In 1953 the United States overthrew the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh; a duplicitous act which has left an indelible stain on U.S.-Iranian relations. Although much has been written about this episode, conspicuously absent is a detailed analysis of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to pursue aggressive action. Accordingly, by applying the framework constructed by Robert Jervis, the administration’s decision is revealed to be the byproduct of a series of misperceptions about the nature and actions of the Iranian regime. Moreover, Guy Ziv’s work on cognitive structure suggests that these misperceptions were exacerbated by the relatively closed and less complex cognitive structures from which key administration officials were operating. These parochial cognitive structures, augmented by the administration’s reductive perceptual threshold, led many principle decision-makers to misperceive the events of the Iranian crisis, conflate Iranian nationalism with Soviet communism, and conclude that force was the only appropriate solution. Thus, analyzing the 1953 coup d’état through the lens of these two mutually reinforcing paradigms, misperception and cognitive structure, confers an additional layer of nuance necessary to understand this impactful event.
The covert American operation in Iran, codenamed Ajax, was a critical event in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Although lauded at the time, the decision to overthrow Mossadegh has proven to be both shortsighted and myopic, as the United States chose to pursue immediate interests at the expense of long term stability. American actions ensured that in the short term Iran remained an unwavering ally in the region, but it also engendered feelings of resentment and distrust throughout the Iranian population. These sentiments precipitated the 1979 Islamic revolution and continue to strain U.S.-Iranian relations today. Moreover, operation Ajax became the blueprint for subsequent American interventions throughout the Third World, most immediately in Guatemala in 1954.
The American action was the culmination the so-called Iranian crisis which began in 1951 during the Truman administration when the Iranian regime nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Industry (AIOC). In April 1951 Mohammad Mossadegh, a western educated aristocrat, was named Prime Minister of Iran by a reluctant Mohammad Reza Shah; who as Mark Gasiorowski observes, begrudgingly “yielded to a rising tide of popular pressure” to appoint Mossadegh.1 A fierce nationalist and early advocate of the nascent non-aligned movement, Mossadegh was as part of the National Front, a disparate amalgam of intellectuals, laymen, and clerics tenuously united by an ardent distaste for British imperialism.2 Accordingly, on April 30, 1951 the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the AIOC and regain control of Iran’s most precious natural resource.3
This decision sent reverberations throughout the British Empire. Adopting a decidedly intransigent posture and refusing to acquiesce to Iranian demands, the British pursued a dual-track policy wherein they attempted to resolve the crisis diplomatically, while simultaneously working to undermine the Mossadegh government and imposing a blockade on all Iranian oil exports.4 As the British stated, “…the Iranian Government is causing a great enterprise…to grind to a stop. Unless this is promptly checked, the whole of the free world will be poorer and weaker, including the deluded Iranian people themselves.”5
In response the Truman Administration intervened in an attempt to allay tensions between the two sides and broker a peaceful and equitable resolution to the crisis. The administration believed that a deal would not only help Great Britain, a declining imperial power, maintain its reputation but also keep Mohammad Mossadegh in power, whom the Truman administration believed could act as a bulwark against communism. The negotiations however proved vexing for the Truman administration, as the British remained obstinate and refused to surrender their colonial possession. Deriding the haughty manner of the British, Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked, “Never had so few lost so much so stupidly so fast.”6
The presidential election of 1952 nullified the efforts of the Truman administration, as president-elect Dwight Eisenhower proved much more receptive to an expedient and forceful resolution to the crisis. As David Robarge observes, the Eisenhower administration was staunchly “dedicated to rolling back communism and defending democratic governments threatened by Moscow's machinations.”7 This dedication was augmented by an acute fear permeating throughout the administration that the Tudeh party, the Iranian communist party, was powerful enough to subvert the Mossadegh government and impose a pro-Soviet agenda on Iran.
Accordingly, administration officials concluded that a nationalist, non-aligned regime in Iran- a southern neighbor of the Soviet Union- was intolerable, and that a pro-western leader like the Shah was more desirable. Toward this end, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, enlisted the help of CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt to devise a plan to remove Mossadegh from power. Executed in early August 1953, operation Ajax called for the CIA to obtain royal decrees from the Shah removing Mossadegh from power and replacing him with the much more malleable General Zahedi.8 The Iranian military would then seize key government buildings and arrest Mossadegh.9
The Iranian Prime Minister however, became aware of the impending coup against him and quickly declared the royal decrees illegal and ordered the conspirators arrested, causing the skittish Shah to flee the country.10 Nevertheless, the indomitable Roosevelt paid throngs of protestors to pose as members of the Tudeh party and demonstrate in Tehran, hoping to create the illusion that the situation was becoming increasingly precarious as the Premier lost his grip on power.11 In the ensuing chaos the pro-Shah Iranian military took to the streets to quell the unrest, eventually storming the house of Mohammad Mossadegh and apprehending the embattled statesman. Thus what began in 1951 as an Iranian attempt to establish a foreign policy independent of imperialist machinations, ended two years later with a western superpower intervening in Iranian affairs in the pursuit of myopic and self-interested goals.
Misperception and the Iranian Coup
While a great deal of literature has been produced about the covert operation, conspicuously absent is any detailed analysis of the decision made by the Eisenhower administration to resolve the crisis through force rather than diplomacy. Although the most commonly accepted explanation seems to rationalize the decision to intervene in Iran as the result of the Eisenhower administration’s acute fear of communism and desire to contain Soviet expansion, this is insufficient. There were other instances where the administration could have intervened to counter Soviet influence but did not; such as in Eastern Germany in 1953 or Hungary in 1956.12 Such an explanation also suggests that Harry Truman was not as ardent an anti-communist as Dwight Eisenhower; which is a faulty assumption. It was during the Truman presidency that NSC 68 was adopted, an aggressive and expansionist policy which sought to contain, and indeed roll back, the Soviet Union, and led to the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.
Other explanations for why the U.S. intervened are also inadequate. A popular reason is that the United States intervened to protect American oil interests in Iran. However, Mark Gasiorowski convincingly explains that American oil companies were not interested in Iranian oil. As he states, “The U.S. majors had increased their production in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1951 in order to make up for the loss of Iranian production; operating in Iran would force them to cut back production in these countries which would create tensions with Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders.”13 Thus, Gasiorowski concludes, “the major U.S. oil companies were not interested in Iran at this time.”14
Accordingly, by applying the framework constructed by Robert Jervis in his Hypothesis on Misperception, the decision is revealed to be the byproduct of a series of misperceptions by the Eisenhower administration. As Jervis explains, in the realm of international relations decision-makers calibrate their actions based on an assumption of how another actor will react to those actions, and how that reaction will affect the values and ideology of the decision-maker.15 Consequently, Jervis states, “The actor must therefore develop an image of others and of their intentions. This image may, however, turn out to be an inaccurate one; the actor may, for a number of reasons, misperceive both the others’ actions and their intentions.”16 Thus, the ensuing analysis will attempt to establish the “perceptual threshold” of the Eisenhower administration, determine how that threshold was created, and identify how it skewed the administration’s perception of the Iranian crisis.
The Perceptual Threshold of the Eisenhower Administration
Robert Jervis founds his framework in the fundamental assumption, what he labels Hypothesis 1, that “…decision-makers tend to fit incoming information into their existing theories and images. Indeed, their theories and images play a large part in determining what they notice.”17 Jervis further elucidates this assumption by observing, “The question of the relations among particular beliefs and cognitions can often be seen as part of the general topic of the relation of incoming bits of information to the receivers’ already established images.”18 Consequently, Jervis asserts, “actors tend to perceive what they expect.”19 Thus, there seems to be a reciprocal relationship between a decision-maker’s established images and his perception of an event; wherein the images influence how an event is perceived and in return that perception reinforces those established images.
Before contending that the Eisenhower administration misperceived the nature and actions of Mohammad Mossadegh, it is necessary to establish what the perceptual threshold of Dwight Eisenhower was and how it was constructed. In his article, Jervis maintains that there are three main sources that “contribute to decision-makers’ concepts of international relations and of other states and influence their perceptual thresholds for various phenomena.”20 The first sources is “an actor’s beliefs about his own domestic political system…”21 On this point, there is no doubt that Eisenhower was influenced by, and subsequently reflected, the American political system of the 1950s; an era in which the American ethos was roiled by an acute paranoia of Soviet aggression and communist subversion of the American system.
Robert Jervis contends that “in some cases…the decision-maker’s concepts are tied to an ideology that explicitly provides a frame of reference for viewing foreign affairs.”22 During the Cold War, American foreign policy was informed by the conviction that a monolithic, rapacious, and aggressive Soviet Union was seeking to extend its influence throughout the world; and that the United States, as the vanguard for liberty and democracy, must contain this expansion. Dwight Eisenhower was an avid proponent of this ideology. According to Moyara de Moraes Reuhsen, both Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles “harbored strong fears about the spread of Communism, which the climate of the early 1950s (the era of McCarthy’s witch-hunts) only exacerbated.”23 Consequently, as Stephen Ambrose observes, during the presidential election Eisenhower excoriated the Democrats for “spreading American resources too thin” and “accepting the status quo too willingly”; arguing instead “that the United States must wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, and if possible ‘liberate’ areas from Communist control.”24
Thus, during the election Eisenhower posited himself as the dynamic and assertive alternative to the passive, perhaps even lethargic, Democrats. Nevertheless, as Barry Rubin contends, the anxious political climate of the Cold War predisposed the Eisenhower administration “toward a greater suspicion of Third World nationalism.”25 In the bipolar international system of the Cold War, neutral and nationalist regimes were almost reflexively viewed with suspicion; as such movements were seen as susceptible to communist infiltration. Consequently, this inclination undoubtedly influenced the administration’s perception of Mossadegh’s nationalist platform, as well as the perceived strength and intentions of the Tudeh party.
Mark Gasiorowski concludes that, “Viewed in this context…the decision to overthrow Mosaddeq appears merely as one more step in the global effort…to block Soviet expansionism.”26 Moreover, commenting on the impact that domestic constituencies had on the formation of foreign policy during the Cold War, George Kennan mused, “There would not be a president who would not stand in certain terror of the anti-communist right wing…and would not temper his actions with a view to placating it and adverting its possible hostility.”27 It is Stephen Ambrose however, who most succinctly and insightfully sums up the impact of the domestic system on Eisenhower’s perceptual threshold. As he states, “the Republicans had just won an election, in part, by demanding to know ‘Who Lost China?’ they were not going to expose themselves to the question ‘Who Lost Iran?”28
The second source of a decision-maker’s perceptual threshold, as detailed by Jervis, is the impact of past experiences.29 Robert Bowie and Richard Immerman contend that while Dwight Eisenhower did not have extensive experience in the Third World, his short time spent in the Philippines during the 1930s had a significant impact on him.30 While in the Philippines Eisenhower engaged in “nation-state building” and “defense planning” programs which “taught him about the importance of winning the heartfelt allegiance of the indigenous populations…”31As the authors assert, “this conviction drove his prescription for meeting the communist challenge.”32
Eisenhower’s past experience as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II also imbued him with a proclivity for “covert and psychological” warfare.33 As Stephen Ambrose describes, during World War II “the success of the British Secret Service had impressed Dwight Eisenhower… simultaneously he commanded a series of covert operations that played a crucial role in the final victory. So, when Eisenhower became President, he encouraged the growth of the CIA…”34 Thus, in the context of the Iranian crisis, Mohammad Mossadegh and his avocation of an independent and neutral foreign policy seemed to preclude the U.S. from truly winning the hearts and minds of the Iranian people and ensuring that Iran remained a staunch American ally. Moreover, if the Tudeh party were allowed to come to power Iran would ostensibly be completely lost to the Western bloc. It is no surprise then that considering his past history Eisenhower employed subversive and covert means to resolve the crisis.
Jervis’ third and final source of a decision-maker’s perceptual threshold, and perhaps the most salient for the Eisenhower administration, is an actor’s perception of international history.35 As Jervis states, “...historical traumas can heavily influence future perceptions. They can either establish a state’s image of the other state involved or can be used as analogies.”36 For many members of the Eisenhower administration, including the president himself, the fall of China to Mao Zedong’s communist forces appears to have been a particularly impactful episode. The Eisenhower administration viewed Iran as potentially a “second China” 37 and thus was driven by “a desire to prevent Iran from going the way of China.”38
The loss of China was so eminent in the mind of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, that he suggested two months after taking office that “the situation was so dangerous and unpredictable [in Iran] that it might be necessary to act promptly and that the United States would have to have a considerable measure of discretion as to what it did.”39 Moreover, in a personal letter written by Eisenhower in June of 1951, he laments the loss of China and fears a similar fate for Iran. He writes, “As to Iran, I think the whole thing is tragic…The situation there has not yet gotten into as bad a position as China, but sometimes I think it stands at the same place that China did only a very few years ago. Now we have completely lost the latter nation…I most certainly hope that this calamity is not repeated in the case of Iran.”40 Eisenhower also confided to a friend that he regretted the “bungling” of the Iranian situation by Truman and Acheson and believed it would be tragic if Iran were to be lost to the Western world as China had been.41
Thus, the perceptual threshold of Dwight Eisenhower seems to have been distilled from the hysteric domestic political climate of the 1950s, his prior experience in the Third World, his proclivity for covert operations, and the potent historical analogy of losing China to communism. This perceptual threshold however, was not unique to the president, as many key officials, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, were operating from a perceptual threshold that was as equally reductive and constructed from the similar components.
This perceptual threshold was a;sp reinforced by the media, whose accounts of the Iranian crisis undoubtedly influenced the “evoked-set” of administration officials. As Robert Jervis argues, “The way people perceive data is influenced…by what they are concerned with at the time they receive information. Information is evaluated in light of the small part of the person’s memory that is presently active- the ‘evoked-set.’”42 Jervis expounds on this argument by stating, “My perceptions of the dark streets I pass walking home from the movies will be different if the film I saw had dealt with spies than if it had been a comedy.”43
In 1952 Time Magazine named Mohammad Mossadegh its Man of the Year. The magazine’s portrait of the Iranian leader however, characterized him as “an appalling caricature of a statesman” who had a “fanatical state of mind” and represented a movement that “would rather see their own nations fall apart than continue their present relations with the West…”44 The article went on to state that “He [Mossadegh] is not in any sense pro-Russian, but he intends to stick to his policies even though he knows full they might lead to control of Iran by the Kremlin.”45
Moreover, commenting on Mossadegh’s attempt to expand his powers as Prime Minister, the New York Times luridly wrote, “Having brought his country to the verge of bankruptcy Premier Mossadegh is now trying to take it further along the road to ruin…what he proposed is in effect a legalized coup d’état that smacks of Hitler’s tactics.”46 Finally, hailing the election of Dwight Eisenhower, the New York Times proclaimed, “The day of sleep-walking is over. It passed with the exodus of Truman and Acheson, and the policy of vigilance replacing Pollyanna diplomacy is evident.”47
These and other media accounts undoubtedly influenced the evoked-set of the Eisenhower administration. Their portrayals of the Iranian crisis cast Mohammad Mossadegh as an irrational leader whose daft policies were increasing the likelihood of a Soviet intervention, and who must be dealt with from a position of force. Consequently, the notes from a National Security Council meeting held on March 11, 1953 indicate that “The President said that he had very real doubts whether, even if we tried unilaterally, we could make a successful deal with Mossadegh…he felt that it might not be worth the paper it was written on…”48
The Misperceptions of the Eisenhower Administration
Thus, operating from a perceptual threshold that was decidedly reductive and thus fatally superficial, which reflected the hysteria of the Cold War and substituted circumspect analysis with historical generalities, the Eisenhower administration repeatedly misperceived the events of the Iranian crisis. In many ways however, the Iranian crisis was an innately unique historical phenomenon, as it was one of the first instances that a satellite challenged a colonial power. As such, Robert Jervis contends in Hypothesis 4 that “misperception is most difficult to correct in the case of a missing concept and least difficult to correct in the case of a recognized but presumably unfilled concept.”49
Indeed, because the Iranian crisis seems to have represented a new paradigm, the perceptual threshold of the Eisenhower administration may have been intrinsically ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. As Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson observed, the United States did not have an adequate response to “the obvious collapse of colonialism” nor to “Communism’s new tactic [of] exploiting nationalism and colonialism for its own purposes.”50 Hence it seems as though broader question of how to interact with a Third World that was becoming increasingly restive and insurgent was a perplexing one for the Eisenhower administration. Consequently, the administration seems to have attributed Iran’s actions to be the result of a communist agenda, rather than its own nationalist aspirations. Rather than alter its perceptual threshold to satisfy the novel nature of the Iranian crisis, the Eisenhower administration awkwardly fit it into its already established perceptual threshold; which as will become apparent, yielded a myriad of misperceptions.
Robert Jervis’ Hypotheses 8 and 9 are particularly salient sources of misperception for the Iranian crisis. Hypothesis 8 states that “…there is an overall tendency for decision-makers to see other states as more hostile than they are.”51 Hypothesis 9 states “…that actors tend to see the behavior of others are more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is…This is the case partly because actors tend to be unfamiliar with the details of another state’s policy-making process.”52
Throughout the Iranian crisis, Mohammad Mossadegh frequently invoked the specter of Soviet intervention in Iran as a negotiation tactic, hopping to use it as leverage to secure a better deal with the West. In a conversation with a British official Mossadegh mentioned that by striking a deal with Iran the diplomat could tell the public “…you were saving Iran from Communism.”53 However the Eisenhower administration misconstrued this negotiating tacit, which reinforced all of its established images. After speaking with the President, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden wrote, “He [Eisenhower] was extremely worried about the position in Persia…the consequences of an extension of Russian control of Persia, which he regarded as a distinct possibility…Musaddiq has evidently again scared the Americans.”54
Eisenhower’s apparent fear was again exacerbated by an Iranian national referendum in 1953, during which Mossadegh won 99% of the votes.55 While this astounding percentage does suggest a degree of foul play or manipulation, as Stephen Ambrose muses, “To Ike, the rigged election looked for sure like Communist tactics. He concluded that if old Mossy was not a Communist himself, then he was either a fool or a stooge for the Communists.”56 Mary Ann Heis echoes this sentiment, observing that for Eisenhower the Iranian leader’ policies were “…further proof of Mossadeq’s simple mind and unfitness for office…”57
Thus, as Jervis’ hypotheses indicate, because of the bipolar and reductive perceptual threshold from which it was operating, the Eisenhower administration remained ignorant of the subtext implicit in Mossadegh’s actions. Consequently, the administration conflated Mossadegh’s negotiating tactics as proof of his communist bent, and believed that the internal workings of Iran were indicative of a deliberate and systematic shift toward the Soviets. Interestingly however, Mossadegh himself is also responsible for the Eisenhower administration’s misperception. As Jervis contends in Hypothesis 6, “…when people spend a great deal of time drawing up a plan…they tend to think that the message about it they wish to convey will be clear to the receiver.”58 As such, Mossadegh may have believed that his American counterpart understood that his allusions to a communist takeover were rhetorical ploys. However, the Eisenhower administration did not receive Mossadegh’s intended message. This confusion further substantiated Eisenhower’s belief in Mossadegh’s Soviet inclinations
Another source of misperception which is pertinent to the Iranian crisis can be found in Jervis’ Hypothesis 11. This premise suggests that “…actors tend to overestimate the degree to which others are acting in response to what they themselves do when the others behave in accordance with the actor’s desires; but when the behavior of the other is undesired, it is usually seen as derived from internal forces.”59 Thus, when Mossadegh initiated negotiations with the Soviet Union about securing much needed economic aid, the Eisenhower administration perceived this as further evidence of the Iranian Premier’s communist inclinations. Although the Truman administration increased economic aid to Iran from $1.6 million to $23.4 million for the fiscal year 1953, the Iranian economy was still in disarray due to the British blockade on the sale of Iranian oil.60 An analysis of a personal correspondence between Mossadegh and Eisenhower reveals Iran’s decision to turn to the Soviets to be the result of the United States’ refusal to furnish Iran with any aid as long as the oil crisis was unresolved.
In a letter sent to President Eisenhower, the transcript of which was reprinted by the New York Times in July of 1953, Mohammad Mossadegh wrote emotively about the obstacles besetting his people. As he wrote, “…the Iranian people have been suffering financial hardships and struggling with political intrigues carried on by the former oil company and the British Government.”61 The Prime Minister continued by lamenting that “Although it was hoped that during Your Excellency’s Administration attention of a more sympathetic character would be devoted to the Iranian situation, unfortunately no change seems thus far to have taken place…”62 Nevertheless, Mossadegh beseeched Eisenhower for more economic aid and diplomatic support to alleviate the economic turmoil beleaguering Iran.“The Iranian nation,” Mossadegh wrote, “hopes that with the help and assistance of the American Government the obstacles placed in the way of sale of Iranian oil can be removed, and that if the American Government is not able to effect a removal…it can render effective economic assistance…”63
In his response to Mossadegh, President Eisenhower wrote that “the Government and people of the United States have cherished and still have deep feelings of friendliness for Iran and the Iranian people.”64 However he continued, “The failure of Iran and of the United Kingdom to reach an agreement with regard to compensation has handicapped the Government of the United States.”65 Thus the President concluded “…in the circumstances, the Government of the United States is not presently in a position to extend more aid to Iran or to purchase Iranian oil.”66 Consequently, having been rebuffed by the United States, Mossadegh turned to the Soviet Union for economic aid and on August 8, 1953 the Soviets announced that they had begun negotiations with Iran about providing aid and purchasing Iranian oil.67
With little appreciation for the impact of its own actions on the Iranian decision, the Eisenhower administration decried Iran’s engagement with the Soviet Union as confirmation of its preconceived suspicions. Eisenhower wrote that he feared “Mossadegh would become to Iran what the ill-fated Dr. Benes had been in Czechoslovakia- a leader whom the Communists, having gained power, would eventually destroy.”68 Thus, as Jervis’ Hypothesis 11 predicts, because the government of Mossadegh acted in a way that was contrary to the desires of the Eisenhower administration, the President believed it was due to Iran’s own machinations, rather than as a response to America’s refusal to provide economic aid.
Robert Jervis also contends that misperception can result if a decision-maker does not consider the available evidence from every angle.69 Simply put, without a devil’s advocate to challenge the assumptions of a decision-maker, misperceptions are apt to occur.70 On this point the account of Kermit Roosevelt, the lead architect of Ajax and its primary executor, provides a revealing account of the decision-making process; a process that seemed to be hampered by the absence of a devil’s advocate.
As Roosevelt writes, the decision t overthrow Mossadegh “…deserved thorough examination, the closest consideration, somewhere at the very highest level.”71 However, Roosevelt states that “It had not received such thought…”72 Moreover, during the meeting in which it was decided to execute operation Ajax, Roosevelt contends that “I was morally certain that almost half of those present, if they had felt free or had the courage to speak, would have opposed the undertaking.”73 Thus, the decision-making process seems to have been beleaguered by the phenomenon explicated by Irving Janis known as “groupthink”. Additionally, as Robert Jervis predicts, the absence of a dissenting voice to challenge the accepted perceptions of the Eisenhower administration and examine the available evidence from all possible angles, yielded a decision that in many respects was founded upon misguided assumptions. Indeed, as Kermit Roosevelt poignantly muses, “…perhaps this is the way government works and from time to time it fails.”74
The Impact of Cognitive Structure
Perhaps the ultimate source of the Eisenhower administration’s misperception of the Iranian crisis is summed up in Jervis’ Hypothesis 14; which states, “actors tend to overlook the fact that evidence consistent with their theories may also be consistent with other views.”75 He continues by cautioning that, “…a piece of information seems in many cases to confirm a certain hypothesis only because we already believe that hypothesis to be correct…”76 In many ways this assertion relates back to Jervis’ second Hypothesis in which he contends, “…decision-makers are apt to err by being too wedded to their established view and too closed to new information,” and that “decision-makers who reject information that contradicts their views- or who develop complex interpretations of it- often do so consciously and explicitly.”77
These two hypotheses suggest that the cognitive structure of a decision-maker is a crucial determinant of misperception. Guy Zv, in his Cognitive Structure and Foreign Policy Change: Israel’s Decision to Talk to the PLO, expounds upon this phenomenon; arguing that the relative complexity and openness of a decision-maker’s cognitive structure may govern how events are perceived and decisions are made. Thus, having constructed the perceptual threshold of the Eisenhower administration and establishing how it begot a series of misperceptions about the Iranian crisis, it is finally necessary to determine how malleable and open to new information the perceptual threshold of the Eisenhower administration was. These factors not only influenced how the Eisenhower perceived, an indeed misperceived, the events of the Iranian crisis, but they also explain the contradictory approaches adopted by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
In his article Ziv analyzes a decision-maker’s “cognitive structure” and “belief system”, two terms that seem to differ from Jervis’ “perceptual threshold” only in semantics and nomenclature. As Ziv asserts “…cognitive psychologists would expect policymakers to systematically dismiss information that challenges their fundamental beliefs.”78 Ziv continues, “The more central an individual’s beliefs…the more stable and resistant those beliefs are to change, because the revision of one’s central beliefs would entail altering many other associated beliefs and convictions.”79 Thus, with these two statements there seems to be a considerable degree of concord between Jervis and Ziv. In order to explain foreign policy change Ziv asserts that two interrelated factors must be examined: the relative openness and complexity of a decision-maker’s cognitive structure.
A decision-maker with a relatively closed cognitive structure will be less likely to believe that new or additional information is required to make a decision; and hence less likely to pursue new information and more likely to tamper with it.80 Consequently, there is an increased likelihood that a decision-maker will not change his or her belief system. Conversely, a decision-maker with an open cognitive structure will be more likely to assimilate new information, “resulting in genuine changes in the belief/disbelief system.”81
Cognitive complexity “is discerned by the degree of differentiation one shows in describing his/her environment.”82 Individuals with a relatively simplistic cognitive structure will tend to describe the world in bipolar, black and white terms; whereas cognitively complex individuals will be more apt to include shades of grey.83 Accordingly, decision-makers with more complex cognitive structures will be more inclined to change or evolve their belief system as compared to decision-makers with more simplistic structures. Importantly, as Ziv states, these two concepts are mutually reinforcing, as “one must be sufficiently open to assimilate information from the environment in order to differentiate and integrate this information.”84
A comparative analysis of the public and private statements made during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations about the Iranian crisis reveals that officials in the Truman administration were comparatively more cognitively open and complex than their counterparts in the Eisenhower administration. Throughout the Iranian crisis, Truman administration officials were generally distinguished by their ability to differentiate between Mossadegh’s strain of virulent nationalism and Soviet communism. Indeed, as Barry Rubin observes, “Many Truman administration policymakers, including Secretary of State Acheson and his Middle East advisors, thought that the region’s nationalists would provide a strong bulwark against Communism.”85
Paul Nitze, head of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, described Mossadegh as a “well-educated elitist…He had no inclination whatsoever toward Communists.”86 Moreover, in 1952 while testifying before the Senate, Dean Acheson observed that, “someone is going to move out and be more nationalist than he [Mossadegh] is, and he has to be the most nationalistic…if he were doing things which were sensible I think he would run great dangers.”87 With these and other statements, Truman officials not only displayed a stark degree of cognitive complexity, but also a nuanced understanding of the domestic political situation from which the Iranian leader was operating.
Generally, the Truman administration also displayed a great degree of cognitive openness. Commenting on Mossadegh, Acheson remarked, “We were, perhaps, slow in realizing that he was essentially a rich, reactionary, feudal-minded Persian inspired by a fanatical hatred of the British and a desire to expel them and all their works from the country regardless of the cost. He was a great actor and a great gambler.”88 This statement reveals that Acheson and others were able to evolve their perception of Mossadegh as they interacted with him; albeit this transition occurred slowly. Furthermore, as Zachary Karabell observes, officials in the Truman administration were able to overcome media stereotypes of Mossadegh as insane and depraved, to develop a “certain grudging admiration” for the Iranian Premier.89
Secretary of State Acheson admitted in his memoirs that he “found compensation, indeed joy, in the qualities of friendly colleagues, of hostile combatants, and sometimes of neutral freebooters like Mosadeq.”90 Not only does this statement indicate a personal affinity for Mossadegh, but Acheson’s casual use of the word “neutral” suggest that he was not threatened by the Iranian leader’s foreign policy vision. George McGhee, an American diplomat, observed that Mossadegh “was…an intelligent man and essentially a sincere Iranian patriot.”91 Finally, the American ambassador to Tehran in 1951, Henry Grady, remarked that Mossadegh “is not to be discounted. He’s a man of unusual ability, well educated at European universities, and of great culture. He is a Persian gentleman.”92
Accordingly, because of the relatively open and complex cognitive structure of key officials in the Truman administration- their ability to differentiate between nationalism and communism and develop a perception of Mossadegh independent of media accounts- the collective administration adopted a decidedly measured and pacific approach to the crisis; attempting to broker a deal between the British and Iranians. As Secretary Acheson stated, “our appraisal of the internal situation in Iran indicates nationalism is a real and potent factor in present situation. Hence we do not believe objectives in Iran can be achieved merely by setting ourselves up in opposition to it.”93 President Truman wrote, “[We] held Cabinet meetings on it, we held Security Council meetings on it…We tried…to get the block headed British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran.”94 Indeed, as the official CIA account of the crisis indicates, the Truman Administration “…feared that a British failure to compromise with Mossadeq would enable him to whip up Iran’s virulent nationalism further, with potentially disastrous results.”95
Secretary Acheson does acknowledge the temptation to employ force, stating that “In simpler times and places armed intervention, known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’, would have resolved this problem in favor of the stronger power…” but ultimately agreed with the President that “our approach to the problem…was that the sovereign power of a state to take such property could not be denied…”96 Zachary Karabell further asserts that the Truman administration never supported a resolution of the crisis by force; however, this “did not signify support for Mosaddeq in Washington, but rather a sense that his removal would not solve the problem…”97 Indeed, as Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett warned, Mossadegh’s removal would “most probably result in…the ultimate absorption of Iran in the Soviet system.”98
Conversely however, the statements made by officials in the Eisenhower administration reveal a comparatively greater degree of cognitive simplicity, and an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Iranian nationalism and Soviet communism. Referring to Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, Richard Immerman observes, “Moscow’s involvement in Iran was negligible, but [John Foster] Dulles could not distinguish between indigenous nationalism and imported communism.”99 Moreover, Immerman continues by asserting that “…in the President’s estimate, no less than in Dulles’s, Mossadegh was either a Communist or a stooge of Communists.”100
Indeed, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proclaimed that, “neutrality has increasingly become an obsolete and except under very exceptional circumstances, it is an immoral and shortsighted conception.”101 Furthermore, in an interesting juxtaposition, during a Senate hearing similar to the one Dean Acheson appeared before less than a year earlier, Dulles remarked, “I recognize full well that there are plenty of social problems and unrest which would exist if there were no such thing as Soviet Communism in the world, but what makes it a very dangerous problem for us is the fact that wherever those things exist, whether it is in Indo-China …or Iran…the forces of unrest are captured by Soviet Communists…”102
Key decision-makers in the Eisenhower administration also proved to be especially cognitively closed in their assessment of the strength and influence of the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh party. National Security Report 136/1, issued during the Truman administration on November 20, 1952, states that “it is now estimated that communist forces will probably not gain control of the Iranian government during 1953.”103 Moreover, the State Department issued a memorandum on August 10, 1953, only five days before the execution of operation Ajax, stating that “It is unlikely that a coup d’état by Mosadeq’s opponents….or by the Tudeh party would be attempted because neither is sufficiently strong or well organized to attempt a coup.”104 Finally on January 25, 1953 the New York Times published an article entitled “Red Threat in Iran Held Exaggerated” in which one Iranian states, “I think the strength of the Communists has been greatly exaggerated by your countryman”, and another unnamed source contests, “The Communists are not ready. They admit they are not ready and they are not optimistic.”105
Nevertheless, administration officials used the threat of communist subversion as a justification to overthrow Mosaddegh. Indeed, one advisor wrote to the president that “there is increasing danger that relations between Iran and the West will deteriorate to such an extent that Iran will fall into Soviet orbit through the acquisition of power by the Tudeh party.”106 However, as Stephen Ambrose shrewdly observes, no one in the Eisenhower administration, “seemed to notice that throughout the crisis, in which the stakes were nothing less than one of the world’s greatest oil pools, the Russians were content to stand aside. Nor did anyone in the West ever point out that Mossadegh had not appealed to his northern neighbor for help.”107 Moreover, one State Department official even commented that the Tudeh party was “well-organized but not very powerful” and that the threat was greater “in the minds of certain U.S. officials than in reality.”108
Thus, by ignoring the intelligence reports and anecdotal evidence that contradicted its belief about the strength of the Tudeh party and refusing to alter its established images, the collective Eisenhower administration displayed a considerably low degree of cognitive openness. According to Guy Ziv, “at the closed extreme…a person tampers with new information from the environment in a way that leaves the belief/disbelief system intact.”109 Furthermore, Robert Jervis’ contends that an actor “can know about a concept but not believe that it reflects an actual phenomenon.”110 In this sense, due to the comparatively closed and simple nature of its cognitive structure, officials in the Eisenhower administration may have known about the weakness of the Tudeh party but simply refused to accept it as true; choosing instead a perception that substantiated their established beliefs.
Consequently, Eisenhower and Dulles decided to remove the Iranian Prime Minister from power, lest his country fall victim to Soviet aggression. As Richard Immerman states, the CIA Chief Allen Dulles “preferred operations to analysis” and “knew that his brother identified Iran as a cold war battlefield, and thus would find the plan to oust Mossadegh intriguing.”111 Interestingly, the only reservation President Eisenhower seemed to have about executing operation Ajax was not whether the U.S. should intervene, but whether U.S. involvement would be revealed.112 As Barry Rubin concludes, “…little further consideration seems to have been given by the Eisenhower administration to the alternative of providing full United States support for Mossadegh and his non-Communist allies to reestablish order.”113
History has exposed Operation Ajax to be a particularly important episode in U. S. foreign policy, the reverberations of which are still felt today. Not only did the operation become the model for subsequent American interventions in the Third World, but the duplicitous American act and subsequent support for the Shah engendered feelings of resentment and mistrust throughout Iranian society. These sentiments fueled the Iranian revolution and continue to taint U.S.-Iranian relations. Thus, the magnitude of this episode necessitates an analysis of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to intervene in Iran beyond the perfunctory explanation that President Eisenhower was acting merely to contain communism or at the behest of American oil companies.
It is interesting that the operation was named “Ajax.” The famous Greek warrior was lauded in Homer’s Iliad for his unrivaled strength and supreme courage. In this sense, perhaps the choice of name was a vain allusion to America’s own self-perception. However, in Sophocles’ play about the Greek hero, Ajax is an arrogant actor driven by a blind hatred for his enemies. Tricked by Athena, Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep, when in fact he believed he was fighting his enemies. It is this misperception, begotten in part out of his single-minded drive to destroy his enemies, which leads to Ajax’s subsequent downfall. Thus, in an ironic episode of literature portending history, by adopting the name “Ajax” the Eisenhower administration seems to have assumed the same fate of Sophocles’ misguided hero.
Thus, an application of the frameworks constructed by Robert Jervis and Guy Ziv reveals the Eisenhower administration’s decision to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh to be the misguided derivative of a series of misperceptions. These misperceptions were largely begotten out of the Eisenhower administration’s reductive and parochial perceptual threshold and exacerbated by the relatively closed and simple cognitive structure of many key officials. Consequently, with little or no appreciation for the domestic politics of Iran, and absent an attempt to distinguish between nationalism and communism, the Eisenhower administration determined that covert and subversive measures were the only appropriate means to resolve the Iranian crisis. It is the mutually reinforcing paradigms of misperception and cognitive structure which provide a more complete and nuanced explanation of the Eisenhower administration’s decision to execute operation Ajax in 1953.
Mitchell Freddura- M.A. Candidate, U.S. Foreign Policy, American University School of International Service, Washington, DC.
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Bowie, Robert, and Richard Immerman. Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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