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How the United States Destroyed Democracy in Iran in 1953

Re-print of 16 April 2000 New York Times article; with an introduction by Francisco Gil-White

Historical and Investigative Research, 5 Jan 2006

...[Central Intelligence] agency [CIA] officers orchestrating the Iran coup worked directly with royalist Iranian military officers, handpicked the prime minister's replacement, sent a stream of envoys to bolster the shah's courage, directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers.

The above is a quote from a 16 April 2000 article in the New York Times, giving an account of how the CIA destroyed Iranian democracy in 1953, and which HIR reprints below. This episode, like many others, demonstrates the colonial attitude that the US ruling elite has towards the rest of the world, and just how little respect for democracy it has.

NOTE: You may have noticed in the quote above that the CIA "planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers" in order to deceive the US citizenry about what it was doing. A companion NYT article (at right »»), from the same day, by the same author, reveals the near-total control over the US press that US Intelligence had already in 1953, and how it used this in the Iranian coup, though the NYT's editors try hard to prevent the reader from drawing the obvious lesson.


A few prefatory words to place the NYT article below in historical context.
by Francisco Gil-White

In this preface I will do two things:

1) Place the 1953 coup in the context of general US foreign policy around the world.

2) Place the 1953 coup in the context of British and US foreign policy towards Iran.

1. T
he 1953 coup in global perspective

In 1988, historian Christopher Simpson showed, with documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that US Intelligence had not, as many believed, recruited a few Nazi war criminals into its intelligence services after WWII, but that the CIA itself had been created by absorbing in secret tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals. You read correctly.

Simpson, Christopher. 1988. Blowback: America's recruitment of Nazis and its effects on the Cold War. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

To read a summary of that story, with links to articles covering some of the material, visit:

In 1945 the US created US Intelligence by recruiting tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals; from "Is the US an Ally of Israel?: A Chronological Look at the Evidence"; Historical and Investigative Research; by Francisco Gil-White

Now, this is the kind of information that would justify the reasonable expectation of a thoroughly cynical US foreign policy. And, indeed, as the NYT article on the 1953 coup in Iran (which HIR reprints below) states,

The [1953 Iranian] operation, code-named TP-Ajax, was the blueprint for a succession of C.I.A. plots to foment coups and destabilize governments during the cold war -- including the agency's successful coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the disastrous Cuban intervention known as the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

This kind of activity also included the sponsorship of the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, in the 1980s, right as the US government was also arming to the teeth the Islamist Iranian mullahs (the Iran-Contra scandal).

The regimes the Nazi-full CIA installed or defended with its covert terrorism were invariably right-wing and repressive regimes, and their brutality against ordinary, innocent people was sometimes simply astonishing. The regimes the CIA removed, by contrast, were always more democratic -- sometimes impressively democratic. This was certainly the case for both the Iranian government which the CIA deposed in 53, and the Guatemalan government which the CIA deposed in 54. Since US officials, throughout the Cold War, claimed to be defending democracy and the free world, it follows that US foreign policy has not merely been cynically imperialist but thoroughly hypocritical. Given that the point of this series of articles is to improve our understanding of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, the generally cynical and dishonest imperialism of the US ruling elite, which has never agreed with the wishes of ordinary US citizens, must be kept in mind.

2. T
he 1953 coup in Iranian perspective

Before the 1953 CIA coup, the British were the dominant power in Iran. The most important aspect of British power in Iran was its control of Iranian oil. Historian Nikki Keddie summarizes the relationship:

“Iran…[had] no say in the [oil] company, not even the right to see its books, …[and was] paying high prices for Iranian oil. …The AIOC [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] paid much more money in income taxes to the British government than it did in royalties to the Iranian government. …The AIOC was seen [by the Mossadeq-led Iranian patriots] as a major cause and channel for British influence and control over Iran.”[3]

Keddie explains that the royalties paid to Iran were just 26% of total net profits, but some of that money was recovered by the British anyway because, as we see above, the AIOC (the biggest industry in Iran) sold oil to the Iranians at high prices! Iran was a British possession in all but name.

To guarantee themselves such control over Iran the British had installed their own man in power in a coup in 1921.[4] This man’s name was originally Reza Khan, but he later had himself crowned monarch and became Reza Shah (more about him in a forthcoming piece). He was the father of Mohammed Reza Shah, the man whom the CIA later installed in power in 1953 when the democratic and progressive government of Mohammed Mossadeq, an Iranian patriot, tried to stop the plunder of Iran. Historian Nikki Keddie explains the consequences of the CIA coup:

“The overthrow of the nationalist Mosaddeq regime in August 1953 by an American- and British-supported coup changed postwar Iran’s situation in several basic ways, most of which remained important for the quarter century of ensuing dictatorial rule. First, the United States, ...[which already] dominated in military and governmental advice and support, now became the dominant power in Iran. This was reflected in the United States taking a 40 percent share in the oil consortium in 1954.”[5]

So after the 1953 CIA coup, Iranian oil belonged to Britain and the US, not just to Britain. But it still didn’t belong to Iran.

The man whom the 1953 CIA coup installed in power after deposing the popular and democratic Mohammed Mossadeq was the shah (king) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. This man was a brutal thug. To keep himself in power, he made use of “SAVAK, the secret police force” which the CIA had created for him, and which was “the largest force of its kind outside the Communist bloc.” This iron-fisted dictator resorted to “torture...of political prisoners... and military courts,” the better to quash all opposition and ensure a steady flow of Iranian wealth to the United States.[1] The excerpt below, from the New York Times, writing in the last days of the shah, does not openly say that Iran under the shah was a slave state of the United States, but it comes close.

“During the last 20 years the United States has sold more than $18 billion worth of arms to Iran and has helped organize and equip a vast security system that gives its ruler, Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, absolute control of the country.

In exchange for that support the shah has committed his country to protect the vital routes out of the Persian Gulf that carry more than half the oil used by Western countries. Furthermore, the income from his arms purchases plus the American technology he buys to help develop his country return to the United States almost $2 annually for every $1 the United States spends on Iranian oil.”[2]

The United States was not really spending any money on Iranian oil. As we see the New York Times explaining above, the shah “return[ed] to the United States almost $2 annually for every $1 the United States spends on Iranian oil.” This means that all of the money the US was paying in royalties to what the newspapers called the ‘Iranian government’ -- in reality a group of gangsters installed by US Intelligence -- was coming back to the US as payments to US arms manufacturers. In addition, the shah was extorting punitive taxes from the impoverished Iranian peasants, and these taxes were used to buy more US goods. The ‘Iranian government’ spent on

“big showy projects, supersophisticated and expensive weapons, and fancy consumer goods, all of which put Iran in a position of long-term dependence on Western countries, especially the United States, and which were profitable to American companies.”[6]

Iran was not really a country. It was a feudal fractal: the Iranian peasantry was composed of serfs to the Iranian ruling class (in a frankly medieval arrangement), and Iran, as a whole, was a feudal colony of the US. In order to enforce this state of affairs, the US-installed regime attacked the Iranian population with brutal repression.

“...under the dictatorial regime that developed after 1953 there were increasingly only two ways to deal with opposition, whether religious, nationalist, or Marxist. One was repression, including jailing, torture, and killing (the latter two especially in the 1970s).

...One part of SAVAK [the secret service] was involved in the jailings, beatings, and tortures that became notorious in the years before the [1979] revolution, but there were also suave, educated operatives in coats and ties who persuaded people of the dangers of speaking or acting out of turn. In addition, the shah maintained other intelligence services, partly to check on each other. ...With jail, torture, or even death as the possible stakes, it is not surprising that even underground or exile oppositional groups were decimated and suspicious or that within Iran people were increasingly hesitant to discuss politics at all.”[7]

The point of reviewing the above historical facts is so that you can see how, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, nothing changed except for the rhetoric. The Iranian people continued to live in a brutally oppressive police state (except that it claimed to derive its authority from Allah), and the United States continued to plunder Iran (except that Khomeini's new ‘Iranian government’ claimed in public to be an enemy of the United States).

As we saw, Khomeini, immediately after taking power, absorbed SAVAK (i.e. the CIA) wholesale and made it his own repressive security service. Then, he provoked a war against Iraq, for which he would need US military equipment because Iran's entire war materiel was US-made. The US ruling elite claimed in public to be an enemy of the new ‘Iranian government,’ and yet it gave this government $5.5 billion in money collected from the American taxpayers after Khomeini seized the US embassy in Tehran.[8] Then, the US sent the mullahs billions worth in military equipment, every year, for the duration of the Iran-Iraq war.[9] The new ‘Iranian government’ bought these arms with money collected with repression from the impoverished Iranians -- the same impoverished Iranians who were sent to die in suicidal ‘human wave’ attacks on the Iraqi battlefront. As before, therefore, a repressive government in Iran was attacking the Iranian people and enriching the United States, and in particular the United States military industry.

This suggests the obvious hypothesis: Since Khomeini betrayed the Iranian revolution of 1979 by imposing Islamism in a coup d'état (more on this later), and since he behaved like a US asset (even if he talked like an enemy in public), then perhaps this ‘Iranian government,’ like the shah's, has always belonged to the US. This would require the US to have a pro-Islamist policy, but as we have seen in the previous piece in this series, a mountain of evidence is strongly consistent with that hypothesis.

The NYT obviously takes a different view. The article on the 1953 coup (reproduced in full below) says:

The [1953 CIA] coup was a turning point in modern Iranian history and remains a persistent irritant in Tehran-Washington relations. It consolidated the power of the shah, who ruled with an iron hand for 26 more years in close contact with the United States. He was toppled by militants in 1979. Later that year, marchers went to the American Embassy, took diplomats hostage and declared that they had unmasked a 'nest of spies' who had been manipulating Iran for decades. The Islamic government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini [which replaced the shah] supported terrorist attacks against American interests largely because of the long American history of supporting the shah.

The NYT represents the Ayatollah Khomeini as a genuine enemy of the United States. That's one hypothesis. But the same NYT article reports stuff that is consistent with my hypothesis: when the CIA carried out the 1953 coup, it was ready to make this an Islamist coup if that became practical or necessary:

“...the C.I.A...General Zahedi and other key Iranian agents...agreed to start a counterattack on Aug. 19, sending a leading cleric from Tehran to the holy city of Qum to try to orchestrate a call for a holy war against Communism. (The religious forces they were trying to manipulate would years later call the United States ‘the Great Satan’)”

The democratic Mossadegh government was not communist, but this was 1953, when senator Joe McCarthy was at the height of his power with witch hunts in the United States against alleged anti-American communists supposedly hiding in every cupboard; so in this paranoid climate, the US ruling elite could call anybody it wanted removed a 'communist' and get away with it.

But what matters most here is what we learn above: that US foreign policy planners certainly had absolutely nothing against mobilizing Muslim holy wars in Iran in 1953, in order to put their own people in power. The NYT makes it seem as though the attempt to use Muslim leaders failed, but a Washington Post article from 1978 explained that in 1953, [Kermit] Roosevelt [the leader of the CIA coup] mobilized huge pro-shah crowds through religious Moslem leaders.[10] So the CIA had a tight relationship with Iranian Muslim leaders in 1953 -- the same Muslim leaders whom Ayatollah Khomeini again mobilized in 1979.

Below is the New York Times article with some details of the 1953 coup that put the brutal Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in power.


SECRETS OF HISTORY: The C.I.A. in Iran -- A special report.; How a Plot Convulsed Iran in '53 (and in '79)

The New York Times,  April 16, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition - Final,  Section 1; Page 1; Column 3; Foreign Desk,  4522 words,  SECRETS OF HISTORY: The C.I.A. in Iran -- A special report.; How a Plot Convulsed Iran in '53 (and in '79),  By JAMES RISEN


For nearly five decades, America's role in the military coup that ousted Iran's elected prime minister and returned the shah to power has been lost to history, the subject of fierce debate in Iran and stony silence in the United States. One by one, participants have retired or died without revealing key details, and the Central Intelligence Agency said a number of records of the operation -- its first successful overthrow of a foreign government -- had been destroyed. 

But a copy of the agency's secret history of the 1953 coup has surfaced, revealing the inner workings of a plot that set the stage for the Islamic revolution in 1979, and for a generation of anti-American hatred in one of the Middle East's most powerful countries. The document, which remains classified, discloses the pivotal role British intelligence officials played in initiating and planning the coup, and it shows that Washington and London shared an interest in maintaining the West's control over Iranian oil. 

The secret history, written by the C.I.A.'s chief coup planner and obtained by The New York Times, says the operation's success was mostly a matter of chance. The document shows that the agency had almost complete contempt for the man it was empowering, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, whom it derided as a vacillating coward. And it recounts, for the first time, the agency's tortured efforts to seduce and cajole the shah into taking part in his own coup. 

The operation, code-named TP-Ajax, was the blueprint for a succession of C.I.A. plots to foment coups and destabilize governments during the cold war -- including the agency's successful coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the disastrous Cuban intervention known as the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In more than one instance, such operations led to the same kind of long-term animosity toward the United States that occurred in Iran. 

The history says agency officers orchestrating the Iran coup worked directly with royalist Iranian military officers, handpicked the prime minister's replacement, sent a stream of envoys to bolster the shah's courage, directed a campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist Party, and planted articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers. 

But on the night set for Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's overthrow, almost nothing went according to the meticulously drawn plans, the secret history says. In fact, C.I.A. officials were poised to flee the country when several Iranian officers recruited by the agency, acting on their own, took command of a pro-shah demonstration in Tehran and seized the government. 

Two days after the coup, the history discloses, agency officials funneled $5 million to Iran to help the government they had installed consolidate power.

The outlines of the American role in the coup were disclosed in Iran at the outset and later in the memoirs of C.I.A. officers and other published accounts. But many specifics have remained classified, and the secret history obtained by The New York Times is the first detailed government account of the coup to be made public. 

The C.I.A. has been slow to make available the Iran files. Two directors of central intelligence, Robert Gates and R. James Woolsey, vowed to declassify records of the agency's early covert actions, including the coup. But the agency said three years ago that a number of relevant documents had been destroyed in the early 1960's. 

A C.I.A. spokesman said Friday that the agency had retained about 1,000 pages of documents related to the coup, besides the history and an internal account written later. He said the papers destroyed in the early 1960's were duplicates and working files.

The chief State Department historian said that his office received a copy of the history seven years ago but that no decision on declassifying it had yet been made. 

The secret history, along with operational assessments written by coup planners, was provided to The Times by a former official who kept a copy. 

It was written in March 1954 by Dr. Donald N. Wilber, an expert in Persian architecture, who as one of the leading planners believed that covert operatives had much to learn from history. 

In less expansive memoirs published in 1986, Dr. Wilber asserted that the Iran coup was different from later C.I.A. efforts. Its American planners, he said, had stirred up considerable unrest in Iran, giving Iranians a clear choice between instability and supporting the shah. The move to oust the prime minister, he wrote, thus gained substantial popular support. 

Dr. Wilber's memoirs were heavily censored by the agency, but he was allowed to refer to the existence of his secret history. "If this history had been read by the planners of the Bay of Pigs," he wrote, "there would have been no such operation." 

"From time to time," he continued, "I gave talks on the operation to various groups within the agency, and, in hindsight, one might wonder why no one from the Cuban desk ever came or read the history." 

The coup was a turning point in modern Iranian history and remains a persistent irritant in Tehran-Washington relations. It consolidated the power of the shah, who ruled with an iron hand for 26 more years in close contact with the United States. He was toppled by militants in 1979. Later that year, marchers went to the American Embassy, took diplomats hostage and declared that they had unmasked a "nest of spies" who had been manipulating Iran for decades. 

The Islamic government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini supported terrorist attacks against American interests largely because of the long American history of supporting the shah. Even under more moderate rulers, many Iranians still resent the United States' role in the coup and its support of the shah.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, in an address in March, acknowledged the coup's pivotal role in the troubled relationship and came closer to apologizing than any American official ever has before. 

"The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons," she said. "But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs." 

The history spells out the calculations to which Dr. Albright referred in her speech. 

Britain, it says, initiated the plot in 1952. The Truman administration rejected it, but President Eisenhower approved it shortly after taking office in 1953, because of fears about oil and Communism. 

The document pulls few punches, acknowledging at one point that the agency baldly lied to its British allies. Dr. Wilber reserves his most withering asides for the agency's local allies, referring to "the recognized incapacity of Iranians to plan or act in a thoroughly logical manner." 

The Roots:
Britain Fights Oil Nationalism 

The coup had its roots in a British showdown with Iran, restive under decades of near-colonial British domination. 

The prize was Iran's oil fields. Britain occupied Iran in World War II to protect a supply route to its ally, the Soviet Union, and to prevent the oil from falling into the hands of the Nazis -- ousting the shah's father, whom it regarded as unmanageable. It retained control over Iran's oil after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. 

In 1951, Iran's Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Mossadegh, as prime minister. 

Britain responded with threats and sanctions. Dr. Mossadegh, a European-educated lawyer then in his early 70's, prone to tears and outbursts, refused to back down. In meetings in November and December 1952, the secret history says, British intelligence officials startled their American counterparts with a plan for a joint operation to oust the nettlesome prime minister. 

The Americans, who "had not intended to discuss this question at all," agreed to study it, the secret history says. It had attractions. Anti-Communism had risen to a fever pitch in Washington, and officials were worried that Iran might fall under the sway of the Soviet Union, a historical presence there. 

In March 1953, an unexpected development pushed the plot forward: the C.I.A.'s Tehran station reported that an Iranian general had approached the American Embassy about supporting an army-led coup. 

The newly inaugurated Eisenhower administration was intrigued. The coalition that elected Dr. Mossadegh was splintering, and the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, had become active. 

Allen W. Dulles, the director of central intelligence, approved $1 million on April 4 to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh," the history says. 

"The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party." 

Within days agency officials identified a high-ranking officer, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, as the man to spearhead a coup. Their plan called for the shah to play a leading role. 

"A shah-General Zahedi combination, supported by C.I.A. local assets and financial backing, would have a good chance of overthrowing Mossadegh," officials wrote, "particularly if this combination should be able to get the largest mobs in the streets and if a sizable portion of the Tehran garrison refused to carry out Mossadegh's orders." 

But according to the history, planners had doubts about whether the shah could carry out such a bold operation.

His family had seized Iran's throne just 32 years earlier, when his powerful father led a coup of his own. But the young shah, agency officials wrote, was "by nature a creature of indecision, beset by formless doubts and fears," often at odds with his family, including Princess Ashraf, his "forceful and scheming twin sister." 

Also, the shah had what the C.I.A. termed a "pathological fear" of British intrigues, a potential obstacle to a joint operation. 

In May 1953 the agency sent Dr. Wilber to Cyprus to meet Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iran branch of British intelligence, to make initial coup plans. Assuaging the fears of the shah was high on their agenda; a document from the meeting said he was to be persuaded that the United States and Britain "consider the oil question secondary." 

The conversation at the meeting turned to a touchy subject, the identity of key agents inside Iran. The British said they had recruited two brothers named Rashidian. The Americans, the secret history discloses, did not trust the British and lied about the identity of their best "assets" inside Iran. 

C.I.A. officials were divided over whether the plan drawn up in Cyprus could work. The Tehran station warned headquarters that the "the shah would not act decisively against Mossadegh." And it said General Zahedi, the man picked to lead the coup, "appeared lacking in drive, energy and concrete plans." 

Despite the doubts, the agency's Tehran station began disseminating "gray propaganda," passing out anti-Mossadegh cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering articles in the local press. 

The Plotting: Trying to Persuade A Reluctant Shah

The plot was under way, even though the shah was a reluctant warrior and Mr. Eisenhower had yet to give his final approval. 

In early June, American and British intelligence officials met again, this time in Beirut, and put the finishing touches on the strategy. Soon afterward, the chief of the C.I.A.'s Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, arrived in Tehran to direct it. 

The shah was a problem from the start. The plan called for him to stand fast as the C.I.A. stirred up popular unrest and then, as the country lurched toward chaos, to issue royal decrees dismissing Dr. Mossadegh and appointing General Zahedi prime minister. 

The agency sought to "produce such pressure on the shah that it would be easier for him to sign the papers required of him than it would be to refuse," the secret history states. Officials turned to his sister for help.

On July 11, President Eisenhower finally signed off on the plan. At about the same time, C.I.A. and British intelligence officers visited Princess Ashraf on the French Riviera and persuaded her to return to Iran and tell her brother to follow the script.

The return of the unpopular princess unleashed a storm of protest from pro-Mossadegh forces. The shah was furious that she had come back without his approval and refused at first to see her. But a palace staff member -- another British agent, according to the secret history -- gained Ashraf access on July 29. 

The history does not reveal what the siblings said to each other. But the princess gave her brother the news that C.I.A. officials had enlisted Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in the coup campaign. General Schwarzkopf, the father of the Persian Gulf war commander, had befriended the shah a decade earlier while leading the United States military mission to Iran, and he told the agency "he was sure he could get the required cooperation." 

The British, too, sought to sway the shah and assure him their agents spoke for London. A British agent, Asadollah Rashidian, approached him in late July and invited him to select a phrase that would then be broadcast at prearranged times on the BBC's Persian-language program -- as proof that Mr. Rashidian spoke for the British. 

The exercise did not seem to have much effect. The shah told Mr. Rashidian on July 30 and 31 that he had heard the broadcast, but "requested time to assess the situation." 

In early August, the C.I.A. stepped up the pressure. Iranian operatives pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim leaders with "savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh," seeking to stir anti-Communist sentiment in the religious community. 

In addition, the secret history says, the house of at least one prominent Muslim was bombed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists. It does not say whether anyone was hurt in this attack. 

The agency was also intensifying its propaganda campaign. A leading newspaper owner was granted a personal loan of about $45,000, "in the belief that this would make his organ amenable to our purposes." 

But the shah remained intransigent. In an Aug. 1 meeting with General Schwarzkopf, he refused to sign the C.I.A.-written decrees firing Mr. Mossadegh and appointing General Zahedi. He said he doubted that the army would support him in a showdown. 

During the meeting, the document says, the shah was so convinced that the palace was bugged that he "led the general into the grand ballroom, pulled a small table to its exact center" and got onto it to talk, insisting that the general do the same. 

"This meeting was to be followed by a series of additional ones, some between Roosevelt and the shah and some between Rashidian and the shah, in which relentless pressure was exerted in frustrating attempts to overcome an entrenched attitude of vacillation and indecision," the history states. 

Dr. Mossadegh had by now figured out that there was a plot against him. He moved to consolidate power by calling for a national referendum to dissolve Parliament. 

The results of the Aug. 4 referendum were clearly rigged in his favor; The New York Times reported the same day that the prime minister had won 99.9 percent of the vote. This only helped the plotters, providing "an issue on which Mossadegh could be relentlessly attacked" by the agency-backed opposition press. 

But the shah still wouldn't move against Dr. Mossadegh. 

"On Aug. 3rd," the secret history says, "Roosevelt had a long and inconclusive session with the shah," who "stated that he was not an adventurer, and hence, could not take the chances of one. 

"Roosevelt pointed out that there was no other way by which the government could be changed and the test was now between Mossadegh and his force and the shah and the army, which was still with him, but which would soon slip away." 

Mr. Roosevelt told the shah "that failure to act could lead only to a Communist Iran or to a second Korea." 

Still haunted by doubts, the shah asked Mr. Roosevelt if President Eisenhower could tell him what to do. 

"By complete coincidence and great good fortune," the secret history says, "the president, while addressing the governors' convention in Seattle on 4 August, deviated from his script to state by implication that the United States would not sit by idly and see Iran fall behind the Iron Curtain." 

By Aug. 10, the shah had finally agreed to see General Zahedi and a few army officers involved in the plot, but still refused to sign the decrees. The C.I.A. then sent Mr. Rashidian to say Mr. Roosevelt "would leave in complete disgust unless the shah took action within a few days." 

The shah finally signed the decrees on Aug. 13. Word that he would support an army-led coup spread rapidly among the army officers backing General Zahedi. 

The Coup: First Few Days Look Disastrous

The coup began on the night of Aug. 15 and was immediately compromised by a talkative Iranian Army officer whose remarks were relayed to Mr. Mossadegh. 

The operation, the secret history says, "still might have succeeded in spite of this advance warning had not most of the participants proved to be inept or lacking in decision at the critical juncture." 

Dr. Mossadegh's chief of staff, Gen. Taghi Riahi, learned of the plot hours before it was to begin and sent his deputy to the barracks of the Imperial Guard. 

The deputy was arrested there, according to the history, just as pro-shah soldiers were fanning out across the city arresting other senior officials. Telephone lines between army and government offices were cut, and the telephone exchange was occupied. 

But phones inexplicably continued to function, which gave Dr. Mossadegh's forces a key advantage. General Riahi also eluded the pro-shah units, rallying commanders to the prime minister's side. 

Pro-shah soldiers sent to arrest Dr. Mossadegh at his home were instead captured. The top military officer working with General Zahedi fled when he saw tanks and loyal government soldiers at army headquarters. 

The next morning, the history states, the Tehran radio announced that a coup against the government had failed, and Dr. Mossadegh scrambled to strengthen his hold on the army and key installations. C.I.A. officers inside the embassy were flying blind; the history says they had "no way of knowing what was happening." 

Mr. Roosevelt left the embassy and tracked down General Zahedi, who was in hiding north of Tehran. Surprisingly, the general was not ready to abandon the operation. The coup, the two men agreed, could still work, provided they could persuade the public that General Zahedi was the lawful prime minister. 

To accomplish this, the history discloses, the coup plotters had to get out the news that the shah had signed the two decrees. 

The C.I.A. station in Tehran sent a message to The Associated Press in New York, asserting that "unofficial reports are current to the effect that leaders of the plot are armed with two decrees of the shah, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other appointing General Zahedi to replace him." 

The C.I.A. and its agents also arranged for the decrees to be mentioned in some Tehran papers, the history says. 

The propaganda initiative quickly bogged down. Many of the C.I.A.'s Iranian agents were under arrest or on the run. That afternoon, agency operatives prepared a statement from General Zahedi that they hoped to distribute publicly. But they could not find a printing press that was not being watched by forces loyal to the prime minister. 

On Aug. 16, prospects of reviving the operation were dealt a seemingly a fatal blow when it was learned that the shah had bolted to Baghdad. C.I.A. headquarters cabled Tehran urging Mr. Roosevelt, the station chief, to leave immediately. 

He did not agree, insisting that there was still "a slight remaining chance of success," if the shah would broadcast an address on the Baghdad radio and General Zahedi took an aggressive stand. 

The first sign that the tide might turn came with reports that Iranian soldiers had broken up Tudeh, or Communist, groups, beating them and making them chant their support for the shah. "The station continued to feel that the project was not quite dead," the secret history recounts. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Mossadegh had overreached, playing into the C.I.A.'s hands by dissolving Parliament after the coup. 

On the morning of Aug. 17 the shah finally announced from Baghdad that he had signed the decrees -- though he had by now delayed so long that plotters feared it was too late. 

At this critical point Dr. Mossadegh let down his guard. Lulled by the shah's departure and the arrests of some officers involved in the coup, the government recalled most troops it had stationed around the city, believing that the danger had passed. 

That night the C.I.A. arranged for General Zahedi and other key Iranian agents and army officers to be smuggled into the embassy compound "in the bottom of cars and in closed jeeps" for a "council of war." 

They agreed to start a counterattack on Aug. 19, sending a leading cleric from Tehran to the holy city of Qum to try to orchestrate a call for a holy war against Communism. (The religious forces they were trying to manipulate would years later call the United States "the Great Satan.") 

Using travel papers forged by the C.I.A., key army officers went to outlying army garrisons to persuade commanders to join the coup. 

Once again, the shah disappointed the C.I.A. He left Baghdad for Rome the next day, apparently an exile. Newspapers supporting Dr. Mossadegh reported that the Pahlevi dynasty had come to an end, and a statement from the Communist Party's central committee attributed the coup attempt to "Anglo-American intrigue." Demonstrators ripped down imperial statues -- as they would again 26 years later during the Islamic revolution. 

The C.I.A. station cabled headquarters for advice on whether to "continue with TP-Ajax or withdraw." 

"Headquarters spent a day featured by depression and despair," the history states, adding, "The message sent to Tehran on the night of Aug. 18 said that 'the operation has been tried and failed,' and that 'in the absence of strong recommendations to the contrary operations against Mossadegh should be discontinued.' " 

The Success: C.I.A. and Moscow Are Both Surprised

But just as the Americans were ready to quit, the mood on the streets of Tehran shifted. 

On the morning of Aug. 19, several Tehran papers published the shah's long-awaited decrees, and soon pro-shah crowds were building in the streets. 

"They needed only leadership," the secret history says. And Iranian agents of the C.I.A. provided it. Without specific orders, a journalist who was one of the agency's most important Iranian agents led a crowd toward Parliament, inciting people to set fire to the offices of a newspaper owned by Dr. Mossadegh's foreign minister. Another Iranian C.I.A. agent led a crowd to sack the offices of pro-Tudeh papers. 

"The news that something quite startling was happening spread at great speed throughout the city," the history states. 

The C.I.A. tried to exploit the situation, sending urgent messages that the Rashidian brothers and two key American agents should "swing the security forces to the side of the demonstrators." 

But things were now moving far too quickly for the agency to manage. An Iranian Army colonel who had been involved in the plot several days earlier suddenly appeared outside Parliament with a tank, while members of the now-disbanded Imperial Guard seized trucks and drove through the streets. "By 10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military personnel at all the main squares," the secret history says. 

By noon the crowds began to receive direct leadership from a few officers involved in the plot and some who had switched sides. Within an hour the central telegraph office fell, and telegrams were sent to the provinces urging a pro-shah uprising. After a brief shootout, police headquarters and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell as well. 

The Tehran radio remained the biggest prize. With the government's fate uncertain, it was broadcasting a program on cotton prices. But by early afternoon a mass of civilians, army officers and policemen overwhelmed it. Pro-shah speakers went on the air, broadcasting the coup's success and reading the royal decrees. 

At the embassy, C.I.A. officers were elated, and Mr. Roosevelt got General Zahedi out of hiding. An army officer found a tank and drove him to the radio station, where he spoke to the nation. 

Dr. Mossadegh and other government officials were rounded up, while officers supporting General Zahedi placed "known supporters of TP-Ajax" in command of all units of the Tehran garrison. 

The Soviet Union was caught completely off-guard. Even as the Mossadegh government was falling, the Moscow radio was broadcasting a story on "the failure of the American adventure in Iran." 

But C.I.A. headquarters was as surprised as Moscow. When news of the coup's success arrived, it "seemed to be a bad joke, in view of the depression that still hung on from the day before," the history says. 

Throughout the day, Washington got most of its information from news agencies, receiving only two cablegrams from the station. Mr. Roosevelt later explained that if he had told headquarters what was going on, "London and Washington would have thought they were crazy and told them to stop immediately," the history states. 

Still, the C.I.A. took full credit inside the government. The following year it overthrew the government of Guatemala, and a myth developed that the agency could topple governments anywhere in the world. 

Iran proved that third world king-making could be heady. 

"It was a day that should never have ended," the C.I.A.'s secret history said, describing Aug. 19, 1953. "For it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it." 

'Gentleman Spy' at Helm

Donald Wilber, who planned the coup in Iran and wrote its secret history, was old-school C.I.A., a Princetonian and a Middle East architecture expert who fit neatly into the mold of the "gentleman spy." 

Years of wandering through Middle Eastern architectural sites gave him the perfect cover for a clandestine life. By 1953, he was an obvious choice as the operation's strategist. 

The coup was the high point of his life as a spy. Although he would excel in academia, at the agency being part-time was a handicap. 

"I never requested promotion, and was given only one, after the conclusion of Ajax," Dr. Wilber wrote of the Iran operation. 

On his last day, "I was ushered down to the lobby by a young secretary, turned over my badge to her and left." He added, "This treatment rankled for some time. I did deserve the paperweight." 

He died in 1997 at 89.


Footnotes and Further Reading

[1] SOURCE: U.S.-Iran Links Still Strong; By NICHOLAS GAGE Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Jul 9, 1978. p. 1 (2 pages)

[2] SOURCE: U.S.-Iran Links Still Strong; By NICHOLAS GAGE Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Jul 9, 1978. p. 1 (2 pages)

[3] Keddie, N. R. 1981. Roots of revolution. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. (p.133)

[4] “…it is now known that the commander of British military forces in Iran, General Ironside, backed Reza Kahn’s rise to power in the Cossak Brigade and encouraged him to undertake a coup.” -- Roots of Revolution (p.87).

[5] Roots of revolution. (p.142)

[6] Roots of revolution (p.144)

[7] Roots of revolution (p.144)

[8] U.S. PROMISES IRAN $5.5 BILLION ON DAY HOSTAGES ARE FREED; ASSETS ARE PUT AT $9.5 BILLION In All, 70 Percent Would Be Made Available Within a few Days of Americans' Release; By BERNARD GWERTZMAN Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1857. Jan 11, 1981. p. 1 (2 pages)

To read more about the significance of the US embassy seizure, visit:

"GRAND THEATER: THE US, THE PLO, AND THE AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI. Why did the US government, in 1979, delegate to the PLO the task of negotiating the safety of American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran?"; Historical and Investigative Research; 10 December 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

[9] The secret sale of billions of dollars in US military equipment to the Iranian terrorists during the 1980s is covered in the following piece (see the section entitled "The suspicious prelude"):

"WHY BUSH Sr.'s 1991 GULF WAR? TO PROTECT IRANIAN ISLAMISM; Like father, like son: this is also the purpose of Bush Jr.'s war."; Historical and Investigative Research; 20 December 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

[10]  CIA-Shah Ties Cloud Iran Data, The Washington Post, December 17, 1978, Sunday, Final Edition, First Section; A21, 1213 words, By Jim Hoagland, Washington Post Staff Writer


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How the New York Times Lied to the
Public in '53, as it does now

Re-print of 16 April 2000 New York Times article; with commentary by Francisco Gil-White

Historical and Investigative Research, 5 Jan 2006

The Iran desk of the State Department...was able to place a C.I.A. study in Newsweek, using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist. The article was one of several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran, fed the war of nerves against Irans prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

The above quote appeared in a NYT article form the same day as the one at left, by the same author, reporting the complicit role of the US press in the 1953 CIA coup in Iran. HIR reprints this article below.

Inserted throughout are comments by HIR editor Francisco Gil-White that point out the misinformation tactics employed by the NYT's editors. The point of this misinformation is to prevent the reader from understanding just how complete the control of the US press by the CIA already was in 1953. For example, the title of the article (see below) completely denies the article's contents!

«« NOTE: For the story of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran,
as narrated by the New York Times,
see article at left.



The New York Times,  April 16, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition - Final,  Section 1; Page 14; Column 1; Foreign Desk,  842 words, C.I.A.  TRIED, WITH LITTLE SUCCESS, TO USE U.S. PRESS IN COUP,  By James Risen, Washington, April 15



Central Intelligence Agency officials plotting the 1953 coup in Iran hoped to plant articles in American newspapers saying Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi's return resulted from a homegrown revolt against a Communist-leaning government, internal agency documents show. 

Those hopes were largely disappointed. The C.I.A.'s history of the coup says that its operatives had only limited success in manipulating American reporters and that none of the Americans covering the coup worked for the agency. An analysis of the press coverage shows that American journalists filed straightforward, factual dispatches that prominently mentioned the role of Iran's Communists in street violence leading up to the coup. Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported that some of the unrest had been stage-managed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on the Moscow radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the shah's return to power.


COMMENT, by Francisco Gil-White

Here we must stop.

Before I analyze the distortion -- nay, the complete reversal of the truth -- that has already taken place, an important observation: it is well known that most people do not read whole articles but merely glance at an article's headline, and if they go further they will tend to read only the first paragraph or two. So notice what happened here: the headline says,


Immediately following this, we are told that the CIA "hoped to plant articles...[describing]...a homegrown revolt against a Communist-leaning government...[but]...those hopes were largely disappointed...[and] had only limited success in manipulating American reporters...none [of whom]...worked for the agency." This restates and expands slightly the thrust of the headline.

Thus, we have (1) the headline, (2) the first paragraph, (3) the topic sentence of the second paragraph, and (4) the first half of the second paragraph all saying the same thing: the CIA failed to manipulate the US press (partly because, we are told, the agency supposedly didn't have any CIA operatives working inside the US press).

A reader could be forgiven for expecting that this article will give us details on how the CIA tried but failed to get the US press to assist in the covert effort to destabilize Iran. What a shocking surprise, then, for those who read far enough to finish the second paragraph, to find,

1) that Western journalists "prominently mentioned the [supposed] role of Iran's Communists in street violence leading up to the coup";

2) that Western journalists "never reported that some of the unrest had been stage-managed by C.I.A. agents posing as Communists"; and

3) that Western journalists "gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in the Iranian and Moscow press that alleged the Western powers were playing a secret role in bringing the Shah back to power."

In other words, the Western press made it seem as though the violence in the streets was a lot of Communist agitation, but never reported that the CIA was behind it, and neither did they comment on the version of events reported in the Iranian and Moscow press, which just happened to be the truth. So the press did precisely what the CIA wanted.

But the CIA was unable to influence the press?

What is the New York Times doing? It appears that the author wrote a straightforward piece and then the editors introduced key sentences in the headline and first two paragraphs to contradict and obfuscate the meaning of the article (because the headline and first paragraph are all that most people read). 

« « Consider also that the NYT article reproduced at left states very clearly that the CIA "had stirred up considerable unrest in Iran, giving Iranians a clear choice between instability and supporting the shah."

Why then does this article say that some of the unrest (see above) was due to CIA efforts? Because this piece is trying to protect the prestige of the US press from the scandal that it fully cooperated with the CIA in the 1953 coup. The more Iranian unrest is attributed to the CIA, the worse the US press looks for lying about it.



It was just eight years after the end of World War II, which left American journalists with a sense of national interest framed by six years of confrontation between the Allies and the Axis. The front pages of Western newspapers were dominated by articles about the new global confrontation with the Soviet Union, about Moscow's prowess in developing nuclear weapons and about Congressional allegations of "Red" influence in Washington. 

In one instance, the history says, a C.I.A. officer who had been a reporter was apparently able to use his old contacts at The Associated Press to put on the news wire an article from Tehran about royal decrees that the C.I.A. itself had written. But mostly, the agency relied on less direct means to exploit the American media.


COMMENT, by Francisco Gil-White

Did you notice?

The article is explaining that American journalists were ready to believe that Communists were everywhere threatening America. This is precisely the kind of explanation one would find in an article that has as its main thrust to explain how the CIA was able to manipulate the US press.

Next we are told that a CIA officer, a former journalist, used his contacts to put information in an Associated Press wire. But the agency, the article explains further, mostly "relied on less direct means to exploit the American media."

In other words, the CIA succeeded in using direct means (that is, planting stories), but mostly exploited the press (i.e. succeeded in manipulating it) through less direct means.

This is clearly a story of CIA success, contrary to the headline, which, I remind you, reads: "C.I.A. TRIED, WITH LITTLE SUCCESS, TO USE U.S. PRESS IN COUP." It seems increasingly unlikely that the author could be responsible for the headline, which looks more and more like it was tacked on for the majority of readers who will not read this far (and for those who do read this far the headline will make reasoning difficult).



The Iran desk of the State Department, the document says, was able to place a C.I.A. study in Newsweek, "using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist." The article was one of several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran, fed the "war of nerves" against Iran's prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

The history says the Iran operation exposed the agency's shortcomings in manipulating the American press. The C.I.A. "lacked contacts capable of placing material so that the American publisher was unwitting as to its source."


COMMENT, by Francisco Gil-White

I bet you caught that one: another dramatic story of CIA success, this time planting a story in Newsweek "using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist."

The normal channel. In other words, it is normal for State Department desk officers to plant phony CIA material in the US press? Well, it must be, because the next sentence explains this was only one of several: "The article was one of several planted press reports..."

And again we can see what is probably the hand of the editor, rushing to confuse by telling us that "the Iran operation exposed the agency's shortcomings in manipulating the American press."

But so far we have heard nothing but dramatic stories of CIA success! What shortcomings?



The history discloses that a C.I.A. officer, working under cover as the embassy's press officer, drove two American reporters to a house outside Tehran where they were shown the shah's decrees dismissing the prime minister. 

Kennett Love, the New York Times reporter in Tehran during the coup, wrote about the royal decrees in the newspaper the next day, without mentioning how he had seen them. In an interview, he said he had agreed to the embassy official's ground rules that he not report the American role in arranging the trip. 

Mr. Love said he did not know at the time that the official worked for the C.I.A. 

After the coup succeeded, Mr. Love did in one article briefly refer to Iranian press reports of American involvement, and The New York Times also published an article from Moscow reporting Soviet charges that the United States was behind the coup. But neither The Times nor other American news organizations appear to have examined such charges seriously.


COMMENT, by Francisco Gil-White

Things are getting clearer all the time. We are told that the New York Times reporter at the time was perfectly duped by the CIA and did exactly what the CIA wanted him to do.

The press, including the NYT, did not publish any reference to the role of the CIA until after the coup succeeded, and then only as an allegation made by Moscow -- one that was not examined seriously.

So the New York Times editors obviously had a motive to change the headline and opening paragraph of this article, for in this way they can prevent most readers (who will read only that) from learning about NYT's shameful role in the destruction of a democracy, and in the abuse and murder of innocent people.



In a 1960 paper he wrote while studying at Princeton University, Mr. Love explained that he "was responsible, in an impromptu sort of way, for speeding the final victory of the royalists." 

Seeing a half-dozen tanks parked in front of Tehran's radio station, he said, "I told the tank commanders that a lot of people were getting killed trying to storm Dr. Mossadegh's house and that they would be of some use instead of sitting idle at the radio station." He added, "They took their machines in a body to Kokh Avenue and put the three tanks at Dr. Mossadegh's house out of action." 

Mr. Love, who left The New York Times in 1962, said in an interview that he had urged the tanks into action "because I wanted to stop the bloodshed." 

Months afterward, Mr. Love says, he was told by Robert C. Doty, then Cairo bureau chief and his boss, of evidence of American involvement in the coup. 

But Mr. Doty, who died in 1974, did not write about the matter, and by the summer of 1954, Mr. Love decided to tell the New York office what he knew. In a July 26, 1954, letter to Emanuel R. Freedman, then the foreign editor, Mr. Love wrote, "The only instance since I joined The Times in which I have allowed policy to influence a strict news approach was in failing to report the role our own agents played in the overthrow of Mossadegh." 

Mr. Love said he had hoped that the foreign editor would order him to pursue the subject. But he never received any response, he said. 

"I wanted to let Freedman know that I knew there had been U.S. involvement in the coup, but that I hadn't written about it," he said. "I expected him to say, 'Jump on that story.' But there was no response." Mr. Freedman died in 1971.


FINAL COMMENT, by Francisco Gil-White

At this point matters can hardly be clearer. The Times reporter whom the CIA duped, Kennett Love, learned of "of American involvement in the coup" a few months after it succeeded. From whom? From "Robert C. Doty, then Cairo bureau chief and his boss" at The New York Times.

Please stop and read the above paragraph again. Doty, the boss of the beat reporter whom the CIA duped, knew all about it. And yet The New York Times reported that CIA involvement in the Iranian coup was just a contemptible Soviet allegation!

The higher ups at The New York Times knew, and they lied.

Shortly thereafter, Love sent a letter to Emanuel R. Freedman, the foreign editor at the time for The New York Times. Filled with remorse, Love explained that this was the only time he had allowed views on policy to affect reporting and he was hoping that Freedman, as a journalist, "would order him to pursue the subject."

Love said: "I wanted to let Freedman know that I knew there had been U.S. involvement in the coup, but that I hadn't written about it," he said. "I expected him to say, 'Jump on that story.' But there was no response."

Love may have been a real journalist. Consider:

1) He says he is filled with remorse because in one particular instance he didn't report the facts as he knew them;

2) he realizes that many others didn't either;

3) he thinks that therefore he has got an explosive story of journalistic misconduct on his hands and that his editor will ask him to "jump on that story" because...well because that would be a great scoop: the untold story of US press corruption in the CIA-staged Iranian coup of 1953!

But his editor did...what? Nothing. He did not even reply.

Naturally, because, as we have seen in the case of Doty, the higher ups already knew all about this. They were knowingly cooperating with the CIA.

Now you can appreciate how important it is for the NYT to change the headline of this article. They may have decided that it was less risky to publish the article than to pick a fight with Risen, the author. So they controlled the damage by rewriting the headline and first two paragraphs, which is all that the vast majority of people ever reads.

But this suggests, of course, that The New York Times is not a real newspaper, like it wasn't way back in 1953. And why should this surprise us? If the CIA control over the US press was already so tight in 1953 that it could just plant stories if it wanted to, what would be the CIA's motive to relinquish that control over the press and allow it to be free later? If you cannot think of a motive, then you do not have a good reason to expect that the US press is free in the year 2006.

But how did the CIA acquire such complete control over the US press already in 1953? I think the answer to that question is that only 6 years earlier, in 1947, the US Congress had approved the National Security Act. This act gave US Intelligence the power to corrupt the press.

To read an analysis of that, visit:

"DID THE NATIONAL SECURITY ACT OF 1947 DESTROY FREEDOM OF THE PRESS?: The red pill..."; Historical and Investigative Research; 31 December 2005; by Francisco Gil-White