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Rewriting Iran's History: The 1953 Coup, the CIA, the Clerics, and "Democracy" (Emery)

On Wednesday, The Washington Post published a re-presentation of the 19 August 1953 coup in Iran by Ray Takeyh, fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department Official, "Clerics Responsible for Iran's Failed Attempts at Democracy". (The opening paragraphs of the article are at the bottom of this entry.)

Much has been written about the US involvement, notably through the Central Intelligence Agency in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the support for renewed power of the Shah, but Takeyh writes, "The CIA's role in Mossadeq's demise was largely inconsequential. The institution most responsible for aborting Iran's democratic interlude was the clerical estate, and the Islamic Republic should not be able to whitewash the clerics' culpability."

Iran Cartoon of the Day: 1953 Speaks to 2010

EA's Chris Emery, a specialist on US-Iran relations, is not so sure that Takeyh's revision is accurate. Indeed, he is not even convinced that the primary aim is historical accuracy:

1. This opinion piece seems needlessly insensitive at a time when many ordinary Iranians would take heart from a note of contrition from US-based observers --- which is reasonable, even according to the version of events presented by Takeyh. In timing and in tone, this is an extremely provocative (but not intellectually rigourous) attempt to re-frame a genuine area for historical debate. I would expect it from a professional polemicist, but not one with an academic pedigree. It reads like scholarly sabre rattling, which in my mind compliments much of the other kind we have seen recently.

2. Are ordinary Americans being told they shouldn't apologise for trying to remove democratically elected leaders as long as their removal is reliant on other factors as well? Is intent irrelevant?

3. Is Takeyh consciously trying to establish a wider historical context for the belief that Iran's suffering is entirely self-inflicted by the "Mullahs"? Clearly this will resonate well with many opposed to engagement between the US and Iran.

4. Considering the provocative headline, would it not have been better to devote more space to actually proving the allegation? Takeyh does not even direct the reader to recent scholarship that might support his conclusion. Instead we get precisely one sentence outlining how "the clerics" ousted Mossadegh: "Through their connections with the bazaar and their ability to galvanize the populace, they were instrumental in orchestrating the demonstrations that engulfed Tehran." He then seems to suggest that further proof lies in the hyperbole of Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA officer overseeing US covert operations, written more than 25 years after the events.

In other words Takeyh cannot find a US source acknowledging the pivotal role supposedly played by the clergy. He does not even acknowledge that the CIA possibly bribed Ayatollah Kashani, the former Speaker of the Majlis, with a large sum of money.

5. The final sentence of the piece --- "Responsibility for the suffocation of the Iranian peoples' democratic aspirations in the summer of 1953 lies primarily with those who went on to squash another democratic movement in the summer of 2009: the mullahs" --- is deliberately disingenuous, suggesting a link between the clerical elite then and now that Takeyh knows is false or at least far more complex (politically, doctrinally, and historically) than presented here.

Has Takeyh really failed to notice "mullahs" such as Mohammad Khatami, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Grand Ayatollah Sane'i, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and Ayatollah Dastgheib who have protested the suppression of rights and denial of justice since June 2009?

Clerics Responsible for Iran's Failed Attempts at Democracy
Ray Takeyh

Thursday marks the anniversary of one of the most mythologized events in history, the 1953 coup in Iran that ousted Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq. CIA complicity in that event has long provoked apologies from American politicians and denunciations from the theocratic regime. The problem with the prevailing narrative? The CIA's role in Mossadeq's demise was largely inconsequential. The institution most responsible for aborting Iran's democratic interlude was the clerical estate, and the Islamic Republic should not be able to whitewash the clerics' culpability.

The dramatic tale of malevolent Americans plotting a coup against Mossadeq, the famed Operation Ajax, has been breathlessly told so much that it has become a verity. To be fair, the cast of characters is bewildering: Kermit Roosevelt, the scion of America's foremost political family, paying thugs to agitate against the hapless Mossadeq; American operatives shoring up an indecisive monarch to return from exile and reclaim his throne; Communist firebrands and nationalist agitators participating in demonstrations financed by the United States. As Iran veered from crisis to crisis, the story goes, Roosevelt pressed a reluctant officer corps to end Mossadeq's brief but momentous democratic tenure.

Yet this fable conceals much about the actual course of events. In 1953 Iran was in the midst of an economic crisis. An oil embargo had been imposed after Tehran nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., and by that summer, the situation had fractured Mossadeq's ruling coalition. Middle-class Iranians concerned about their finances gradually began to abandon Mossadeq. The merchant class was similarly anguished about the financial consequences of Mossadeq's stubborn unwillingness to resolve the stalemate with the British. The intelligentsia and the professional classes were wary of the prime minister's increasingly autocratic tendencies. Rumors of military coups began circulating as members of the armed forces grew vocal in their frustrations with the prime minister and began participating in political intrigues.

Not just the stars but an array of Iranian society was aligning against Mossadeq.

Now, the CIA was indeed actively seeking to topple Mossadeq. It had made contact that spring with the perennially indecisive shah and Iranian officers, including Gen. Fazollah Zahedi, an opportunistic officer who sought the premiership himself. Roosevelt had laid out a plan in which the shah would issue a monarchical decree dismissing Mossadeq; it was to be served to him on Aug. 15. But the commander who was to deliver the message was arrested, and the plot quickly unraveled.

This is where the story takes a twist. As word of the attempted coup spread, the shah fled Iran and Zahedi went into hiding. Amazingly, U.S. records declassified over the past decade indicate, the United States had no backup plan. Washington was largely prepared to concede. State Department and CIA cables acknowledge the collapse of their subversive efforts.

But while crestfallen Americans may have been prepared to forfeit their mission, the Iranian armed forces and the clergy went on to unseat Mossadeq....

Read rest of article....

Reader Comments (24)

Just a note - Mossadegh was Prime Minister, not President, and the shah wasn't ever not on the throne, he was just politically sidelined before the coup.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraebethke

mossedegh was democratically elected and toppled by winston churchill and president eisenhower and kermit roosevelt and the cia - all conservatives i might add and it was president eisenhower who installed the western puppet mohammed pahlavi [shah]

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertehranweekly

Appreciated --- editor's error and I have corrected.


August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

"Considering the provocative headline, would it not have been better to devote more space to actually proving the allegation?"

This is what I asked myself yesterday after finishing the article. I was extremely disappointed with the total lack of eidence to back up Takeyh's accusation. I have already heard these insinuations about clerical complicity in the coup on many occasions and was hoping this article would shed some light on the subject.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

"Has Takeyh really failed to notice ”mullahs” such as Mohammad Khatami, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Grand Ayatollah Sane’i, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and Ayatollah Dastgheib who have protested the suppression of rights and denial of justice since June 2009?"

Mr Emery is obviously mocking of at least 100 protesters, killed during post-election protests, and up to 2000 protesters, still imprisoned and tortured by this "religious" regime, while some of its staunchest defenders are sitting safely at home, issueing "protest statements"!
No mention of Ervand Abrahamian's incisive article from 2009, describing the role of Ayatollahs Behbahani, Boroujerdi and Kashani in toppling Mossadegh:" rel="nofollow">
Instead of supporting democratic forces in Iran, Mr Emery tries to whitewash Iran's clergy again. Who cares for the Iranian people as long as the free circulation of oil is guaranteed?

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Thanks for posting this article. Í knew there had to be something around on the subject of clerical involvement in the 1953 coup because I've read so many comments by Iranians here and there alluding to this.

The article is a bit long, but the key points start at the paragraph that begins: "If Mosaddeq fell because of a "stab in the back," the stab came not so much from the Left as from the religious Right."

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine


You're welcome. There is yet another piece on Mossadegh, pointing out how Ayatollahs Kashani and Boroujerdi supported the CIA coup against him:" rel="nofollow">
Rewriting history began shortly after the Islamic Revolution, whose founder said "He [Mossadegh] was also not a Muslim...and I said...he will be slapped and it did not take long that he was slapped [in the 1953 coup] and if he had lasted he would have slapped Islam".

Today Mossadegh is largely ignored, while killers like Navvab Safavi, a member of the radical fundamentalist group Fedayeen-e Islam, have become religious "heroes". We should thank Mr Emery for being so keen on defending this Holy Republic!


August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

This is a good account of what actually went on in 1953.
A note here is important: Mossadeg was far from a democrat; more like a stubborn one man show that he believed he (a multi-millionaire many times over) was correct in taking Iran into bankruptcy over his disputes with British. For over two years that he was the prime minister, he did not govern Iran even a single day without Marshal Law backing him up-- he had his hand-picked general running the Marshal law!
Mossadeg may have had good intentions, but democracy was not one of them!

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMhfarzin


Your claim that I am mocking dead protestors is simply offensive. How an earth you portray me as being at the same time an regime apologist and imperialist exploiter of Iran's oil only you can tell the world. But I have no idea how you can read my piece as an attack on Iranian democracy and a defence of the 'Holy Republic'. Seriously, please explain. BTW, have you read any of my pieces on this blog before?

Regarding the role of the clerics, you are repeating the same mistake as Takeyh. They are not united or monolithic. Throughout modern Iranian history some have supported the status quo and some have attacked it. Some supported Mossadegh, some were complicit in his overthrow (though Takeyh's claim that the CIA were innocent bystanders is plain and offensively wrong). It was a CIA plot, they even bribed some of the clerics involved. Equally, since 2009 some clerics have been at the vanguard of protesting the repression and some have been orchestrating it. You are letting your apparent hatred of all clerics cloud your judgement.

My piece is not really concerned about disputing the role of any clerics in 1953. It is the subtext behind Takeyh's piece- which I believe is linked to the 'bomb Iran' agenda. Then again, I assume you believe anyone who opposes bombing Iran is also a regime apologist.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisE

I thought the coup was an attempt to counter the commies, who were minutes from taking parliament themselves. Kashani was involved too, but that is not surprising considering mullahs have a history of supporting political causes in return for some dough.

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPak


I really do not understand how you can continue your simplistic view of the matter after 31 bloody years of oppression by the Islamic Repubic, ruled by clerics you defend in your final sentence.
Quoting 5 out of 5000 clerics (at least, the real figure is certainly much higher) as a confirmation to this is revealing. As far as I know none of them, except for Ayatollah Montazeri, have ever regretted the mass executions of 1988, carried out by clerical revolutionary courts in the name of Islam. And even 11 years after the murder of political opponents, writers, and students during the Khatami era none of the culprits has received due sentence. As usual in this Holy Republic the victim's lawyers were arrested, while the murderers run free.
I wonder, how you would react, if the regime had killed your relatives? Would you still praise a president like Khatami, who failed to render justice? A cleric, by the way.

You are free to criticise Takeyh's obvious shortcomings on the role of the CIA in the 1953 putsch against Mossadegh, however by defending those clerics who had no mercy on their compatriots, killed, raped and tortured in the name of Islam, you are just adopting the role of an accomplice.


August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

I think there is a fair point to point out Kashani (whom had only been an ally of convenience), Boroujerdi, a dissolution of the National Front over Mossadegh's perceived increasing autocracy and as Kermit pointed out, the relatively little funds it took.

I've seen this pointed out in several books. I think it's fair to have a debate over this without being branded a Monarchist, but it doesn't come down to absolving the CIA/MI6 for exploiting and coordinating these factors for decisive effect when the day came (as patronizing as it might come off as). One can debate points here and there, but I wouldn't call Ajax largely inconsequential. And even if so, even if the clerics could have whipped up the laats on their own, with their own media, - the blowback of perception certainly has been consequential in the role of the UK and US.

August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

RE what Kurt said, ".. I wouldn't call Ajax largely inconsequential ... even if the clerics could have whipped up the laats on their own, with their own media, - the blowback of perception certainly has been consequential in the role of the UK and US",

Check this out: Iranian hackers defaced a UK genetics website to protest a "Western plot to overthrow a post-WWII democratically elected leader in Iran"! The UK's Human Genetics Commission website was hit by politically-motivated hackers on Tuesday, called the the Sun Army, who defaced the site with digital graffiti." rel="nofollow">

August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine


Your conclusion is not "simply a point of fact" at all, because you equate two historical completely different situations. In 1953 a secular government was toppled with the help of the clergy (and the Bazaar and the left), while 2009 the people revolted against an oppressive religious regime, led by the same clergy. As far as I know none of them is really interested in a democratic system, but rather aim at keeping an obsolete religious dictatorship, which they have obviously lost to a paramilitary dictatorship of the Guards.
This time it was a majority of Iranians, refusing to be cheated again. The fact is that most of these mullahs, who are "protesting" now, have been involved in or accepted this cheating for years. Their "protests" are rather conditioned by their anger of having been eliminated from the political scene. The Khatami era is a good proof that the "good mullahs" were mostly insensible to the people's demands. In any case they don't want democracy, but still try to save their stillborn "Islamic Republic".

Obviously you are projecting your simplistic anti-imperialist agenda on a Third World movement, which demands the same democratic rights you are already enjoying.


August 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama


However much you try and manoeuvre this argument into a stand off between your preference for a secular cleric-free Iran and my apparent support for a murderous theocracy, it's not going to work. You cannot and will not associate me with any of the actions of this regime, or past ones.

It basically boils down to you using a very narrow and highly politicised definition of 'protesting'. I consider statements condemning the transparency of the election, the post-election crackdown of human rights and free speech, and the conduct of the government, protests. I call participating in marches and demonstrations a protest. I submit that it is perfectly accurate definition- regardless of their participation in previous governments.

You are making a wider point that because these clerics still suport the notion of an Islamic Republic, and because some of them have even held office, anything they say or do can never be considered a 'protest'.

You have read this blog for long enough to know that few (perhaps none) of its contributors, and certainly not its founder, share your definition. If you doubt that then I suggest you go through the archives and see how many posts there are in broad admiration of statements or actions (of protest) by clerics such as Khatami, Karoubi, Montazeri etc. I wonder if I go through the archives I will find you protesting this characterisation?

So my question to you is that why do you read, and participate in the debates, of a website that is an 'accomplice' for the regime, 'mocks dead protestors', and projects a 'simplistic anti-imperalist agenda'?

In anycase, I would have preferred you to have made your points without having to resort to some quite unpleasant insults. Nevertheless, I respect and support your hope that Iran moves towards genuine democracy. I will say, however, that I have never seen any evidence to suggest that majority of Iranians want pure SECULAR democracy. If you have any, I would be interested.


August 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisE

Hello, I downloaded the Other Guys movie online. Just once you have watched them all, think again. Try this film out: As usual Will Ferrells funny character plus the looney plus the elusive hints of soberness. Also the soundtrack is spectacular.

August 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMovieFinder


As I said in my last reply you are equating two historical incompatible situations, but obviously you still deny it.
My next point was a clarification of the nature of recent clergy 'protests', pretending to be in favour of the people without a clear plea for changing this clerical system, which has led to this mess. Unfortunately the reformists continue to ignore the historical failure of their attempts to establish a more democratic system within the narrow boundaries of this undemocratic Constitution.
Third point: I am discussing this issue with you as an individual, not with the whole EA team. So, please, do not try to create the false impression of an anti-EA campaign.
The EA team and all contributors are free to admire statements or actions (of protest) by clerics such as Khatami, Karoubi, Montazeri etc., but seriously I do not see any solution for the people's essential demands for freedom within this undemocratic Constitution.
Your last sentence is most revealing: imho you do not get any evidence to suggest that a majority of Iranians wants pure SECULAR democracy from a regime that has excluded democrats from the political process for more than 30 years by killing or imprisoning them or by forcing them to flee the country.

And then... how do you define democracy? As far as I am informed it is based on the separation of state and church. All the rest is window dressing.


August 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama


Again you are rialing against an argument I haven't made and a pro-regime position I haven't taken. The piece I wrote in no way tries to draw a direct historical comparison (in fact point 5 criticises Takeyh for attempting to draw a false comparison). The only comparison I have made is much more general: that in 1953 and 2009 the clergy were not united or monolithic, as Takeyk implied. Are you disagreeing with this?

Re- secular democracy. As I understand it you are acknowledging that most Iranians currently living in Iran under the system of Islamic government do not want to overthrow it. This has been consistently backed up by multiple polls.

This means your subsequent points are very much confused. You want the leaders of the reform movement to establish a strategy to change a cleric system in spite of the fact that only a minority support its overthrow? In fact you want them to do so on behalf of those currently not living in Iran who do support it?

Let's us be really clear about what I think you want- you want western governments to support, militarily, regime change in Iran on behalf of a minority of Iranians living in Iran and some unknown number of the diaspora?

I suspect that what irks you is that I have criticised Takeyh for pandering to the bomb Iran lobby- when you perhaps belong to this lobby? I apologise if I have misrepresented you.

I wasn't giving the impression of an anti-EA campaign, I was simply saying that all of the moral baggage you have (quite nastily) heaped onto me in terms of insulting dead protestors and being an accomplice of the regime should also be extended upon them. That's because this has been the line taken by EA. It is your narrow definition of 'protest' which is in the minority.

But frankly this debate has gone way beyond your initial criticism of my piece- which was that I shouldn't consider the statement of clerics 'protests' under any circumstances. That point has been settled- we are using differing definitions of 'protest'. There isn't really much more to say. You stick to your definition and I'll stick to mine.

What I consider democracy is irrelevant- for the record I think Iran's is grossly imperfect for many many reasons. My .preference is for secular democracy
However, my pressing concern is not so much the separation of church and state, but how the current regime behaves towards its own people. My only point is that some clerics deserve credit for protesting this behaviour. Finally, I am not persuaded that the majority of Iranians living in Iran want a strict separation of church or state or that Western governments should construct policy according to objectives of those living outside who may do.

August 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisE

As an Iranian I am really surprised when you find Takeyh's claims surprising? Every Iranian knows about the role of the clerics in the 1953 coup. What evidence do you need? That Ayatollah Kashani brought the thugs and hoodlums into the street? That the current regime has no love for Mossadegh? That Khomeini hated Mossadegh?

The whole thing is a good basis for a comedy play. That of Iranians knowing the clerics were responsible for the 1953 coup and the Americans apologising to the clerical regime and useful idiots justifying their support for Islamic Republic's atrocities.

August 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArdeshir


I don't find it that surprising. Once again, my piece was not really about the 1953 narrative, it was about Takeyh's subtext and intended audience.

What's undisputable is that the CIA (and Britain) planned and triggered the coup. As an Iranian I'm surprised by your support for Takeyh's claim that this is nothing to be sorry for. What is less clear is how instrumental the CIA were in the success of the coup on the day- though once again Takeyh needed to include more than one sentence to establish that it was effectively a cleric affair from start to finish. Oh and Mossadegh being hated by Khomeini may well be true, but it certainly cannot be treated as evidence in establishing the extent of clerical involvement in Ajax.

In sum, it is not fair for Takeyh to call for 'the clerics' to apologise for Ajax and for the post-election crackdown. Simply because they are not one monolithic group who supported (or participated in) both. Some did some didn't.

I think I have said all I can on the subject now. I look forward to your play!

August 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisE

Chris Emery who has read my response to the "leading historian " of the period Mark Gasiorowsky in Gulf 2000 should have perhaps displayed his intellectual honesty by at least partially citing some of the archive documents I presented in my response so that the readers could judge for themselves who panned who.
Draioush Bayandor
Author, CIA and Iran: the Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited

August 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarioush Bayandor


Re: in 1953 and 2009 the clergy were not united or monolithic, as Takeyk implied.
By presenting this point as your conclusion you are constantly denying your insistence on your factual conclusion, i.e. trying to present the clergy's protest against the suppression of rights and denial of justice since June 2009 as people-oriented.
I do not deny that some of the oppositional clerics support the people, but by doing so they are mostly interested at retention of power, not at real freedom in a democratic sense. The Khatami era has proven that reformists were ready to sacrifice the people's will to stay in power, and I see no big difference to that situation right now.
Pretending that a majority of the people does not want full democratic rights is fully in the line with the agenda of these reformists, struggling to keep up the actual undemocratic constitution, which they pretend to be "reformable". It was not reformable during the Khatami era, and it will certainly not be today, as most reformist parties and all their newspapers have been banned (not to mention the detainment of many influential reformists and critical journalists).

I deeply regret that some Iranians like you still prefer to stick to this failed experience, instead of admitting it and criticising its supporters, especially these protesting clerics. Even if one cannot expect them to have a different approach, a honest reassessment of the causes for their failure would be more constructive. Repeating such historical errors is ony self-deception.


August 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

In all societies, there are bad and good people; I agree with Scott about Sanei and Dasgheib; I would like to have a grand pa as Ayatollah Montazeri, he's so cute , nice and too humble to be able to say pardon to people of Iran; and the heros, Ayatollah Boroujerdi in prison, shattered in hundred pieces, who will continue his fight until the end; we have to be fair and not to behave like the officials of the bloodthirsty regime ! fairness, democracy and equality must be our mottoes .

August 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnge-Paris


As far as I know Sane'i and Dastgheyb have never propagated a separation of state and church, which is the only (formal) guarantee for democratic freedom. Otherwise they would be sitting in jail like Ayatollah Boroujerdi.
Both are profiting from a system, which has amassed fortunes by disowning the former elite and snatched up their properties in so-called Bonyads (charitable religious foundations), controlling the domestic economy for many years.
When the people of your country are systematically tortured and raped in prisons, when 40% of the population lives at the poverty line, the "protests" of such clerics appear to me rather like a joke. Its good for their conscience, but changes nothing.


August 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

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