Operation Oops!

Operation Ajax: A case study in misperception


Operation Oops!
by Mitchell Freddura

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.

Operation Ajax

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.

Works Cited

Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987.

Ambrose, Stephen. Ike's Spies. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981.

Behrooz, Maziar. "The 1953 Coup in iran and the Legacy of the Tudeh." In Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, by Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, 102-126. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Bowie, Robert, and Richard Immerman. Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Byrne, Malcolm. "The Road to Intervention." In Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, by Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, 201-227. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Daniel, Clifton. "Red Threat in Iran Held Exaggerated." ProQuest. January 25, 1953. //search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview... (accessed November 2011).

Gasiorowski, Mark. "The 1953 Coup d'Etat Against Mosaddeq." In Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, by Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, 227-260. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Gasiorowski, Mark. "The 1953 Coup D'etat in Iran." International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19, no. 3 (1987): 261-286.

Heiss, Mary Ann. "Culture CLash: Gender, Oil, and Iranian Nationalism." In Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, by Dennis Merrill and Thomas Paterson, 339-346. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Immerman, Richard. John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1999.

Jervis, Robert. "Hypotheses on Misperception." World Politics 20, no. 3 (1968): 454-479.

Karabell, Zachary. Architects of Intervention. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1999.

Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah's Men. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008.

Koch, Scott A. "Zendebad, Shah": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddeq, August 1953. June 1998. //www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB126/iran... (accessed November 2011).

Pollack, Kenneth. The Persian Puzzle. New York City: The Random House Publishing Group, 2004.

Reuhsen, Moyara. "Operation 'Ajax' Revisited: Iran, 1953." Middle Eastern Studies 29, no. 3 (1993): 467-486.

Robarge, David S. "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror." Central Intelligence Agency. April 17, 2007. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-o... (accessed November 2011).

Roosevelt, Kermit. Countercoup the Struggle for the Control of Iran. New Yory Ckity: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979.

Rubin, Barry. Paved with Good Intentions. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1980.

The Executive Secretary. A Report to the National Security Council. November 20, 1952. //www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB126/iran... (accessed November 2011).

The New York Times. "A Bid for Dictatorship." ProQuest. July 15, 1952. //search.proquest.com.proxyau.wrlc.org/hnpnew... (accessed November 2011).

The New York Times. "Dulles Formulated and Conducted U.S. Foreign Policy for More Than Six Years." On this Day. May 25, 1959. //www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/... (accessed November 2011).

The New York Times. "Text of the Letters by Mossadegh and Eisenhower." ProQuest. July 10, 1953. //search.proquest.com/hnpnewyorktimes/docview... (accessed November 2011).

Time Magazine. "Man of the Year: Challenge of the East." Time Magazine. January 7, 1952. //www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,8... (accessed November 2011).

U.S. Department of State. Proposed Course of Action with Respect to Iran. August 10, 1953. //www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB126/iran... (accessed November 2011).

Ziv, Guy. "Cognitive Structure and Foreign Policy Change." International Relations, 2011: 1-29.



Mitchell Freddura

by MM on

May I suggest that, before you publish your results, that you review the US and the British archives (See, e.g., Anahid's reference) to see what the operators and the post-operation analyses were all about.

If you intend to re-write the history, you need damn good references/evidence, and you need to site bona fide references as you are writing the article/dissertation.

Anahid Hojjati


by Anahid Hojjati on

If you remove my comment based on Sohrab's flag, that will say a lot. Are we now disputing that some Iranians are idiot?


holy moly me oh my....

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Would you happen to have a condensed version of this blog for less literate folks like myself with only 45 mins for lunch break to read? 

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."

Anahid Hojjati


by Anahid Hojjati on

Many commentators including you on IC are not transparentm, and Iranians are tired of lack of transparency. rest of your comment is just an excuse otherwise us has admitted to its role in 1953 but some iranians are still debating it. now this is "kaase daghtar az ash".



by MM on

You're wrong - TP in TP Ajax stands for Trita Parsi, in anticipation of his holy appearance in the Iranian-American politics.  OMG, I cannot believe I used wrong and Trita in the same sentence.  TP's gonna excommunicate me!

Anglophile - Very funny, though.


Dear Ms. Hojjati,

by Sohrab_Ferdows on

You do not need to be rude to express a point of view. Some people may believe that a real research requires access to "real documents" rather than a generic governmental website with some unfounded general political views which might concur with appeasement of Islamic Regime that has been brought up with their assistance and full participation for whatever reasons. It may be good enough for you to read a few lines in a website to decide about something but others may prefer to see the real evidence to make such decisions. Please be polite if you expect to be taken seriously. I flagged your comment as abusive not because I do not agree with you but because it was rude.

Anahid Hojjati

This much US department says

by Anahid Hojjati on


 Amazingly US department says as noted below but some idiot Iranians don't admit it:"

In 1951, the government of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (alternatively spelled Mossadeq) nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In the face of strong public support for Mossadegh, the Shah fled to Rome. Although Mossadegh was not a communist, the U.S. and U.K. feared that his links to the communist Tudeh party would cause Iran to align with the Eastern Bloc. Consequently, in August 1953, the U.S. and U.K. engineered a coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh, during which pro-Shah army forces arrested the Prime Minister. The Shah returned to Iran soon thereafter and, fearing further opposition, began to govern Iran in an increasingly authoritarian manner."

from the link



History or Myth?

by Sohrab_Ferdows on


Dear Mitchell Freddura

Your presumptions about an event called "operation tpajax" as a "true historical event" is completely misguided and possibly influenced by some fictional writings which all have their roots in a fake CIA document that was sold by a charlatan to New York Times Magazine for a good price.  If you are really interested in researching the history, you should realize that documents which came out of the bags of a magazine with certain interests and agenda cannot be reliable source for history. Neither will be all the writings which have been based on such document to create some false intellectual image for some writers while filling their pockets with undeserved wealth.

If you are really interested in researching about such event, I suggest you look into the real declassified documents of CIA, not the ones which are presented by non-governmental organizations like New York Times Magazine and National Security Archives (whose documents mostly come from NYTM in this case). Just to let you know, as far as my own research shows, there is not a single word mentioned in any CIA document or any other documents of US government regarding an operation called tpajax. Professor Daniel Yergin has dedicated a minor portion of his book, "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power" to this matter, has quoted Kermit Roosevelt (whom he met) saying what he helped with in Iran, was "giving Iranians an option to choose between an established system and unknown future" by encouraging supporters of shah to display their support publicly. Yergin also mentions a meeting between Roosevelt and President Eisenhower a couple of days after so called operation, after which Eisenhower mentions tpajax in his diary as "nothing but dime novel". All the diaries of President Eisenhower are now available in public domain and the notes in that diary for that particular date show nothing about such meeting without having any part of the page blanked out. As a matter of fact, there is no mention of meeting between President Eisenhower and Kim Roosevelt at any time during the whole year of 1953 and after that. This leads me to believe that the story mentioned by Professor Yergin in his book about the meeting with Eisenhower, probably was another fib made by imaginative mind of Kermit Roosevelt.

This whole story was first brought up by someone named Donald Wilber who sold the copy of so called CIA document to NYT magazine. Knowing Donald Wilber who tried to present himself as an "Indiana Jones" kind of character and sold Persian carpets for living while cooperating with central intelligence agency, can help one to understand why he have been interested in making up stories of that sort.

Here, I quote a segment from Loy Henderson (American ambassador to Iran in 1953) interview in oral history published by Truman Library just to have a glimpse at what was really happening in Iran in those days:

"HENDERSON: In June 1953 I was ordered back to the United States for consultation, and since I had had no leave, the Department suggested that I take some on the way back. The situation in Iran had become so complicated that the Department felt it might be better that I delay my return. Iran was in a desperate financial situation.


Mossadegh had even spent the funds that had been set aside to pay pensions to the retiring civil servants and army personnel. Dissatisfaction with his administration had increased and there was tension. The Department apparently felt that if I should appear in Tehran, Mossadegh would ask me to see him, would have photographs taken of our chatting together, and would try to convince the public that the United States was supporting him. I spent a couple of weeks as a guest of our High Commissioner to Austria in the Austrian Alps, then I went to Beirut for some sea bathing. On the evening of Saturday, August 15, I heard from the radio in my hotel room that the Shah, who had been resting in his palace on the Caspian Sea north of Iran, had sent a messenger to Mossadegh, informing him that he had accepted the latter’s resignation and had appointed General Zahedi as Prime Minister; that Mossadegh had refused to resign and had arrested the army officer


who had served as a messenger; and that the Shah had flown to Baghdad.

I was so upset by this news that I could not sleep during the night, and I reproached myself for not having been on my job in Tehran. The next morning I called the Embassy by telephone and asked that it send our Naval Attaché’s plane for me. I arrived in Tehran in the afternoon of Monday, August 17, and was met at the airport by Mossadegh’s son, members of the Embassy, and a detachment of soldiers to accompany me to the Embassy. On my way to the Embassy, I found the city in confusion. Mobs with red flags were tearing down statues, destroying street signs which bore the name of the Shah or his father, pillaging shops, and beating up some of the shopkeepers.

I asked Mossadegh’s son to arrange an interview for me with his father, and that evening I had a meeting with the Embassy staff, at which I


learned that during the last two days many attacks had been made upon Europeans in the city and the suburbs; that the -chauffeur of our Naval Attaché had been stabbed while trying to defend the automobile; and that many Americans were being threatened.

On Tuesday morning I received a telegram from our consulate in Isfahan stating that several thousand persons bearing Communist flags and shouting in Persian "Yankees, go home" had been parading in front of the consulate.

I met with Mossadegh late Tuesday evening. I found him fully dressed and neatly groomed sitting in his reception room, an indication that he was planning a formal conversation. He began at once to upbraid me for the Shah’s attempt to dismiss him. He said that there could be no doubt that the United States was responsible for the Shah’s action, and it would now be held responsible for the aftermath.


I said that I had not come to argue about who was responsible for what had taken place but to discuss the danger in which American citizens in Iran now found themselves. I said, "Communist mobs seem to be in control of the streets; and the police, apparently under orders, are not attempting to control them; foreigners are being attacked; one of our Embassy chauffeurs has been stabbed. In Isfahan thousands of demonstrators, carrying Communist flags and using threatening language, are demonstrating in front of our consulate. Unless you can give me assurance that this violence and threats of violence will be stopped and American citizens and property will be given protection, I shall immediately order all American women and children and all the official American citizens whose presence here is not urgently needed to leave the country."

"If you pull out all the Americans, it will look to the whole world," said Mossadegh, "that


the United States is entirely deserting Iran."

I answered, "We would not be deserting Iran; I would be here and all the Americans who are needed would still be here, but as long as the police do not give them proper protection I do not want those who are not really needed to remain. If they do, incidents can take place which could seriously injure the relations between our countries."

Mossadegh picked up his telephone and talked for a few minutes with the chief of the police. It was apparent to me that he had previously given orders that they were not to interfere with the demonstrators unless they should get completely out of hand, and since he rarely left his residence he had not been fully aware of what was going on. Over the phone in my presence he gave orders that a stop should be put immediately to rowdyism and violence. When I left Mossadegh about an hour later the police, apparently with


pleasure, were busy dispersing the gangs in the streets and trying to restore order. I understood later that the Communists were furious at the interference of the police and returned to their homes feeling that Mossadegh was double-crossing them.

Early on the following morning, Wednesday, August 19, 1953, an important date, I received word while I was having breakfast that an uprising was taking place in the lower part of the city. I hurried across the Embassy garden to the chancery where I learned that a group of members of a well-known athletic club had suddenly emerged from the club with various kinds of arms calling upon the people to help them overthrow the Mossadegh regime and restore the Shah. In this club its members were accustomed to work hard developing their torsos in accordance with certain Iranian traditional exercises, which included the swinging of heavy clubs. The leaders of the


demonstration, therefore, were men with almost frightening physiques, and they were rapidly joined by people on the street. Members of my staff whom I had sent out to find what was going on kept us informed by telephone. Within an hour the demonstrators reached the building which houses one of the leading pro-Mossadegh newspapers and destroyed the plant. I was confident that when the crowd would come into contact with the military, it would disperse, but to my surprise the military joined it. By noon the demonstrators had taken over the Foreign Office and a little later the area surrounding our Embassy compound was full of cheering people. General Zahedi, whom the Shah had appointed to succeed Mossadegh, and who had been in hiding, came out and seated on a tank moved through the applauding, waving crowds.

Late in the evening Ardeshir Zahedi, the son of the new Prime Minister, came to see me. He said that the leading cities of the country and most of


the countryside were now under the control of the army, which had come out for the Shah and his father. He added that his father had asked him to inquire if I had any suggestions to offer. After a minute’s thought I said, "Yes, I have three suggestions. In the first place, I think every effort should be made to prevent Mossadegh from being harmed or killed. If he is taken prisoner, care should be exercised to make sure he is not physically abused. The question of his punishment, if any, should be left to the courts. In the second place, a circular telegram might be sent out at once to all the Iranian diplomatic missions and consular offices informing them that the new Prime Minister appointed by the Shah has taken over and they should continue to transact their business as usual. No revolution has taken place, merely a change in government. My third suggestion is that a similar announcement might be made for the benefit of the civil


servants. They should be told by radio that they should report to work tomorrow as usual."

During the next twenty-four hours, Mossadegh was captured and imprisoned pending a trial. Most of the Iranian diplomatic and consular offices carried on as usual. On the following day the governmental machinery was for the most part functioning. Zahedi proceeded to set up a new cabinet for the Shah’s approval. The Shah, who was in Rome on the day that Zahedi took office, returned to Tehran on August 22. I have never seen Tehran so happy as it was when it greeted him back.

MCKINZIE: Okay. Shortly after that there was an article in the American press, that you may know about, contending that Allen Dulles and Norman Schwarzkopf and a sister of the Shah . . .

HENDERSON: To my knowledge Allen Dulles was not in Tehran at all during that period. I am quite


sure that Schwarzkopf had nothing to do with the affair. I am not prepared, however, to say that the CIA had nothing to do with some of these developments. It has been charged that the CIA inspired the uprising that started with the march of the members of the athletic club in Tehran. Whether it did or did not, I honestly don’t know. When I returned to Tehran, I was under the impression that Mossadegh, at least for a time, had won his long conflict with the Shah. When I talked with Mossadegh on the evening of August 18, I had no idea that an attempt would be made to overthrow him by force. I was surprised by the events that took place the next day, and I think that if they are ever published, my telegrams to the Department will support what I am saying. I am sure of one thing, however. No matter how skilled the CIA might be, it could not have engineered the overthrow of Mossadegh if the people of Iran had not overwhelmingly been in favor of the return of the Shah."


End of quote


Good luck with your research



by aynak on


Dear Mitchell: 

 "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."


I am surprised you have not factored in the death of Stalin in March of  1953 in your analysis.   Had you done so, and combined with the follow on coup in 1954 against Arbenz government , the original theory of fear of expansion of communism as the main driving force behind these coups can become ever more clear.   The difference being:

both East Germany and Hungary were *already* under the sphere of control of at the time ever expanding --then Soviet union.    However both Guatemala as well as Iran, where crucial pieces in a global thug of war over the control and expansion into areas with strategic importance. 

Sorry, but a misunderstanding would not cut it when much stronger reasons can be used to rationalize these coups. 


Jeesh Daram


by Jeesh Daram on

Your comment about the source of the name AJAX was priceless and very funny. Good job.

Ari Siletz

Excellent read, good lessons for today!

by Ari Siletz on

Couple of examples:

 "Throughout the Iranian crisis, Mohammad Mossadegh frequently invoked the
specter of Soviet intervention in Iran as a negotiation tactic, hoping
to use it as leverage to secure a better deal with the West."

Lesson 1: Don't over-scare your opponent, as in threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. It will come back to bite you! 


"Eisenhower’s apparent fear was again exacerbated by an Iranian national
referendum in 1953, during which Mossadegh won 99% of the votes. 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."

Lesson 2: Don't rig elections. If you don't trust your own legitimacy expect your opponents not to fear the consequences of overthrowing you.

And so much more...Thanks for the post.

Mitchell Freddura

What's in a Name

by Mitchell Freddura on

I greatly appreciate all the comments and hope people enjoy the article. The 1953 coup is an area of great interest for me and I enjoy researching it and looking at it from different angles. As for my conclusion, I understand that the operation was not named for the Sophocles play and that its origins were in fact much less poetic, but I found the connection between the Sophocles play and my argument about misconception fitting. As I wrote, in the play Ajax's downfall was the result of misconception, which also plagued the US operation of the same name. In fact, its all the more serendipitous considering that the choice of the name was completely unrelated to the play and yet the Greek hero and US experienced the same fate. Thanks again for the comments!


How could you get it so wrong?

by anglophile on

Even Mosaddegh's nephew, Diba, (author of the most impartial !!! biography of his uncle) almost got it right while our master degree candidate has not bothered to research the origin of the operation. Operation TP Ajax was short for Tudeh Party Ajax named after a popular bathroom and toilet cleanser and alluding to the same fate for the Tudeh Party as the bathroom germs after cleansed by the Ajax powder:  //www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LX8h7fBkF0  Mitchell Freddura, please go into political fiction - we need imaginative minds like yours in this sector so badly. 


Operation Oops

by fdiba on

This is an interesting and fresh look at the subject with a worthwhile analysis.

However, the author gives too much credence to the philosophical education of the plotters. The operation was not named after Ajax of Sophocles but, much more mundanely, after the name of the household cleaner!

Farhad Diba

(Author: "Dr.Mohammad Mossadegh; A Political Biography")

Esfand Aashena

This website is not a place for doctoral dissertations!

by Esfand Aashena on

We like simple articles and belogs for jabbing purposes!  This is too much! 

Everything is sacred