In August 1953 the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 overthrew Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh, a veteran statesman, had incensed Britain in 1951 by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, which was then under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, meanwhile, became convinced that Mossadegh was making Iran vulnerable to Soviet influence by accepting support from Iran’s communist party, Tudeh.
To many Iranians, Mossadegh was a national hero, not only because he had stood up to Britain, but also because he was the only Iranian politician who could challenge the authority of the ambitious young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When the US and Britain overthrew Mossadegh, they brought about an extended period of dictatorship under the shah that lasted until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The coup is now remembered as the signal trauma in US-Iran relations and, although much of its history is known—and presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have acknowledged the US role—the governments involved have yet to reveal all the information they hold on the subject. In particular, the US State Department has refused to release a volume about the coup in its Foreign Relations of the United States series, which is required by law to be a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record” of US foreign policy.
“On most issues in US foreign policy, the US government is more or less ready to open its books,” says Malcolm Byrne of the George Washington University-based National Security Archive. The archive is a non-profit research project that publishes and analyzes US government documents. “But this is an unusual case. One of the main reasons for secrecy over the years has been a worry about what the reaction will be in Iran.”
In the wake of last year’s nuclear accord between Iran, the US, and five other states, Byrne says, US State Department officials have expressed fears over the timing of new revelations. At a public session of the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee that he attended a few months ago, he says, some speakers implied that they were worried about adding fuel to the fire for Iranian hardliners looking for excuses to foment opposition to the nuclear deal or to other dealings with the West.
While the US has frequently revealed historical foreign policy-related documents under public and political pressure, and the CIA has proved willing to release various pieces of embarrassing information in the past, the 1953 seems to be a unique case.
“Things have happened in Iran that have caused great concern for everybody in the international community,” Byrne says. “For example, embassies being attacked or overrun, people from a particular country being taken or detained, whether it's British sailors or American hikers.”
But he doesn’t think that’s a good reason to withhold historical documents. “If there are people in Iran who are so starkly opposed to this nuclear deal or to dealing with the West, and they want to do something along those lines, they will find their own excuse to do it.”
Byrne also suspects the documents may contain little in the way of sensational news. “The big news is that there may be no news at all in the volume,” he says. Judging from testimony and public discussions Byrne has listened to at the Historical Advisory Committee, he suspects most of the information will be mainly of interest to specialists. “A lot of the material is likely to be in the form of CIA other US government analyses of what was going on at the time: What was Iran up to? What was the domestic situation like? What were Iran's relations with the Soviet Union like?”
Historians researching the coup have typically encountered two main explanations for continued secrecy. One is the need to protect the “sources and methods” used by intelligence agencies. But in the case of the 1953 coup, most of the “methods” came to light a long time ago, first in Countercoup, the 1980 autobiography of one of the CIA coup leaders, Kermit Roosevelt, and later in a 1954 internal CIA history by another coup planner, Donald Wilber, which was leaked to the New York Times in 2000. As for sources, Byrne says, the names of the Iranians who participated in the coup have been known for many years.
The other reason cited is that the CIA does not want to embarrass its British counterpart, MI6. “It makes you think that they may have more secrets left,” Byrne says, “but on the other hand, there is already an awful lot of information about the British role in the Roosevelt and Wilber accounts. But Interviews I and other people have done indicate that it’s political blowback that the British a worried about.”
The British Embassy in Tehran reopened last year after being closed for four years following a 2011 attack by a hardline mob.
Open Societies and Their Enemies
If indeed fears of “blowback” are what now cause the State Department to keep the seal on remaining details about the coup, it may be because they don’t believe such democratic ideals as freedom of information will translate in a relatively closed society like Iran, where intelligence agencies reveal nothing about their history. But Byrne sees American secrecy over 1953 as self-defeating. “As long as it can be legitimately stated that the US government is holding onto information that many people believe the public has a right to know, that leaves the US vulnerable to a public relations weapon.”
The US, he says, could strengthen its position by being more open. “Our own ability to influence another government's actions, whether it's Iran or anyone else, is probably a lot more limited than we would like to think,” he says. “So the only thing you can do is lead by example, and try to eliminate the ammunition that you might be giving the other side. That ends up being more of a pragmatic consideration than an idealistic one.”
As the US nears Election Day, Iran watchers wonder how the next president will handle one of America’s most difficult relationships, and the most difficult episode in its history.
“My sense is that Hillary Clinton would be fairly pragmatic,” Byrne says “She is a very seasoned politician, not just in the sense of running for office, but of understanding how politics plays into the policy process. If she believes that it will help her policy — whatever that may be — to make an acknowledgment like this, then she will do that. But if she believes that it might not play well, then I'm sure she will be just as reluctant to come forward as some of her predecessors have been. As for Donald Trump, who knows? I'm not sure any his advisors could tell you any better than I could.”