The Central Intelligence Agency was behind the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. It's been an open secret for decades, but last week, The George Washington University's National Security Archive released newly declassified documents proving it.
Orchestrating the Iranian coup d'état was a first for the CIA and would serve as the template for future Cold War covert operations worldwide.
Mossadegh "believed that Iran's main problem at that time was that it was a country basically ruled by foreign empires," Iranian filmmaker Maziar Bahari tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. So, after less than a week in office, on May 1, 1951, Mossadegh decided to nationalize the British-run Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
"To the British, because they discovered the oil and created the Iranian oil industry from scratch, it was a fair deal that they shared the oil revenue with the Iranian government," says Bahari. "But, to many Iranians, especially those who did not remember that there was no oil in Iran before the British came, it was just unfair for a British company to have a monopoly over Iranian oil."
However, the British would not leave quietly. According to Bahari, "Mossadegh had to go in order for the British to keep their monopoly," and they began pursuing measures to topple the Iranian prime minister. Their plan succeeded, but only after two long years of spy craft, subversion and the eventual help of the CIA.
"I think a lesser man would fall within a week. Mossadegh was a very strong politician and a very strong man," Bahari said.
Young CIA agents used suitcases full of cash to destabilize the regime. "They managed to buy newspaper editors, to buy hoodlums, they organized rallies in different cities, they created a fake communist party in order to create trouble," Bahari said. Still, they almost failed.
According to Bahari, after Mossadegh and his allies thwarted the first coup attempt Aug. 15, 1953, officials in Washington wanted to pull the plug on the spy operation. They sent a telegram to Kermit Roosevelt Junior, the CIA officer leading the overthrow and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, ordering him to cease and desist. "But Kermit Roosevelt just says 'I never heard that' and he carries on the operation and he succeeds," Bahari said.
Four days later, a second coup attempt was successful.
"It's kind of left a bitter taste in Iranians' mouths," says Bahari. "It's created a very good excuse for the Iranian government to exploit the genuine grievances of the Iranian people."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Last week, the George Washington University's National Security Archive got hold of declassified CIA documents confirming an open secret that the U.S. government played a big role in deposing Iran's prime minister in 1953. It's a tangled Cold War story, chock-full of spy craft, oil and intrigue. And it all began on May 1, 1951, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the British-run Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
The British had discovered Iranian oil decades earlier and built the industry from scratch, and they were not going to give it up without a fight. So they turned to the United States for help, arguing that a communist takeover, not just oil, was at stake. It was a mission for America's new spy agency, the CIA. And what would follow became the template for decades of future spycraft around the globe.
To break down Iran's 1953 coup for us and what it means today, 60 years after that summer, we're speaking with Maziar Bahari. He's an Iranian filmmaker who made a documentary about this called "An Iranian Odyssey." He joins us from the BBC studios in London. Maziar, thanks for being here.
MAZIAR BAHARI: Nice to be here, Jacki.
LYDEN: Mohammad Mossadegh, tell us who he was.
BAHARI: Mohammad Mossadegh was a nationalist politician. He was Western educated. And he also had a very, very deep knowledge of Iranian politics, tradition and religion. He believed that Iran's main problem at that time was that it was a country basically ruled by foreign empires, and he meant the British and the Russians. We're talking about the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The American empire at the time had a very good reputation in Iran. The Americans helped Iranian independence in 1946 when the Russians did not leave province of Iran after the Second World War. And Mossadegh regarded the Americans as an ally against the British.
LYDEN: So what Mossadegh wanted basically from the U.K. originally was money, right? He had offered to buy them out, the now nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. When they didn't want that, he offered a 50-50 split. They didn't want that, so part of this was he wanted financial help.
BAHARI: Basically yes. To the British, because they discovered the oil and created the Iranian oil industry from scratch, it was a fair deal that they shared the revenue with the Iranian government. But to many Iranians, especially those who did not remember that there was no oil in Iran before the British came, it was just unfair for a British company to have a monopoly over Iranian oil.
And for the British, Iranian oil was their biggest wealth in the empire. And Mossadegh had to go in order for the British to keep their monopoly over the oil. And at the same time if Mossadegh's nationalization of oil, if the Iranian state could take over the oil, it would create a bad example for other countries. And because of that, there was this international conspiracy to topple Mossadegh.
LYDEN: Let's talk about what Western agents then do. We've got quite a cast of characters here. We can't possibly go into them all. We've got diplomats, we've got the CIA, we've got MI6 in Britain, British oil executives. All of these people doing something behind the scene to try to build opposition to bring Mossadegh down.
BAHARI: I think a lesser man would fall within a week. Mossadegh was a very strong politician and a very strong man. And because of that, he survived more than two years. Everything worked against him.
In 1953, the CIA was only six years old. And these guys, they came out of the Second World War, they won the war. They were quite arrogant, and they just thought that, you know, Iran was their turf. And they managed to buy newspaper editors, to pay the hoodlums, they organized rallies in different cities, they created a fake communist party in order to create troubles. And because of that, they managed to bring down Mossadegh to his knees.
LYDEN: So almost exactly 60 years ago, a coup attempt begins on the 15th of August with the CIA backing it and the help of an Iranian general. This coup initially fails. But four days later, the Americans and their allies regroup. Tell us what happens then.
BAHARI: The coup was supposed to happen on the 15th of August, 1953. Mossadegh is notified by the communists. They foiled the coup, and the coup fails. But Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who was the head of the CIA operations in the Middle East...
LYDEN: The grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. Mm-hmm.
BAHARI: Exactly. He sends a telegraph to the CIA headquarters. He says that we will carry on our mission. The CIA headquarters, they ask him to stop the operation. But Kermit Roosevelt just says that, you know, I never heard that, and he carries on the operation, and he succeeds.
LYDEN: Wow. Wow. This all happened 60 years ago. The CIA has now admitted its role. Why are we still talking about this coup?
BAHARI: It's kind of left a bitter taste in Iranians' mouths. And they associated shah's dictatorship with American support. I have to mention that many people who are in power, including Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, they were helping the Americans in 1953 to bring down Mossadegh. But people have - you know, all around the world, people have short-term memories and they forget about these things. It's created a very good excuse for the Iranian government to exploit the genuine grievances of the Iranian people.
LYDEN: Maziar, you made your film a couple of years ago. We now have this declassified document. Does it change anything for you?
BAHARI: No. The documents - these are like well-known secrets. And when you talk to the aging CIA agents these days, they do not regret the coup because they wanted to prevent the advance of communist in Iran. But they regret the unconditional support that the Americans gave the shah after the coup.
LYDEN: It didn't end well. That's Maziar Bahari. He's an Iranian filmmaker, journalist and human rights activist. And you can watch his film about Iran's coup, "An Iranian Odyssey: Mossadegh, Oil And The 1953 CIA Coup," on his website, iranwire.com. Maziar, thank you so much for being with us.
BAHARI: Thank you very much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.