The Anglo-American sponsored coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953 was a pivotal event in the history of the post-World War II world. In 1989, the State Department released a heavily sanitized Foreign Relations volume on U.S. relations with Iran, 1951–1954, which did not mention the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in Iran in those years.1 Scholars and the media strongly criticized the volume, and the head of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation that advises the State Department on the Foreign Relations series resigned. The uproar led to a revision of the statute that governs the series and to a commitment by the State Department to issue a volume that addressed the 1989 volume’s deficiencies. Although the volume was apparently completed a decade ago, the State Department did not release it until June 2017. Rather than new revelations about the U.S. role in Iran in this period, the volume provides confirmation of extensive U.S. interference in Iranian internal affairs and many interesting insights into U.S. policy before, during, and after the coup. Scholars should not draw conclusions about U.S. policy toward Iran based solely on this volume, however. As the editor points out in the introduction, the new volume “focuses on the use of covert operations by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations as an adjunct to their respective policies toward Iran” and therefore “should be read in conjunction with the volume published in 1989” (iv), which focused on U.S. involvement in the dispute between Iran and Great Britain arising out of the nationalization of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in the spring of 1951. The new volume includes numerous previously unavailable CIA documents, though many contain redactions and some are heavily or wholly redacted. The volume makes it clear that high CIA officials such as Allen W. Dulles, in 1951 Deputy Director and after January 1953, Director, and Kermit Roosevelt, who oversaw covert operations in the Near East and Africa, were hostile to Mosaddeq from the outset. Dulles, for example, proposed in April 1951 that the United States sponsor a coup to remove Mosaddeq (doc. 25). By late 1952, their perspectives were beginning to find their way into NSC papers. CIA analytical reports were also biased against Mosaddeq, though most also noted that his popularity probably precluded a successful coup. A draft National Intelligence Estimate from August 1953, presumably by analysts uninformed about the operation, concluded that Mosaddeq possessed the legal power to govern by decree until January 1954 and predicted that he would remain in power at least until the end of 1953 (doc. 259). In conversations with CIA officials in fall 1952, retired oilman and well-connected consultant Max W. Thornburg urged the CIA to work with the shah to lead a military coup, repress any opposition, set up a “responsible” government with greater powers for the monarchy, and settle the oil dispute (docs. 116, 118, 154). The CIA did not believe a pro-shah coup would succeed at this time, and CIA operative Donald Wilber, who later played a major role in the operation to overthrow Mosaddeq, argued that any plan that relied on the shah would not succeed (docs. 122, 123). Nevertheless, the tactics outlined by Thornburg were very similar to those later adopted by the CIA. U.S. Ambassador Loy W. Henderson emerges as a key figure in U.S. policies toward Iran. Although critical of the shah in private, Henderson and his staff strongly supported the monarchy and opposed Mosaddeq and nationalization. In contrast to the 1989 volume, which contained no documents from July 9–26, 1952, the new volume reveals Henderson’s involvement in the July crisis, which resulted from the shah’s attempt, with U.S. and British backing, to replace Mosaddeq with veteran politician Ahmed Qavam El Sultaneh. During the crisis, Henderson tried unsuccessfully to convince the shah to provide strong backing to Qavam, who, in the face of massive demonstrations in favor of Mosaddeq, was forced to resign after only a few days in office. The new volume provides important context for the push to reach a settlement in the final months of the Truman administration. The documents demonstrate that U.S. policymakers feared that continued British intransigence and intrigues would result in the coming to power of Seyed Ayatollah Abdol Ghassem Kashani, who they regarded as a greater threat to Western interests. Since U.S. policymakers were convinced that a pro-monarchy military coup would not succeed at this point, the State Department took the lead in trying to come up with a settlement, resulting in the so-called package deal and final offer in early 1953. To understand why these efforts failed requires careful reading of the 1989 volume and British as well as U.S. archival documents. Unfortunately, this volume, like the 1989 volume, provides very little information on British policies and actions, although it does print a fall 1952 British paper on “The Communist Danger in Persia” (doc. 133) and a few other British documents. The British were determined to remove Mosaddeq and reverse the nationalization of AIOC, and they utilized their extensive covert network in Iran to achieve these objectives. Henderson also played a key role in the February 1953 crisis, a role obscured by extensive deletions in the 1989 volume. During the crisis, which at its core was a struggle for supremacy between monarchy and representative government, Henderson intervened decisively on the side of monarchy. The crisis coincided with the deliberations over the Anglo-American “final offer” on the oil issue, and Mosaddeq, who was attacked by a royalist mob in an apparent assassination attempt, rejected the offer, convincing Henderson that no settlement of the oil dispute was possible as long as Mosaddeq remained in office (doc. 174). The crisis further polarized Iranian politics, deepening divisions between the shah and Mosaddeq and heightening U.S. concerns about the future the monarchy, which U.S. policymakers viewed as the best guarantor of Western interests in Iran. There are some new bits of information, for example documents about conversations between Acting Minister of Court Abol Qasem Amini and Henderson in the spring of 1953 to replace both the shah and Mosaddeq. Henderson, who doubted the shah’s resolve, seemed interested in this option. There is also extensive documentation about U.S. concerns that the Qashqai tribe, which was pro-Mosaddeq and anti-shah, but also anti-Communist and deeply involved in CIA planning for resistance in the event of a Tudeh takeover, might oppose the coup by force. The documents demonstrate that the shah feared to move against Mosaddeq until he was convinced that the United States and Britain would back him. He also insisted that the British pledge to settle the oil dispute on reasonable terms. The British provided an ambiguous pledge, which they ignored after the coup (doc. 250). Although the CIA was ready to sponsor an openly military coup, the shah insisted on “quasi-legal” methods based on the claim that the monarch, rather than the Majlis (parliament), possessed the power to remove and name prime ministers. The U.S. government and other pro-shah writers later seized on this claim as evidence that the coup was a “countercoup.” The volume also contains valuable information about CIA efforts to rig elections to the Majlis in 1954, further undermining claims that U.S. policy supported democracy in Iran. The volume prints numerous National Security Council documents that highlight U.S. concerns about maintaining access to Iranian oil and Middle East oil in general and a few documents that show that U.S. policymakers opposed nationalization because they feared its impact on U.S. oil concessions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world (docs. 27, 176). U.S. policymakers also believed that without the substantial oil revenues that only international oil companies could provide, Iran would descend into economic and political chaos. Once U.S. policymakers became convinced that Mosaddeq would never accept a “reasonable” oil settlement (reasonable defined as leaving Iran’s oil in the hands of the major oil corporations and/or paying very high compensation to AIOC), he had to go. Footnotes 1 U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, vol. 10, Iran 1951–1954, eds. Carl N. Raether and Charles S. Sampson (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 6, 2018
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