In August 1953, Iran’s popular and democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup, primarily led by the CIA. The basic facts of the coup and the primary responsibility of the United States are today well known, but this was not the case when Mark J. Gasiorowski earned his Ph. D. in political science in 1984. Although Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodor Roosevelt and the CIA man who directed the coup, had published a sensational account of events in 1979, it contained many mistakes and omissions. Gasiorowski was among a handful of scholars — mostly, though not all, of Iranian origin — who dedicated their life’s work to the excruciating task of uncovering the details of the coup, an effort that continues to this day. His groundbreaking journal article, published in August 1987, described the coup as “a critical event in postwar world history.” Crucially, it relied upon first-hand interviews that Gasiorowski conducted with US and British officials who had been involved.
Since then, many more accounts have been published, including the book that Gasiorowski co-authored with Malcolm Byrne in 2004. The CIA’s official history of the events was leaked to the New York Times in 2000, the same year that the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the US’s role in the coup. Just a few months ago, the State Department finally published its official version. But Gasiorowski remains what author Stephen Kinzer described in 2003 as the “most persistent” of scholars working to uncover the truth about 1953 and the “unofficial dean” of the group, which includes such eminent figures as Ervand Abrahamian.
In this article, the first in IranWire’s series marking the 64th anniversary of the events, we talk to Professor Gasiorowski, who is based at Tulane University in New Orleans, about the coup’s key players, Iranians’ commitment to democratic ideals in the years leading up to 1953, and the long-standing grudge Iran holds against the United States because of its role in the plot.
Let me start with asking you about the documents recently released by the State Department. What did they add to what you know about the coup?
They didn't really add very much. Certainly nothing big came out in the documents, but there are some additional details, which I talked about in a couple of blog posts (Read the blogs on the Lobelog and Wilson Center sites). To me, the most important is the Amini plot, about which the documents give out a lot of new details here. This was a plot [by Acting Court Minister Abol Ghassem Amini and his brother, Mahmoud, who headed Iran’s gendarmerie] against both Mossadegh and the shah. Some US generals were interested in it, because many of them didn’t care much about the shah.
The most interesting details in the new documents are not about the coup, but about the covert operations that the US was running, like the TPBEDAMN [the anti-communist operation run by the CIA, the subject of a paper by Gasiorowski in 2014], and the CIA stay-behind operation, in which they were providing money and weapons to the Qashqai tribes, so that, in the event that the Soviet Union invaded Iran and World War III came, they could become a nucleus against the Soviets, like the French resistance during the World War II.
In short, there is not much about the coup. Nothing nearly as informative as the memoirs of Kermit Roosevelt, which came out in 1979, or the official CIA history published in 2000. This is disappointing. I know there is a lot more in the CIA archives. You can easily tell because they redacted a lot of documents. I am sure some of them were redacted for legitimate reasons, but I also know that some of them could have surely been released. For example, there are two documents, numbered 148 and 149, that were completely redacted. It just so happens that I was working in the national archives right at the same time as they were released. I came across these two documents and photographed them. They are dated around October and November 1952 and in them we see that British officials approach the State Department suggesting that they carry out a joint coup and the State Department said no. It was already known that the British had done that. Roosevelt and other people had mentioned that. But the historical staff at the State Department chose not to include it, even though it was very well known and even though the documents were declassified and publicly available. The only possible reason must have been deferring to British wishes for Britain not to be implicated.
Some accuse Iranians of holding a grudge against Americans, and even the West in general, because of the coup. Do you think Iranian anger against the US over what happened in 1953 is justified?
The short answer is yes, I think there is a legitimate concern and complaint about the US’s role. Based on my knowledge, the coup would have been impossible without the US. If the CIA hadn’t done it, it couldn’t have happened. Of course, some Iranians were involved and without them it also couldn’t have happened, but the CIA was leading them. Coups don’t happen out of the blue. They happen because they are planned. It wasn’t the Iranians like Zahedi, Jalali or Keyhani, or crowds of Iranians or colonels or generals who led the coup. [Fazlollah Zahedi, who played a role in the coup, replaced Mossadegh as prime minister, and Ali Jalali and Farouk Keyhani were co-conspirators in the coup.]
These people were always pulverized by the CIA forces, led by Kermit Roosevelt. The ultimate force responsible was the CIA and therefore the US because the CIA got its orders from President Eisenhower. The British played a subsidiary role so to they also deserve some of the blame.
On the other hand, I think Iranians overly idolize Mossadegh. He wasn’t a very effective prime minister. He created a situation in which the economy was deteriorating. He wasn’t very effective politically as he didn't have a political party, wasn’t able to keep the National Front together as key people like [Ayatollah Abol-Ghassem] Kashani left and stopped supporting him. He even had a role in rigging elections in 1952. [Kashani was once a key ally to Mossadegh, and organized a movement against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and foreign intervention in the Iranian oil industry].
The US still deserves the primary blame. Mossadegh gets some. The Tudeh Party acted very unreasonably as they were Soviet puppets. Ayatollah Kashani and other irresponsible actors also get some of the blame.
But while the US is more responsible than anybody else and Iranians are justified at being angry at them, this was a long time ago, more than 60 years ago. Even before I was born. Before more than 90 percent of the population of Iran was born. This is ancient history and Iranians should get over it. Not the US nor any other power is capable of doing anything like that now. Even then Kermit Roosevelt was very lucky. Anger about the coup is also used today to fuel paranoia that the CIA might do this today but that’s really a wrong inference.
Among the political actors in the years that led to the coup, which one were truly committed to democracy in Iran?
It was really only Mossadegh and people around him who were committed to democracy. Not Kashani, not [Mozaffar] Baqai [an ally of Kashani who also help establish the Iranian People’s Workers Party], certainly not the Tudeh Party, which was committed to the Soviet Union. Nor the Islamists, who were committed to a more or less of an Islamist vision. It was just Mossadegh. But that’s not to say that he could have done it. He also acted in undemocratic ways. People are not 100 percent or zero percent committed to democracy. They maybe 80 to 90 percent committed. There is evidence that he rigged the elections in 1952. He certainly rigged the referendum shortly before the coup.
Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of individuals, but the broader conditions should also be conducive to democracy. You could write a whole book on that question, but remember that at the time only 15 to 20 percent were literate. Most Iranians were not remotely in a position — like you and me are today — to understand what democracy is, what are its pros and cons and how it should be structured. And when it comes to the culture of Iran, it’s not like there was a long-standing democracy. We see that, for instance, the British move steadily toward democracy from the year of Magna Carta in the 13th century until when they became a full democracy in the middle of 20th century. That’s how long it took Britain to build a democratic culture. Mossadegh only had a couple of years, and there is no reason to think that Iranians would have supported him at that time. There definitely was more support for democracy during the era of [former president Mohammad] Khatami. Today, a poll would probably show that a majority of Iranians prefer a Western-style democracy but there are a lot of complicated issues involved and in the end you can only speculate about things.
Among the colorful characters of those years whose political identity remains enigmatic is Mozaffar Baqai. Did he have a major role in supporting the coup? What do you make of him?
I don’t think he was terribly important. It might be that he received CIA money. One of the CIA officers whom I interviewed told me that he did. There is certainly indication that [democratic socialist leader] Khalil Maleki got some. [US ambassador Loy W] Henderson told the shah that Americans had given money to Maleki. The US was handing out money and Baqai quite possibly got some. [Gasiorowski explains elsewhere that Maleki might not have known the source of the funds he was receiving.]
When it comes to his political identity, even though he was a very sophisticated person with a Ph.D., he was very much a populist and a demagogue, like Donald Trump. He was linked to Labour and the name of his party, Zahmatkeshan [toilers], shows that he was all about the workers, but he was not a leftist and was very much an anti-communist. I wouldn’t even call him a non-communist leftist but more like Juan Peron [Argentina’s president from 1946 to 1955], a populist with a base in the working class, or at least wishing he had one. He was close to Kashani at times but no one could call him an Islamist. I don’t think he was terribly important. He was merely one of the several influential politicians who worked with Mossadegh before the coup. Certainly Kashani was much more important. Baqai also didn’t have a large organization, particularly after Khalil Maleki left him. So he couldn’t even bring people out to the streets for demonstrations in large numbers. In the months that led to the coup, he was not an important player. He also was certainly not involved with Zahedi as we can see that he didn’t have a role after the coup.
In the months before the coup, both the US and the UK had a change of administration. The Labour Party lost the government to the Tories led by Winston Churchill and the Republicans replaced the Democratic Truman administration. Do you think this had a role in the coup? Would different electoral results have stopped the coup?
On the British side, it’s very clear that the Labour government was also trying to overthrow Mossadegh with the help of Seyed Zia. They almost invaded Iran to set up military bases in the Persian Gulf. From what I can tell it was only the US that stopped them in December 1951. So, in Britain, it made no difference. Both parties were acting just as classic imperialists, wanting to push Iran out.
On the American side, it is a clearly different story. Truman people were adamantly opposed to the coup. One of the things that the new documents clarify is that there was quite a bit of talk in the CIA about the coup before Eisenhower came to office but Truman, until the very end, didn’t give the go ahead. When the British approached the US in the fall of 1952, Truman said no. They weren’t opposed to covert action, which they were doing in Italy and other places at the time, but they didn’t want to do it in Iran.
Eisenhower himself was initially reluctant. It seems that at the highest level it was the Dulles brothers [John Foster and Allen, secretary of state and director of the CIA] that were responsible for the coup. When Eisenhower came in, he wanted the negotiations with Iran to continue and it was only after those negotiations collapsed and Mossadegh flatly rejected an initiative that the US had been pushing for months, in early March 1953, that, as a result, Eisenhower formally agreed to carry out the coup. There is clear evidence that Eisenhower himself wasn’t sure. In a National Security Meeting, he was spectating whether the US should give a few million dollars to prop up Mossadegh. He went from proposing a large aid package to, a few weeks later, approving the beginning of a plan for the coup.
It wasn’t like Eisenhower wanted to do this on his first day of coming to power [in 1953]. It took him a while. The key thing was the collapse of oil negotiations and also the Dulles brothers, who replaced elements like [Truman’s Secretary of State] Dean Acheson. It was especially this change that was responsible. I would say that if Democrats had won, it would have been at least six months or a year or two later that the coup would happen, if it would happen at all. It is very clear from the documents that the US didn’t see any immediate crisis with the chance of communists seizing the power in Iran. There is some key analysis, especially a National Intelligence Estimate from November 1952, and a newer version of it in January 1953, which declared that it was unlikely for Mossadegh to fall or for the Tudeh Party to seize power in 1953. So there was nothing imminent.
On the other hand, conditions were deteriorating. The economy had continued to go downhill. Unrest was emerging in the streets. The Tudeh Party was benefiting from this and if they were to seem to have been in a position to seize power, then the Democrats would probably have conducted the coup.
To sum, Republicans were clearly anxious to carry out a coup and wanted to get it done quickly. Democrats might have done it eventually but there was no indication of that in January 1953.
A good way to think about this is to look at several times when Republicans have replaced Democrats. Like [Ronald] Reagan replacing [Jimmy] Carter, George W Bush replacing Clinton and even now this nutcase that we have as president, Trump, replacing Obama. In each of these cases — but no so much with Nixon or the first Bush — you have had a much more militant policy and the advent of Republicans has had a big impact on foreign policy. That’s what happened in 1953. I do really think that partisan change was important. Not so much the views of Eisenhower, but the people he brought to power.
Also read: Twelve Years a Democracy in Iran (1941-1953)