Thursday marks the anniversary of one of the most mythologized events in history, the 1953 coup in Iran that ousted Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq. CIA complicity in that event has long provoked apologies from American politicians and denunciations from the theocratic regime. The problem with the prevailing narrative? The CIA’s role in Mossadeq’s demise was largely inconsequential. The institution most responsible for aborting Iran’s democratic interlude was the clerical estate, and the Islamic Republic should not be able to whitewash the clerics’ culpability.
The dramatic tale of malevolent Americans plotting a coup against Mossadeq, the famed Operation Ajax, has been breathlessly told so much that it has become a verity. To be fair, the cast of characters is bewildering: Kermit Roosevelt, the scion of America’s foremost political family, paying thugs to agitate against the hapless Mossadeq; American operatives shoring up an indecisive monarch to return from exile and reclaim his throne; Communist firebrands and nationalist agitators participating in demonstrations financed by the United States. As Iran veered from crisis to crisis, the story goes, Roosevelt pressed a reluctant officer corps to end Mossadeq’s brief but momentous democratic tenure.
Yet this fable conceals much about the actual course of events. In 1953 Iran was in the midst of an economic crisis. An oil embargo had been imposed after Tehran nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., and by that summer, the situation had fractured Mossadeq’s ruling coalition. Middle-class Iranians concerned about their finances gradually began to abandon Mossadeq. The merchant class was similarly anguished about the financial consequences of Mossadeq’s stubborn unwillingness to resolve the stalemate with the British. The intelligentsia and the professional classes were wary of the prime minister’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Rumors of military coups began circulating as members of the armed forces grew vocal in their frustrations with the prime minister and began participating in political intrigues.
Not just the stars but an array of Iranian society was aligning against Mossadeq.
Now, the CIA was indeed actively seeking to topple Mossadeq. It had made contact that spring with the perennially indecisive shah and Iranian officers, including Gen. Fazollah Zahedi, an opportunistic officer who sought the premiership himself. Roosevelt had laid out a plan in which the shah would issue a monarchical decree dismissing Mossadeq; it was to be served to him on Aug. 15. But the commander who was to deliver the message was arrested, and the plot quickly unraveled.
This is where the story takes a twist. As word of the attempted coup spread, the shah fled Iran and Zahedi went into hiding. Amazingly, U.S. records declassified over the past decade indicate, the United States had no backup plan. Washington was largely prepared to concede. State Department and CIA cables acknowledge the collapse of their subversive efforts.
But while crestfallen Americans may have been prepared to forfeit their mission, the Iranian armed forces and the clergy went on to unseat Mossadeq. The senior clerics’ reaction to the developing nationalist crisis was always one of suspicion and concern. The clergy had always been averse to the modernizing penchants of secular politicians such as Mossadeq and their quests for republican rule and liberalization. The mullahs much preferred the deference of the conservative, if vacillating, shah to the secular enterprise of Mossadeq. After the attempted coup, the esteemed men of religion in Qom gave their tacit endorsement to the speaker of Parliament, Ayatollah Kashani. Through their connections with the bazaar and their ability to galvanize the populace, they were instrumental in orchestrating the demonstrations that engulfed Tehran. Mossadeq was already isolated. As the street protests tilted toward the shah, the military stepped in and displaced Mossadeq. A few days after the failure of the CIA’s putsch, the shah returned to Iran amid national celebration.
Through all of this, Roosevelt and his conspirators were more surprised observers then active instigators. Roosevelt’s most significant contribution to Iranian history was to publish an embellished account of his misadventures more than two decades after the coup. This flawed account went on to define the debate and capture the popular imagination — even though, in reality, Washington was caught flat-footed about how to respond to events in Tehran. President Dwight Eisenhower conceded to his diary after hearing Roosevelt’s account, “I listened to his detailed report and it seemed more like a dime novel than historical fact.”
American politicians have a penchant for acknowledging guilt and apologizing for past misdeeds. But responsibility for the suffocation of the Iranian peoples’ democratic aspirations in the summer of 1953 lies primarily with those who went on to squash another democratic movement in the summer of 2009 — the mullahs. It is they who should apologize to the Iranian people.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.