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Friday, November 10, 2017

Iran's 1953 Coup

"The so-called coup d’état that supposedly brought back the shah happened only in the imagination of anti—American ideologists. The Iranian army did not intervene in the events until after pro-shah demonstrators had seized most key government buildings, and then only to restore public order after the new government had been announced. Many hours of newsreel footage of the events are available in archives, including the national Film Archive in Washington, D.C., clearly depicting a popular pro-shah uprising. There are also hundreds of eyewitness accounts by Iranians who observed or took part in the events.

It is interesting that the CIA claims that all its documents relating to the events disappeared in a mysterious fire. We are thus left with two accounts. One is a self-serving book by Kermit Roosevelt, who presents himself as a latter-day, and vastly inflated, Scarlet Pimpernel. The other is an official report commissioned by the CIA and written by Donald Wilber, the agency’s operational director in Tehran at the time. While Roosevelt’s account is obviously fanciful, Wilber’s report is written in a sober, almost self-deprecating style. He shows that the CIA and the British MI6 did have a plan to foment “trouble against Mossadeq after the shah had signed the dismissal decree, but the plan failed as the CIA’s agents and “assets" behaved more like Keystone Kops than professional conspirators engaged in a major big—power clash in the context of the Cold War. Wilber reports that the CIA station sent the message to Washington that “The operation has been tried and failed.’’ The British followed with their own message of failure: “We regret that we cannot consider going on fighting. Operations against Mossadeq should be discontinued.” Wilber blames the CIA’s Iranian “assets" for the failure. The CIA had prepared “a Western type plan offered for execution by Orientals [sic]. Given the recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner, we would never expect such a plan to be executed in the local atmosphere like a Western staff operation.

Moscow, too, noticed the failure of the CIA-M|6 plot. For two days running, Moscow Radio broadcast an editorial by Pravda, the CPSU organ, headed “The Failure of the American Adventure in Iran.” The editorial claimed that British and American agents had tried to foment street riots against Mossadeq but had failed because “progressive forces," a codeword for Communists and fellow travelers, had rallied behind the old leader.

The official CIA report also refutes the claim that the Americans had bribed a number of Iranian army officers to stage a coup against Mossadeq. Wilber states categorically: “In Iran we did not rely on bribery. . . . We did not spend a cent in the purchase of officers." He also makes it clear that no army units were involved in the events, although a brigade led by Colonel Bakhtiar, a cousin of the shah’s wife, Queen Soraya, arrived in Tehran from Kermanshah after the fall of Mossadeq.

Wilber observed part of the popular pro—shah uprising and offered his version in the report commissioned by the CIA:

In the evening, violence flared in the streets of Tehran. Just what was the major motivating force is impossible to say, but it is possible to isolate the factors behind the disturbances. First the flight of the Shah brought home to the populace in a dramatic way how far Mossadeq had gone, and galvanized the people into an irate pro-Shah force. Second, it seems clear that the Tudeh Party overestimated its strength in the situation. . . . Third, the Mossadeq government was at last beginning to feel very uneasy about its alliance with the Tudeh Party. The Pan-Iranists were infuriated and the Third Force was most unhappy about the situation.

Wilber’s narrative continues:

The surging crowds of men, women and children were shouting: Shah piruz ast (The Shah is victorious). Determined as they seemed, a gay holiday atmosphere prevailed, and, as if exterior pressure had been released so that the true sentiments of the people showed through. The crowds were not, as in earlier weeks, made up of hoodlums, but included people of all classes—many well dressed—led or encouraged by civilians. Trucks and busloads of cheering civilians streamed by. . . . As usual, word spread like lightning and in other parts of the city pictures of the Shah were eagerly displayed.

Some Iranians believe that the CIA retrospectively built up its own role in the August 1953 events so as to restore its prestige, shattered after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. The agency needed at least one feather if it were to keep its expensive hat. Anti—Americans, especially the Soviets and their agents and sympathizers throughout the world, found it in their own interest to endorse the CIA’s claim as an example of American “imperialism" in action against a Third World nation. The shah’s enemies inside Iran also liked the story, as it absolved them of any responsibility for Mossadeq’s failure. Blaming the foreigner for ones own shortcomings has always been popular in Iran.

not all anti—shah and anti—American scholars have bought the CIA’s claim. According to one British Marxist academic:

There is no doubt that the US government, and specifically the CIA, played an active part in organising the coup of 19 August 1953 that ousted Mossadeq, and that this intervention was the fruit of the build-up of the US presence in Iran that had been under way since the war. However, it is misleading to attribute everything to this factor alone: Iranian nationalists tend to do so—and so, on occasions, does the CIA, Keen to claim credit for a successful operation. The reality is not so simple, since the CIA intervention was only possible because of internal balance of forces in Iran, the existence of elements within the dominant class that were interested in acting against the Mossadeq regime and the weaknesses of Mossadeq’s own position

... Mossadeq himself never blamed the United States for his downfall. And it is quite possible that he was relieved to be pushed aside at a time that he had run out of ideas and lived on a day-to-day basis. He had built his career on opposition to the British and then to the two Pahlavi Shahs. In August 1953, the British were no longer there, the first Pahlavi had been dead for years, and the second was in exile in Rome. What could Mossadeq do now? What did he have to offer? A typical naysayer, he knew only how to oppose, having marketed his ideology as “a balance of negatives" (movazeneh manfi). After a show trial in which he amused himself by demonstrating his oratorical skills once again, Mossadeq was given a three-year sentence, which the shah commuted to one of “surveyed residence.” This meant that the old man would have to live in his estate near Tehran under the watchful eyes of security agents.

Because the power struggle had taken place within a small elite, most of whose members were related by blood or marriage, Mossadeq’s political and army allies received short prison sentences or were released without charge. Only one was executed: Hussein Fatemi, the foreign minister who had publicly called for an end to monarchy and refused to recant. Some of Mossadeq’s close associates remained attached to the belief, or the illusion, that the United States, especially the Democratic Party, somehow supported them. In the years to come, some of them immigrated to the United States and acquired American citizenship—no sign of bitterness there."

--- The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution / Amir Taheri
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