-driven journalists, academics, and diplomats. The released documents add context to some of the debates and events leading up to what would become a watershed moment in Iranian history.