In 1953, the CIA organized the overthrow of the Iranian government. Why, and how much was Dwight Eisenhower involved? Recently declassified State Department documents help tell the story.
Just six weeks into his presidency, Eisenhower received an alarming message from the CIA about Iran: “A Communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility.” Iran was an oil-rich monarchy whose parliament was led by an anti-British, anti-colonial nationalist named Mohammed Mossadegh. CIA analysts knew he was not a Communist but he enjoyed the support of Iran’s Communist party, the Tudeh, and his government seemed likely to open the way to Soviet meddling in Iran. When Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry in 1951, he drew the ire of the British government, which owned much of Iran’s refining capacity. The British soon approached the CIA and proposed a joint operation to overthrow the Iranian prime minister. Carefully prepared by the CIA and by British intelligence, the plan, called TP-AJAX, siphoned money to sympathetic army officers and Mossadegh’s political rivals, and provided them with promises of immediate financial aid in the wake of a successful coup. In mid-August 1953, the scheme went into action. Following staged demonstrations in Tehran, the Army arrested Mossadegh and imposed martial law on the country.
The broad details of America’s involvement in Mossadegh ouster have long been known. Some participants wrote revealing memoirs about their own roles. In 2000, the New York Times published a top secret report prepared in 1954 by the CIA about the coup, and in 2013, the National Security Archive released a CIA report, written in 1974, that also revealed new details about the CIA role.
This month, the State Department has finally published its official documentary record of the Iran coup. The new volume significantly amplifies the story of America’s close involvement in the coup, and provides granular detail of the CIA’s efforts.
Dwight Eisenhower was fully in the know from start to finish. He embraced covert operations as a tidy and inexpensive way to achieve his strategic goals. Although he carefully hid his own involvement in the coup, Ike was fully in the know. He and his government bear great responsibility for subverting democracy in Iran in 1953, and supporting a repressive Iranian regime that lasted until it was itself overthrown by clerics and radicals in 1979.
CIA report, prepared by Donald Wilber in 1954, revealed by James Risen in the New York Times, April 16 and June 18, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/mideast/041600iran-cia-index.html
CIA report, prepared in 1974, titled “The Battle for Iran,” published by the National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB476/
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954, at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1951-54Iran/comp1