Coup 53 of Iran is the CIA's (Central Intelligence Agency) first successful overthrow of a foreign government.
But a copy of the agency's secret history of the coup has surfaced, revealing the inner workings of a plot that set the stage for the Islamic revolution in 1979, and for a generation of anti-American hatred in one of the Middle East's most powerful countries. The document, which remains classified, discloses the pivotal role British intelligence officials played in initiating and planning the coup, and it shows that Washington and London shared an interest in maintaining the West's control over Iranian oil.
Dr. Donald N. Wilber, a CIA spy, with the cover of archeologist and authority on ancient Persia, who planned the coup in Iran along with British SIS officer Norman Darbyshire. (Photo courtesy of National Security Archive)
The secret history, written by the CIA's chief coup planner, says the operation's success was mostly a matter of chance. The document shows that the agency had almost complete contempt for the man it was empowering, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. And it recounts, for the first time, the agency's badly tried to seduce and force the shah into taking part in his own coup.
The operation, code-named TP-AJAX, was the blueprint for a succession of CIA plots to foment coups and destabilize governments during the cold war - including the agency's successful coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the disastrous Cuban intervention known as the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In more than one instance, such operations led to the same kind of long-term animosity toward the United States that occurred in Iran.
The history says agency officers orchestrating the Iran coup worked directly with royalist Iranian military officers, handpicked the prime minister's replacement, sent a stream of envoys to bolster the shah's courage, directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers.
But on the night set for Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq's overthrow, almost nothing went according to the meticulously drawn plans, the secret history says. In fact, CIA officials were poised to flee the country when several Iranian officers recruited by the agency, acting on their own, took command of a pro-shah demonstration in Tehran and seized the government.
Two days after the coup, the history discloses, agency officials funneled $5 million to Iran to help the government they had installed consolidate power.
Dr. Donald N. Wilber, an expert in Persian architecture, who as one of the leading planners believed that covert operatives had much to learn from history, wrote the secret history, along with operational assessments in March 1954.
In less expansive memoirs published in 1986, Dr. Wilber asserted that the Iran coup was different from later CIA efforts. Its American planners, he said, had stirred up considerable unrest in Iran, giving Iranians a clear choice between instability and supporting the shah. The move to oust the prime minister, he wrote, thus gained substantial popular support.
Dr. Wilber's memoirs were heavily censored by the agency, but he was allowed to refer to the existence of his secret history. "If this history had been read by the planners of the Bay of Pigs," he wrote, "there would have been no such operation."
"From time to time," he continued, "I gave talks on the operation to various groups within the agency, and, in hindsight, one might wonder why no one from the Cuban desk ever came or read the history."
The coup was a turning point in modern Iranian history and remains a persistent irritant in Tehran-Washington relations. It consolidated the power of the shah, who ruled with an iron hand for 26 more years in close contact with the United States. He was toppled by Iranian Revolution of 1979. Later that year, "Students of Imam Line" went to the American Embassy, took diplomats hostage and declared that they had unmasked a "nest of spies" who had been manipulating Iran for decades.
The Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini supported terrorist attacks against American interests largely because of the long American history of supporting the shah's suppressive regime. Even under more moderate rulers, many Iranians still resent the United States' role in the coup and its support of the shah.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in an address, acknowledged the coup's pivotal role in the troubled relationship and came closer to apologizing than any American official ever has before.
"The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons," she said. "But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."
The history spells out the calculations to which Dr. Albright referred in her speech. Britain, it says, initiated the plot in 1952. The Truman administration rejected it, but President Eisenhower approved it shortly after taking office in 1953, because of fears about oil and Communism.
The document pulls few punches, acknowledging at one point that the agency baldly lied to its British allies. Dr. Wilber reserves his most withering asides for the agency's local allies, referring to "the recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner."
Shah with General Fazlollah Zahdei (right), spearhead of CIA planned coup of 1953 in favour of Shah
Britain Fights Oil Nationalism
The coup had its roots in a British showdown with Iran, restive under decades of near-colonial British domination.
The prize was Iran's oil fields. Britain occupied Iran in World War II to protect a supply route to its ally, the Soviet Union, and to prevent the oil from falling into the hands of the Nazis - ousting the shah's father, whom it regarded as unmanageable. It retained control over Iran's oil after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
In 1951, Iran's Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Mosaddeq, as prime minister. Britain responded with threats and sanctions.
Dr. Mosaddeq, a European-educated lawyer then in his early 70's, prone to tears and outbursts, refused to back down. In meetings in November and December 1952, the secret history says, British intelligence officials startled their American counterparts with a plan for a joint operation to oust the nettlesome prime minister.
The Americans, who "had not intended to discuss this question at all," agreed to study it, the secret history says. It had attractions. Anti-Communism had risen to a fever pitch in Washington, and officials were worried that Iran might fall under the sway of the Soviet Union, a historical presence there.
In March 1953, an unexpected development pushed the plot forward: the CIA's Tehran station reported that an Iranian general had approached the American Embassy about supporting an army-led coup.
The newly inaugurated Eisenhower administration was intrigued. The coalition that elected Dr. Mosaddeq was splintering, and the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, had become active.
Allen W. Dulles, the director of central intelligence, approved $1 million on April 4 to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mosaddeq," the history says.
"The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party."
Within days agency officials identified a high-ranking officer, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, as the man to spearhead a coup. Their plan called for the shah to play a leading role.
"A shah-General Zahedi combination, supported by CIA local assets and financial backing, would have a good chance of overthrowing Mosaddeq," officials wrote, "particularly if this combination should be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and if a sizable portion of the Tehran garrison refused to carry out Mosaddeq's orders."
But according to the history, planners had doubts about whether the shah could carry out such a bold operation.
His family had seized Iran's throne just 32 years earlier, when his powerful father led a coup of his own. But the young shah, agency officials wrote, was "by nature a creature of indecision, beset by formless doubts and fears," often at odds with his family, including Princess Ashraf, his "forceful and scheming twin sister."
Also, the shah had what the CIA termed a "pathological fear" of British intrigues, a potential obstacle to a joint operation.
In May 1953 the agency sent Dr. Wilber to Cyprus to meet Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iran branch of British intelligence, to make initial coup plans. Assuaging the fears of the shah was high on their agenda; a document from the meeting said he was to be persuaded that the United States and Britain "consider the oil question secondary."
The conversation at the meeting turned to a touchy subject, the identity of key agents inside Iran. The British said they had recruited two brothers named Rashidian. The Americans, the secret history discloses, did not trust the British and lied about the identity of their best "assets" inside Iran.
CIA officials were divided over whether the plan drawn up in Cyprus could work. The Tehran station warned headquarters that the "the shah would not act decisively against Mosaddeq." And it said General Zahedi, the man picked to lead the coup, "appeared lacking in drive, energy and concrete plans."
Despite the doubts, the agency's Tehran station began disseminating "gray propaganda," passing out anti-Mosaddeq cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering articles in the local press.