Reviews — From the July 2013 issue

The Tragedy of 1953

Uncovering Iran’s coup

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Discussed in this essay:

The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations, by Ervand Abrahamian. The New Press. 304 pages. $26.95.

Slowly, by degrees, the full story of another foreign intervention that went wrong — so sweet the conception, so bitter the aftertaste — is coming out. For decades following the dramatic overthrow in August 1953 of Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s revered prime minister, Americans and Britons were led to believe that his toppling was the result not of CIA or MI6 operations but of a popular uprising in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The fiction was maintained by U.S. and British officials for the benefit of the shah — until he, too, was ousted, in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That year, Kim Roosevelt, the CIA spy who had led the 1953 operation, published a rollicking and much-embroidered record of events, and since then a steady stream of academic histories and articles has enlarged our understanding, capped by declassified documents and the leaking in 2000 to the New York Times of a CIA internal account of the operation.

The coup against Mossadegh has now been incorporated into our popular culture. There is an approachable history for the nonspecialist, Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men. A 2011 video game called The Cat and the Coup allows the player, in the guise of a mischievous feline, to summon the significant moments of Mossadegh’s career. No fewer than three filmmakers are exploring the possibility of bringing Mossadegh to the big screen. The recent Oscar success of Argo will further sharpen the public appetite, not least because the revolutionaries who seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979, initiating a 444-day hostage crisis, were in part paying America back for 1953. While researching Our Man in Tehran, a book about the “Canadian caper” that inspired Argo, the author Robert Wright spoke to former CIA operatives in the capital who ascribed their harsh treatment at the hands of the hostage takers to memories of Mossadegh’s overthrow. “Unable to punish those involved in the 1953 coup,” one recalled, “the Iranians took out their anger on us.”

With everything out in the open and mea culpas sorrowfully issued (both the United States and the United Kingdom have shown contrition for their role in the events of 1953, though neither can be said to have formally apologized), you might think the question of whether a coup actually took place had been laid to rest. And yet Iranian monarchists writing in exile (encouraged by the shah’s former son-in-law, who had a supporting role in events) continue to push the popular-uprising theory. Last year, in a Wall Street Journal review of Patriot of Persia, my biography of Mossadegh, the Iranian-American journalist Sohrab Ahmari suggested that foreigners’ writing about the coup denies Iranians “agency” — a charge you could level at all writing about colonialism, or about theft, for that matter. On a recent speaking tour of the United States, I was occasionally warned that the audience might contain aggressive “anti-Mossadeghists” from the expatriate Iranian community. It is somewhat surprising that the person who inspires all this controversy has been out of power for a full six decades — and that his time in the spotlight lasted a mere twenty-eight months.

Clearly, there is something about Mossadegh and the coup that compels attention. Many details remain hidden, partly because the MI6 files, along with some of the most sensitive U.S. government papers (others were “inadvertently shredded”), are still classified, and partly because the attitude and actions of the Soviet Union in Iran in 1953 remain a matter of conjecture. Arguably the most prominent gap has been left by Mossadegh’s personal papers, the record of his premiership, which were scattered (literally) during the coup and remain largely lost. Iran’s current regime has little interest in facilitating rediscovery: although it deplores the coup as an outrageous act of foreign sabotage, it dislikes Mossadegh too, for being a secularist who declared his political independence from some of the nation’s leading clerics. As a result, the sources that have been made accessible to us, as Ervand Abrahamian writes in his new history of Mossadegh’s fall, “need to be read against the grain, taken with a pinch of salt, and the gaps filled in with common sense and circumstantial evidence.”

“It is often said,” Abrahamian declares in his introduction, “that major wars and revolutions carve in public memory clear defining moments separating ‘before’ from ‘after.’ ’’ The coup of 1953 is such a moment, bringing to a close Iran’s most thrilling experience of national aspiration under perhaps its most humane and sympathetic leader, and replacing him with an autocrat who didn’t stay the course. The aftershocks of Mossadegh’s overthrow would be felt also in the country’s foreign relations, for while 1953 merely confirmed the loathing Iranian nationalists already harbored toward the British, it gave a new character to the United States in the eyes of a hitherto favorable populace — as an accomplice in tyranny.

The coup was the climax of a crisis that began in May 1951, when Iran’s parliament, spurred by Mossadegh, passed legislation nationalizing the country’s oil industry. Mossadegh was one of the country’s elder statesmen, a European-educated doctor of law who had held senior government positions in the 1910s and 1920s before courageously opposing the despotism of the monarch, Shah Reza, who had imprisoned his opponents and now ruled through a parliament of placemen. (Reza abdicated in favor of his son Mohammad Reza following the 1941 invasion of Iran, in which British and Soviet forces occupied the country in order to secure the Allied supply of oil.) By pushing through the nationalization law and then accepting the premiership in order to implement it, Mossadegh was now challenging his other great adversary, Britain.

A British entrepreneur had been the first to discover Iranian oil in large quantities, in 1908, and, through concessions granted by successive shahs, a British concern, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (today’s BP), came to control every stage of what became a vast industry. The company was despised by many Iranians, its headquarters down on the baking flats of Khuzestan, in the southwest of the country, an anachronism in an age of decolonization. Life for employees and their dependents was run along colonial lines, with whites-only clubs, shanties for the unskilled native workers, and management positions all but monopolized by non-Iranians. Furthermore, the company was fleecing its hosts. Exempt from income tax and customs duties, Anglo-Iranian paid the national government a proportion of its annual profit, but this royalty was usually dwarfed by the amount it paid the British exchequer in taxes. In 1949, for example, £13.5 million went to Iran and £22.8 million went to Great Britain.

Most galling of all to nationalists like Mossadegh was that the British used their control of Iran’s biggest asset to exert broad influence over public life, bribing officials and raising and toppling governments — the shah would not appoint a prime minister, for example, without sounding out the British beforehand. “Such forms of meddling were so sensitive,” Abrahamian discovered in the course of an otherwise fruitful immersion in the BP archives, that “the company continues to keep them classified even to the present day.” The British were being uneasily abetted by Mohammad Reza, who was not without patriotic feeling but who wanted outside support for his rule — and certainly did not want to limit himself to ceremonial functions, as Mossadegh and other democrats said he must. By nationalizing oil despite the misgivings of the shah and the hostility of the British, Iran’s sovereign legislature was declaring its independence from both.

Mossadegh was prepared to compensate the company for the loss of its concession, but not to retreat from state ownership. Negotiations began in the summer of 1951, and while the British reluctantly accepted the “principle” of nationalization (and shelved invasion plans, which, it was feared, might prompt a Soviet response), they never lost sight of their primordial aim: to regain operational control of a major overseas asset and bulwark against insolvency. Abrahamian gives a fascinating account of the internal British debate during the negotiating process, whose tone ranged from panic to unwarranted optimism (Britain’s ambassador in Tehran never tired of assuring London that the nationalist wave had broken), and little sign of lessons learned.

Enter a self-declared honest broker. Iranian nationalists had long regarded the United States as a potentially benign counterweight to Britain and Britain’s regional rival, Russia. In the early years of the century, an American missionary, Howard Baskerville, had given his life in the struggle by Iranian constitutionalists to end monarchical absolutism. Later, American government advisers and educators had befriended Iranian nationalists, sympathizing with their cause. Mossadegh and his supporters hoped that the United States would persuade the British to accept nationalization as the inevitable result of an awakened political consciousness. This now seems laughably naïve. The Americans had more urgent cares than the fate of another Third World liberation movement.

First among these, as the British government realized, was America’s own oil interests. In the words of one British diplomat to an American counterpart, “If the attitude in Iran spreads to Saudi Arabia or Iraq, the whole structure may break down.”

The reference to Saudi Arabia was not coincidental. In December 1950, the Saudis had awarded the U.S. company Aramco a landmark concession to exploit Saudi oil and share the profits equally. This 50/50 arrangement was the most advantageous deal any Middle Eastern oil producer had yet struck, and with it the United States hoped to establish a benchmark that would last for years. Now, fewer than five months on, Mossadegh had come and blown it away.

The American reaction to nationalization was hard-nosed. Rather than buy Iranian oil from a newly formed national oil company, Britain and the five U.S. companies (along with the Anglo-Dutch giant Shell) imposed a comprehensive embargo on the country’s oil industry. In the year and a half preceding the coup, Iran exported just 118,000 tons of oil — about one day’s production — and while Mossadegh had some success at developing a lean, self-reliant “non-oil” economy, his ability to pay wages (particularly to the oil industry’s approximately 70,000 workers, most of whom were now idle) was severely threatened.

The second element of the British plan to win U.S. support was to appeal to American fears of a communist expansion. President Truman worried that North Korea’s surprise attack on South Korea in June 1950 heralded a Soviet push into the Middle East. “If we just stand by,” he told an aide the day after the invasion, “they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East.” America’s policy toward oil-producing countries deemed vulnerable was to lock them into mutually beneficial relationships with Western (mostly American) companies. That way, the companies prospered and sickly pro-Western regimes were fortified, through injections of cash, against communism.

In American eyes, Iran’s was just such a regime. The young shah was considered reliably anticommunist, but he no longer ran Iran; that role had been assumed by Mossadegh, with the monarch relegated to the sidelines and the country consumed by nationalist euphoria. Not that the prime minister himself was a communist — he was an aristocrat and his first cabinet was full of establishment figures — but he let the local communist party, the Tudeh, stage marches and publicize its views.

In private, Mossadegh never took the communist threat seriously; and his commitment to democracy (Iranians at the time were freer than the citizens of any other Middle Eastern country except Israel) prevented him from cracking heads, as the shah and the Americans wanted him to do. But Mossadegh had another, tactical reason for allowing the communists their shows of force, and this was to demonstrate that he was indispensable and that the alternative to his government was a communist takeover. It was a dangerous strategy, designed to disrupt cooperation between Britain and the United States, and although Mossadegh played it with élan, in the end it didn’t work.

In October 1952, Mossadegh expelled British Embassy staff from Iran, including MI6 spies. The following month, Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in the U.S. presidential elections. America was in the throes of McCarthyism, and Eisenhower, along with John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, whom he named secretary of state and CIA director, respectively, was a dedicated cold warrior. (Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, described Eisenhower as “obsessed” with communism in Iran.) Agents from MI6 hammed up the communist threat and urged the U.S. government to adopt a coup plan that they themselves were no longer in a position to carry out. The new administration needed little persuasion.

Abrahamian cites CIA reports showing that the agency considered a Tudeh takeover unlikely, but his assertion that the coup was about oil, not the Cold War, makes a false distinction. In March 1953, for instance, John Foster Dulles told the National Security Council that Mossadegh was indeed vulnerable to a communist putsch, in which case

Not only would the free world be deprived of the enormous assets represented by Iranian oil production and reserves, but the Russians would secure these assets and . . . the other areas of the Middle East, with some 60% of the world’s oil reserves, would fall into Communist control.

All the while, as we now know, the Dulles brothers were knee-deep in preparations for the coup.

Could Mossadegh have preserved nationalization and at the same time avoided the coup? Abrahamian describes the struggle between Iran and Britain as a “zero-sum” game, with the two sides holding irreconcilable positions. But Mossadegh was doomed only after he lost credibility in American eyes, and for that he was himself at least partially responsible. His indulgence of the Tudeh backfired disastrously; in the spring of 1953 he broke off relations with the shah — unnecessarily, for the shah had been emasculated and spent his time playing cards and watching detective films; finally, as Iran’s internal politics slid into chaos and the prime minister’s opponents screamed that he was preparing to sell the country to the West, he lost the political will to pursue an oil deal.

At the end of 1951, the Americans had suggested a compromise inspired by the 50/50 principle that Mossadegh agreed to but that the British turned down contemptuously. Over the following year — all the while keeping on with the U.S.-brokered negotiations — Mossadegh developed a new strategy: to wait out the embargo and screw emergency aid from Washington. And so, to observers in the United States, the British became “statesmanlike” — even though, as Abrahamian demonstrates, they were guilty of negotiating in bad faith — while Mossadegh became “intransigent” and even “mentally unstable.”

Abrahamian deprecates the British argument, pungent with racial and cultural contempt, that Mossadegh was too irrational, too fanatical, to deal with. He shows how such casual defamations crossed the Atlantic (the New York Times, for instance, described the prototypical Iranian in almost zoological terms — as a “volatile character, highly emotional, and violent when sufficiently aroused”). Abrahamian’s home truths challenge the more comforting account some readers will know from Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men, which by and large depicts the Americans as well-meaning fellows led astray by the unspeakable Brits.

Abrahamian is a professor at the City University of New York and a respected historian of modern Iran (the land of his birth); long passages of the book bear the hallmark of scrupulous scholarly inquiry. He brings a wealth of detail to the machinations of the British and the Americans, and his account of labor relations in the oil region is unrivaled. But there is another, less methodical Abrahamian at work in The Coup; at times, his writing bursts out of the conventions, pulsing with barely suppressed emotion.

The author’s resentment is not confined to the Westerners who changed Iran’s history so definitively. He is also vexed by the deficiencies of writers who have tackled the same subject before him, particularly those Iranian academics who have found merit in the standard occidental account — for “nothing,” he writes in a comment as sweeping as it is nasty, “can be more satisfactory for Occidentals than to have natives endorsing their own views.”

Abrahamian accepts that some writers on the subject, despite having swallowed British propaganda, are “sympathetic” to the nationalist cause and “laudatory” of its leader. But his use of such qualifiers suggests that these are, like “oral” or “social,” categories of history and that no inquiry on the Iranian coup can possibly be free of premeditated bias. And Abrahamian is not above tricks of his own, noting that an old story about the British categorizing Iranians together with dogs is untrue — only to put the word into British mouths a few chapters later. It all makes for an absorbing but slightly unpredictable read — like an audience with a duchess who, every now and then, knocks back an absinthe and says something she shouldn’t.

There is something self-fulfilling about Abrahamian’s division of books into the sympathetic and the rest; the trouble is less what he puts in than what he leaves out. He makes little mention of Mossadegh’s errors of judgment — his playing up of the communist bogeyman (he once vowed to turn to the Soviet Union if the United States refused him aid, an empty threat that damaged his credibility), as well as the humiliations he visited on Mohammad Reza, which disposed the chronically vacillating shah to join the coup.

Abrahamian avoids a crucial question: To what extent did the prime minister’s leadership style — theatrical, idealistic, heroic, suspicious — affect the country’s fortunes as the crisis came to a head? In the world of Iranian politics, events of great significance rested on the decisions of one man, and Mossadegh reacted to the approaching menace with a combination of bluster, inattention, and populist appeals to Iranians — who still trusted him. He allowed his domestic enemies the freedom to hatch plots against him, all the while alienating former allies whose help had been invaluable to him in the past. When the coup came, Mossadegh’s famous integrity was intact, but he had few defenses.

None of this is to exonerate the CIA; its assault on a sovereign government was odious and contained full provision for civil war. In the weeks leading to its operation, the agency kept up a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh, defaming him in the media, cajoling the shah into giving the operation a constitutional veneer (Mohammad Reza signed a dismissal notice for the prime minister), and bribing mob leaders and mullahs to provide an “acoustical side effect,” in Abrahamian’s phrase, for what was, in fact, an old-fashioned military coup.

Operation Ajax began on August 15 with a botched attempt by Iranian army officers to arrest Mossadegh, at which point the shah fled abroad and there followed a short period of great political uncertainty. Iran was on the verge of becoming a republic, but over the next four days Kim Roosevelt and his fellow American and Iranian plotters, with the help of royalist officers, discontented clerics, and rabble-rousers — some of them bribed with CIA dollars — revived their plan. On August 19, with the coup back on, Mossadegh chose not to call his followers into the street to repulse the rented mobs and armored units that besieged his house and nearly killed him. He abhorred violence and would not countenance civil war. Within a few days, Mossadegh had surrendered himself to the new army-led government (he would remain in custody for the rest of his life), and the shah was back in charge. The following year, nationalization was reversed.

In his introduction, Abrahamian informs us that The Coup “questions the conventional notion that the British negotiated in good faith,” and, further breaking with the norm, that it locates the coup in the struggle between imperialism and nationalism. These claims to revisionism are overblown. More than twenty years ago, the Oxford historian Homa Katouzian noted in his pathbreaking biography of Mossadegh that, regardless of how the oil negotiations had gone, “Britain would still have pursued its maximum demands openly, and its aim to unseat Mossadegh by the usual techniques.” (Even so, Katouzian argued, Mossadegh should have attempted to make a deal, for “the fate of every battle is settled by the tactics of both sides.”) For all that, The Coup is a useful contribution to the process, which unites a disparate group of writers and historians, of uncovering the events of the coup. Abrahamian is on firmer ground when describing the dangerous allure of covert operations in the aftermath of the CIA’s apparent success in Iran. In the years after it deposed Mossadegh, he writes, “the CIA carried out strikingly similar coups in Guatemala, Indonesia, and Chile” — all of which led to America’s association with yet more dictatorships. For the Iranians, of course, August 1953 is much more than an entry in a compendium of American mistakes, to which we can now perhaps add Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an Iranian tragedy, one that will be appraised, and reappraised, for years to come.

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’s most recent book is Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Caliph of the Tricksters,” appeared in the December 2012 issue.

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