Vital but lost history: how we overthrew Iran’s democracy

Summary: As Trump prepares to wreck the deal with Iran, let’s remember our first engagement with Iran — when we helped overthrow their democracy. We have forgotten about this; they have not. Remembering is the first step to learning.

Foreign Relations of the United States - Iran, 1951–1954
Available at Amazon.

Excerpt from “A Prize from Fairyland

By Andrew Bacevich.
London Review of Books, 2 November 2017.

Review of Foreign Relations of the United States – Iran, 1951-1954. by the Office of the Historian, US State Department.

The series in which this volume appears constitutes the official historical record of American diplomacy. In 1989, the State Department published a volume with the same title as this one, nearly 1100 pages in length, which purported to document US-Iran relations in the early 1950s.

In fact, focused as it was on the disputed nationalisation of Iranian oil and issues relating to prospective US economic and security assistance to Iran, the earlier volume essentially ignored the central episode of that period: the coup, engineered by the US and Britain, that ousted Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, from power. …

Now we have been given what was left out in 1989: the original sin that poisoned relations between Iran and the US. …

Mission Impossible

In a narrow sense, the crisis in US-Iran relations that erupted in the early 1950s derived from three intersecting factors: oil, the end of empire and the Cold War. …The purpose of US policy towards Iran at the time can be reduced to a similarly neat triad: excluding Russia, showing Britain the door and keeping Iran’s government tied directly to Washington. …

After the Second World War …Britain, its empire crumbling, found itself in desperate economic straits, and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, as it was now called, provided a much needed source of tax revenues and foreign exchange. For Iranians, the AIOC represented something quite different: exploitation, humiliation and insult. Its presence and activities became a source of abiding resentment; gaining control of the nation’s patrimony and asserting genuine sovereignty became the central preoccupation of Iranian politics. That meant nationalising the AIOC.

Mohammad Mosaddegh
Mohammad Mosaddegh, the elected leader of Iran whom we deposed.

When the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, did exactly that in March 1951, the British government retaliated by organising an embargo on Western purchases of Iranian oil. Indications that the prime minister, General Ali Razmara, might cut a deal with Britain led to his assassination.

In short order Mosaddegh – who as a leading member of the Majlis had engineered the AIOC takeover – became prime minister, an appointment to which the shah agreed with little enthusiasm. A protracted and extremely bitter stand-off ensued, with Britain demanding compensation that Iran was neither willing nor able to offer.

The US was caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, as a proud promoter of self-determination, it wished to identify itself with anti-colonialism. On the other, it felt obliged to show solidarity with Britain, which was the archetypal imperial power and a valued partner in the Cold War. …

A further complication was the position of the communist Tudeh Party. In Tehran and Washington US officials obsessed over Tudeh, suspecting it of plotting to overthrow the government or of conniving to ingratiate itself with Mossadegh and thereby gain power indirectly. …

British played up the communist threat. US officials, both in the State Department and at the CIA, assumed the worst, depicting Tudeh as a growing menace. In a Persian Gulf variant of the domino theory, they also assumed that if Tudeh came to power in Iran, the entire region would inevitably slip behind the Iron Curtain. …

Allen Dulles

As early as March 1951, Allen Dulles, then a deputy director at the CIA, thought it likely that Iran would be ‘lost to the West in the coming twelve months’. To avert that possibility, the CIA had initiated a programme of ‘black propaganda’, which involved subsidising certain Iranian newspapers, publishing a book ‘purporting to be a Soviet attack against Islam’, and manipulating ‘religious prejudice and fanaticism to oppose communism’. …

{In July 1951} the State Department authorised Henderson to consult with his British counterpart ‘as to possible alternatives to Mossadegh, the method of bringing such a government into power, and the type of encouragement and support that would be necessary’. His brief was to examine ‘every possible alternative on our part to save Iran’. …

{In early 1953} the planning of the coup shifted into a new gear. Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore, was chosen to direct what the CIA now labelled Operation TPAJAX. …

As the plot to remove Mossadegh matured, none of the US officials involved, whether in Tehran or Washington, paused to consider how a foreign-instigated coup might affect the well-being of ordinary Iranians. As one CIA man put it, ‘the question of establishing a “democratic” form of government has no place here.’ Nor did the question of advancing any of the other ideals the US professed (and professes) to cherish. The documents in this volume make it plain: values are an afterthought, while America’s prerogatives and capacity for stage-managing events are treated as boundless. …

The scheme {the CIA} hatched was simplicity itself: CIA-organised protesters would flood the streets of Tehran demanding Mossadegh’s resignation; bowing to the will of the people, army officers loyal to the shah would place him under arrest while the shah appointed Zahedi prime minister. ‘Should the shah-Zahedi combination be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and should a sizeable portion of the Tehran garrison refuse to carry out Mossadegh’s orders,’ agency planners concluded, ‘the overthrow of Mossadegh would be certain.’ …

According to the CIA at the time, the uprising contained ‘a large element of spontaneity’. Historians disagree over the extent of the CIA’s role. The documents presented here do little to resolve that debate, in part because some passages are still classified. …But whatever the proximate cause of the reversal, the CIA was quick to claim credit for what the deputy CIA director Frank Wisner characterised as ‘a substantial victory for the West’. The US had saved Iran from the clutches of communism, and as far as it was concerned, it alone deserved the credit. …


Editor’s note

Americans have forgotten all this. But the Iranian people still remember. They still hate us for this episode. They are right to do so.

The Boomers were raised on stories of CIA-like agencies overthrowing tyrants and defending fledgling democracies. We adapted to the truth — that America has a long history of doing the opposite — easily and without outrage. Perhaps that is the saddest part of our story.

Andrew Bacevich

About the author.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor Emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. Bacevich graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1969.

He served in the United States Army, deployed to Vietnam in 1970-1971. Later he held posts in Germany (including with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment), the United States, and the Persian Gulf. He retired in 1990 from the Army with the rank of Colonel.

He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton. He taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.

See his Wikipedia entry. Read his articles at TomDispatch, at The Nation, at the Huffington Post, and at The Atlantic. See these books by by Andrew Bacevich about our wars…

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London Review of Books
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For More Information

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about Iranabout the CIA, and especially these…

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Bacevich’s latest book explains Iran in 1953 and the Middle East today.

America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
Available at Amazon.

Essential reading: America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2017). From the publisher…

“From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. What caused this shift? Andrew J. Bacevich, one of the country’s most respected voices on foreign affairs, offers an incisive critical history of this ongoing military enterprise — now more than thirty years old and with no end in sight.

“During the 1980s, Bacevich argues, a great transition occurred. As the Cold War wound down, the United States initiated a new conflict — a War for the Greater Middle East — that continues to the present day. The long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union had involved only occasional and sporadic fighting. But as this new war unfolded, hostilities became persistent. From the Balkans and East Africa to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, U.S. forces embarked upon a seemingly endless series of campaigns across the Islamic world. Few achieved anything remotely like conclusive success. Instead, actions undertaken with expectations of promoting peace and stability produced just the opposite. As a consequence, phrases like “permanent war” and “open-ended war” have become part of everyday discourse.

“Connecting the dots in a way no other historian has done before, Bacevich weaves a compelling narrative out of episodes as varied as the Beirut bombing of 1983, the Mogadishu firefight of 1993, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rise of ISIS in the present decade. Understanding what America’s costly military exertions have wrought requires seeing these seemingly discrete events as parts of a single war. It also requires identifying the errors of judgment made by political leaders in both parties and by senior military officers who share responsibility for what has become a monumental march to folly. This Bacevich unflinchingly does.

“A twenty-year army veteran who served in Vietnam, Andrew J. Bacevich brings the full weight of his expertise to this vitally important subject. America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a bracing after-action report from the front lines of history. It will fundamentally change the way we view America’s engagement in the world’s most volatile region.”

7 thoughts on “Vital but lost history: how we overthrew Iran’s democracy”

  1. The best book I have read on Iran and its relationship with the US is this book by an excellent Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuczinski. He explains why Iran is so distrustful of the USA, given its support of the Shah and his use of the secret police to put down – often using torture and imprisonment – any resistance to his rule.

  2. “The Boomers were raised on stories of CIA-like agencies overthrowing tyrants and defending fledgling democracies. We adapted to the truth — that America has a long history of doing the opposite — easily and without outrage. Perhaps that is the saddest part of our story.”

    That always struck me too. It’s like the Church Committee released it’s findings, the initial anger cooled off, and the American people just collectively shrugged their shoulders.

    For my own generation, I’ve seen it play out much the same way with the revelations of CIA torture during the War on Terror.

    1. That’s right the big evil CIA and and people being tortured by the thousands or maybe in the millions. Iran is what it is now because of Iranians.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “Iran is what it is now because of Iranians.”

        Iran is what it is today because of the interaction of many things (most people learn this in grade school). The US, as a superpower leaning hard on Iran, played a large role in that story.

  3. The Man Who Laughs

    I’ve wondered about the actual effectiveness of some of the CIA’s covert action operations back in the days. In Honduras, you can point to coup that the CIA actually caused, because there were CIA Cuban mercenaries involved. But I wonder if, in some cases, we don’t confuse correlation with cause. The Shah apparently didn’t much like Mossadegh, and he was perfectly capable of organizing a rent-a-mob. The CIA likely gave money to some people who said they could organize a mob, but if they had the means and the motive, then maybe they just collected Agency money for something they would have done anyway. I’m not defending US Iran policy or denying that we wanted Mossadegh gone, just wondering who actually did what to whom.

    For the record, Mossadegh was nominated by the Shah and confirmed by the Iranian parliament. He never won anything we would call a democratic election, although he clearly had some popularity.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Man Who Laughs,

      “He never won anything we would call a democratic election, although he clearly had some popularity.”

      (1) False. He was often elected to the parliament (the Majlis). He was last elected by a Tehran district in the 1950 election. Mosaddegh received the highest number of votes of any candidate.,_1950#Results

      (2) Most of the world’s democracies have prime ministers, elected by the legislature — who are elected by the citizens. They are still considered leaders of elected governments.

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