Uninterrupted Wars: The 53 Coup

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In August 1953 the head of democratically elected government of Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, was overthrown by a coup orchestrated by the United Kingdom and the United States. In the former it was done under the name of “Operation Boot” and in the latter “TPAJAX Project” AKA “Operation Ajax”. From then on and since Eisenhower’s administration, coups became an inseparable part of America’s foreign policy. In “Uninterrupted Wars; the 53 Coup” Malcolm Burn, Deputy Director of National Security Archive gives a detailed account of both internal and external players, the reasons and the results of the coup; a turning point in which democracy and the will of people were trampled for the sake of the recronation of a biddable king and the ouster of a public figure who had recently nationalized Iranian oil industry. The film goes on to show how this incident has been significant in shaping today’s ties between Iran and the USA even after six decades.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive: “I am Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive, a non-governmental organization based at George Washington University in Washington DC”

“I don’t think the coup did fail; there was a moment originally when it faltered and certain events that were planned on did not unfold as expected. But the CIA operatives in place and their Iranian coverts did manage to pull off the overthrow of Mosadegh. So I think in that sense—in a short term sense the coup had absolutely succeeded.”

“I know that there is a lot of suspicion out there about British influence on the United States, especially back in 1953, but my reading of the information of the declassified documents and memoir accounts and so on makes me believe that the picture was much more complicated than that. The Americans and the British were certainly close allies after the war, but that did not mean that they agreed on everything by any means. And the attitude of the British towards the oil nationalization movement was a case in point. Fundamentally the US disagreed and disapproved of British what they would have turned neo-colonialism.”

“Now in the end the two sides came to terms because United States decided that it had a lot more to gain by siding with Britain in the long run than it did by opposing them and siding with Iran. So they did come to terms but it was not an easy relationship in that sense. And it certainly was not a matter of the British persuading their junior partner, the United States to go along—nothing of the sort.”

“For the most part the records have not been declassified. A large chunk of them were destroyed over the years by the CIA; they acknowledge this, claiming that it had to do with very mundane office procedures and a lack of office space and so on which has raised some questions in the outside world.”

“Whatever remains –and it is apparently roughly about a box full of documents—is mostly still classified. They have with these certain materials; a couple of the internal histories about the coup written by historians who worked for the CIA had been released. And a handful of other materials have been released through the Freedom of Information Act. Now there is as we are doing this interview, there is in preparation a volume of the State Department’s official history of US Foreign policy called the Foreign Relations of the United States Series.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive: “Well I think it was both a tactical act and an expression of regret about the coup. I think it fell a little bit short of an outright apology –The State Department was very careful to craft her words-- but I do believe it was a genuine expression of acknowledgement that the United States took part in the coup first of all; And also that it was an expression of some regret that the coup had taken place in part because of the bad feelings that it generated in Iran over the years.”

“Well, the question of the historical context is a big one and a political context. The first point to make is that these events in Iran took place during a very difficult period in the cold war, the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.”

“There have been a number of very distressing events that had taken place in the years leading up to the nationalization crisis including the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan in 1945-46, the Soviet takeover of power in Eastern Europe, the coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the loss of China so called around that same time, the explosion of Soviet atomic test, all kinds of events had happened that had built up American concerns about the communist threat worldwide.”

“Iran for a number of years had been considered by US strategists as a “vital interest” of the United States. It was vital because of its geographic location near the Soviet Union, but also of course because of its rich oil deposits.”

“Value of petroleum in this case was not so much because of its commercial value, but because of its strategic value. It was seen --and you can read this in many policy papers from the White House and analysis from the CIA and elsewhere that had been declassified that the overriding concern was that oil be made available to the west in order to continue to rebuild their economies after WWII. And even in the event of a global war with the Soviets which was not a completely ludicrous idea at that point, that oil would be crucial to helping the west fight that battle.”

“By the same token it was considered extremely important to deny access to oil and particularly oil in the Persian Gulf to the Soviets for the same reasons; that it would give them a huge advantage, and a disadvantage to the west. One of the most interesting documents that I’ve seen in doing research on this subject is from the Truman period, where Harry Truman signed an order that allowed for planning to be carried out to demolish oil wells in Saudi Arabia; and to otherwise make oil facilities unusable in the event of a Soviet invasion. This was the extent to which they believed that an invasion might be possible; and the extent they were willing to go to make sure that the Soviets were not able to take advantage of the oil resources of the region.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive: “Well, the actual role of individual players in the coups is a big question. Generally speaking the way I view the coup is that the Americans played the main role in terms of organizing and planting the coup. Of course they had considerable help from the British on the planning side of things. But that the Iranians generally played a critical role in the actual implementation of the coup.”

“Americans and Iranians worked together in many ways, and there were many individuals who were involved. There were people who were directly tied to the CIA and to MI-6-- the so-called Bosco Brothers as they were known—and the Rashidian Brothers. The Bosco Brothers was a code name for a pair of Iranian individuals who were tied closely to the CIA named Keyvani and Jalali.”

“The Rashidian Brothers were well known at the time and they were closely associated with MI-6. Each of those groups had a large number of people who either worked for them, worked with them, or over whom they had some influence. In addition there were military officers, of course there was General Zahedi and his son, and allegedly were involved in some way or another, whether or not they were completely aware of who they were working with is unknown. There were people involved in the Shah’s Court at many different levels and in many spheres Iranians played an important part along with their Erstwell partners from the outside.”

“Well both were critical of course to the planning of the operation. It was a joint planning session. And there are varying reports about who played the lead role at that stage. What I tend to come away with is the notion that the British essentially gracefully took a back seat to the Americans even though it was the British who had first come to Washington to propose a coup in late 1952, at least a version of the coup that ended up being more or less what they followed through with ultimately.”

“In terms of implementing the coup, it was of course mostly the United States; the British offered some help in terms of providing access to their networks in Iran but having been expelled from the country in October 1952 there was hardly much of a role for them to play in person in Iran at the time. So that fell largely to American agents.”

“There is some debate about why there was such a distinction between the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. On its face it appears as though the two presidents had very different ideas about many things. But the closer you look at the issue, the more you see that their views converged.”

“They both for example felt very strongly about the threat posed by the Soviet Union and international communism to American interests; And they both –particularly as time went on under Truman—probably shared more of a view of about the deteriorating situation in Iran. It’s certain that at first Truman believed that it was necessary and possible to negotiate a settlement with Mosadegh and the Iranians from 1951-52.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive: “In 1952, and especially as the year dragged on, it became more of a question, especially for some of Truman’s advisors and officials inside Tehran for example. But virtually to the end of his administration, it seems pretty clear that even though Truman and Dean Atchison for example his Secretary of State saw that conditions were getting worse and felt the need to prepare for a worst case scenario. It still seems clear that they both were anxious to try to negotiate a deal rather than to do something drastic like a coup.”

“In fact they never did agree to a coup; they left it to the incoming Eisenhower Administration to make that decision which of course they did not long after entering the White House.”

“I believe that the British did not so much convince the United States as the United States decided that it was the wiser choice for them, the more strategic choice to go along with the British; that is to support the British in their attempts to get what they wanted out of the oil crisis. That’s a very different thing from saying that they were convinced by the British.”

“Clearly the British sent some of their official, their agents to Washington in late 1952 to put across this idea of carrying out a coup. They did meet with some sympathy from the incoming Eisenhower people but I don’t believe that Eisenhower or his associates needed any convincing. I think they first of all did not want to see that kind of issue to the British; I think they believed that they knew perfectly well how the world worked and what the United States needed to advance its interests, they did not need London to tell them that.”

“What I believe they finally decided was that even though the British were being highly intransigent –and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this was the US view—they believed that there was much more at stake in the global environment in fighting the cold war and in a variety of other international issues, much more at stake in siding with the British and making sure that their relationship was smooth, than there was at stake in siding with Iran on this one particular issue about which they had a great many of qualms to begin with, mainly not just as strategic but also the commercial.”

“It’s easy to get into psychological evaluations in a case like this and that’s a difficult thing to do—but I do believe that what happens in situations like this and we’ve seen it in more recent circumstances as well—is that policy makers like people everywhere tend to believe what they want to believe. They will often have in mind a particular interpretation of events or a preferred course of action, and I think in possibly too many cases you will find that they will look for the evidence to support that case.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_26:29

SOUNDBITE [English] Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive: “I think the Iran situation was a perfect example of that. There was plenty of evidence in CIA files and in meeting records and so on to indicate that there were serious and knowledgeable individuals who did not believe that the Soviet Union or the Toudeh Party represented a serious threat to Mosadegh or to US interests. There was also evidence that the Iranian economy was not nearly in the dire straits that some believed. And yet these were among the issues that policy makers in Washington clung to--some of the beliefs that they adhered to --in coming to the decision that they had to act.”

“Now, I think it’s important to note that it is not that they believed that Mosadegh was anti-US or pro-Soviet. It’s true that his threat or his attempts to make deals with the Soviets here and there did cause a little bit of concern, but I think the main concern even in the Eisenhower Administration was not so much how Mosadegh felt, but how stable he was and his government was, and what would happen in the event of his downfall.”

“A classic question that comes up frequently is whether or not for example Israel has an overwhelming interest, an overwhelming influence over the United States; and I think that is a very complicated question too. There’s no doubt Washington pays attention to what is going on in Israel and what is going on in the domestic political situation here in the United States as far as the Israel lobby. But if you want to get into particulars, you quickly realize how complex it is; it’s not just one Israel lobby for example, there are many different parts to it. Also what I have found in looking at more recent events involving US and Iran, for example the Iran-Iraq War but also other events in the Persian Gulf is that it’s not just Israel the US listens to, it’s the Arab monarchies, its Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States that are very important to American officials as they try to define what their policies are going to be.”

“I think Americans and American officials in particular are prone to thinking in the short term, and if you’re thinking in the short term and you’re a CIA agent or you’re a US government official from 1953, you’re very likely to see the coup as a success and very much worthwhile.”

“Former CIA officials that I have talked to and others have talked to have made the point that in their view the coup was not the problem, it was the follow up to the coup. And it was specifically the failure of subsequent presidents to hold the Shah’s feet to the fire and make sure—as they see it—that the Shah carried through on promises of reform that he had made.”

“Prospective 25 years is a very long time, but of course we have had now more than 25 years since the Iranian Revolution and to the extent that you can connect the dots between that revolution and the 1953 coup. You realize that the aftermath in terms of dismal relations between the two countries and all kinds of crisis and strife that have been sued, it makes you realize that in the long run the blowback as they call it has certainly been severe”

SOUNDBITE [English] Journalist: Is Iran now in effect at war with the United States?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ayatollah Khomeyni, Former Supreme Leader of Iran: “What do you mean by war? If you mean our army is against the United States no, there is no such war. If you mean it is a battle of nerves, it is Carter’s doing.”

   

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