How secret was the US and British involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état?

How secret was the US and British involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état?

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A professor mentioned to me that one of the reason that conspiracy theories are popular in Iran (and Middle East in general) was that actual conspiracies involving Western powers against Muslim countries did happen. One such example was the 1953 Iranian coup d'état which overthrew and imprisoned Iran's elected Mosaddegh government. This effectively ended democracy in Iran and replaced it with a strong monarchical rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

It was orchestrated and planned by the UK and the US. According to Wikipedia, only long after this did these countries' intelligence agencies formally acknowledge their roles.

In August 2013, 60 years after, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it was involved in both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out "under CIA direction" and "as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.


Classified documents show that British intelligence officials played a pivotal role in initiating and planning the coup…

My question was, how secret or well-known were these countries' involvement in this role? Did the general public (in Iran and in the West) know about this? Or did only "conspiracy theorists" believe that the US and the UK did this, initially?

Since we need an older source, rather than a current source, I will quote The Seven Sisters (1975) by Anthony Sampson, which contains an entire chapter on the affair.

As for Dr. Mossadeq, his role in history is still disputed. Among old Iranians, he is now still an embarrassing phenomenon, who bankrupted his country and looked foolish to the world; and the Shah, who had to leave the country because of him, prefers not to hear the name of "that fellow." But to most younger Iranians, he is a kind of Iranian national hero, because he first asserted Iranian nationalism against the companies and the British. -- p. 163

This supports the claim that there was a significant awareness of the coup in Iran during the seventies and the fall of Mossadeq was attributed to the fight with the West over oil.

The book identifies several Western motive forces:

Behind the scenes there were mysterious forces at work in Iran, who were waiting for their moment. Early in the crisis, British secret agents had reported to London that there were many anti-Mossadeq elements in Iran who with encouragement, including cash, from Britain, could help bring Mossadeq down. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, however, would not sanction a coup and the project was passed on to the CIA in Washington, who were in turn hesitant to act without British support. Eventually the plan was sanctioned, not by Eden, but by Churchill, who happened to be in temporary command of the Foreign Office during Eden's illness in April 1953. The conspirators were duly assisted, masterminded by Kermit Roosevelt, and their chance soon came. -- p. 151

Sampson continues:

Whether and when Mossadeq would have fallen without this covert operation is hard to establish, but what is undisputed is that the Western powers did intervene, and hastened his end. It was a well-organized coup, and encouraged the CIA to further adventures, notably in Guatemala; but the West in the end paid a heavy price for it. For the Shah was thereafter determined to show his independence, and could never again dare to be seen as the pawn of the West. -- pp. 151-2.

Thus, even before the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the big picture was available to be known. However, there was limited interest in the story in the US at that time. Most public attention was focused on the Cold War and people in the US tended to see any opposition to US policy as the operation of proxies of the Soviet Union.

Royal outrage: How bumbling US officials used Queen’s name to spark coup d’etat

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The Queen had only just come to the throne in 1953 when her name became embroiled in the 1953 Iranian coup which has soured UK relations with Iran ever since. Although Her Majesty was never personally involved in the incident, her name was used by US diplomatic forces in order to persuade the Shah of Iran to remain in-country &ndash which was key to the US and UK-backed Iranian coup of that year. Both Britain and the US were keen to install the Shah in place of the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, and the telegram referencing &ldquoQueen Elizabeth&rdquo was key in persuading the Shah &ndash who was ready to flee &ndash to stay in the country.


However, the &ldquoQueen Elizabeth&rdquo the Americans were in fact referring to was the British ship the Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden was at that moment sailing on.

Extraordinary documents that have been kept secret until now, which include the telegrams themselves, have revealed how the incident unfolded.

The papers are part of a Channel 4 documentary &ldquoThe Queen and the Coup&rdquo, which is set to air on Sunday .

Writing for The Times today, Valentine Low explains: &ldquo Her name was used only because the Americans did not know the difference between Queen Elizabeth, the 26-year-old monarch who had been on the throne for only a year, and the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the ocean liner operated by Cunard Line that Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, was travelling on at the time.&rdquo

Queen Elizabeth II the Shah pictured during the 1953 coup (Image: Getty)

The Queen pictured with the Shah in 1955 and 1959 they had previosuly met before the coup, in 1948 (Image: Getty)

Professor Richard Aldrich from Warwick University told the documentary how he and another researcher found the telegram in Washington DC&rsquos national archives.

Their discovery meant that the Government and Buckingham Palace learned of the misuse of the Queen&rsquos name for the first time.

The professor said: &ldquoIn 40 years as a historian this is the most astonishing collection of documents I have ever seen.&rdquo

The documents included a telegram to the US embassy in Tehran which read: &ldquoForeign Office this afternoon informed us of receipt message from Eden from Queen Elizabeth expressing concern at latest developments re Shah and strong hope we can find some means of dissuading him from leaving country.&rdquo

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The US ambassador Loy Henderson then conveyed the message to the Shah, later saying: &ldquoI also asked him to tell Shah that I had just received message indicating that [a] very important personage for whom Shah had most friendly feelings had also expressed sincere hope that Shah could be dissuaded from leaving country.&rdquo

Professor Aldrich commented: &ldquoThis is critical because you can&rsquot have a coup putting the Shah into power if the Shah has done a runner.

&ldquoIn our view, if the Shah had done a runner this coup probably would not have happened.&rdquo

The material also reveals how the American diplomats were keen to keep the bungle from the British.

‘The classical plan’

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi appointed Mossadegh as prime minister in 1951 after he won the backing of the Iranian parliament.

MI6 and the US Central Intelligence Agency then convinced the shah to back a coup against Mossadegh in 1953.

“The plan would have involved seizure of key points in the city by what units we thought were loyal to the shah … seizure of the radio station etc … The classical plan,” Darbyshire said.

Mossadegh had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and MI6 believed Soviet-backed communists would eventually take over the government, according to Darbyshire.

“I really do believe it, because Mossadegh was a fairly weak character,” the spy said. “[O]nce you get highly trained members of the communist party in, it doesn’t take long. We didn’t share the American view that he was acting as a bulwark against communism … We thought he would be pushed by the communists in the long run,” said Darbyshire.

Aug. 19, 1953: U.S. and Britain Topple Democratically Elected Government of Iran

On Aug. 19, 1953, Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadegh was removed from power in a coup organized and financed by the British and U.S. governments. The Shah quickly returned to take power and signed over forty percent of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies.

In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence orchestrated a coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected government of Iran. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The aftershocks of the coup are still being felt.

In 1951 Prime Minister Mossadegh roused Britain’s ire when he nationalized the oil industry. Mossadegh argued that Iran should begin profiting from its vast oil reserves which had been exclusively controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The company later became known as British Petroleum (BP).

After considering military action, Britain opted for a coup d’état. President Harry Truman rejected the idea, but when Dwight Eisenhower took over the White House, he ordered the CIA to embark on one of its first covert operations against a foreign government.

Report to the National Security Council on Iran. Source: National Security Archive.

The coup was led by an agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. The CIA leaned on a young, insecure Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh as prime minister. Kermit Roosevelt had help from Norman Schwarzkopf’s father: Norman Schwarzkopf.

The CIA and the British helped to undermine Mossadegh’s government through bribery, libel, and orchestrated riots. Agents posing as communists threatened religious leaders, while the US ambassador lied to the prime minister about alleged attacks on American nationals.

Some 300 people died in firefights in the streets of Tehran.

Mossadegh was overthrown, sentenced to three years in prison followed by house arrest for life.

The crushing of Iran’s first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the Shah, who relied heavily on US aid and arms. The anti-American backlash that toppled the Shah in 1979 shook the whole region and helped spread Islamic militancy.

Listen to the full broadcast (below) which includes an interview with Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror, and Baruch College professor Ervand Abrahamian.

American Journey says the CIA “backed” a coup in Iran in reality that “backing” involved Kermit Roosevelt, CIA agent and grandson of Theodore, arriving in Tehran with suitcases full of cash to manufacture an opposition movement by hiring people to protest, bribing newspaper editors to print misinformation (real fake news), and creating a sham communist party to act as a straw man. American Journey says the Shah “cooperated” with the United States it leaves out that such “cooperation” was defined by Iran’s purchase of billions of dollars of weapons from the United States as well as the CIA’s training of Savak, the Shah’s secret police force infamous for its human rights violations. Continue reading.

There is an excellent critique of textbook coverage of this history in Chapter 8 of the first edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.

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Declassified Documents Reveal CIA Role In 1953 Iranian Coup

Former Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh appears in October 1951. The CIA's overthrow of Mossadegh was a template for the agency's covert operations going forward.

The Central Intelligence Agency was behind the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. It's been an open secret for decades, but last week, The George Washington University's National Security Archive released newly declassified documents proving it.

Orchestrating the Iranian coup d'état was a first for the CIA and would serve as the template for future Cold War covert operations worldwide.

Mossadegh "believed that Iran's main problem at that time was that it was a country basically ruled by foreign empires," Iranian filmmaker Maziar Bahari tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. So, after less than a week in office, on May 1, 1951, Mossadegh decided to nationalize the British-run Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

"To the British, because they discovered the oil and created the Iranian oil industry from scratch, it was a fair deal that they shared the oil revenue with the Iranian government," says Bahari. "But, to many Iranians, especially those who did not remember that there was no oil in Iran before the British came, it was just unfair for a British company to have a monopoly over Iranian oil."

However, the British would not leave quietly. According to Bahari, "Mossadegh had to go in order for the British to keep their monopoly," and they began pursuing measures to topple the Iranian prime minister. Their plan succeeded, but only after two long years of spy craft, subversion and the eventual help of the CIA.

"I think a lesser man would fall within a week. Mossadegh was a very strong politician and a very strong man," Bahari said.

Young CIA agents used suitcases full of cash to destabilize the regime. "They managed to buy newspaper editors, to buy hoodlums, they organized rallies in different cities, they created a fake communist party in order to create trouble," Bahari said. Still, they almost failed.

According to Bahari, after Mossadegh and his allies thwarted the first coup attempt Aug. 15, 1953, officials in Washington wanted to pull the plug on the spy operation. They sent a telegram to Kermit Roosevelt Junior, the CIA officer leading the overthrow and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, ordering him to cease and desist. "But Kermit Roosevelt just says 'I never heard that' and he carries on the operation and he succeeds," Bahari said.

Four days later, a second coup attempt was successful.

"It's kind of left a bitter taste in Iranians' mouths," says Bahari. "It's created a very good excuse for the Iranian government to exploit the genuine grievances of the Iranian people."

CIA finally admits role in Iranian coup of 1953

A previously classified CIA document that was made public on Monday confirms that the 1953 coup that toppled Iranian nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq was plotted by Washington and carried out by the US intelligence agency.

The military coup that overthrew democratically-elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 was conceived by the US government and carried out by its intelligence agency, a CIA document made public this week has confirmed.

Published for the first time ever on the website of the National Security Archive –a George Washington University-based research centre– the secret document confirms the US involvement that previous news reports and memoirs revealed, but that was never fully acknowledged by the American spy agency.

“The military coup that overthrew Mosadeq [sic] and his National Front Cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” the document says (see image on the right).

An internally-written CIA document meant to recount part of the agency’s history, “The Battle for Iran” was written in the mid-1970s and partially declassified in 1981, but the section confirming the CIA’s role was excised.

The newly published document was declassified in 2011 in response a to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by a National Security archive research director Malcolm Byrne. However, Byrne waited until this week to make the document known to the public.

“I was hoping to get a more complete picture since there’s still so much that’s being withheld, but these things sometimes take a very long time,” Byrne told FRANCE 24 in an email on Monday. “My original [FOIA] request was from 2000, so it took 11 years to get this far. I decided not to wait any longer.”

The CIA confirmed that the codename for the CIA operation that ousted Mosaddeq and installed the exiled Shah of Iran was TPAJAX. The document was posted by the National Security Archive for the 60th anniversary of the overthrow.

The text also sheds light on the thinking of US leaders at the time, their concerns over a potential standoff between British and Russian forces, and their overriding interest to maintain access to Iranian oil.

“The execution of a US-assisted coup d’état seemed a more desirable risk than letting matters run their unpredictable course,” the document states.

British meddling?

However, the section of the document that details the planning, execution and the role of the Shah has been mostly excised by the CIA. Byrne has called for a more complete disclosure of the document and other accounts of the US-orchestrated coup.

“I have a pending request with the CIA for supplementary reviews, including of the “Zendebad, Shah!” document, but to date I have not received any further response,” Byrne told FRANCE 24.

The researcher said the document was significant because many details about the coup, such as the plotters and perpetrators, remain a subject of intense academic and political debate.

“The Iranian government, regularly invokes the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country's historical trajectory… whether Washington needs to apologise for its prior interference before better relations can occur,” Byrne noted.

And while an increasing amount of information is being shared, there's still pressure to keep the full story locked away.

On Monday the National Security Archive also released documents detailing British attempts to block American disclosure of intervention in Iran back in 1978.

At the time, Britain’s Foreign Office feared that a planned State Department publication would undermine the UK's standing in Iran.

But the National Security Archive queried Monday if current British meddling was not perhaps behind the stalled declassification of more key documents.

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‘Coup 53’ reveals the U.S. – U.K. forces behind the 1953 Iranian coup

History has long recognized the covert US CIA role in the August 19, 1953 Iranian coup d’état that replaced democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. However, the details of the nefarious machinations have previously not fully acknowledged the U.K. involvement, including the role of the lead MI6 operative Norman Derbyshire.

In fact, Derbyshire’s report on the 1953 coup remains classified under the British Official Secrets Act to this day. It is only because of writer/director Taghi Amirani’s ten years of investigative labor for his documentary “Coup 53” that a Derbyshire transcript for the 1985 fourteen-part British series “End of Empire” surfaced. Derbyshire was completely cut out of the series, but bringing Derbyshire (now deceased) to life, Ralph Fiennes delivers his comments from the leaked transcript, admitting he was responsible for running the coup. To quote Walter Murch, a participant and superb editor who devoted four years to this project, this “really does throw a lightning bolt across that landscape that makes it very clear what was going on.” And through mind-boggling twists and turns, CIA and MI6 maneuver, failed attempts and betrayals, violent protests and assassinations, in a brisk, fascinating two hours “Coup 53” does clarify in spellbinding detail what happened when Mosaddegh moved to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

The political and, for democracy, appalling historical record comes to light through Amirani’s quest for the truth, a search the film follows as he does exhaustive research. As in the best detective genre films, he pieces together one detail after another of the enormously complex jigsaw puzzle, finally arriving at an astonishing picture. In this endeavor he uses all of the following: archival footage, some from interviews for the “End of Empire” series animation, primarily to present the 1953 clashes and killings present-day interviews print and newsreel sources discussion of the involvement of Prime Minister Churchill, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, plus a who’s who of ambassadors, Foreign Office personnel, and expert authors.

It’s impossible to summarize the breathtaking revelations that explain so much about the troubled Mid-East situation so sharply defined in this impressive documentary. With some English subtitles as needed, “Coup 53” is available in virtual cinemas nationwide you may check the film web site for more details.

Don’t Just Blame Washington for the 1953 Iran Coup

In their Oct. 30 article in Foreign Policy, Roham Alvandi and Mark J. Gasiorowski took issue with my 2010 book Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited, seeking to link it to the current hostility between Iran and the United States. Their ultimate goal is to rehabilitate a discredited narrative to which the release of the secret CIA files in 2017 has dealt a devastating blow. The archival evidence presented below should enable readers to form an independent judgment about the circumstances of the fateful overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953.

The first batch of declassified State Department documents, partially related to the Anglo-American coup plot against Mosaddeq, was released in the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series in 1989. CIA files were not included, and direct references to the plot, codenamed TPAJAX, had been redacted. Still, the released material contained valuable insights into the thinking of the Eisenhower administration and the U.S. policies both before and after the event.

In their Oct. 30 article in Foreign Policy, Roham Alvandi and Mark J. Gasiorowski took issue with my 2010 book Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited, seeking to link it to the current hostility between Iran and the United States. Their ultimate goal is to rehabilitate a discredited narrative to which the release of the secret CIA files in 2017 has dealt a devastating blow. The archival evidence presented below should enable readers to form an independent judgment about the circumstances of the fateful overthrow of the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953.

The first batch of declassified State Department documents, partially related to the Anglo-American coup plot against Mosaddeq, was released in the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series in 1989. CIA files were not included, and direct references to the plot, codenamed TPAJAX, had been redacted. Still, the released material contained valuable insights into the thinking of the Eisenhower administration and the U.S. policies both before and after the event.

U.S. involvement in the overthrow had long been suspected, but the first official admission came in the form of an apology by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in March 2000. Shortly after, the New York Times published a leaked secret CIA internal history of the event compiled by an insider CIA consultant, Donald Wilber.

Written in 1954, the account revealed stunning details about planning and operations. Complete with its five meticulously prepared appendices, the Wilber history remains a major reference source. Finally, in 2017, after years of incessant public demands, the State Department released a trove of some 375 secret documents, the bulk of which were the CIA files copied to the department at the time of the event.

According to Alvandi and Gasiorowski’s narrative, the Iranians were little more than marionettes and hired hacks, and they lacked any agency in the events of August 1953.

Over the past three decades, Gasiorowski has put forward a narrative suggesting that the CIA station in Tehran, under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt Jr., drew up a plan intended to deal Mosaddeq a decisive blow following the failure of the CIA coup attempt on the nights of Aug. 15-16, 1953, and the ensuing flight of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

According to this narrative, Roosevelt sowed chaos in the streets of Tehran by means of faking Tudeh Party-led anti-shah rallies scaring clerics through propaganda tactics and bribing high-ranking clerics to deploy thugs and bullies in the streets on Aug. 19 then dispatching hired military units to attack Mosaddeq’s house to overthrow the government. According to this narrative, the Iranians are little more than marionettes and hired hacks, and they lacked any agency in the events of August 1953.

The Gasiorowski account, as was first fleshed out in a 1987 article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, was seeded in Kermit Roosevelt Jr.’s 1980 memoir, The Countercoup—a phantasmagoric spy thriller—and sourced by Roosevelt’s coworkers in Tehran and Washington. To be sure, in his debriefing at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Aug. 28, 1953, Roosevelt claimed that he had secretly planned the second strike in a “council of war” two nights earlier at the U.S. Embassy compound, without the knowledge of Ambassador Loy Henderson. But the declassified documentary record does not support his self-aggrandizing narrative.

In my 2010 book, I contested the above narrative, instead placing the emphasis on internal political forces. This hypothesis was based on the following facts:

After the failure of the Aug. 15-16 coup, Washington decided to abandon the pursuit of TPAJAX and instead mend fences with Mosaddeq. Accordingly, Langley informed the CIA station in Tehran that in the absence of strong recommendations from Roosevelt and Henderson, TPAJAX should be abandoned.

Roosevelt, along with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, embarked on damage control measures, but their orientation was to foment insurrection from outside the capital and to mobilize Iran’s southern tribes in anticipation of a presumed communist takeover. Kermanshah, some 300 miles west of the capital and close to the Iraqi border, was selected for the purpose. Langley had contingency plans for such a scenario, notably in liaison with the Qashqai tribe, predating the TPAJAX plot.

No bribe to clerics was recorded in Wilber’s detailed history, while payment of any nature to the military officers, was expressly denied.

Roosevelt’s hyperbolic claim that at his so-called council of war on Aug. 17 he arranged for the Kermanshah brigade to move to Tehran for his planned Aug. 19 operations was plainly a logistical impossibility.

The pro-shah military units intervened in the early hours of the afternoon of Aug. 19—an unlikely hour for a preplanned coup d’état.

Henderson, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and the British Foreign Office were on record characterizing the day’s events as spontaneous.

The United States Overthrew Iran’s Last Democratic Leader

Despite a campaign of historical revisionism in Washington, the archival record makes clear that the U.S. government was the key actor in the 1953 coup that ousted Mohammad Mosaddeq—not the Iranian clergy.

In his writings, Gasiorowski has largely bypassed a major current of opinion in Iran: those who either supported the shah or opposed Mosaddeq. This failure—echoed in the Foreign Policy piece—has driven the authors astray. Ample evidence among the old and the new declassified U.S. documents attests to the existence and vibrancy of the opposition in the run-up to the Aug. 19 coup.

Indeed, in March 1953, weeks before the CIA was mandated to plan for the overthrow of Mosaddeq, an indigenous coup d’état plan, led by Zahedi, was in an advanced phase. A CIA intelligence report from March 31, 1953, states that the coup was tentatively scheduled to take place in two to three weeks, names the main actors while specifying that in the event of success, Zahedi would become prime minister and Gen. Abbas Garzan would become chief of staff.

Separately, a nucleus of revolt among the line officers in the Tehran garrison already existed before CIA and MI6 developed a coup plan. In my 2010 book, I documented how the TPAJAX military planner in Tehran, George Carroll, accidentally learned about the existence of this network. Not only did the CIA planners not need to tempt these officers with bribes, but the Iranian ringleaders also saved Carroll and his plan from a major embarrassment by detecting a lapse that, had it not been rectified, would have foiled the TPAJAX coup prematurely.

Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi, the supreme leader of the Shiite religious hierarchy, had immense influence. Borujerdi regarded the institution of monarchy as the custodian of the Shiite faith and hence believed it needed to be safeguarded. As the fall of the monarchy loomed in the days following the flight of the shah to Baghdad on Aug. 16, Borujerdi was ready to wade in, acting through his representative in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Behbahani. The green light that unleashed the clerical juggernaut was a three-word phrase, mamlekat shah mikhahad, which translates as, “the country needs the king.”

The environment in Borujerdi’s household, his bad blood with Mosaddeq, and the way the news of the latter’s fall was received at the summer residence of Borujerdi are graphically described in the memoirs of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was then a young scribe in the service of Borujerdi.

Several files released in 2017 attest to Borujerdi’s support of the shah and his willingness to act. A CIA intelligence report dated April 17, 1953, reads: “On 11 April, Mullah Borujerdi, Kashani, and Behbehani … were reaching mutual understanding on the need to bolster the Shah in his resistance to Mossadeq.” In another assessment on Aug. 17, 1953, Roosevelt cabled to Langley, “According my information he [the shah] has latent support [of the] majority of Iranian population including its most eminent clerics, including, of course, Borujerdi.” In another cable Roosevelt wrote, “Religious leaders now desperate. Will attempt anything. Will try save Islam and Shah of Iran.”

The decisive evidence against Gasiorowski’s narrative is a secret situation report cabled by Roosevelt to Langley in the early morning hours of Aug. 19. Its full and unredacted text was among the 2017 CIA declassified files.

The cable reveals that on the morning of August 19, the day Mosaddeq was overthrown, Roosevelt was in the dark about the momentous events that were unfolding in the streets of Tehran. The Roosevelt situation report—a mixture of complaints, future plans, and talk of a possible insurrection in remote areas of Iran—contained no hint of even a rumor about the events that he subsequently claimed to have planned during his so-called council of war two nights earlier.

While an intelligence operative might feel compelled to conceal a covert move from his superiors, someone of Roosevelt’s stature—the Harvard University graduate grandson of a U.S. president for whom anything was possible and permissible—would not deliberately mislead his superiors. Roosevelt’s previous days’ reporting to Langley and other CIA stations would have in effect been plainly misleading had he truly planned a military-political coup for Aug. 19.

Instead, on the evening of Aug. 17—shortly before his claimed council of war—he sent a message to Langley saying in essence that while Mosaddeq’s position was improving, the opposition policy to him should continue. In another cable, he requested arrangements for the exfiltration of 15 unnamed people and asked Langley whether the station should continue with the TPAJAX plan or withdraw. He did not ask for any extension of his mission.

It is legitimate to ask why the CIA leadership turned a blind eye to these glaring contradictions in Roosevelt’s reporting. One answer, though conjectural, is not far-fetched. TPAJAX was the very first operational assignment entrusted to the CIA. The National Security Act of 1947, by which the agency was created, had given the CIA a limited mandate of intelligence-gathering and analysis. During the administration of President Harry S. Truman and CIA head Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the agency managed to expand that limited role. The failure of TPAJAX would have hence been a severe blow, notably vis-à-vis rival military and State Department intelligence agencies.

Roosevelt’s claim to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat was thereafter adopted by Langley. With the exception of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who likened Roosevelt’s account to a “dime novel,” others inside the Beltway fell for the deceit. In the coming years, whenever the agency felt less secure, it would, through press leaks or historical researchers, tout its achievements. The bulk of the CIA files related to events in Iran in 1953 were destroyed in 1962 in Langley on the dubious grounds that there was a shortage of shelving capacity. The move was more likely designed to protect the agency’s secret in any future congressional inquiry.

Evidence proves MI6 footprint in 1953 coup

TEHRAN, Aug. 02 (MNA) – For the first time as of 1958, a documentary reveals evidence confirming a British spy’s role in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup d'état.

As The Guardian reported on Sunday, the hidden role of a British secret service officer who led the coup that permanently altered the Middle East is to be revealed for the first time since an Observer news story was suppressed in 1985.

The report, headlined “How MI6 and CIA joined forces to plot Iran coup”, appeared in the 26 May edition but was swiftly quashed. It exposed the fact that an MI6 man, Norman Darbyshire, had run a covert and violent operation to reinstate the Shah of Iran as ruler of the country in 1953. Yet just a few days after the newspaper came out, all fresh evidence of this British operation and of Darbyshire’s identity disappeared from public debate.

The background to the 1953 coup d’etat has long been the cause of international suspicion and conjecture. Prime Minister Winston Churchill opposed the rule of the country’s first democratic leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, largely because it threatened Britain’s interests in Iran’s oil industry. Working with the CIA, who also hoped to see the Shah Reza Pahlavi back on the throne, it is now clear that MI6 did much more than agitate for Mossadegh to be overthrown.

In June 2020, documents found in a Washington archive showed how Queen Elizabeth II’s name was mistakenly used to persuade the Shah to stay in Iran prior to the coup. Coup 53 now makes a clear case that the British were orchestrating an uprising, going as far as kidnapping, torturing, and paying for protesters to go out on to the streets of Tehran, The Guardian reported.

In August 1953, the British and American intelligence agencies initiated a coup by the Iranian military, setting off a series of events, including riots in the streets of the capital, Tehran, which led to the overthrow and arrest of the time Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

Mosaddeq, who was convicted of treason by a court-martial, served three years in solitary confinement and then died under house arrest in exile in 1967.

His overthrow, which is still given as a reason for the Iranians' mistrust of the UK and the US, consolidated the Shah's rule for the following 26 years until the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, led by Imam Khomeini, which toppled the US-backed monarchy.

The Iranian premier had played a key role in the country’s 1951 movement that resulted in the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which had been mainly controlled by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), now known as BP.

Experts say the 28 Mordad coup, was aimed at making sure the Iranian monarchy would safeguard the West's oil interests in the country.

Six decades after the notorious coup, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the first time published a document in August 2013 which confirmed Washington’s role in the coup d’état.

"The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government," reads a brief segment from an internal CIA history.


[1] Just in the last several years, books in English, French and Farsi by Ervand Abrahamian, Gholam-Reza Afkhami, Mohammad Amini, Christopher de Bellaigue, Darioush Bayandor, Mark Gasiorowski (and this author), Stephen Kinzer, Abbas Milani, Ali Rahnema, and others have focused on, or at least dealt in depth with, Mosaddeq and the coup. They contain sometimes wide differences of view about who was behind planning for the overthrow and how it finally played out. More accounts are on the way (including an important English-language volume on Iranian domestic politics by Ali Rahnema of the American University of Paris).

[2] Tim Weiner, “C.I.A. Destroyed Files on 1953 Iran Coup,” The New York Times, May 29, 1997.

[3] Tim Weiner, “C.I.A.’s Openness Derided as a ‘Snow Job’,” The New York Times, May 20, 1997 Tim Weiner, op. cit., May 29, 1997. (See also the link to the Archive’s lawsuit, above.)

[4] Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979) The New York Times, April 16, 2000.

[5] Precht recalls that he was originally not slated to be at the meetings, which usually deputy assistant secretaries and above attended. But the Near East division representative for State was unavailable. “I was drafted,” Precht said. Being forced to “sit through interminable and pointless talk” about extraneous topics “when my plate was already overflowing” on Iran contributed to a “sour mood,” he remembered. (Henry Precht e-mail to author, June 2, 2011.)

[6] Joshua Botts, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “‘A Burden for the Department’?: To The 1991 FRUS Statute,” February 6, 2012,

More on the Coup

Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in IranBy Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, Syracuse University Press, May 1, 2004

The house of ousted Prime Minister Mosaddeq lies in ruins after a prolonged assault by coup forces, including several tanks. (Stephen Langlie, courtesy of Mark Gasiorowski)

Several coup participants gather. Front row, from left: Ardeshir Zahedi (the prime minister’s son, later ambassador to Washington), Abbas Farzanegan, Fazlollah Zahedi, Nader Batmanqelich, Hedayatollah Guilanshah. Nematollah Nassiri, who attempted to serve Mosaddeq with a firman from the Shah, is directly behind the prime minister. (

Have the British Been Meddling with the FRUS Retrospective Volume on 1953?

Foreign Office Worried over “Very Embarrassing” Revelations, Documents Show

The United Kingdom sought to expunge “very embarrassing” information about its role in the 1953 coup in Iran from the official U.S. history of the period, British documents confirm. The Foreign Office feared that a planned State Department publication would undermine U.K. standing in Iran, according to declassified records posted on the National Security Archive’s Web site today.

The British censorship attempt happened in 1978, but London’s concerns may play a role even today in holding up the State Department’s long-awaited history – even though U.S. law required its publication years ago.

The declassified documents, from the Foreign Office (Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1968), shed light on a protracted controversy over crucial gaps in the State Department’s authoritative Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. The blank spots on Iran involve the CIA- and MI6-backed plot to overthrow the country’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Six decades after his ouster, some signs point to the CIA as the culprit for refusing to allow basic details about the event to be incorporated into the FRUS compilation.[1]

Recently, the CIA has declassified a number of records relating to the 1953 coup, including a version of an internal history that specifically states the agency planned and helped implement the coup. (The National Security Archive obtained the documents through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.) This suggests that ongoing CIA inflexibility over the FRUS volume is not so much a function of the agency’s worries about its own role being exposed as a function of its desire to protect lingering British sensitivities about 1953 – especially regarding the activities of U.K. intelligence services. There is also evidence that State Department officials have been just as anxious to shield British interests over the years.

Regardless of the reasons for this continued secrecy, an unfortunate consequence of withholding these materials is to guarantee that American (and world) public understanding of this pivotal episode will remain distorted. Another effect is to keep the issue alive in the political arena, where it is regularly exploited by circles in Iran opposed to constructive ties with the United States.

Background on FRUS and the Mosaddeq Period

By statute, the FRUS series is required to present “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record” of American foreign policy.[2] That law came about partly as a consequence of the failure of the original volume covering the Mosaddeq period (published in 1989) to mention the U.S. role in his overthrow. The reaction of the scholarly community and interested public was outrage. Prominent historian Bruce Kuniholm, a former member of State’s Policy Planning Staff, called the volume “a fraud.”[3]

The full story of the scandal has been detailed elsewhere,[4] but most observers blamed the omission on the intelligence community (IC) for refusing to open its relevant files. In fact, the IC was not alone. Senior Department officials joined in opposing requests for access to particular classified records by the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC), the group of independent scholars charged with advising the Department’s own Office of the Historian.[5] The head of the HAC, Warren Cohen, resigned in protest in 1990 citing his inability to ensure the integrity of the FRUS series. Congress became involved and, in a display of bipartisanship that would be stunning today (Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan getting Republican Jesse Helms to collaborate), lawmakers passed a bill to prevent similar historical distortions. As Cohen and others pointed out, while Moscow was disgorging its scandalous Cold War secrets, Washington was taking a distinctly Soviet approach to its own history.[6]

By 1998, State’s historians and the HAC had decided to produce a “retrospective” volume on the Iran coup that would help to correct the record. They planned other volumes to cover additional previously airbrushed covert activities (in Guatemala, the Congo, etc.). It was a promising step, yet 15 years later, while a couple of publications have materialized, several others have not – including the Iran volume.[7]

Institutional Delays

A review of the available minutes of HAC meetings makes it apparent that over the past decade multiple policy, bureaucratic, and logistical hurdles have interfered with progress. Some of these are routine, even inevitable – from the complications of multi-agency coordination to frequent personnel changes. Others are more specific to the realm of intelligence, notably a deep-seated uneasiness in parts of the CIA over the notion of unveiling putative secrets.

In the Fall of 2001, an ominous development for the HO gave a sense of where much of the power lay in its relationship with the CIA. According to notes of a public HAC meeting in October 2001, the CIA, on instructions from the Director of Central Intelligence, decided unilaterally “that there could be no new business” regarding FRUS until the two sides signed an MOU. Agency officials said the document would address legitimate IC concerns HAC members worried it would mainly boost CIA control over the series. The agency specifically held up action on four volumes to make its point, while HAC historians countered that the volumes were being “held hostage” and the HO was being forced to work “under the threat of ‘blackmail’.”[8]

The CIA held firm and an agreement emerged in May 2002 that, at least from available information, appears to bend over backwards to give the IC extraordinary safeguards without offering much reassurance about key HO interests. For instance, the MOU states that the CIA must “meet HO’s statutory requirement” – hardly something that seems necessary to spell out. At the same time, it allows the CIA to review materials not once, but again even after a manuscript has passed through formal declassification, and once more after it is otherwise in final form and ready for printing. In the context of the disputed Iran volume, HAC members worried about the “random” nature of these provisions which gave the agency “a second bite at the apple.”[9] The implication is that the CIA will feel little obligation to help meet the HO’s legal requirement if it believes its own “equities” are at stake. (This of course may still affect the Iran volume, currently scheduled for 2014 publication.)

Is It the British?

As mentioned, the CIA has begun to release documentation in recent years making explicit its connection to the Mosaddeq overthrow. Even earlier, by 2002, the State Department and CIA jointly began compiling an Iran retrospective volume. These are not signs of a fundamental institutional unwillingness to publish American materials on the coup (although parts of the CIA continued to resist the notion). The HO even tried at least twice previously to organize a joint project with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Iran, but the idea evidently went nowhere.[10]

In 2004, two years later, the State Department’s designated historian finished compiling the volume. According to that historian, he included a number of records obtained from research at the then-Public Record Office in London. Among his findings was “material that documents the British role.” He added that he had also located State Department records “that illustrate the British role.”[11] By no later than June 2006, the Iran volume had entered the declassification queue. At the June 2006 HAC session, CIA representatives said “they believed the committee would be satisfied with the [declassification] reviews.”

Up to that point, the agency’s signals seemed generally positive about the prospects of making public previously closed materials. But in the six years since, no Iran volume has emerged. Even State’s committee of historians apparently has never gotten a satisfactory explanation as to why.[12]

When the IC withholds records, “sources and methods” are often the excuse. The CIA is loath to release anything it believes would reveal how the agency conducts its activities. (For many years, the CIA kept secret the fact that it used balloons to drop leaflets over Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and would not confirm or deny whether it compiled biographical sketches of Communist leaders.) On the other hand, clandestine operations have been named in more than 20 other FRUS publications.[13] One of these was the retrospective volume on PBSUCCESS, the controversial overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Furthermore, the agency has released troubling materials such as assassination manuals that demonstrate how to murder political opponents using anything from “edge weapons” to “bare hands.” In 2007, in response to a 15-year-old National Security Archive FOIA request, the CIA finally released its file of “family jewels” detailing an assortment of infamous activities. from planning to poison foreign leaders to conducting illegal surveillance on American journalists.

If the agency felt it could part with such high-profile sources and methods information, along with deeply embarrassing revelations about itself, why not in the Iran case? Perhaps the British are just saying no, and their American counterparts are quietly going along.

State Department Early Warning – 1978

The FCO documents in this posting (Documents 22-35) strongly support this conclusion. Theytell a fascinating story of transatlantic cooperation and diplomatic concern at a turbulent time. It was a State Department official who first alerted the FCO to plans by the Department’s historians to publish an official account of the 1953 coup period. The Department’s Iran expert warned that the records could have “possibly damaging consequences” not only for London but for the Shah of Iran, who was fighting for survival as he had 25 years earlier (Document 22). Two days later, FCO officials began to pass the message up the line that “very embarrassing things about the British” were likely to be in the upcoming FRUS compilation (Document 23). FCO officials reported that officers on both the Iran and Britain desks at State were prepared to help keep those materials out of the public domain, at least for the time being (Document 33). Almost 35 years later, those records are still inaccessible.

The British government’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what the world already knows is difficult for most outsiders to understand. It becomes positively baffling when senior public figures who are fully aware of the history have already acknowledged London’s role. In 2009, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw publicly remarked on Britain’s part in toppling Mosaddeq, which he categorized as one of many outside “interferences” in Iranian affairs in the last century.[14] Yet, present indications are that the U.K. government is not prepared to release either its own files or evidently to approve the opening of American records that might help bring some degree of closure to this protracted historic – and historiographical – episode.

[1] A recent article drawing attention to the controversy is Stephen R. Weissman, “Why is U.S. Withholding Old Documents on Covert Ops in Congo, Iran?” The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 2011. ( )

[2] Section 198, Public Law 102-138.

[3] Bruce Kuniholm, “Foreign Relations, Public Relations, Accountability, and Understanding,” American Historical Association, Perspectives, May-June 1990.

[4] In addition to the Kuniholm and Weissman items cited above, see also Stephen R. Weissman, “Censoring American Diplomatic History,” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History, September 2011.

[5] Joshua Botts, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “‘A Burden for the Department’?: To The 1991 FRUSStatute,” February 6, 2012,

[6] Editorial, “History Bleached at State,” The New York Times, May 16, 1990.

[7] Retrospective compilations on Guatemala (2003) and the intelligence community (2007) during the 1950s have appeared collections on the Congo and Chile are among those that have not.

[13] Comments of then-FRUS series editor Edward Keefer at the February 26-27, 2007, HAC meeting,

[14] Quoted in Souren Melikian, “Show Ignores Essential Questions about Iranian King’s Role,” The International Herald Tribune, February 21, 2009.

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