Newly released documents by the United States Department of State provide an inside look at the motivations and tactics used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in orchestrating the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, reinstating the rule of the U.S.-friendly Shah monarchy.
In over 1,000 pages of internal cables and letters released with little publicity on June 15, U.S. officials discussed western economic and political interests in Iran, as well as the tactics and viability of arranging a coup in the year leading up to Mosaddegh's eventual removal.
The plot was eventually successful, although knowledge that the CIA had been involved led to widespread popular anger that some have said laid the conditions for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the U.S. Embassy was occupied.
“The things we did were 'covert',” President Dwight Eisenhower remarked in a diary entry included in the recently released documents. “If knowledge of them became public, we would not only be embarrassed in that region, but our chances to do anything of like nature in the future would almost totally disappear.”
Running through the documents is a pervasive concern over eroding western influence, and the potential for Communism to gain a foothold in the oil rich region.
One CIA official articulated U.S. and British fears well when he said in a letter to Eisenhower that since Mosaddegh's election, there had been “a steady decrease in the power and influence of Western democracies and the building up of a situation where a Communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility.”
Mosaddegh had implemented sweeping social and economic reforms in the country, most notably implementing a taxation on land rents, and nationalizing the oil industry, which had been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now called British Petroleum, for almost half a century. In what was a highly popular move, the new Prime Minister aimed to expropriate the assets of the company in order to use Iranian oil for the construction of social services and the building of a strong national economy.
The documents reveal the CIA, working closely with a U.K., was deeply concerned by their loss of oil hegemony in the country.
Officials were fearful that western countries would be “deprived of the enormous assets represented by Iranian oil production and reserves,” and feared a domino-effect whereby the Middle-East, along with “some 60% of the world's oil reserves, would fall into Communist control.”
TPAJAX, the codenamed CIA coup plot planned against Mosaddagh, was the U.S. and U.K.'s response to Iran's attempt to assert its independence and economic sovereignty.
In documents taking stock of “western assets” in Iran months before the coup took place, the CIA notes that they were stockpiling “enough arms and demolition material to support a 10,000-man guerilla organization for six months.” They were also paying millions of dollars in bribes, and were supplying arms and payment to tribal groups in the south to organize a “resistance” to the Iranian government.
In documents which detail operations in the region, paragraphs subheaded as “political and psychological warfare,” and “paramilitary operations” are still left classified, leaving the full extent of some operations a mystery.
Assessing their heavy diplomatic, military, and covert presence in Iranian institutions, CIA officials were confident in their ability to exploit internal political interests within the Iranian government that “would welcome secret American intervention” to help them achieve their “individual or group political ambitions.”
In the year leading up to Mosaddegh's removal and immediately following it, U.S. officials were keenly aware that one of their most important tasks was to affect public opinion through mass propoganda campaigns. They were careful in documents to distinguish between “public” and “private” lines on various issues.
Documents refer to a “group serving the CIA which is capable of providing reasonably effective pro-Shah propaganda,” although they acknowledge their limitations in effectively countering the pro-Mossadegh sentiment.
Touching on the need to bolster a “propaganda machine”, as they refer to it, an official suggests that following a successful coup “the U.S. might covertly assist in subsidizing some pro-government newspapers and could openly make radio equipment and technical advice available to a new government’s effective operation of Radio Tehran.”
It is repeatedly emphasized that Iranian public opinion was highly antagonistic to foreign oil interests, and that “concealing the foreign hand,” is of utmost importance in any change of government. Documents also repeatedly state that the “oil question” must be left out of all public discourse surrounding the change in government.
“It would be literally fatal to any non-communist successor to Mosaddegh if the Iranian public gained an impression that the new premier was a 'foreign tool',” a coup-planning document says.
The coup almost failed, as Mosaddegh found out about the plans and left to Rome. However, the CIA then proceeded to fuel pro-Shah protests which reinstated monarchy in Iran. Following the coup, one official expressed hope that “Iran will again assume its place in the pro-Western grouping of nations.”