History of Iran

A short account of 1953 Coup
Operation code-name: TP-AJAX

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CIA and Moscow Are Both Surprised
Royalists, carrying a picture of the shah,
rode a commandeered bus in Tehran on Aug. 19, 1953,
when the coup became a success.
But just as the Americans were ready to quit, the mood on the streets of Tehran shifted. On the morning of Aug. 19, several Tehran papers published the shah's long-awaited decrees, and soon pro-shah crowds were building in the streets.

"They needed only leadership," the secret history says. And Iranian agents of the CIA provided it. Without specific orders, a journalist who was one of the agency's most important Iranian agents led a crowd toward Parliament, inciting people to set fire to the offices of a newspaper owned by Dr. Mosaddeq's foreign minister. Another Iranian CIA agent led a crowd to sack the offices of pro-Tudeh papers.

"The news that something quite startling was happening spread at great speed throughout the city," the history states.

The CIA tried to exploit the situation, sending urgent messages that the Rashidian brothers and two key American agents should "swing the security forces to the side of the demonstrators."

But things were now moving far too quickly for the agency to manage. An Iranian Army colonel who had been involved in the plot several days earlier suddenly appeared outside Parliament with a tank, while members of the now-disbanded Imperial Guard seized trucks and drove through the streets. "By 10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military personnel at all the main squares," the secret history says.

By noon the crowds began to receive direct leadership from a few officers involved in the plot and some who had switched sides. Within an hour the central telegraph office fell, and telegrams were sent to the provinces urging a pro-shah uprising. After a brief shootout, police headquarters and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell as well.

The Tehran radio remained the biggest prize. With the government's fate uncertain, it was broadcasting a program on cotton prices. But by early afternoon a mass of civilians, army officers and policemen overwhelmed it. Pro-shah speakers went on the air, broadcasting the coup's success and reading the royal decrees.

At the embassy, CIA officers were elated, and Mr. Roosevelt got General Zahedi out of hiding. An army officer found a tank and drove him to the radio station, where he spoke to the nation.

Dr. Mosaddeq and other government officials were rounded up, while officers supporting General Zahedi placed "known supporters of TP-AJAX" in command of all units of the Tehran garrison.

The Soviet Union was caught completely off-guard. Even as the Mosaddeq government was falling, the Moscow radio was broadcasting a story on "the failure of the American adventure in Iran."

But CIA headquarters was as surprised as Moscow. When news of the coup's success arrived, it "seemed to be a bad joke, in view of the depression that still hung on from the day before," the history says.

Throughout the day, Washington got most of its information from news agencies, receiving only two cablegrams from the station. Mr. Roosevelt later explained that if he had told headquarters what was going on, "London and Washington would have thought they were crazy and told them to stop immediately," the history states.

Still, the CIA took full credit inside the government. The following year it overthrew the government of Guatemala, and a myth developed that the agency could topple governments anywhere in the world.

Iran proved that third world king making could be heady. "It was a day that should never have ended," the CIA's secret history said, describing Aug. 19, 1953. "For it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it."

Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq
Mohammad Mosaddeq, an eccentric nationalist
Except for Reza Shah Pahlavi founder of modern Iran and Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, father of its revolution, no leader has left a deeper mark on Iran's 20th century landscape than Mohammad Mosaddeq. And no 20th century event has fuelled Iran's suspicion of the United States as his overthrow has.

An eccentric European-educated lawyer whose father was a bureaucrat and whose mother descended from Persian kings, Dr. Mosaddeq served as a minister and governor before he opposed Reza Shah's accession in the 1920's.

He was imprisoned and then put under house arrest at his estate in the walled village of Ahmadabad west of Tehran. Eventually he bought the village, growing crops, founding an elementary school and beginning a public health project.

When Britain and Russia forced Reza Shah from power in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1941, Dr. Mosaddeq became a member of Parliament. He was hailed as a hero for his fiery speeches on the evils of British control of Iran's oil industry. In 1951, when Parliament voted to nationalize the industry, the young shah, recognizing the nationalists' popularity, appointed Dr. Mosaddeq prime minister.

In that job he became a prisoner of his own nationalism, unable to reach an oil compromise. Even as the British negotiated with Iran, they won the support of the major oil companies in imposing an effective global boycott on Iranian oil.

Still, in the developing world Dr. Mosaddeq became an icon of anti-imperialism. He was revered despite his odd mannerisms, which included conducting business in bed in grey woollen pyjamas, weeping publicly and complaining perpetually of poor health.

He amassed power. When the shah refused his demand for control of the armed forces in 1952, Dr. Mosaddeq resigned, only to be reinstated in the face of popular riots.

He then displayed a streak of authoritarianism, bypassing Parliament by conducting a national referendum to win approval for its dissolution. Meanwhile, the United States became alarmed at the strength of Iran's Communist Party, which supported Dr. Mosaddeq.

In August 1953, a dismissal attempt by the shah sent Dr. Mosaddeq's followers into the streets. The shah fled, amid fears in the new Eisenhower administration that Iran might move too close to Moscow.

Yet Dr. Mosaddeq did not promote the interests of the Communists, though he drew on their support. Paradoxically, the party turned from him in the end because it viewed him as insufficiently committed and too close to the United States. By the time the royalist coup overthrew him after a few chaotic days, he had alienated many landowners, clerics and merchants.

Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the ousted
prime minister, entering court for his trial.
After a trial, he served three years in prison and ended up under house arrest at his estate. In March 1967, in his mid-80's and weakened by radium treatments for throat cancer, he died.

When the revolution brought the clerics to power in 1979, anti-shah nationalists tried to revive Dr. Mosaddeq's memory. A Tehran thoroughfare called Pahlavi Avenue was renamed Mosaddeq Avenue.

But Ayatollah Khomeini saw him as a promoter not of Islam but of Persian nationalism, and envied his popularity. So Mosaddeq Avenue became Vali Asr, after the revered Hidden Imam, whose reappearance someday, Shiite Muslims believe, will establish the perfect Islamic political community. Still, even Ayatollah Khomeini was careful not to go too far. Ignoring Dr. Mosaddeq, rather than excoriating him, became the rule.

Two decades later, the Mosaddeq cult has been revitalized by resurgent nationalism and frustration with the strictures of Islam. Dr. Mosaddeq inspires the young, who long for heroes and have not necessarily found them, either in clerics or kings.

In campaigns for local elections in February 1999 and parliamentary elections a year later, reformist advertising made use of Dr. Mosaddeq's sad, elongated face. And every year since his death, his supporters have rallied at his estate.

His legacy still stirs considerable debate. In August, Parliament approved a bill to abolish a holiday marking the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951. The decision set off protests in the press "Alas! Parliament ignored the most apparent symbol of the struggle of the Iranian people throughout history against colonialism," the reformist daily Khordad said. In November, legislators were forced to reinstate the holiday.

CIA Tried, With Little Success, to Use U.S. Press in Coup
Central Intelligence Agency officials plotting the 1953 coup in Iran hoped to plant articles in American newspapers saying Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's return resulted from a home-grown revolt against a Communist-leaning government, internal agency documents show.

Those hopes were largely disappointed. The CIA's history of the coup shows that its operatives had only limited success in manipulating American reporters and that none of the Americans covering the coup worked for the agency.

An analysis of the press coverage shows that American journalists filed straightforward, factual dispatches that prominently mentioned the role of Iran's Communists in street violence leading up to the coup. Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported that some of the unrest had been stage-managed by CIA agents posing as Communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on the Moscow radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the shah's return to power.

It was just eight years after the end of World War II, which left American journalists with a sense of national interest framed by six years of confrontation between the Allies and the Axis. The front pages of Western newspapers were dominated by articles about the new global confrontation with the Soviet Union, about Moscow's prowess in developing nuclear weapons and about Congressional allegations of "Red" influence in Washington.

In one instance, the history indicates, the CIA was apparently able to use contacts at The Associated Press to put on the news wire a statement from Tehran about royal decrees that the CIA itself had written. But mostly, the agency relied on less direct means to exploit the media.

The Iran desk of the State Department, the document says, was able to place a CIA study in Newsweek, "using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist." The article was one of several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran, fed the "war of nerves" against Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq.

The history says the Iran operation exposed the agency's shortcomings in manipulating the American press. The CIA "lacked contacts capable of placing material so that the American publisher was unwitting as to its source."

The history discloses that a CIA officer, working under cover as the embassy's press officer, drove two American reporters to a house outside Tehran where they were shown the shah's decrees dismissing the prime minister.

Kennett Love, the New York Times reporter in Tehran during the coup, wrote about the royal decrees in the newspaper the next day, without mentioning how he had seen them. In an interview, he said he had agreed to the embassy official's ground rules that he should not report the American role in arranging the trip.

Mr. Love said he did not know at the time that the official worked for the CIA. After the coup succeeded, Mr. Love did in one article briefly refer to Iranian press reports of American involvement, and The New York Times also published an article from Moscow reporting Soviet charges that the United States was behind the coup. But neither The Times nor other American news organizations appear to have examined such charges seriously.

In a 1960 paper he wrote while studying at Princeton University, Mr. Love explained that he "was responsible, in an impromptu sort of way, for speeding the final victory of the royalists."

Seeing a half-dozen tanks parked in front of Tehran's radio station, he said, "I told the tank commanders that a lot of people were getting killed trying to storm Dr. Mosaddeq's house and that they would be of some use instead of sitting idle at the radio station." He added, "They took their machines in a body to Kakh Avenue and put the three tanks at Dr. Mosaddeq's house out of action."

Mr. Love, who left The New York Times in 1962, said in an interview that he had urged the tanks into action "because I wanted to stop the bloodshed."

Months afterward, Mr. Love says, he was told by Robert C. Doty, then Cairo bureau chief and his boss, of evidence of American involvement in the coup.

But Mr. Doty, who died in 1974, did not write about the matter, and by the summer of 1954, Mr. Love decided to tell the New York office what he knew. In a July 26, 1954, letter to Emanuel R. Freedman, then the foreign editor, Mr. Love wrote, "The only instance since I joined The Times in which I have allowed policy to influence a strict news approach was in failing to report the role our own agents played in the overthrow of Mosaddeq."

Mr. Love said he had hoped that the foreign editor would order him to pursue the subject. But he never received any response, he said.

"I wanted to let Freedman know that I knew there had been U.S. involvement in the coup, but that I hadn't written about it," he said. "I expected him to say, 'Jump on that story.' But there was no response." Mr. Freedman died in 1971.

'Gentleman Spy'
Donald Wilber, who planned the coup in Iran and wrote its secret history, was old-school CIA, a Princetonian and a Middle East architecture expert who fit neatly into the mold of the "gentleman spy."

Years of wandering through Middle Eastern architectural sites gave him the perfect cover for a clandestine life. By 1953, he was an obvious choice as the operation's strategist.

The coup was the high point of his life as a spy. Although he would excel in academia, at the agency being part-time was a handicap. "I never requested promotion, and was given only one, after the conclusion of AJAX," Dr. Wilber wrote of the Iran operation.

On his last day, "I was ushered down to the lobby by a young secretary, turned over my badge to her and left." He added, "This treatment rankled for some time. I did deserve the paperweight."

Donald Wilber died in 1997 at 89.

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