As Iranian diplomats huddle in Vienna with representatives of six world powers to hammer out a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, it appears as if the West is about to open a new chapter in its long and troubled relationship with Iran. With a comprehensive agreement in sight, Britain is preparing to re-open its embassy in Tehran after a three-year rupture in relations and the United States is contemplating working with Iran to confront the Sunni extremist threat in Iraq.
But just as the world is demanding that Iran be honest about its past nuclear activities, Britain and the United States still refuse to come clean about the 1953 Anglo-American coup in Iran that remains an open wound in Iran’s relations with the West.
Every Iranian schoolchild can retell the story of how Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service and America’s Central Intelligence Agency conspired in 1953 to orchestrate a royalist coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, an anticolonial icon who led the charge for the nationalization of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The Anglo-American role in unseating Mr. Mossadegh and reinstalling Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Iran’s dictator is the worst-kept secret of the Cold War. Yet, both Britain and the United States continue to hamper efforts by historians to uncover the full story of the 1953 coup. Any trace of the C.I.A.’s role in the coup was excised from the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, or FRUS, which published a volume of documents in 1989 on the Eisenhower administration’s policy toward Iran that was denounced as a “fraud” by historians.
The scandal surrounding the 1989 FRUS volume prompted Congress to pass legislation requiring the series to be a “thorough, accurate, and reliable record of major United States foreign policy decisions.” To redress the glaring omissions of the 1989 volume, the State Department’s historians have been hard at work assembling a long-anticipated retrospective FRUS volume on “Iran, 1951-1954” that is due for publication this year but is yet to materialize.
One major obstacle to the release of American government documents on the 1953 coup is that this covert action was a joint Anglo-American operation, codenamed “Tp-Ajax” by the C.I.A. and “Boot” by the S.I.S. Britain’s Foreign Office has been opposed to the release of any American documents that make reference to the British role in the coup. When these documents were first considered for release in 1978, a State Department official warned the Foreign Office that the documents contained “very embarrassing things about the British.” London and Washington have colluded ever since to keep these documents under lock and key.
A decade ago, when the Clinton administration was pursuing détente with Iran’s reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, it seemed that the United States might finally come to terms with its troubled history in Iran. In March 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior American official to acknowledge the American role in the 1953 coup. A month later, one of the C.I.A.’s internal histories of its role in the coup was mysteriously leaked to this newspaper. But the full disclosure that many historians hoped for has never come. More worrying, hawks in the Washington foreign policy establishment who oppose President Obama’s outreach to Iran are once again denying any American role in the 1953 coup.
Across the Atlantic, the British have shown even less willingness to acknowledge their role in the coup or release any of their documents. Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, has called for an end to Britain’s sense of “post-colonial guilt” for its imperial misdeeds in Iran and elsewhere. Unfortunately for Mr. Hague, Iranians have very long memories and ignoring the past won’t make it go away or smooth the way for reopening the embassy.
Mr. Obama, whose biggest foreign policy achievement may turn out to be détente with Iran, seems to understand this. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, he once again acknowledged America’s role in toppling Mr. Mossadegh, but expressed hope that the two countries would “move forward” rather than remaining “trapped in the past.”
Moving forward with a new chapter in American-Iranian relations is difficult so long as the files on 1953 remain secret. A stubborn refusal to release them keeps the trauma of 1953 alive in the Iranian public consciousness.
Neither Britain nor the United States have anything to lose from full disclosure about their roles in a coup that happened more than 60 years ago. Much of the detail of the plot is already public. Both American and British intelligence officers who participated have published their memoirs with the approval of their former employers. Blocking the declassification of the remaining files is pointless at a time when so much information is already in the public domain.
The forthcoming release of the FRUS volume on the Eisenhower administration and Mr. Mossadegh is an opportunity for the United States to finally come clean about its role. If it provides a thorough, accurate and reliable record of Anglo-American meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, then it may allow Mr. Obama to finally move beyond the sordid past and get on with making history.
Roham Alvandi, an assistant professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is the author of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War.