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The Tragedy of 1953


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.

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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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