A tank moves into the courtyard of Tehran Radio on
August 19, 1953 after pro-Shah troops took over the station.
Just like that
How the Mossadegh government was overthrown
By Mark Gasiorowski
July 7, 2000
Posted in Gulf2000, a
Middle East news and disucssion service sponsored by the School of International
and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York.
I have had a thorough look through the CIA history of the 1953 coup
in Iran (codenamed TPAJAX) that was recently released on the New
York Times' internet site. I have also gone through the version giving
many of the blanked-out names th at is available on the cryptome.org
internet site. The following are what seem to be the most important points
made in the history:
1. The history confirms that the United States - not the shah - chose
Fazlollah Zahedi to replace Mosaddeq (pp. vii, E5). Zahedi had almost no
military organization of his own, and the CIA team had to develop this
from scratch (pp. D4, D6, D8, D10, D16) . The CIA asked Zahedi to designate
a military secretariat for the coup, but he never did; the CIA therefore
had to do so (p. 10). A CIA agent in the Iranian army, who became a cabinet
minister after the coup, seems to have played a more important role than
Zahedi (pp. D5-D17). Zahedi was "lacking in drive, energy, and concrete
plans" (p. 27). Essentially all of the planning of the military details
of the coup was done by the CIA (Appendix D). The Iranian officers involved
in the plot distrusted each other and had little command experience (p.
D11). Zahedi and most of the other titular leaders were hidden in CIA safehouses
or the U.S. embassy compound during most of the time the coup was being
carried out (p. 50). Zahedi remained in his CIA safehou se until the coup
had succeeded (p. 72).
2. The shah was clearly very reluctant to support the coup and accept
Zahedi as prime minister. The U.S. planned to "maneuver" (p.
A3) him into accepting Zahedi and would have carried out the coup without
his consent (pp. B3, B10). An elaborate process was set up to persuade
him to support the coup (pp. B3-B9). The first approach to him was made
on July 25, and he finally consented and signed the orders dismissing Mosaddeq
and appointing Zahedi only on August 12 or 13 (pp. 23, 37) - a period of
almost three weeks. It may have been Queen Soraya who finally convinced
him to do so (p. 38). This long delay helped bring about the betrayal of
the plot (p. 39). The shah fled the country in panic when the initial coup
attempt failed, first to Baghdad and then to Rome. The history describes
this as "an act of prudence" and says it was "at least partially
foreseen" (p. x), but it is not called for in the coup plan (Appendix
B) and is not explained further. When I was researching the coup in the
mid-1980s, my sources described this as a simple act of cowardice on the
3. Iranian General Batmangelich approached U.S. officials about organizing
a coup in March 1953 (p. 2 and elsewhere). While this did not lead to AJAX,
Batmangelich was an important participant in AJAX, though he panicked and
went into hiding at a crucia l moment (p. 42). Nevertheless, Zahedi appointed
him army chief of staff after the coup.
4. The main U.S. motives in carrying out the coup were geostrategic.
Iran's oil resources were clearly of secondary importance (p. A2). The
CIA recognized that Mosaddeq had a "powerful popular following"
(p. B27) and that the Iranian army was "very strongly led by pro-Mossadeq
officers" (p. D1, and see also p. D3).
5. The CIA station chief in the years before the coup, Roger Goiran,
was replaced by Joe Goodwin a few weeks before the coup (p. 30). When I
was researching the coup, my sources told me this occurred because Goiran
opposed the coup, though he had helped prepare it. My sources told me that
at least two CIA Iran specialists in Washington opposed the coup as well.
6. The CIA briefly considered an alternative coup plan involving a member
of the Amini family (probably Abol Qassem Amini, and almost certainly not
Ali Amini) and the Qashqai tribal khans (p. 13). No details of this plan
are given, and I have never hear d anything about it. I doubt it was considered
7. The British clearly deferred to the CIA in developing and implementing
AJAX (pp. 14). However, Britain paid part of the costs (p. B1). Britain's
intelligence agency allocated only limited human resources to the effort
(p. 87). The most important Br itish contribution seems to have been loaning
their main agents in Iran, the Rashidian brothers, to the CIA team.
8. The CIA appropriated $1 million to the Tehran CIA station on April
4, 1953 to undermine Mosaddeq, more than four months before the coup (p.
3). It is not entirely clear what this money was used for, but it seems
to have been used to help Zahedi enlis t military people and other participants,
presumably with bribes (pp. A1, B2, B11, B15, but see also p. E22), and
by the station to carry out covert operations against Mosaddeq (p. 9).
9. The coup plan initially called for bribing members of Iran's parliament
to vote Mosaddeq out of office and enlisting prominent Iranian clergymen
to create disturbances that would facilitate the coup (pp. A4, B18-B22).
If these efforts did not succeed in bringing Mosaddeq down, a full-scale
military coup would be launched. The CIA station was authorized to spend
approximately $11,000 per week to purchase members of parliament (p. 19).
This never came to fruition because Mosaddeq closed down the parli ament,
at least partly because he knew about these efforts (p. 31). The main clergymen
to be used apparently were Ayatollahs Behbehani, Borujerdi, and Kashani
(or possibly Falsafi), along with Navvab Safavi and his Fedayan-e Islam
"terrorist group" (p. B 21). Apparently the British rather than
the CIA had the main connections to these clerical figures (p. B20), presumably
through the Rashidian brothers, who were their main agents. During the
days of the coup, the CIA team tried to contact Borujerdi thro ugh Behbehani
to arrange actions against Mosaddeq (p. 57), but this never materialized.
These clerical figures eventually refused to cooperate (p. 91). However,
according to the history, one of Kashani's sons did broadcast pro-shah
messages over Tehran radio on August 19 (p. 71).
10. A major part of the plan involved using propaganda and other covert
methods to undermine Mosaddeq in the weeks before the coup. Part of this
involved creating friction between Mosaddeq and the clergy in order to
turn the clergy further against Mosad deq (pp. 20, 32, A7, B23-B24). This
was an "all out" effort that affected the outcome of the operation
"in a most positive way" (p. 92). A sum of $150,000 was allocated
for this and other destabilization efforts immediately before the coup
(p. B15). Material was also to be put into the U.S. press (p. 29). After
the initial coup attempt on the night of August 15-16 failed, the CIA team
used similar means to publicize the fact that the shah had signed firmans
(royal decrees) dismissing Mosaddeq and appo inting Zahedi, including an
effort to have this information published by the New York Times (pp. 47-48,
55). It also carried out a "sham bombing" of an unnamed clergyman's
house (pp. 37, B23-B24). The CIA also placed material in the U.S. publication
Newsweek (p. 86).
11. The CIA gave a loan of $45,000 to the editor of an unidentified
newspaper to secure his cooperation (p. 26). My guess is that only the
newspaper Ettela'at would have been worth this much money, and the history
says that the editor of Ettela'at had pr omised to cooperate with the CIA
team (p. 60). However, after the initial coup attempt failed, Ettela'at
denounced it (p. 60).
12. The initial coup attempt failed because it was exposed by some of
the Iranian participants (p. 19), but the details of this are not given.
(They may be contained in the blanked-out passage on pp. E6-E7). The Tudeh
Party learned key details of the plot several days beforehand (p. 47),
perhaps because it had penetrated the government's "communications
system" (pp. E16-E17).
13. The CIA's two principle Iranian agents codenamed Nerren and Cilley
played key roles in the coup. They carried out "black" propaganda
aimed at making Iranians think an attempt had been made to overthrow the
shah (p. 47). They fabricated an interview with Zahedi and had it published,
along with details about the shah's firmans (pp. 50, 65). They arranged
to have agents provocateurs organize "fake" Tudeh demonstrations
that ransacked the offices of the Pan-Iranist Party (p. 59) and created
havoc in T ehran (p. 63). These demonstrations led the Tudeh to call its
people off the streets on the evening of August 18 (p. 64). This was a
crucial event, since the Tudeh Party as a result was not in a position
to oppose the pro-shah crowds on the following day. Nerren and Cilley also
helped lead the crowds on August 19, inciting them to burn the offices
of several newspapers and helping persuade army units to join the crowd
(pp. 66-67, 70). The history concludes that the station's agents "did
a superb job" (p. 92) - apparently a reference to Nerren and Cilley.
14. The demonstrations that emerged on the morning of Wednesday, August
19, and eventually led to Mosaddeq's overthrow were "partially spontaneous"
but also partially organized by the CIA team (p. xii). However, the CIA's
role in organizing them is not explained further in the history (p. 65)
- a key omission.
15. Donald Wilber, the author of the history, clearly had a low opinion
of Iranians, speaking of "the recognized incapacity of Iranians to
plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner" (p. B26) and the "rather
long-winded and often illogical Persians" (p. 19).
16. The CIA history of the coup warned of the possibility of "blowback"
(p. E21). This certainly was a prescient warning of events that began to
unfold 25 years later.
Mark J. Gasiorowski is a political science professor at Louisiana