Among those who have written book-length accounts of the 1953 coup that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Darioush Bayandor stands out. The ex-diplomat’s account is known to be revisionist, but, contrary to what many assume, it is far from being pro-shah or denying the role that foreign powers had in Mossadegh’s overthrow.
Bayandor’s background as a leading diplomat of the shah era makes him unique. During the 1950s and 1960s, he served the Iranian foreign ministry in Tehran and Iran’s permanent representation to the United Nations in New York. After the 1979 revolution made him an exile, he served the UN in different positions around the world. Working for the UN, mostly in the refugee agency, took him to countries as diverse as Malaysia, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and France. His most important posting was probably in DRC in the midst of the civil war there in the late 1990s. After the UN came retirement in Switzerland, where Bayandor is still based today. After a book on the Persian poet Hafez in 2006, Bayandor went on to write his seminal account of the coup, published in 2010 as Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mossadeq Revisited. The book challenged the main scholarly narrative of the coup and was viewed negatively by most historians of the era.
On the anniversary of the coup, I talked to Bayandor in Persian. Here we present an English translation of his answers, which have been reviewed and confirmed by Bayandor himself.
The book you published on the fall of Mosaddegh in 2010 is known for revisionist tendencies. What was the conventional narrative on that event and what drove you to rewrite the account of the 1953 coup?
Incorrect assessments of key events that redirected the course of Iran’s contemporary history are not uncommon. Reexamination of the commonly-accepted narratives, if based on solid and undeniable solid evidence, is not only permissible but, in my view a national and patriotic duty. The famed George Orwell once wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
Today, 65 years after, hardly anyone would deny that the overthrow of the national government led by Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh changed the course of Iran’s history. In the collective consciousness of Iranians, however, the event is closely tied to foreign conspiracy, while the role played by domestic forces is largely overlooked. The expression “The Coup on August 19” is a matter-of-fact assumption in Iran’s political lexicon. To be sure, viewed from a certain angle, there are some elements of truth in this abstraction, but it doesn’t correspond to what actually happened on that day. We Iranians mistrust ourselves so much that we’ve let our history to be written by Westerners. I do not doubt in the knowledge and erudition of foreign scholars but, in my experience, even the best of them show shortcomings in understanding our culture and society.
The thesis pioneered by Professor Mark J. Gasiorowski, which received large credence and acclaim among a large number of scholars, was based on a less than limpid narrative by Kermit Roosevelt – the high-ranking CIA official who had been sent to Tehran to lead the AJAX coup operation – as well as interviews with a number of ex-CIA operatives. Roosevelt had remained in Tehran after the CIA-MI6 coup attempt, code-named TP-AJAX, which was foiled on the night of August 16 and 17. He was still in the capital when the August 19 events happened. According to the account of Gasiorowski and his like-minded associates, the overthrow of Mosaddegh on that day had been previously planned by Roosevelt and the CIA operatives in Tehran steered it to victory. This account holds that after the shah left the country, Roosevelt initially sent groups of his acolytes and CIA-paid goons, disguised as Tudeh Party members, to create insecurity on the streets. They used “grey and black” propaganda methods to stir fear and distress among the ulema and ordinary citizens and to discredit Mosaddegh, projecting the impression that the communist Tudeh party dominated the scene, thus preparing the ground for AJAX's second phase of operation. In this account, CIA operatives brought chaos to the capital, paid bribes to leading clerics of Tehran to buy their complicity and, finally, on August 19, paid cash to bevies of urban thugs and the poor from southern districts of Tehran to organize a demonstration and rebellion against Mosaddegh, while simultaneously dispatching military forces from barracks around Tehran to the capital. Veteran historian Ervand Abrahamian went as far as asserting in his earlier writings that the AJAX plan had an adjunct contingency plan in case of the failure of the first coup.
When I first read Gasiorowski’s book and the articles by the erudite scholars of the field, I mentally compared them with my careful reading of State Department documents and the history of the AJAX coup, authored by the CIA itself, which was leaked to the New York Times in 2000. It seemed obvious to me that the prevalent account of the saga didn’t contain all the truth. In a very different category, I read the surreal account written by Stephen Kinzer in his All the Shah’s Men and I could clearly see that the history of our homeland was being carelessly falsified and many of my compatriots fell for his phantasmagoric narrative and were benightedly praiseful. The book became a best-seller. These shortcomings and falsifications gave me the motivation to write a different narrative published in 2010 by Palgrave Macdonald entitled Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited.
Last year, the State Department published new documents on the coup. How do they change your view? What’s their significance?
They did not change my view; those documents vindicated my narrative, Before getting into the nitty-gritty of to this subject, allow me to explain the basis of the theory that I presented in my book. Unlike Gasiorowski and like-minded scholars, in my analysis I focused on the actions by domestic political forces and the dynamics generated from their interaction. Of course, no one could deny the input by outside powers in the shaping of crucial events of Iranian political history in the 19th and 20th centuries but we should see them in their real dimensions without exaggeration and magnification. The TP-AJAX plot was an MI6-CIA design that was tried and failed, but even there the input by domestic forces was significant, as my book had tried to demonstrate.
I dedicated two chapters of my book, presenting documents and evidence to show why Kermit Roosevelt’s account of the actual fall of Mosaddegh on that fateful August 19 was pure fabrication! This point now clearly emerges from the newly-released US documents. The significance of periodic release of classified archive documents lies in part in the fact that they empower researchers to test the accuracy of narratives and testimonies previously given by protagonists.
The most relevant document in the new series is a secret cable dispatched by Roosevelt to the CIA headquarters in Washington on the very morning of the D-Day, namely August 19, 1953. The cable numbered as document no. 285 speaks for itself.
The document shows that Roosevelt was totally in the dark about what was about to happen in the capital that morning. In his cable he bitterly complains about how Washington had ignored his previous advice on the importance of propping up the shah; offers a host of other recommendations to be implemented in the coming days and weeks. He advised Washington to cut the military aid to Mosaddegh, have President Eisenhower question the legitimacy of Mosaddegh’s premiership in the presidential weekly press conference. He curiously referred to the rumors of a rebellion in the Sanandaj barracks some 400 miles outside the capital, yet there is no modicum of a hint that there might be unrest and a pro-shah demonstration on that day in Tehran. If, as he claimed later, he had planned the events of that day two nights earlier he could have at least made a vague reference to the possibility of unrest in Tehran.
In my book I had highlighted, as the missing link in the enigma of August 19, the role played by the supreme Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Borujerdi. In critical reviews of my book by two academics, Fakhreddin Azimi and Ali Rahnema, published in September 2012 in the Iranian Studies Journal, they argued that the Shia Supreme Leader was above the political fray and refrained from meddling in worldly matters and my claim about his role was “indefensible.” The newly-released CIA documents, however, show that the Grand Ayatollah wasn’t as impartial and silent as those eminent scholars had portrayed him. The secret files confirm that from early 1953, high clerics with contrasting doctrinal tendencies were coming together in an unchartered alliance out of concern for communist inroads under Mosaddegh. At the top of the pyramid, Ayatollah Borujerdi, a quiescent cleric, gradually aligned himself with the politically activist clergy, Ayatollah Abolghasem Kashani (noted in a CIA document dated April 17, 1953.) In another detailed analysis of Iran’s domestic political forces prepared in April that year by a CIA analyst Donald Wilbur, Ayatollahs Borujerdi, Behbahani and Kashani are named as having agreed on backing the shah (document no. 192 dated April 16, 1953). Also in an assessment sent to Washington by Roosevelt, two days before Mosaddegh’s overthrow, we read that Iran’s ruling clerics, including Borujedi, were understood to be backing the shah (document no. 273, dated August 17.)
Some historians have raised doubts about Mosaddegh’s image as a constitutionalist figure and have pointed out the undemocratic aspects of his administration. What is your assessment of his rule? How much of a democrat was he?
In a broad analytical scheme, Dr. Mosaddegh’s 27-month rule should be assessed separately in two different periods. His track record from his beginnings in April 1951 to his return from The Hague in the summer of 1951 is truly remarkable. Through the prism of history, nationalizing the oil industry and challenging Britain, which still at that time was a superpower, were acts of bravura that put an end to Britain’s neo-colonial influence and restored Iran’s sovereignty over its oil industry, which was the country’s main lifeline. This was a daring feat that Mosaddegh boldly embarked on and managed well both domestically and internationally. Iran’s stance on the oil negotiations during that phase was sound; so was the line he took in defence of Iran’s rights at the Security Council and in different phases of the involvement of the World Court. His victories both in New York and The Hague brought glory to the country and became a source of just and enduring pride for the Iranians.
Still to maximize his gains and use it to good advantage of the country, flexibility and realism were needed, qualities which Mosaddegh sadly lacked. Iran had not only lost its oil income but also its oil market and the government could hardly pay its employees and had had to resort to printing money. Enemies, domestic and foreign, were up to mischief and conspiracies were rife. Yet, Mosaddegh refused to show any flexibility on the oil question and insisted on a maximalist position in strict conformity with the oil Nationalization Act. The newly-elected Eisenhower [and his] administration initially was inclined to cooperate with Mosaddegh, but soon concluded that the oil crisis wouldn’t be resolved as as long as he was in charge and that an Iran without the oil revenues was prone to fall under the sway of communism, symbolized by the Tudeh Party. This is how the Eisenhower administration, in April 1953, moved to work with Britain to overthrow Mosaddegh through a coup plot, the details of which are available in the newly-release CIA documents.
You rightly to point out that Mosaddegh’s democratic propensities are coming under closer scrutiny lately. Was he a real democrat?
In addressing this question one should not lose sight of inherent obstacles to the democracy in a country like Iran of those days, with [somewhere around a] 90 percent illiteracy rate and a semi-feudal rural structure. Abiding with norms and principles of the constitution was next to impossible. Iran’s Fundament Law, especially its 1907 Supplement, was the result of a compromise between the three socio-political forces of the constitutional era, i.e. the court and the ruling elite, the modernists or the so-called intelligentsia, and finally the clergy. These three had divided the power between themselves while turning a blind eye on mutually-exclusive interests and goals. These contradictions led to problems from the outset of constitutional rule. In 1911, the second majles (parliament) was forcibly closed down by vice-regent Nasir al-Molk, who ran the country for three succeeding years by royal decrees. Mosaddegh himself became a finance minister in 1922 in a cabinet headed by [Prime Minister Ahmad] Qavam and went on to ask majles for special powers; Reza Shah, in turn, suspended the clergy’s legislative oversight right and turned the majles into a rubber-stamp assembly.
Mosaddegh might have been deeply committed to the rule of law but was conscious of those inherent obstacles and contradictions. He is said to have gone as far as envisaging the disenfranchising the 90 percent illiterate; since women were also barred from the voting, democracy was devoid of all substance. After returning from the US, Mosaddegh turned his attention to organizing the 17th majles elections. No sooner did the elections began than he realized that he was unable to put an end to the power of tribe chieftains, big landowners and local notables who controlled balloting in virtually all constituencies with the help of government officials or the court. In an unprecedented move, Mosaddegh stopped the 17th majles elections after only 79 seats had been filled. Shortly thereafter, Mosaddegh skillfully put an end to the Senate dominated by conservatives, of whom half was appointed by the shah.
Mosaddegh thus acted not in strict compliance with the constitution. His conduct was rather grounded on a premise that he incarnated the national legitimacy. He thus gave himself the right to take decisions that were deemed by him to serve the best interests of his national movement.
He wrongly considered the shah’s constitutional prerogatives to be nominal. When in the aftermath the pro-Mosaddegh uprising on July 21, 1952, when he was at the apex of his power, he asked and obtained from the majles full legislative powers infringing on the prerogatives both of the crown and the parliament. But even that hobbled the majles, which had been elected under his watch and was closed down following a travesty of a referendum in August 1953. He had justifications for all these decisions and his unconditional supporters would right him on all those accounts, but an impartial judgement would hold Mosaddegh to have clearly failed to uphold and consolidate democracy.
How do you see the events of July 21, 1952 and the roles played by Mosaddeq and Ahmad Qavam?
Let me start, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with that event, to give a bit of a background.
It was customary in those days for, at the onset of each legislative session of the majles, the incumbent prime minister should resign to be re-invited to form a government if necessary. When the 17th majles opened in late June 1952, the shah re-appointed Mosaddegh as prime minister despite strong pressure by US and UK ambassadors, many people in his own entourage and in effect against his own inner desire. The shah’s innate indecision rarely won over his political realism. He knew that if the World Court ruled in favor of Mosaddegh, his dismissal would not go down well with the populace.
Against this backdrop, when in July that year Mosaddegh advised the shah of the names of his new cabinet ministers, he had reserved the position of the war minister for himself. In the past, the war portfolio was always selected in prior consultation with the shah. Now Mosaddegh’s move was perceived by the monarch as a power grab given the fact that the constitution unequivocally made the shah the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Once more the old demons from the contrasting interpretation of the 1907 constitution had re-surfaced and initially led to the resignation of Mosaddegh.
The majles voted for Ahmad Qavam and the shah appointed him prime minister despite his acute dislike for the septuagenarian Qavam. Now approaching the age of 80, Qavam had been prime minister four times in the previous 30 years, the most important of which was during the Azerbaijan crisis . His strong personality and arrogance added to his lack of loyalty to the Pahlavi dynasty made him the shah’s black sheep. Qavam had lobbied Britain in the last few months and was being secretly backed by London as well as by the American Ambassador Loy Henderson. Qavam had promised them to rule strongly and solve the oil question and arrest Kashani or any politician who would stand on his way, even if that meant ignoring parliamentary immunity.
Upon assumption of power on July 18, 1952, Qavam erred by issuing a cantankerous declaration challenging the opposition [and] promising to act against the “troublemakers” to arrest and put them on trial in revolutionary courts. He infamously used the mantra “The Ship Captain has now a Different Policy.”
In a popular gathering,Tudeh activists, Bazaaris, intellectuals and other proponents of Mosaddegh joined one other and answered Ayatollah Kashani’s call for a strike and march on July 21, 1952. They disobeyed the martial law regulation and clashed with security forces. Dozens were killed in clashes and the shah hastily ordered the military to back down. Before the day was done, the shah obtained Qavam’s resignation and Mosaddegh victoriously returned to power. This was the lowest point in Qavam’s political life and the strongly-worded statement became his swan song.
In a fortunate coincidence, the World Court issued its final ruling only the following day. In a historic decision, it voted 9 to 5 to disqualify the courts from adjudication, thus confirming Iran’s position. The concomitance of these two occurrences was something of a watershed. Not only was Mosaddegh politically stronger domestically but was vindicated on the international scene. He had overcome the shah in the tug of war over the control of the military and had intimidated his opponents. The Tudeh Party, which had thus far opposed him, now changed its stance and adopted the slogan United Anti-Imperialist Front.
At the time, Mosaddegh was suspicious of all, including the shah. He must have imputed the intrigues against him by the Court Minister Hossein Ala to the person of Mohammad Reza Shah. But his assessment of the shah’s position was inaccurate because against his own instincts the shah had backed the Mosaddegh administration. Archive files widely attest to this posture. We can see this in the process that led to Mosaddegh’s reappointment in July 1952. As late as the final weeks of Mosaddegh’s rule, he said to American Ambassador Henderson, who in the context of the AJAX plot had mentioned the name of General Zahedi as an alternative to Mosaddegh, [that] the shah had retorted that he preferred the US to deal with Mosaddegh and help him financially to resolve the oil dispute.
In retrospect it could be observed that that the disagreement between the shah and Mosaddegh portended ill for Iran. Still we cannot confidently say that if the debacle of July 1952 had not happened, the AJAX operation and the events of August 1953 would not have followed. The AJAX plot was a product of Mosaddegh’s oil policies. He also wanted to let the Tudeh Party run free to illustrate to Washington the potential danger of communism and project his government as the only alternative. The down side of this scarecrow tactic was that it bristled the conservative forces and turned the traditional clergy against him.