The CIA has publicly admitted for the first time that it was behind the notorious 1953 coup against Iran‘s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, in documents that also show how the British government tried to block the release of information about its own involvement in his overthrow.
On the 60th anniversary of an event often invoked by Iranians as evidence of western meddling, the US national security archive at George Washington University published a series of declassified CIA documents.
“[T]he military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” reads a previously excised section of an internal CIA history titled The Battle for Iran.
The documents, published on the archive’s website under freedom of information laws, describe in detail how the US – with British help – engineered the coup, codenamed TPAJAX by the CIA and Operation Boot by Britain’s MI6.
Britain, and in particular Sir Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, regarded Mosaddeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after the Iranian leader nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. But the UK needed US support. The Eisenhower administration in Washington was easily persuaded.
British documents show how senior officials in the 1970s tried to stop Washington from releasing documents that would be “very embarrassing” to the UK.
Official papers in the UK remain secret, even though accounts of Britain’s role in the coup are widespread. In 2009 the former foreign secretary Jack Straw publicly referred to many British “interferences” in 20th-century Iranian affairs. On Monday the Foreign Office said it could neither confirm nor deny Britain’s involvement in the coup.
The previously classified US documents include telegrams from Kermit Roosevelt, the senior CIA officer on the ground in Iran during the coup. Others, including a draft in-house CIA history by Scott Kock titled Zendebad, Shah! (Viva, Shah!), say that according to Monty Woodhouse, MI6’s station chief in Tehran at the time, Britain needed US support for a coup. Eden agreed. “Woodhouse took his words as tantamount to permission to pursue the idea” with the US, Kock wrote.
Mosaddeq’s overthrow, still a core reason for Iranian mistrust of British and American politicians, consolidated the shah’s rule for the next 26 years until the 1979 Islamic revolution. It was aimed at making sure the Iranian monarchy would safeguard the west’s oil interests in the country.
The archived CIA documents include a draft internal history of the coup titled “Campaign to install a pro-western government in Iran”, which defines the objective of the campaign as “through legal, or quasi-legal, methods to effect the fall of the Mosaddeq government; and to replace it with a pro-western government under the shah’s leadership with Zahedi as its prime minister”.
One document describes Mosaddeq as one of the “most mercurial, maddening, adroit, and provocative leaders with whom they [the US and Britain] had ever dealt”. The document says Mosaddeq “found the British evil, not incomprehensible”, and “he and millions of Iranians believed that for centuries Britain had manipulated their country for British ends”. Another document refers to conducting a “war of nerves” against Mossadeq.