The CIA Fesses Up…60 Years too Late


President Truman and Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in happier times

Did you hear the big news?

No, not that Bradley Manning wants to undergo hormone therapy and prefers for us to refer to him/her as Chelsea Manning.  That’s a somewhat shocking and yet oddly predictable end to what has been a media circus of a military case.

No, not that Ben Affleck is set to play Batman in the next Superman movie.  Apparently, the two superheroes are going to face off against one another, which strikes me as odd for two reasons: 1) I thought they were both supposed to be good guys, and 2) We all know that Superman would win in an actual fight.  However, it makes sense that they couldn’t bring back Christian Bale because then they would have to admit to casting two British guys as America’s two greatest comic book icons. (Well, them and Aquaman…)

The big news that I am actually referring to is the CIA’s admission that it was behind a coup in 1953 that unseated the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh.  New details in a CIA document declassified under the Freedom of Information Act provide proof that the CIA helped to organize and carry out the operation through a combination of propaganda, bribery of Mossadegh’s supporters, inducing the population to riot, colluding with Iran’s security forces, and pressuring the Shah to dump the prime minister.

The purpose of the CIA operation TPAJAX, according to the declassified paper, was to Iran the country from becoming “open to Soviet aggression”, making it yet another chess move in the decades long Cold War with the USSR. (Iran’s desire to nationalize its oil industry was also a source of frustration for the British, who helped persuade the Americans to act by emphasizing the possibility of a communist takeover, something that certainly concerned President Eisenhower’s administration.)  The CIA’s involvement has been widely suspected for some time and even confirmed by Presidents Clinton and Obama, but this is the first time that the agency itself has publicly acknowledged its role.

This was not the only time that the CIA helped to organize such a government overthrow.  Another article of Foreign Policy’s website provides a summary of seven different occasions where U.S. intelligence services actively helped to topple a foreign regime.  It happened in Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973).  Naturally, each of these issues is controversial, and the extent to which the U.S. ought to involve itself in the internal affairs of other countries is an ongoing debate.

One thing I can say for sure: the Iranian people did not forget about what happened in 1953.  U.S. support for the Shah, including the coup against Mossadegh, were the basis for much of the anti-Americanism that has been exhibited in Iran following the 1979 revolution, especially in the early days after the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Oddly enough, this brings us back to Ben Affleck, who directed last year’s Oscar winning film Argo.  It tells the story of American State Department employees who took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s house following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran by a mob of angry students.  The film opens with a short explanation of the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, including the 1953 coup and the way it helped to poison the public attitude in Iran against the U.S.   You can view it in the window above.

I suspected that many Americans would not appreciate this opening sequence, which didn’t go so far as to say the Iranians were completely justified in their treatment of U.S. diplomats, but did make an attempt to explain the rationale behind the students’ actions.  There is little that foreigners see as more hypocritical than the American tendency to proclaim the importance of democratic ideals over all else and then fail to defend them when perceived national interests get in the way, yet we as American citizens sometimes choose to tune it out or pretend that this anger doesn’t exist until something violent happens, like the embassy seizure.

With the U.S. still looking for a breakthrough in its nuclear negotiations with Iran, this CIA admission sixty years after the fact will likely prove to be too little, too late.  Nevertheless, it is important for us to own up to our mistakes as a country if we are going to move closer to the values we hold most dear, including the right of a people to choose their own representatives at the ballot box.  While this news item may be lost to most of the public amid the daily media frenzy, it is nonetheless an important development to note for those hoping to change America’s foreign policy for the better.

The coup may have helped the U.S. in the short-run by keeping the Shah in control, but it seems to have hurt us in the long-run.  Past mistakes such as this one are likely what is making President Obama extra cautious in directing the country’s response to the current unrest in the Middle East.  Choose incorrectly, and the consequences could have far reaching effects, both for this generation and others still to come.  As history has shown time and again, it is easy enough to overthrow a dictator – the hard part is what happens next.