In 1979, just as the Shah of Iran was overthrown and the the reign of the ayatollahs began, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, published his first-hand account of the covert operation he had led more than a quarter century earlier. Operation Ajax, as it was called, ousted the elected government in Tehran and put the previously deposed young monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, back on the Peacock Throne.
Roosevelt’s book, Counter-Coup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, made for compelling reading then and it still does. But, as often is the case with memoirs, it’s not very reliable history. And as President Donald Trump, many in Congress, a new head of Iran operations at the CIA, and the increasingly aggressive Saudis look for ways to overthrow the government in Tehran, it’s useful to look closely at what really did happen in the early 1950s.
Interestingly enough, that’s precisely what the American government has just done with a project started years ago that came to fruition earlier this month.
It’s described in the following report by Arash Azizi was published originally on IranWire.com, a partner of The Daily Beast:
The United States Department of State has published a much-awaited, newly-updated version of its official history of U.S.-Iran relations during the crucial period of 1951-1954, during and after the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup on August 19, 1953.
The U.S. role in the coup is well-established, and 17 years ago then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued an official apology.
Additionally, the CIA released some of its declassified documents relating to the coup in 2013, at the same time admitting its official role in the course of events.
The new material, which was made public on June 16, is part of a Foreign Relations of the United States’ (FRUS) series published by the State Department’s Office of the Historian. The publications are legally mandated to portray an accurate picture of U.S. diplomatic history.
The tumultuous U.S.-Iran relations in the early 1950s previously were covered in a volume published in 1989. But that volume, which focused on the U.K.’s oil dispute with Iran after the latter moved to nationalize the assets of a British oil company, resulted in so much outrage due to its failure to include documents pertaining to the U.S. and British role in the 1953 coup that it led Congress to take it upon itself to pass new legislation.
As the introduction to the new volume states: “In 1991, this reaction prompted the introduction and passage of Congressional legislation, updating the Foreign Relations statute and affirming the requirement that the Foreign Relations series ‘shall be a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.’”
The recently-published material focuses on covert operations carried out by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations in Iran.
“Today’s release brings some closure to a long-standing dispute over the completeness of the FRUS volume related to Iran [between] 1951 and 1954,” Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Professor of Iranian History at the University of Manchester, told IranWire.
He said the documents published on June 16 “vindicate and confirm” the existing research that points out “the CIA’s overall management and control over the August 16-19 1953 operation.”
Coup leader General Fazollah Zahedi ransacked Mossadegh’s residence and entered his office, all under the CIA’s watch and guidance, according to Randjbar-Daemi.
One of the scholars whose work Randjbar-Daemi cited as confirmation of CIA direct involvement is Malcolm Byrne, a deputy director at the non-governmental National Security Archive and an authority on U.S.-Iran relations.
On the central question raised in recent years—whether the CIA and the British intelligence played a leading role in organizing the coup or whether it was their Iranian partners who were responsible—Byrne told IranWire:
“There are some intriguing records of after-the-fact meetings that show both an American appreciation for the actions of various Iranian actors and a reaffirmation of the importance of the U.S. role. In other words, the point some of us have been making for a long time seems mostly to be borne out—that it was both.”
Byrne says the newly released documents are “very significant” and that “most of these records have been locked in government vaults for more than 60 years.”
Byrne said the new material will “likely help clarify some of the persistent ambiguities” about the coup and related events. “These materials may not have a “tremendous amount about the mechanics of the coup [although there are some enlightening items]. But they will likely help to clarify some of the persistent ambiguities. They often take us considerably deeper into the details and allow for a more nuanced interpretation of events. This might even dissolve some myths.”
Of special interest is a report on a debriefing session by Kermit Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1953. The colorful U.S. author and secret agent had a key role in leading the U.S. efforts during the coup and went on to publish a “definitive” first-hand account of it.
The report “contains some details which complete previous accounts of the extent of the handling of Zahedi by the CIA, up to the afternoon of August 19,” Randjbar-Daemi said.
As has often been the case with this particular account of history, not all documents have been declassified for public view, even after the passing of almost 64 years. The declassification review for the material released on June 16 took 10 years (from 2004 to 2014.) At the end it was decided that 10 documents would be withheld in full, a paragraph or more to be excised from 38 documents and more minor excisions to be made in 82 other documents.
But was there a need to delay publishing these documents for so many years? Byrne doesn’t think so.
“Looking at these materials, as fascinating as many of them are, it is very hard to conceive of why they needed to be withheld from the public for so long,” he said.
He went further, saying that the expectation that they would “create temporary awkwardness for U.S. diplomats and policymakers” should not come before “the larger and long-term national interests of transparency, an informed public (not to mention an informed bureaucracy) and accountability,” Byrne said.
The U.S. operation was codenamed TPAJAX—with TP standing for Tudeh Party, referring to the Iranian Moscow-aligned communists that had grown to be a major force in the 1940s and early 1950s. The newly-released documents seems to confirm the U.S. preoccupation with the Tudeh threat.
“The primary driver of the American initiative against Mossadegh appears to have been the fear of a communist takeover of Iran,” Randjbar-Daemi says.
Even after the coup was over, Frank Wisner, the fabled CIA agent, asked Kermit Roosevelt about “measures being taken to further smash the apparatus and the machinery of the Tudeh Party.”
Roosevelt reassured his supervisor, saying: “Both the shah and Zahedi promised me that very rigorous measures would be taken.”
As scholars pore over the documents, the Iranian public is also entering the fray.
One thorny issue is the role of Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, a leading political cleric who is revered in the official historiography of the Islamic Republic. Kashani has long been hated by nationalists for changing his allegiance from Mossadegh to the shah and the coup-plotters. Hours after the new documents were released, “#Kashani” and “#Kashani-Coup” were already trending on Twitter, with many calling on the Iranian government to change the name of a major Tehran street named after Kashani and some demanding changes in the school curriculum.
According to Randjbar-Daemi, the new documents actually “shed little light on the large unknowns of the coup, particularly the role therein of Ayatollah Kashani, who is dedicated as a wily politician who remains at the center of the political scene before and after the coup, but who despised Mossadegh and Zahedi in equal measure.”
He said the newly-released material does little to help clear up his exact role. “The information on his agency and decision-making [during] August 16 to 19 remains scant and inconclusive,” he said.
As always with historical narratives, the struggles and the fierce disagreements will continue, long after all the documents and material have finally all been released.
POST-SCRIPT: Kermit Roosevelt concluded his memoir by reporting a conversation he had in late 1953 with then-Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles. “If we, the CIA, are ever going to try something like this again,” said Roosevelt, “we must be absolutely sure that people and army want what we want. If not, you had better give the job to the Marines!” But Dulles wouldn’t listen. The Agency embarked on multiple coups, many with bad or disastrous long-term results. It has also sent in Marines and massive American military forces to impose U.S. policies on countries as diverse as the Dominican Republic and Panama, Lebanon and Iraq. And indeed, Roosevelt’s triumphant reinstallation of the shah created a regime that barely lasted 25 years—the blink of an eye in the history of Iran and the Middle East.