Anyone who has studied modern Iranian history over the last few decades is sure to have read the work of one historian more than any other: Ervand Abrahamian. His book Iran Between Two Revolutions (1982) is routinely used as a syllabus text in universities around the world, and the book is a bestseller in Persian. Many of his other books are also considered essential accounts of Iran, including Iranian Mojahedin (1989), Khomeinism (1993), Tortured Confessions (1999) and A History of Modern Iran (2009). In 2013, he published a new book on the 1953 coup. The Coup: 1953, the CIA and the Roots of Modern US-Iranian Relations is a passionate account of the event that shaped the history of generations of Iranians and which has pre-occupied Abrahamian for decades.
On a sunny New York day, I sat down with Abrahamian on a bench in Washington Square Park and spoke about the heady days leading up to and after the coup. The best-known historian of modern Iran speaks with an exact erudition, and yet also an infectious passion. Like the best of historians, when he talks, characters and key figures come to life; his accounts are never dry, and it’s easy to see why he has always been popular with students. They might well be sorry Abrahamian has retired from teaching, but the interest he continues to show in his subject is a clear reminder that his job as a historian is far from over.
Let me begin with asking about the new documents the United States Department of State published on the coup in June 2017. It must have been a funny feeling because you wrote a new book on the coup not too long ago and now new documents have been published. What do you think they add to our understanding of the coup?
The new documents include not only the material that the State Department published in the new Foreign Relations of the US series. There is also a fair amount of documents from the CIA that have been published, a fair number of articles from about 1948 to 1979. These are basically CIA memos on Iran and I think the surprising thing they reveal is how much influence the Americans had inside Iranian politics. We knew about the coup and the CIA role. What we didn't realize beforehand is that within internal politics, even under Mossadegh, the US had considerable influence. For instance, in Majlis [parliament] elections in 1952, under Mossadegh — when Mossadegh actually eventually stopped the elections because of so much intervention — the usual understanding was that he stopped because of the intervention from the military, the shah and landlords, but it seems actually that there was a considerable amount of intervention from the CIA, which was spending money trying to get their own candidates to the Majlis.
In the introduction to your book about the coup you speak in a very passionate away about your work and why a new book is necessary. The coup seems to have occupied you a for a long time. What was it for you that made the coup a central interest?
One was this constant argument that even people sympathetic to Mossadegh made: That he could have reached a compromise and if he had, there wouldn't have been a need for the coup and the whole trajectory of Iranian politics would have been different. I find that when you look at the negotiations with Mossadegh about oil, there was never a compromise offered him. For Mossadegh, nationalization meant what it would mean to anyone: that Iranians would have actual control over the industry of oil, including exploration, refining and export. The British and the Americans were willing to accept nationalization in theory, but when it came to the nitty gritty of who was going to run the industry, they were always adamant that Iranians shouldn’t do it because it would disrupt the whole international market of oil, which would have, of course, affected the American companies as much as the British. In a way, what the Western governments and companies had done was that they had a very clever publicity stunt to claim that they were willing to compromise and it was the other side that was intransigent.
When you look at the actual negotiations — and you could only do that once the British archives and American archives were opened — you see that they were always very consistent that this industry should not be handed over to Iran. And you have to realize that in the early 1950s this was seen as the end of the civilized world if they lost control over oil industry. Of course, when it came to the 1970s, this did happen, but that was 25 years later. The whole world situation had shifted by then and even the oil companies could afford to see that shift, because they were still making money from the sale of oil, so in a way Mossadegh was ahead of his time in wanting nationalization. He failed, but I think it did impact other countries’ thinking along those lines. And we now know that a lot of other Arab countries who called for nationalization in the 1970s were, in fact, very much inspired by Mossadegh.
Even some pro-Mossadegh sources say that he wasn’t very efficient or not able to fight two corners at the same time. Do you think these criticism are justified?
There are two arguments: One, whether he wasn't competent; the other is whether he was unwilling to use dictatorial methods.
He wasn't in the habit of killing his opponents. Some people argue that if he had killed some people, the coup wouldn’t have occurred. In fact, after the first failed coup, there were people in his entourage who said “you should execute these guys since they are obviously trying to overthrow you” and he said, “you are crazy, we are not in the business of killing people.”
In terms of political shrewdness, I think the reason he was eventually overthrown was that he was politically very shrewd and actually, from day one, when he came to power, his opponents, including the US and the shah, were trying to undermine him and he was politically able to outsmart them constantly and you see in a number of crises, like the 30 Tir [in July 1952, when Mossadegh was forced to resign but came back to office after four days following popular protests], he basically outsmarted them.
He was outsmarting them in the early 1950s. That’s why the US eventually decided that the only way they could actually get rid of him wasn't through political means because he was outsmarting them. The only way was a military coup.
The coup operation was called TP-Ajax, named after the Tudeh Party and a popular cleansing agent. There has been much made of this fact, that perhaps the Tudeh Party was the main target of the coup, and that they were really worried about communists coming to power. How much credence do you give to this? Do you think the Tudeh Party was the coup’s main target?
No, Absolutely not. I think the discourse of the time was fear of communism so any policy you had had to fit in that concept. People like the Dulles brothers [John Foster and Allen, Secretary of State and director of the CIA respectively] and [Kermit] Roosevelt, if they wanted to throw their grandmothers under the bus, they would legitimize it by saying they needed to do it because of communism.
The question I would raise is: where’s the link? There was no evidence of a communist threat to Iran, either from the Soviet Union or the Tudeh Party. In fact, the new documents show that the Americans were often mystified by the lack of Soviet interest in Iran. They interpret this as being very sinister because they are not taking interest.
When you come to the Tudeh Party, yes, Americans’ justification of even having the CIA in Iran from 1948, 1949 was Tudeh, but when you look at their documents, even in early 1953, they are admitting that there is really no Tudeh danger. The Tudeh Party was not in the position to carry out a coup, it wasn't preparing for it or talking about it. They [the American intelligence reports] even say that the only feasible danger from the Tudeh is that they might come to power through constitutional means some day. Which means what? They might some day get enough deputies to come to power but, again, that was thinking in terms of the return of the Messiah or something. It is a very long term project.
So while Roosevelt [who headed the CIA’s Near East and Africa division and helped orchestrate the coup] claimed that this was a counter coup for a Tudeh coup, they admitted to themselves that there was no real Tudeh threat at that time.
Then the question becomes: What was the motive of the coup? That’s why I’d argue that the motive was the question of oil. They didn’t want the nationalization to succeed and they had finally come to the conclusion that the only way they could make sure of that was to get rid of Mossadegh.
For generations of Iranian leftists, there is a key question: Why didn’t the Tudeh Party do anything to stop the coup? Why it didn’t even go into battle? Some said Mossadegh didn’t allow them. What do you think?
There were armchair revolutionariness in the Tudeh Party who had an imaginary view of their own strength and thought that they could come to power. I think the more realistic leaders like [Iraj] Eskandari [a member of parliament and a cabinet minister who later become first secretary] and even probably [Noordedin] Kianoori [general secretary from 1979 to 1983], were much more realistic. They knew the limitations of Tudeh. They were basically pragmatic and asked: “What are our cards? What are the cards of the other side?” They know that the bulk of the military was anti-Tudeh. They knew that the tribes — Bakhtiaris, Qashqais, Boyerahmadis and the Arabs — were actually armed and linked to the American or British, so to carry out a coup in that context would have been a suicide.
The only way they could have resisted was in a grand coalition, a united front with Mossadegh. And that was what they always called for. Mossadegh basically said no. He didn’t want a civil war or he thought he could control the situation without resorting to public support. With that position, I don’t see realistically what Tudeh could have done on August 19.
Also, when Mossadegh asked people to stay at home, if the Tudeh had come out, they would have been opposing Mossadegh. People who say they should have done so against Mossadegh’s advice miss that this would have been isolating the party even from the National Front, which they didn’t want.
Would you say that Mossadegh made a strategic mistake by not allying with communists more strongly or by fearing them?
I don't think he feared them because he always actually said that the Tudeh Party was not a threat to him. He says that even in his trial. He says that Tudeh didn't even have a tank so how could have they threatened him? I think he felt confident that he had enough support in the military and the chief of staff had basically given him that assurance. He felt overconfident about that, and after the failure of the first coup, I think they miscalculated, they thought they had the situation under control. He also was taken for a ride by [US Ambassador Loy] Henderson. This is something that the National Front supporters actually refuse to admit. This boils down to the final meeting between Henderson and Mossadegh. In the original documents, this meeting was all censored. In the new version, there is a little more about it.
You mean the meeting on 27th of Mordad [August 18]?
Yes. Henderson basically threatened that the US won’t recognize Mossadegh’s government unless he takes drastic action against protests. This probably led Mossadegh to give instructions for people to stay off the streets. This last-minute meeting between Henderson and Mossadegh is still shrouded in mystery because even in the less censored version that we have in the new documents, Henderson practiced self-censorship about what he actually had said and what had happened in the meeting.
Soon after the coup there was as an article in Newsweek and Time magazine, the information of which must have come from Henderson. [They said that] he had directly threatened Mossadegh about withdrawal of US recognition unless he took drastic action. This is actually confirmed in Henderson’s own oral history account at Columbia [University], where he is quite honest about it.
Here, you have to realize American ambassadors are supposed to not get involved in internal politics and, of course, he was getting involved in internal politics. So, he was self-censoring himself in official documents but when it comes to informal accounts of it, he is much more forthright about it.
There are also questions about internal politics in the US and the UK. The government changed in both places shortly before the coup. Do you think if Labour and the Democrats had remained in power, the coup could have been averted?
To accept that would be to accept that Labour and Democrats were much more forthcoming about accepting nationalization and therefore willing to live with Mossadegh. Again, if you look at the material, both Labour and Democrats were just as adamant against nationalization. Their difference was that they thought they could get rid of Mossadegh through political means, i.e. by pressing the shah, by getting enough influence in the Majlis to get rid of Mossadegh. But if that didn’t succeed, you already see in the last six months of the Truman administration that there were people in the CIA, already talking about the coup. So was Henderson.
What’s often forgotten is that people who were carrying out the coup — the Dulles brothers, Roosevelt, [Richard] Helms [then-a CIA director and later ambassador to Iran], [Donald] Wilber [a CIA Agent] — they were all in the CIA, dealing with Iran, under Truman. They weren’t coming in in January 1953. They were there in 1952, some of them even in 1951. These guys were already thinking, planning and working very closely with the British. Their thinking was very similar to MI6. The only way they can solve this problem is by getting rid of Mossadegh, so the new documents actually reveal this contact friction between the CIA and National Security Council about the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) for Iran. The Original NIE for Iran in 1951 and 1952 had been quite down to earth. It said that the regime was secure and there was no real threat from the left. Therefore there was nothing to be alarmed about.
But, already under Truman, you find that Dulles is constantly trying to get the National Security Council to change the NIE for Iran and to get them to ask Roosevelt to do what he called an “update” that would make the NIE for Iran much more alarmist. So that it’d say “the sky was about to fall, crises was about to happen” and then we’d have to do something drastic. This was all happening before Eisenhower came to power.
We know from the new documents that [social democratic leader] Khalil Maleki was getting US funds, even though he might not have known that they were coming from the US. What’s your view on this?
To accept that, you have to say that he was very naive.
So do the new documents prove that Maleki’s critics were always right and he was in cahoots with the US?
We know that even before 1953, the CIA was funding what they called the Titoist party, which would have been the Zahmatkeshan Party [the Toilers Party]. Now, the money would have probably gone through [Mozaffar] Baqai, but it would be naive for Khalil Maleki not to know that the money was coming from the CIA.
[The CIA’s involvement] is actually more sinister than it looks. The big demonstrations of 1951, when [US envoy, W. Averell] Harriman arrived in Tehran, which were very bloody, were instigated by the CIA through Baqai and Zahmatkeshan.
Have the new documents fundamentally changed your views of Iranian political forces of the period?
Not fundamentally. In a way, I’ve been shocked or surprised that the CIA had so much influence in a group such as Zahmatkeshan, although the real details of that had come from the Wilber report [A CIA account, leaked to the New York Times in 2000].
Here you can see CIA working with a lot of groups that you would not have expected them to be working with. Like Sumka [the Iranian National Socialist Workers’ Party, i.e. the Iranian Nazis], Aria Party [a pro-monarchy, anti-communist and pro-UK party], Fedayeean of Islam [early Islamists, endorsed by the Islamic Republic today], and so on.
But I am not sure I’d say I am shocked because it’s hard to be shocked by the CIA. [laughs]
Do you think the revelation about Maleki receiving CIA funds compromise his image as a democratic socialist alternative to Tudeh?
Clearly, Khalil Maleki was genuine in that he wanted a form of socialism that would not be pro-Soviet, but how democratic he was is up for debate. He was considered a Titoist. Well, Tito was hardly democratic! I think there is a tendency to hero worship Khalli Maleki because he seems to have been uncontaminated by links to the Soviet Union. Of course, there are many problems with the Soviet Union but just because he was anti-Soviet, that doesn’t make him kosher.
You’ve worked on this period for a long time. Do you think there are any new documents that could come out later and change the historiography of 1953?
I don’t think there is much more new stuff we could get. Maybe certain details. But even the new documents don’t declassify the part that is about operational details like who is getting money, who is instrumental in Iranian politics. Those names are still kept secret and I don’t think they would ever reveal them. For instance, in the Wilber report, there is the mention of an appendix that has the list of all the politicians receiving money from the CIA. But this was never included in the Wilber report, nor is it in the new documents. Something like that would be useful for someone dealing with Iranian politics but I doubt we’ll ever see it.
Had Mossadegh defeated the coup and survived politically, how would Iran and the world have been different?
We don’t know that. But what we do know is that the coup did occur. The coup destroyed the National Front, the Tudeh, the secular opposition, and by doing that, we know that it opened up the road for religious fundamentalism. That we know! Now whether if the coup hadn’t happened, this or that might have occurred, we don’t know.
Read the other articles in the series: