WASHINGTON – The CIA has admitted orchestrating the August 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s prime minister after he tried to nationalize his country’s oil wealth from Britain, a declassified document shows.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh has long been known, with the coup haunting relations between the U.S. and Iran six decades later.
But George Washington University’s National Security Archive — which obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act — said that a secret internal history marked the most explicit CIA admission.
“The military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front Cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy,” the document said, using an alternative spelling of Mossadegh’s name.
Mossadegh had angered Britain by moving to take over the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company — the predecessor of modern-day BP. The British believed that control of Iranian oil was vital to reviving their economy after the destruction of World War II.
After taking office in 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower voiced more sympathy for the British position than the previous administration of President Harry Truman, which had encouraged the U.S. allies to compromise with Iran.
The internal CIA history, released by the National Security Archive on Sunday to mark the coup’s 60th anniversary, offered a degree of understanding of Mossadegh’s position and rejected Western media depictions of him as “a madman” or “an emotional bundle of senility.”
While recognizing that London needed the oil, the CIA history said that British policymakers had “little in their experience to make them respect Iranians, whom company managers and Foreign Office managers saw as inefficient, corrupt and self-serving.”
But the CIA history cast the decision in Cold War terms, fearing that the Soviets would invade and take over Iran if the crisis escalated and Britain sent in warships — as it would do three years later alongside France and Israel when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. “Then not only would Iran’s oil have been irretrievably lost to the West, but the defense chain around the Soviet Union which was part of U.S. foreign policy would have been breached,” it said.
The coup strengthened the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who became a close U.S. ally. He was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the new leadership making hostility to the U.S. a cornerstone of Iran’s foreign policy.
In an effort to mend U.S. relations with Iran in 2000, Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state at the time, admitted that the U.S. “played a significant role” in overthrowing Mossadegh and called the coup “a setback for Iran’s political development.”
Another internal history, authored by coup planner Donald Wilber and leaked to The New York Times in 2000, said that agents arranged stories against Mossadegh in the press both in Iran and the United States aimed at setting the stage for the coup.
The history said that the CIA also arranged to pay $5 million within days of the coup to the new government of Fazlollah Zahedi, a general appointed to succeed Mossadegh.
Historians often regard the 1953 coup in Iran as a first for the CIA, offering a template for government takeovers in Latin America and elsewhere during the Cold War.
Malcolm Byrne, deputy director of the National Security Archive, said that the CIA wrote the secret histories for internal use
The histories “give people on the inside a sense of what happened and, presumably, give them a little context for whatever else they may be planning,” he said.