|Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director and |
Director of Research at GWU National Archives
News of CIA finally acknowledging its role in the 1953 coup in Iran after the National Security Archive Dept at George Washington University used the "Freedom of Information Act" to obtain some new CIA declassified documents, quickly hit the headlines last week.
Headlines such as:
"CIA finally admits it was behind 1953 coup which deposed Iranian prime minister who stood up to the West" - Daily Mail
"CIA documents acknowledge its role in Iran's 1953 coup" - BBC
"CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup" - The Guardian
Reading beyond the news headlines however quickly indicated that none of the authors of these articles with the glitzy headlines had actually bothered to read the documents. The fact that there was nothing new in these documents was also admitted to me in an email correspondence I had with Malcolm Byrne, the director of the GWU National Security Archive Dept who spearheaded the media frenzy about the new declassified documents:
"They [the new documents released] do not change our understanding of the coup in a major way"
The GWU national archives published 35 documents on their web page:
The first document, in the list of CIA documents on the GWU website, is a 200 page account by a CIA operative named Donald Wilber. There is nothing new about this document, it was in fact published by the New York Times
in 2000. Yet even more than a decade since; it seems most media have been content at headline grabbing rather than actually reading the Wilber account.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a news reporter, faced with a one day deadline for publishing, would have the time to read more than 700 pages of documents in such a short time, but nevertheless most news readers and viewers also stop at just reading the sexy headlines and ignore the actual contents of the source. This is how you get the "know it all" plebs in meetings about Iran, who think they know all about the 1953 events in Iran or worse still, this is how the likes of Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's US Secretary of State, ends up apologising to the Islamic Republic about the US involvement in the removal of Mossadeq in 1953. If only Albright or her advisors had read the documents, they would realise those ruling Iran now are the very ones who helped the CIA in their objectives.
Wilbur's account is in fact full of references to the role of the clergy in the overthrow of Mossadeq. In fact there are so many items listed as possible risks to the project, but the one thing both the British and the US spy stations in Iran are fully confident about, is that they can rely on the clergy to carry out their role in the overthrow of Mossadeq.
Appendix B, pp20 from Wilber's documents:
Another excerpt from Wilbur's documents even spells out what the clergy in Iran must do on the "appointed day":
and another excerpt :
The Islamic terrorist group at the time connected to the clergy in Iran, the Fedayeen Islam, is not mentioned explicitly in this excerpt but with a high degree of certainty one can assume it is this group which is referred to in this excerpt:
Threatening the pro-Mossadeq deputies and his entourage by the Fedayeen Islam terrorist group, with "direct action", of course is another word for assassinations.
The other myth is that the documents reveal the project to overthrow Mossadeq is because of oil. The documents in fact suggest that central to the success of the project is the co-operation by the Shah, which is listed as the top risk for the project's failure or success. In order to convince the Shah to co-operate, the documents suggest that an enormous effort must have been made to convince the Shah that the pursuit to overthrow Mossadeq was not because of the oil nationalisation issue, which the Shah was sympathetic towards but that Iran's economy was on the verge of collapse, the Tudeh Party, Iran's Soviet backed Communist Party was becoming increasingly powerful and the American feared Iran would fall to the Soviets. That is why the project is code named "TPAJAX", short for Tudeh Party cleansing in Iran.
It is also debatable whether the overthrow of Mossadeq should be called a coup. It is in fact a quasi-legal move and not a coup. Mossadeq had become increasing dictatorial, he had dissolved the parliament and the dissatisfaction with him had reached even his own close ranks. The documents in fact reveal that his own supporters were thinking of replacing him with another National Front candidate.
In the absence of the parliament, according to Iran's constitution, it was the legal authority of the Shah to dismiss the Prime Minister by issuing a Firman. What the TPAJAX project required to do was to convince the Shah and encourage him to put his signature at the bottom of a Firman (Shah's order) that replaced Mossadeq with the new Prime Minister, Gen. Zahedi.
The project TPAJAX was supposed to have been carried out on the 16th of August, 1953. The plan however had leaked to Mossadeq, this was one of the major risks listed during the planning. Mossadeq was ready with his troops and when the Firman to replace him was delivered to him, his troops arrested the messenger. The Shah fled and this sparked a series of demonstrations by the Tudeh Party across the country calling for a republic, accompanied by fiery speeches from Mossadeq's supporters who demanded the Shah to abdicate. Yet all this helped to mobilise the support for the Shah in a way that surprised everyone.
Wilbur's documents describe the turn around of fortunes:
In another part of the document the make up of these pro-Shah crowds is described as such:
Document 3 on GWU's website list is also not new, it was declassified once in 1981 and again in 2011. Judging by the footnotes in the document, it is thought it was written either in 1974 or after. An unexpected feature of the document (Appendix C) is the inclusion of a series of lengthy excerpts of published accounts of the overthrow designed, apparently, to underscore how poorly the public understood the episode at the time.
Document 4 was written in 1998 and most parts, even the table of contents, are fully excised.
Document 5 is the first in the list that has been recently classified. It is a memo by Kermit Roosevelt written on 14th July, 1953. It is a regular report of the events unfolding in Iran, including the prospect of Mossadeq closing the parliament.
Document 6 is another memo by Kermit Roosevelt written on July 15th. Again it is a report of the legalities of how many MPs must be present for a vote by the deputies to have legal effect. It also mentions article 48 which gives the Shah the authority as the only person to dissolve the parliament.
Document 7, another memo by Kermit Roosevelt on 16th July, 1953, examines Zahedi's military assets and mentions Zahedi is against extra-legal moves to oust Mossadeq and considers this to be a political suicide.
Document 8, is anther report by Kermit roosevelt on the resignation of deputies, the idea being to avert Mossadeq's move to call for a referendum by making sure the minimum required number of deputies will not be present.
Document 9 is a brief on 22nd July, 1953 to Mr. Waller by an unknown writer saying that Roosevelt wishes Mr. Waller to pursue the preparation of a statement after the fall of Mossadeq. Document 10 is the draft text of that prepared statement.
Document 11 is a proposed commendation for the communication specialists who kept the CIA headquarters informed as the events unfolded.
Document 12 is another request commendation specifically asked for John Waller.
Document 13 is mostly excised, except for one line which says perhaps its best an unspecified person should not receive commendation for security implications.
Document 14 is written on September 10, 1953 and is a memo by the acting chief of Division of Africa and Near East and is giving an update on the latest status of the Tudeh Party.
Document 15, written by Kermit Roosevelt on 21 Sept, 1953 is reporting on the internal power struggle of the Zahedi government. It also mentions that Zahedi's government had been financially supporting Ayatollah Behbahani. The influential Ayatollah was responsible for organising a mob of thugs and hoodlums in support of the Shah on 28th Feb, 1953. He also rallied behind the Shah in the events of 19th August later that year but in June 1963, Behbahani backed Ayatollah Khomeini's reactionary opposition to the Shah's reforms.
Document 15 also reveals that Ayatollah Behbahani's son, Ja'afar wanted "the portfolio of Minister of National Economy, but because Zahedi had refused to give him the job, it had caused a rift between Zahedi and Ayatollah Behbahani.
Document 16, bullet point 5, talks about Zahedi's restlessness in wishing to execute Mossadeq and that he had sent 5 messages to the Shah requesting him to order the Military Tribunal to expedite execution of Mossadeq and others but the Shah had not complied.
Document 17 is yet another memo by Kermit Roosevelt and it talks about the Shah's fears of an imminent Tudeh Party attack.
Document 18 reveals two further payments to Ayatollah Behbahani by Gen. Zahedi.
In Document 19, written by Roosevelt on 20th October, 1953, Zahedi is reported to have visited Ayatollah Kashani's house and how friendly the meeting was.
Documents 20 and 21 are just some mumbo jumbo and the rest of the documents are British records, previously released, mostly in 1978, where the meetings are not about the events of 1953 but in which there may be a hint or a small mention about 1953 with the British mostly requiring to be put in the loop if the relevant documents are to be released and declassified by the Americans.
So there you have it, nothing new in the documents, much ado about nothing, just a brilliant marketing strategy by the GWU National Security Archive department by banking on the news media not having time to read the contents but keen to create the headlines to make the department get a lot of attention and possibly more funds.