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.

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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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