The State Department has released a trove of documents that give insight into the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup d'état that led to the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq.
The newly declassified documents, titled “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954,” provide a notable difference from the State Department’s 1989 version of the coup, which left out any involvement from American and British intelligence.
A memorandum from Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles to President Eisenhower, dated March 1, 1953, serves as a reminder that internally, “the elimination of Mossadeq by assassination or otherwise,” was used as a method in repairing ties with Iran, restoring oil negotiations, and stopping a “Communist takeover.”
“Ever since the assassination of General Razmara in March 1951, and the subsequent impasse and diplomatic break with Britain over the oil negotiations, the Iranian situation has been slowly disintegrating. The result has been a steady decrease in the power and influence of the Western democracies and the building up of a situation where a Communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility. However, even the present crisis is likely to be unsatisfactorily compromised without a Communist Tudeh victory. Of course, the elimination of Mossadeq by assassination or otherwise might precipitate decisive events except in the unlikely alternative that the Shah should regain courage and decisiveness.”
Another memorandum from the CIA, dated March 3, 1953, detailed the “Capabilities of CIA clandestine services in Iran,” which could be used to “prevent the assumption of power by Tudeh,” Iran’s Communist party.
The list included mass propaganda means; personal denunciations and rumor spreading; street riots, demonstrations, and mobs; and providing assistance in Iran “After Tudeh Take-Over.”
“Mass propaganda means (press, etc.): CIA controls a network with numerous press, political, and clerical contacts which has proven itself capable of disseminating large-scale anti-Tudeh propaganda.”
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While the conversations initially supported Mossadeq as Iran’s prime minister, the tone soon changed, and a memorandum from the CIA, dated March 18, 1953, noted that top State Department officials had begun discussing “The general subject of Mossadeq’s continuance in office.”
“Gist of discussion was to effect that situation has materially altered since December. While there is no obvious choice in sight to replace Mossadeq it is felt that any assets which could be rallied to support a replacement should, if at all possible, he preserved for at least a few months more until the course of events may be clarified.”
In addition to its array of “services” listed above, that were used to control the situation in Iran, the CIA also advised the soon-to-be leaders. In a memorandum, dated August 14, 1953, the CIA detailed a meeting with Fazlollah Zahedi, the Iranian general who would become Mossadeq’s replacement.
“Earlier meeting with Zahedi showed him firm of purpose but inhabiting dream world so far as his subsequent program concerned. Spoke of free medical care for the third class citizens, mechanizing agriculture and growing vast crops of cotton on Moghan Steppes, equalizing wealth by income taxes, etc. Time [is] not right for us to argue issue but we [are] warning strongly against making impossible promises in early speeches. It [is] clear Zahedi will need firm, realistic guidance.”
In a memorandum, dated August 17, 1953, the CIA revealed its attempts to control public opinion after the coup, by telling Kermit Roosevelt, the director of the operation, that the State advised its “press relations people” to stay away from terms such as “coup d’état” and “plot,” while working to convince the public that if there was a coup, it was on behalf of Mossadeq—not Zahedi.
“Roosevelt should be advised that State has passed the word to VOA and instructed its own press relations people to avoid any such terminology as ‘coup d’état,’ ‘plot,’ etc., and that while playing the story ‘straight’ they should play up the fact that there is another version of the story supported by both Zahedi and now the Shah which indicates that if there was any coup d’état it was that of Mossadegh and not of Zahedi.”
The archive includes nearly 1,000 pages of documents, and while it is significant in framing the stage for today’s relations between the United States and Iran, it also important based on the fact that it is information the U.S. has attempted to bury.
The idea that the CIA would meddle in a sovereign nation, work to overthrow its government, and then influence public perception, is nothing new in 2017. And yet, despite years of revelations, regime-change wars and failed proxy governments, there is still a perception among the American people that the government interfering with countries that have done nothing to the U.S., all in the name of “freedom.”