Did the US really engineer the 1953 coup?

July 14, 2009

I’ve been listening to The Persian Night (see previous post) for perspective on the current troubles in Iran. Author Amir Taheri makes the remarkable claim that the US was not behind the coup that restored the Shah to power and overthrew a democratically elected government – the provocation which caused the 1979 seizure of the US embassy and decades of poisoned relations between the two countries. Taheri claims:

  • Iran’s government was not a democracy. Mosaddeq was prime minister of a constitutional monarchy, appointed at the pleasure of the Shah. Mosaddeq had illegally dismissed parliament and defied a royal order removing him from his post, and was ruling as dictator.
  • The US and Britain did have plans to incite protests to support the Shah reclaiming his legal authority, but these plans failed utterly. Mosaddeq was toppled by the people, and by the communists.
  • The CIA and the Soviet Union, for very different reasons, found it helpful to promote the myth that it was CIA actions which deposed Mosaddeq.

History is too subjective, and current history even worse, so we must ask who is Amir Taheri and how objective is he? Taheri has many outspoken critics, and he must be either a pathological liar or an excellent journalist who has earned the hatred of his enemies. Or maybe he is a bit of both. George Washington University hosts the National Security Archives including the only contemporary documentation of events of that day, and published a book, Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran. The source document which GWU posts does indeed say the CIA operation was a failure in words which Taheri quoted accurately in his book. However the book seems to conclude – based just on bits I’ve read on the web – that the CIA and British Intelligence nevertheless helped to create the conditions which resulted in the coup. And it was described as “quasi-legal” in that it was restoring the legal ruler of the country in place of a dictator; but had the Shah not agreed then the CIA would have gone ahead anyway.

Some say that monarchists (like Taheri) commonly hold the fantasy that the 1953 coup was a popular uprising. Further complicating this tangled web of subjectivity, many supporters and detractors of Taheri cast their arguments in terms of US politics, left versus right. Taheri is a neo-con, and so if you’re a Red Stater you must trust him implicitly and if you’re a Blue Stater you must reject him completely. This seems completely off base to me. I can’t claim to understand Iranian policis, and neither should the U.S. pundits trying to understand it in our terms. I understand enough to know that Iranians have many very different concerns than we do. I don’t think you could characterize Mosaddeq or Pahlavi as left or right, let alone Ahmadenijad, Khamenei, Mousavi, Rafsanjani, etc. I guess that false mapping has a long standing basis, since it was a Democratic president (Truman) who supported Mosaddeq and a Republican president (Eisenhower) who oversaw the CIA plot against him. But such simple minded thinking could lead us to believe that if Mousavi took power, he would be an Iranian Barack Obama.