When anti-regime protests spread like wildfire throughout Iran in mid-October of 2022, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quick to lay the blame on the usual foreign suspects. “I say explicitly that these riots and this insecurity were a design by the U.S. and the occupying, fake Zionist regime and those who are paid by them,” he told a class of cadets at a police college in Tehran. He suggested that the ultimate goal of the U.S. and Israel was regime change in Iran.
This elicited a response on Twitter from Iranian rapper Hichkas, who defended foreign support for the uprising, saying that it represented solidarity, not collaboration. He ended his riposte with a taunt that was retweeted or liked more than 50,000 times:
“And you can shove that Mossadegh tale you’ve lived off of for a lifetime.”
The rebellious young hip-hop star was connecting dots that Khamenei had only implied: that in 2022, the United States and its allies were once again seeking to overthrow an Iranian leader, just as in the summer of 1953 the United States had cooperated with players inside and outside Iran to help end the political career of the doomed nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.
For anyone who needs a reminder of the significance of that episode, whose 70th anniversary falls this year, let Columbia University’s professor Hamid Dabashi provide one, from his book Iran: A People Interrupted:
As Iranians never get tired of repeating (for this is the defining trauma of their modern history), the CIA, aided by British intelligence, mounted, paid for, and executed a military coup, overthrew the democratically elected government of Mosaddeq, and brought the corrupt Mohammed Reza Shah back to power.
This Ivy League encapsulation of the events of August 1953 in Iran contains at least four remarkable untruths, though “As Iranians never get tired of repeating” is not one of them.
First, the CIA did not mount or execute a coup. Second, Mossadegh was not democratically elected. Third, the shah was not yet corrupt. Fourth, he was not brought back to power, because he had never left it: Assassinations were a fact of life in 1950s Tehran, and having survived an attempt on his life in 1949, Mohammed Reza chose to wait out Mossadegh’s fall in Baghdad and Rome but never abdicated.
What actually happened in the land which once harvested prime ministers more promiscuously than Henry VIII harvested queens was this: After Shah Mohammed Reza’s Prime Ministers Mohammed-Ali Foroughi, Ali Soheili, Ahmad Qavam, Mohammed-Reza Hekmat, Ebrahim Hakimi, Abdolhossein Hazhir, Mohammed Saed, and Ali Mansur, came Ali Razmara, who was assassinated in March 1951. Following the brief caretaker premiership of Hossein Ala, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi wanted Seyyed Zia Tabataba’i, but in deference to the aged Qajar aristocrat Mohammed Mossadegh, had him offered the job, feeling confident he would decline. To everyone’s surprise, Mossadegh accepted, and the Majlis concluded a brief poll to endorse him. Then the shah gave Mossadegh the job. Again, the sequence of events is significant: The shah chose a prime minister, the parliament consented, and the shah appointed him.
Between 1953 and 1979, the shah would appoint and dismiss 10 more prime ministers, including Mossadegh twice. Not even the most overheated Iran historian, in Islamic Iran or American academia, describes these changes as coups. The difference is that when Mossadegh’s second government went down in flames in August 1953, there were some American would-be arsonists in the wings who may or may not have shared responsibility, but who insisted on claiming the lion’s share of the credit, however implausibly or unwisely.
Constitutionally, appointing prime ministers in imperial Iran was the sole prerogative of the shah. As Gholam Reza Afkhami wrote, “The Constitution … gave the Crown and only the Crown the power to appoint or dismiss the ministers (Article 46, Supplementary basic Law) …” In George Lenczowski’s Iran Under the Pahlavis we read that “The Shah’s authority embraced the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and ministers.” However, according to Afkhami, “over the postwar years it had become the accepted practice for the shah to ask the Majlis to express its preference before he appointed a prime minister.”
Article 46 of the Supplemental Constitutional Law of the Iranian constitution in force at the time was blunt: “The Ministers are appointed and dismissed by the decree of the King.“ The poll noted above to align king and legislature behind a prime minister was “a tentative consent of the majority of the Majlis which was ascertained in the form of a vote of investiture known in Iran as raye tamayel (“vote of inclination”), prior to the issuance of Royal farman appointing the prime minster,” as Iranian American scholar Sepehr Zabih put it in The Mossadegh Era. Mossadegh scholars Darioush Bayandor and Christopher de Bellaigue call it a straw vote or straw poll.
The Iranian parliament’s role in the choice of a prime minister was similar to, but weaker than, the U.S. Senate’s role in confirming presidential appointments, such as, among others, Supreme Court justices, some cabinet posts, and ambassadors. Yet despite this even stronger legislative role, no one refers to “the democratically elected Justice Samuel Alito,” the “democratically elected Secretary of State Antony Blinken,” or “the democratically elected Ambassador Pamela Harriman.”
This fetishistic formulation, applied to Mossadegh is even odder, for reasons that are worth examining. First, though, it’s worth retracing Mossadegh’s steps on his way out of power.
The story of Mossadegh’s departure from power is notorious among Middle East scholars, on par with the JFK assassination or abdication of Edward VIII. Hence retelling it is a little laborious, with sensationalism vying in a death match with numbing familiarity.
Once in power, Mossadegh quickly achieved national hero status by getting a bill through the Majles nationalizing the Iranian oil industry. However, negotiations with the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, AIOC, went in circles over details such as management and future compensation to the British. As the U.S. worked with the British toward a solution, the Brits were annoyed by the Washington upstart’s idealism towards Mossadegh, while Washington was peeved by London’s anachronistic, patronizing greed.
The U.S finally dispatched Averell Harriman to work with Mossadegh toward a resolution. The canny old man’s posturing and slippery illogic inclined the Americans to sense that he plainly did not want an agreement. As the Iranian prime minister himself conceded, he was wary of “my fanatics” in the Iranian polity who would kill him for making concessions. Harriman went home empty-handed, and Eisenhower soon replaced Truman.
The British, having been talked out of military action by the Yanks, pulled AIOC staff out of Iran. The British pullout and boycott, combined with the lack of domestic Iranian expertise to produce or market oil, proved catastrophic for the economy, as increased production in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia made the renamed National Iranian Oil Company, NIOC, irrelevant. Mosaddegh and his advisers were blind to these realities amid the nirvana of unanimous domestic support for their anti-imperialist bluster. Worse, his decision to end the oil talks were a signal event for Washington, who now joined London in seeing the prime minister as unstable and untrustworthy.
As the political and economic tides turned against him, Mossadegh sparred with the shah over who had the right to appoint the minister of war. This demand was a red line for the shah, who prized the military as his key constituency. The prime minister resigned in protest, but his brinkmanship got him what he wanted, his job back along with power over the War Ministry. He was quick to rename it the Ministry of Defense and appoint himself to head it, cut its budget by 15%, purge the services of 136 officers, install men loyal to himself, including his nephew General Vossuq (whom he named assistant minister), and obtain six months’ emergency powers, including the power to legislate. He then dismissed the Supreme Court, and, lacking support in the Majles, sought to dissolve it, too—a power that the constitution reserved to the shah.
This was the beginning of the end for the prime minister who spoke eloquently of democracy but, when given opportunities to exercise it, always showed a dictatorial bent. Claiming to seek legitimacy not from the legislature but from “the people,” Mossadegh set up a national referendum on dissolving the Majles, with no secret ballot: Yes and no votes were cast in different locations. Mossadegh’s stacked referendum gave him a landslide victory, which cost him the support of the Shia clergy, the National Front coalition, and even family members. Sattareh Farmanfarmaian, his niece, wrote in her memoir, Daughter of Persia, of how “wretched” she felt over this betrayal. Majles Speaker Ayatollah Kashani denounced him, and his former National Front allies called him a “worse dictator than Reza Shah.”
Having lost nearly all political support except the communist Tudeh party, and with even his pro-oil nationalization supporters split, Mossadegh found himself with a reduced base composed of radical supporters and an increasingly united front opposing him: the clergy, the military, and the bazaar, with the U.S. and Britain now both solidly behind the monarch. Most importantly, the absence of a functioning Majles offered the shah an opening to remove his unpopular prime minister.
Previously, the shah had rejected repeated advice, domestic and foreign, to fire Mossadegh, though it was within his constitutional powers. There had already been 14 recess appointments or dismissals of prime minister, which Mossadegh knew well, but he boasted that the shah would not “have the guts” to dismiss him. His bluff backfired. Absent a parliament, Mossadegh could now be removed from power. All it took was royal will.
Despite the cresting of the feud between Mossadegh and the now less-deferential young shah, the latter hesitated to oust his prime minister. The British succeeded in persuading Eisenhower to connive against Mossadegh. Hands-off Ike bucked the conversation down to the working level, which was the Dulles brothers, Alan and John Foster, and the operational components of the CIA. London favored some form of a palace coup, using its network of Iranian agents, who with the rupture of Tehran-London relations had been passed to the local CIA station for handling.
The agency was barely six years old and years away from having its own headquarters in Langley. Still, it had already adopted practices like the secretive use of cryptonyms to conceal identities.
Long since declassified, TPBEDAMN was an anti-communist covert influence program in Iran. KGSAVOY was the shah, and TPAJAX was the plan for the rather tame machination—far removed from a British military invasion—to remove Mohammed Mossadegh from power legally and constitutionally, by persuading the shah to use his prerogative to replace him.
Enter RNMAKER, true name Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson and no stranger to the sandbox. In his book Arabs, Oil, and History (1949), he devoted a chapter to Iran, which in his telling is one of the “fringe lands,” as a Muslim but non-Arab country in the suburbs of the Middle East (there are Iranians who would punch him in the nose for this alone). On a trip through Iran, Kim is lectured by ragged tribals about bad royal priorities: “Why does [the shah] not give away some of his lands? Or spend what he spends for a B-17 on a program to combat trachoma?” Our good listener and deft name-dropper tells us that on a recent visit to the country, “The shah had told me much the same thing … As long as Iranian people are ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-educated and just plain ill there could be no real security against outside aggression.”
In a subsequent book, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, published in 1979, Roosevelt detailed the course of his plotting. Like Stephen Kinzer’s 2003 book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, which relies heavily on Roosevelt, it is overly padded and suffers from what H.R. McMaster would call strategic narcissism—the tendency to put the United States at the center of everything, deserving of both glory and blame, whether rightly or wrongly. Fittingly, McMaster uses the term, in his book Battlegrounds, to describe the posture toward Iran adopted by President Obama (who we shall see would also weigh in on the Mossadegh affair).
A good example of this world view occurred in the movie Shakespeare in Love, where we see the cast of Romeo and Juliet taking a break in a tavern. When the portly actor who plays the nurse is asked by a fellow drinker, “So what’s the play about, then?” he starts to explain, “Well, you see, there’s this nurse … “
This gets to the heart of the narratives around Mossadegh’s political demise. The isolated prime minister was entirely correct in his complaints to everyone from the shah to Harriman that he was being plotted against. Ray Takeyh writes that Mossadegh’s coming ouster was “the worst-kept secret in Iran.” While Roosevelt strategically and narcissistically spins tales of CIA plotting in Washington and London and secret meetings with the shah, the Iranian army brass was already assessing its options against Mossadegh, and had even approached the British Embassy in Tehran for support. Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi in Qom, Ayatollah Behbehani in Tehran, and Ayatollah Kashani, who had been dismissed from his Majles speaker post by Mossadegh, had already lined up against him.
One of the best accounts of the movement to oust Mossadegh is in Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions, and in a dozen dense pages he scarcely mentions the CIA. Having inherited the (still closed) British Embassy’s human intelligence network, the CIA station in Tehran, in the person of Roosevelt, held secret meetings and moved some money around. Yet the already-existing network, meeting in the capital’s Officers Club, lacked neither motivation nor money. Abrahamian notes that Roosevelt’s support did help Major General Fazlollah Zahedi—the declared candidate to replace Mossadegh—win over key allies such as Imperial Guards Commander Nassiri, Air Force Chief Gilanshah, gendarmerie Chief Colonel Ardubadi, secret police Chief Mu’tazed, and the senior tank commanders of the Tehran army garrison.
The TPAJAX plan unfolded on the night of Aug. 15. Colonel Nassiri arrived at Mossadegh’s house with the royal edict, or farman, signed by the shah. This one dismissed Mossadegh as prime minister, another appointed Zahedi to replace him. Despite the weird circumstances—it was nearly midnight, and Nassiri was accompanied by two truckloads of soldiers—this was a legal and constitutional action. But because it was the worst-kept secret in Iran, Mossadegh had been tipped off. Tudeh had penetrations of the Imperial Guard and the military, according to Bayandor, and Abrahamian even names the leaker, one Captain Mehdi Homayouni. (Mossadegh may have had multiple sources—senior Tudeh leader Noredin-Kianuri claimed in his memoirs that he too had personally tipped off Mossadegh.) Mossadegh signed a receipt for the edict but refused to comply, and his men placed Nassiri under arrest.
The plan had failed, and the Americans had no plan B. Roosevelt was asked to return to Washington but preferred to stay in Tehran. The CIA passed a memo to Eisenhower conceding the failure and assessing that the U.S. would “probably have to snuggle up to Mossadegh.” The U.S. ambassador, Loy Henderson, who like the shah had sat out the operation abroad, returned to Tehran to meet on the 16th with Mossadegh, who denied having ever seen the royal edict dismissing him, but went on to say that even if he had and if it were real, he would have ignored it. When Henderson gave his account of the meeting to the media, he pointedly omitted the title of prime minister when referring to Mossadegh. Despite all the confusion and contradiction, the underlying fact was that Zahedi was the legitimate prime minister of Iran.
That was Roosevelt’s focus for the next couple of days. He arranged for photostats of the two farmans to be circulated to local newspapers, who published them. Skeptics of the Roosevelt legend point out that the only papers the CIA could suborn were low-circulation organs in south Tehran and thus of limited citywide influence.
On Aug. 19, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations broke out in Tehran, eventually converging on the radio station and Mossadegh’s house in Kakh (Palace) Street, which was defended by tanks. If Mossadegh’s fall is analogous to the JFK assassination, 109 Palace Street was Dealey Plaza. Violence broke out, and dozens were killed. The former prime minister’s house was damaged by gunfire. In the late afternoon, a tearful Mossadegh heard the public radio broadcast of Zahedi’s victory speech saying that Mossadegh’s “coup” had failed. He learned, but refused to believe, that his relative, the police chief Col. Daftary, had turned against him. When his house was overrun, he fled and turned himself in to Zahedi’s government the next day. He was treated respectfully.
Before flying home, the shah sent telegrams to Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi and Ayatollah Behbehani. The more senior ayatollah responded with elaborately polite hopes that the shah could now put an end to the country’s ills and bring glory to Islam. He closed, “Do return as Shiism and Islam need you. You are the Shiite sovereign.”
More than one Iranian historian has derided Roosevelt’s memoir as “prophecy made after the fact,” and Afkhami complained that “[t]his false history, fostered by pro-Mosaddeq Iranians and liberal and leftist westerners, has diminished Mosaddeq, demonized the shah, and turned Iranians into traitors or wimps.”
The highly detailed, if also highly redacted, U.S. government histories of the so-called coup make the same point. While rich on details of secret travels and meetings, money changing hands, successive British and American drafts of the TPAJAX plans, and intragovernmental communications, all of them—the National Security Archives’ “Secret History of the Iran Coup, 1953” of 2000, “Zendebad, Shah!” by the CIA history staff, partially declassified in 2017, and “Planning and Implementation of Operation TPAJAX, March-August 1953,” an archive of documents published by the Office of the Historian of the State Department, all concur that it is impossible to establish who, if anyone, was directing the protests and mob actions on the fateful and chaotic day.
In retrospect, Roosevelt did himself no favors in Countercoup. He places himself at the center of the action, including instances that stretch the imagination. He gives us a shah who spends long evenings listening to him and gushing with praise, as well as a remarkable instance of him lying to the monarch: In a final meeting before the ruler left Tehran and Nassiri would start enforcing the two royal edicts, Roosevelt lacked a message from Eisenhower, so he made one up. “Since [Eisenhower] had failed to send one, I put into words what he must surely be feeling,” he wrote. His fabricated message from the president to the king was, “If the Pahlavis and the Roosevelts working together cannot solve this little problem, then there is no hope anywhere!” That he chose to publish it just as the shah was overthrown provided the nascent Islamic Republic and its partisans with yet more reasons to hate America. Eisenhower, who had died a decade prior, would have been furious.
It is unsettling that the cult of democratic Mossadegh exists, even in the United States. When I asked a friend of mine who served as the CIA’s chief of Iran analysis—albeit more in the Qassem Soleimani than the Mohammed Mossadegh era—to explain this bizarre interpretive slant, he blamed “bias” and “an overinflated view of U.S. power and influence,” which he called “bullshit.” He added, “Whatever the wisdom of U.S. and UK involvement in his ouster—which was likely near at hand even absent foreign involvement—his removal from power sparked mostly public indifference and some celebration. His contemporaries, including many former supporters, were glad to see him go. Mossadegh’s fictional status as a victimized, heroic advocate of democracy was only later cynically conferred by those who sought and supported the decidedly undemocratic dictatorship that rules Iran today.”
Reuel Gerecht, another former CIA observer, but from the operational side, put it this way: “Look, the focus on ’53 among Iranians is primarily a reflection of, one, left-wing, tier-mondiste critique of American power after the Vietnam War went south—starting in the West before it started in Iran—and two, the growing dissatisfaction among Iranian leftists, most tellingly the Islamic left, with the course of the revolution. Imagining Mossadegh triumphing allowed them to see a democratic Iran where the Shah and Khomeini, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, et al, get deleted.”
Back home, there is a thread that runs through the Mossadegh literature, from Roosevelt’s and Kinzer’s wildly tendentious accounts, down to Shahzad Aziz’s In the Land of the Ayatollahs Tupac Shakur Is King, and even the Cambridge History of Iran. The thread combines hindsight versus historical context to connect American villainy, lack of Iranian agency, and an alarmist view of the future, always panicking about the folly of Washington’s next terrible moves but never Tehran’s. And then there is the purely magical phenomenon of those who loathe the CIA and its operatives yet who naively take Kim Roosevelt’s self-centered memoirs at face value. American spies overthrow democratically elected governments, but they never tell a lie.
The enduring myth is that the CIA dispatched its serpent, Kim Roosevelt, into a democratic Iranian Garden of Eden, and everything bad that happened over the next half-century can be attributed to this original sin. (The “original sin” metaphor is everywhere—The New York Times even worked it into Ardeshir Zahedi’s obituary). On this, the tier-mondistes, American progressives, and Qajar memoirists all agree. A quick sampling:
Not only did Kinzer blame Mossadegh’s fall for the Islamic Revolution, he wrote that “From the seething streets of Tehran and the other Islamic capitals to the scenes of terror attacks around the world, Operation Ajax has left a haunting and terrible legacy.” His book is a warning against the U.S. projecting power—fair enough—but not satisfied with blaming the September 11 attacks on the Mossadegh action, his reissued 2018 edition contains a new and unhinged preface titled “The Folly of Attacking Iran.” In it, he slays vast legions of straw men, such as “the idea of attacking Iran and seeking to decapitate its regime,” which, he judiciously informs us, is “dangerous.”
I served in two of the most hawkishly anti-Iran administrations, Bush 43 and Trump, and while we heard out a foreign ally or two talk about hitting Iran’s nuclear program, no one spoke of anything more than that, and in fact no U.S. president, as we have seen, has ever agreed with those foreign allies, or done more than a single targeted attack against an internationally sanctioned Iranian terrorist.
In a similar but also unhinged and infinitely more turgid work, Going to Tehran, the team of Flynt and Hillary Leverett castigate Washington for overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister. The entire book makes the case for the U.S. to fold to the ayatollahs and for the U.S. president actually to go to Tehran, something the Tehran regime would never dream of allowing. Leverett is a former CIA analyst who has been wandering toward Code Pink territory for years now.
Obama repeats the “democratically elected” canard more than once in his memoir A Promised Land, unsurprisingly from the leader who would use the feckless John Kerry to negotiate the weak JCPOA and seek a legacy of accommodation with the regime. Those who recall Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo will remember that he not only mentioned Mossadegh but used Kinzerian wording.
Also unsurprisingly, Princeton University’s unsavory Hossein Mousavian, who served as Iran’s ambassador to Berlin during the Mykonos Café massacre of dissidents, wrote in his Iran and the United States (in which he denies that Tehran ordered the Mykonos killings or the Khobar Towers bombing), “the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s first democratically elected government.” His whole book pleads the wounded innocence of the Islamic Republic.
Dabashi, unsurprisingly, lines up with Mousavaian on Mossadegh, with the difference that he opposes the Islamic regime, though he shares the mullahs’ hatred for Israel. He outdoes Kinzer in alarmism, lobbing brickbats not only at “warmongers” but at “native informers, imperial strategists”—Azar Nafisi and Ken Pollack—Bernard Lewis, and “self-loathing Oriental” Fouad Ajami. (He also thinks Salman Rushdie is Pakistani.)
Even innocuous books by writers with no apparent agenda repeat the error. Akbar Ganji, Mark Bowden, and Scott Peterson have all done it. I have a gripe with the monumental Cambridge History of Iran, whose chapter “The Pahlavi Autocracy” by Gavin R.G. Hambly tells us that “Iranians have never had the slightest doubt that the C.I.A. … organized the conspirators and paid the pro-Shah mobs … By 1982 this tenacious rumor had been fully confirmed and is now incontrovertible.” Hambly footnotes Roosevelt’s book, seeming to take its contents at face value.
For neutrality, readers must turn to the relatively obscure work of Diarioush Bayandor—fittingly, a resident of Switzerland—who possesses the most impartial moral sense among all Mossadegh historians. In his fastidiously sourced Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mossadegh Revisited (2010), he delivers the verdict, that while “It is fair to conclude that even if the Shah’s dismissal order was not stricto sensu unconstitutional … it was a feature of a foreign scheme to bring about a change of government” and thus was of questionable legitimacy.
However harsh that is—and it is distinctly harsh, considering that at no time did the shah ever breach the laws of his country, while Mossadegh did promiscuously, and unapologetically—facts remain: Mossadegh was not democratically elected. He was not a democrat. He was not overthrown by the CIA, but by domestic forces he had repeatedly manipulated or misunderstood, and who welcomed a foreign hand of unmeasurable and uneven utility.
The controversy lives on in late prime minister’s story as told on stage and screen. The film Mossadegh, directed by Roozbeh Dadvand, recounts the man’s final days in under 30 beautifully shot minutes, but the opening title cards contain the jarring untruth that Mossadegh was “overthrown from power by U.S. and British forces.” Reza Allamehzadeh’s moving play Mossadegh concluded with his trial. When the military prosecutor tried to shame Mossadegh for his foreign minister’s having proclaimed that Iran no longer wanted a king (by then His Majesty had fled Tehran), Mossadegh brought the audience to its feet with the taunt, “And where was this king for anyone to want or not want him?”
Sentimentality toward Mossadegh is understandable. His nationalization project boosted the morale of a proud and often-humiliated country. He did seek a system with a weaker king, although more to gain power for himself than to pass it on to the people. He undoubtedly won hearts and minds with small acts of integrity like making his aristocratic mother pay her back taxes. Even more endearing is the incident when his daughter reported to him an altercation with a policeman who didn’t buy her “Do you know who I am?” defense. She demanded her father act, and he did—rewarding the cop with a promotion for his honesty. But character is fate. The prime minister had a deep strain of decency, but was an inept visionary who overplayed his hand.
Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.