The deep suspicion with which the West is viewed in the Middle East can be traced way back to the way that the west, especially the British in the early days, exploited that region’s oil reserves. This culminated in the 1953 coup that was organized by the CIA (and backed by the British) to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran Mohammad Mossadeq and replace him with their puppet Reza Pahlavi who was known as the Shah of Iran. His autocratic rule, his secret police that tortured and killed so many, and the lavish lifestyle of his family, laid the ground work for the rebellion led by Ayatollah Khomeini and the subsequent dominance of the Muslim clergy in running the country.
Now we have the release of more documents covering the period 1951 through 1954 that “includes not only embassy communications but also the minutes of the meetings of the National Security Council and the CIA on discussions of Iran.” It shows that the coup was, as is usually the case, a bipartisan affair in the US.
First, it reveals how deeply the US—not just the CIA but also the US embassy headed by Ambassador Loy Henderson—was immersed in the nitty-gritty of internal day-to-day Iranian politics. Every so often Henderson would pronounce with a straight face that the US had the principled policy of never interfering in another country’s internal politics. Then he would plunge in without batting an eye.
He consistently encouraged the shah to get rid of Mossadeq—this pressure started soon after Mossadeq was elected prime minister.
Second, the new documents show categorically that the idea of a coup was not something cooked up by John Foster Dulles, the new secretary of state, only after Eisenhower had entered the White House in January 1953. During the previous two years, under the Truman administration, both Allen Dulles and Kermit Roosevelt had been well ensconced within the CIA directorate obsessing about Iran and advocating policies similar to the British—i.e. the removal of Mossadeq.
Finally, the volume challenges the conventional view that the coup had little to do with oil but much to do with the Cold War. The CIA’s internal instruction stressed that agents should make “every effort to de-emphasize the oil issue.” The NSC agreed only two weeks after the oil was nationalized that “we can not be neutral in the dispute and must give vigorous support to Britain…Iran has broken contract, set a bad precedent for other countries such as Iraq, and has created a contagious situation which we should do all in our power to check.” Eisenhower, who liked to keep distant from sordid details, declared categorically in rare interventions at cabinet meetings that “We have to respect the enormous investments the British have made in Iran, and their proposals have been wholly reasonable. We don’t want to break with the British” and “The example [of successful nationalization] might have grave effects on US oil concession in other parts of the world.”
Although many insist the coup had nothing to do with petroleum, the 375 documents end with a grand finale summarizing the 1954 Oil Consortium Agreement. This agreement in effect de-nationalized the industry and handed control over to the major Western oil companies.
In these days of outrage at the possible interference by Russia of US elections, and even calls by some Democrats to actually bomb Russia in retaliation, it is good to be reminded of how much the US routinely subverts the elections of other countries, including placing “Iranian politicians, journalists, newspaper editors, clergymen, senators, and parliamentary deputies on the CIA payroll”, when not actually overthrowing their governments.