The CIA has publicly admitted for the first time that it was behind the notorious 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, in documents that also show how the British government tried to block the release of information about its own involvement in his overthrow.
On the 60th anniversary of an event often invoked by Iranians as evidence of western meddling, the U.S. national security archive at George Washington University published a series of declassified CIA documents.
“The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” reads a previously excised section of an internal CIA history titled The Battle for Iran.
The documents, published on the archive’s website under freedom of information laws, describe in detail how the U.S. — with British help — engineered the coup, codenamed TPAJAX by the CIA and Operation Boot by Britain’s MI6.
Britain, and in particular Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Minister, regarded Mosaddeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after the Iranian leader nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. But the U.K. needed U.S. support. The Eisenhower administration in Washington was easily persuaded.
British documents show how senior officials in the 1970s tried to stop Washington from releasing documents that would be “very embarrassing” to the U.K.
Official papers in the U.K. remain secret, even though accounts of Britain’s role in the coup are widespread. In 2009, the former Foreign Minister Jack Straw publicly referred to many British “interferences” in 20th-century Iranian affairs. On Monday, the Foreign Office said it could neither confirm nor deny Britain’s involvement in the coup.
The previously classified U.S. documents include telegrams from Kermit Roosevelt, the senior CIA officer on the ground in Iran during the coup. Others, including a draft in-house CIA history by Scott Kock titled Zendebad, Shah! (Viva, Shah!), say that according to Monty Woodhouse, MI6’s station chief in Tehran at the time, Britain needed U.S. support for a coup. Eden agreed. “Woodhouse took his words as tantamount to permission to pursue the idea” with the U.S., Kock wrote.
Mosaddeq’s overthrow, still given as a reason for the Iranian mistrust of British and American politicians, consolidated the Shah’s rule for the next 26 years until the 1979 Islamic revolution. It was aimed at making sure the Iranian monarchy would safeguard the west’s oil interests in the country.
The archived CIA documents include a draft internal history of the coup titled Campaign to install a pro-western government in Iran, which defines the objective of the campaign as “through legal, or quasi-legal, methods to effect the fall of the Mosaddeq government; and to replace it with a pro-western government under the Shah’s leadership with Zahedi as its Prime Minister”.
One document describes Mosaddeq as one of the “most mercurial, maddening, adroit and provocative leaders with whom they [the U.S. and Britain] had ever dealt”.
The document says Mosaddeq “found the British evil, not incomprehensible” and “he and millions of Iranians believed that for centuries Britain had manipulated their country for British ends”. Another document refers to conducting a “war of nerves” against Mossadeq.
In recent years Iranian politicians have sought to compare the dispute over the country’s nuclear activities to that of the oil nationalisation under Mosaddeq: supporters of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often invoke the coup. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013