In that year, a combined CIA and British plot deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, an act fueled by Cold War geopolitics as well as Western indignation at Mossadegh's nationalization of Iran's oil assets. The coup may feel distant to Americans, but it lives long in the imagination of many in the Middle East. "This is still such an important, emotional benchmark for Iranians," said Malcolm Byrne, the director of research of the nongovernmental National Security Archive at George Washington University, to the Associated Press. "Many people see it as the day that Iranian politics turned away from any hope of democracy."
Mossadegh's overthrow — and the restoration of the shah of Iran's authoritarian, pro-Western regime — animated the idea of the United States and Britain, whose Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now known as BP) once dominated the Iranian oil industry, as meddling neo-imperialist oppressors. And it's still relevant at a time when a whole wing of the Washington establishment openly desires regime change in Tehran.
Mossadegh was a populist nationalist irked by the control Western powers had over Iran's natural wealth. British oil interests in Iran functioned in a neocolonial context — through World War II, Iranian workers endured cholera and food shortages in the major British-run refinery to help keep the Allied war machine humming. In 1951, Mossadegh decided to nationalize the British oil holdings, sparking a global crisis and a British- and U.S.-led boycott.
In January 1952, Time magazine named Mossadegh the Person of the Year in an unflattering cover story. It described him as a "strange old wizard" far too cozy with Moscow and sneeringly gestured to Iran as "a mountainous land between Baghdad and the Sea of Caviar." A year and a half later, the CIA orchestrated a takeover that removed Mossadegh, reinstated the shah and put the oil back in British hands.
The newly published papers — part of a tranche of more than 1,000 documents related to official American correspondence on the Iranian coup from both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations — expose in greater depth how U.S. interests were motivated by both the fear of Iranian communists as well as a desire to help Britain regain control over its oil assets. Although still a bit skimpy on how the coup was executed, the documents show how involved various organs of the American foreign policy apparatus were in trying to force Mossadegh out. That included Loy Henderson, then the American ambassador in Tehran.
"Every so often Henderson would pronounce with a straight face that the U.S. had the principled policy of never interfering in another country’s internal politics," wrote Ervand Abrahamian, a historian of Iran, after scanning the newly published items. "Then he would plunge in without batting an eye."
Abrahamian also notes that although the conventional narrative is that the United States, unlike Britain, wasn't too concerned about Iran's oil, it seems that American officials were still concerned about the consequences of a country in the Middle East choosing to reclaim its assets.
"The example [of successful nationalization] might have grave effects on U.S. oil concession in other parts of the world," Eisenhower notes in one Cabinet discussion.
The documents show how the CIA guided virtually every step of Mossadegh's removal, including helping generate pro-monarchy, anti-Mossadegh protests on the streets. In one paper, Kermit Roosevelt Jr. — the chief CIA official orchestrating the coup, and someone with perhaps the most 20th-century American name possible — was thrilled when the military started to pound leftist counter-demonstrators from the Tudeh Party, which was linked to Moscow.
"There was one other very encouraging sign Sunday evening, and that was that Tudeh began some demonstrations ... and acting without orders, the Army started to beat the hell out of them, and they carted away four truckloads of bloody Tudeh demonstrators Sunday afternoon, and they had no authorization," Roosevelt said. "It was just a spontaneous thing, and that gave us tremendous encouragement." By then, Mossadegh had already slipped into exile. The shah would soon return and more than two decades of autocratic rule would follow.
Another revelation from the new archive shows how the CIA also wooed Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, perhaps the most important religious figure at the time, whose dropping of support for Mossadegh proved fatal for his rule. The new documents show that Kashani, who was an inspiration for the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, solicited financial assistance from the Americans. When the shah landed in Iran in August 1953, some Islamist newspapers hailed the coup that ousted Mossadegh as a "holy uprising."
There are many ironies to unwind here. But it's not clear the current administration is sensitive to any of them.
Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to suggest that regime change was the intent of the Trump administration, which has made no secret of its dislike of the Islamic Republic. At a session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson said that U.S. policy toward Iran would be to counter its attempts at regional "hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government."
That reference to elements working toward a "transition" led Iranian officials to fire back an angry response. "Since the 1950s, the United States tried to meddle in Iranian affairs by different strategies such as coup d’état, regime change, and military intervention," said Bahram Qassemi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Although there many reasons to object to Iran's theocratic leadership, American officials play a dangerous and perhaps self-defeating game by displaying their historical amnesia.
"The things we did were 'covert,'" Eisenhower noted in a diary entry on Oct. 8, 1953. "If knowledge of them became public, we would not only be embarrassed in that region, but our chances to do anything of like nature in the future would almost totally disappear."