Iranians, Invoking CIA’s 1953 Iran Coup, Say U.S. Still Interfering in Egypt

By Patrick Goodenough | August 20, 2013 | 4:30 AM EDT

Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA-assisted coup on August 19, 1953 (Photo: Fars news agency)

( – The release of CIA documents formally acknowledging for the first time the agency’s role in a 1953 Iranian coup comes at a good time for those in Iran who accuse the West of having a hand in the recent ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

On Monday, the 60th anniversary of the toppling of elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, recently declassified CIA documents were posted on the independent National Security Archive website, including one saying the coup “was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy.”

Iranian lawmakers, in a statement marking the anniversary, said it was well-known that the “cutting the hands of oil-thirsty superpowers [a reference to Mossadegh’s move to nationalize Iran’s oil industry] prompted these so-called advocates of democracy and freedom to topple the Iranian people’s lawful government.”

“The Iranian nation will neither forgive nor forget 1953 military takeover to subject [the] Iranian great nation to historical oppression and is well aware that claims of human rights, freedom of speech and democracy are nothing but a scheme to trample upon the rights of nations,” the Fars news agency cited them as saying.

The U.S. and Britain were the “same old imperialists,” the lawmakers said, citing their “present interference in the internal affairs of Egypt” and elsewhere.

While many Egyptians who support the July 3 military takeover accuse the U.S. government of backing Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, there are those in Iran who argue on the contrary that Washington had a hand in Morsi’s removal.

In a speech at Tehran University earlier this month, for instance, the commander of Iran’s notorious Basij militia, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, accused the U.S. of directing Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to oust Morsi.

“They staged a coup in Egypt with the U.S. support and imprisoned a person who was empowered by people’s vote,” he said. “If al-Sisi can survive, one day we will read in his book that the U.S. has directed the trend of the coup d’etat in Egypt and issued the orders to al-Sisi through video conferencing.”

Iran’s state-funded Press TV has run interviews with Egyptians accusing the U.S. and European Union of masterminding the “coup” against Morsi.

Late last month, Tehran Times published an op-ed by an Iranian expert in regional affairs, Jafar Qannadbashi, who drew parallels between Iran in 1953 and Egypt in 2013.

“The United States’ behavior toward the Muslim Brotherhood was quite similar to Washington’s approach to the government of Mohammad Mossadegh who ruled Iran from 1951 to 1953. During his short term in office, Mossadegh enjoyed the U.S. support and was almost sure that Washington would help him establish a democratic government. However, it was the U.S. that staged the coup against him and unseated him from power,” he wrote.

“Morsi experienced similar fate as he imagined that the West would back him in difficult days. Now, the Americans have revealed their real motives toward the Egyptian revolution as they are now trying to restore the rule of military and secularists in the Arab country.”

‘Iron Curtain’ fears

The documents posted on Monday form part of the CIA’s internal history of Iran from the mid-1970s. They were first released in 1981 as the result of a lawsuit, but with references to the coup redacted. The blacked-out references appear in the latest release.

One of the documents, written shortly after the coup by one of the joint U.S./British operation’s planners, Donald Wilber, cited oil nationalization, communism and other concerns.

“By the end of 1952, it had become clear that the Mossadeq government in Iran was incapable of reaching an oil settlement with interested Western countries; was reaching a dangerous and advanced stage of illegal, deficit funding; was disregarding the Iranian constitution in prolonging Premier Mohammed Mossadeq’s tenure of office; was motivated mainly by Mossadeq's desire for personal power; was governed by irresponsible policies based on emotion; had weakened the Shah and the Iranian Army to a dangerous degree; and had cooperated closely with the Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran,” Wilber wrote.

“In view of these factors, it was estimated that Iran was in real danger of falling behind the Iron Curtain; if that happened it would mean a victory for the Soviets in the Cold War and a major setback for the West in the Middle East. No remedial action other than the covert action plan set forth below could be found to improve the existing state of affairs.”

Following the coup, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled as an autocrat, with U.S. backing, until the Islamic revolution in 1979.

‘Dark history and crimes’

America’s role in the coup has been admitted by senior U.S. officials before, but, according to Malcolm Byrne, the editor of the documents posted on Monday, “the intelligence community’s standard procedure for decades has been to assert a blanket denial.”

Byrne said the issue remains a topic of interest.

“Political partisans on all sides, including the Iranian government, regularly invoke the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country’s historical trajectory, whether the United States can be trusted to respect Iran’s sovereignty, or whether Washington needs to apologize for its prior interference before better relations can occur.”

In 2006, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a letter to President Bush said the Iranian people had many questions to put to the U.S., “in particular [relating to] the coup d’etat of August 19, 1953.”

“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government,” President Obama said during his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

Days after Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Ahmadinejad demanded that the new administration offering “change” should first apologize for “dark history and crimes” against Iran, topping his list of grievances with the overthrow of Mossadegh.

“With a coup they toppled the national government of Iran and replaced it with a harsh, unpopular and despotic regime,” he said.

In a March 2000 address to the American-Iranian Council, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to the “significant role” the U.S. played in the 1953 events.

“The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development,” she said. “And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”

At the World Economic Forum in Davos five years later, President Clinton remarked on the incident.

“It’s a sad story that really began in the 1950s when the United States deposed Mr. Mossadegh, who was an elected parliamentary democrat, and brought the Shah back in and then he was overturned by the Ayatollah Khomeini, driving us into the arms of one Saddam Hussein,” he said. (audio clip here)

“… [W]e got rid of their parliamentary democracy back in the ‘50s; at least, that is my belief. I know it’s not popular for an American ever to say anything like this but I think it’s true. And I apologized – when President [Mohammed] Khatami was elected [in 1997] I publicly acknowledged that the United States had actively overthrown Mossadegh and I apologized for it. And I hope that we can have some rapprochement with Iran.”

Then, in his much-touted speech “to the Muslim world” in Cairo in 2009, Obama broached the subject again.

“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government,” he said. Obama cited both the coup and the Islamic Republic’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” as elements of what he called a “tumultuous history” between the two countries.

Mullahs disdained Mossadegh

Ironically – given the demands for apologies – the clerical regime that came to power in Iran in 1979 was not sympathetic to Mossadegh.

After the revolution, a major thoroughfare in Tehran named for the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty was briefly renamed Mossadegh Street, but then quickly changed again, to Vali Asr Street, a reference to the 12th imam revered by Shi’ites.

Reacting to Clinton’s comments in Davos in 2005, Iranian author and commentator Amir Taheri wrote that Mossadegh, “far from being regarded as a national hero, is an object of intense vilification.”

“One of the first acts of the mullahs after seizing power in 1979 was to take the name of Mossadegh off a street in Tehran,” he said. “They then sealed off the village where Mossadegh is buried to prevent his supporters from gathering at his tomb.”

“History textbooks written by the mullahs present Mossadegh as the ‘son of a feudal family of exploiters who worked for the cursed Shah, and betrayed Islam.’”

Then British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in a 2007 op-ed dealing with the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities wrote, “The regime wants to portray this [the nuclear standoff] as a national struggle, a rerun of Prime Minister Mossadegh’s battle with Britain in the 1950s over control of Iran’s oil revenue.”

“This is ironic. Because of other things Mossadegh stood for – like constitutional and accountable government – they are normally anxious to play down his legacy, and decline even to name a street in Tehran after him…”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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