Generally, internal documents are useful for historians because they represent a more accurate picture of what a government was actually thinking and doing behind closed doors. Yet this particular CIA paper from August 17, 1953 (declassified in July 2005) contains some striking oddities which seem to have been overlooked in historical accounts.
Observer or chief instigator?
Above all, the strangest thing about this report is the faux outsider perspective conveyed towards a series of events the CIA itself masterminded. For background: the first attempt to implement the CIA plot began on August 15th and continued well past midnight of August 16th, when the Shah’s decrees dismissing Mossadegh were first delivered to the Premier’s residence by Col. Nematollah Nassiri, whom Mossadegh subsequently had arrested.
In the CIA’s promptly prepared report the following day, the attempted putsch they concocted is referred to as “the Iranian coup” and the “Zahedi-Nasari coup” [sic], but never is there the
slightest acknowledgement of any U.S. role. Why they chose to omit their deep involvement from a top-secret internal report is unclear — presumably, anyone permitted to view it would already
be privy to the coup plot, but then who knows. Perhaps, at that stage, the CIA meant to protect Operation Ajax from some kind of a leak,
sabotage or other unforeseen outcome. With no foreknowledge of the CIA’s intense, high-stakes covert activities in Iran, one former U.S. diplomat toiled away on a report suggesting ways to resolve the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute for six weeks — only to turn it in on the very day Mossadegh was toppled.
A more likely explanation might be that the CIA was simply covering up its own failure. Facing what appeared to them to be a dismal and hopeless outcome, the agency may have decided to purge any record of their supposed inadequacy.
Of course, after the surprise victory of the coup, the CIA ordered a full after-action report on how it was
accomplished, and, in consecutive sections labeled "The First Try" and "Apparent Failure", details of the CIA role were fully fleshed out. That report, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of
Iran, would not be revealed (via a leak to The New York Times) for another 46 years. Assessment of the Iranian Situation, hidden from the public for 52 years, appears to have
been an especially sensitive record. Contrast it with a similar CIA document like Prospects For Survival of Mossadeq Regime
In Iran, released after just 30 years.
Any discussion of the CIA’s cryptic ‘observer’ stance would not be complete without noting the stunning boldness of their prediction that the attempted coup might be viewed as a Western plot:
Mossadegh, says the report without a trace of irony, “can generate considerable popular sympathy by
presenting this latest maneuver against him as a foreign-inspired plot against the Iranian people.”
The chutzpah later continues with:
“The leftish press in Tehran has begun a campaign accusing the United States of implication in the present
coup. Mossadeq may come to view America and Britain as joint conspirators.”
It’s almost as if they were trying to drop a hint.
CIA’s utterly wrong—yet fortuitous—predictions
It does appear indisputable that the failure of the August 16th coup attempt left the CIA in near despair. Their conclusion: Mossadegh was now in a much stronger position than he was prior, would
now “assume a more dictatorial position”, score political points in the Majles, crack down hard on his enemies, “act more ruthlessly”, and basically exploit the days’ events to his full advantage.
Essentially none of this materialized.
Likewise, four times it was stated that Mossadegh aimed to abolish the monarchy, when in fact Mossadegh had publicly proclaimed his loyalty to its preservation. Hence, their belief that Mossadegh would now aggressively pursue this course was, like the bogus allegations of complicity with Iranian Communists, based on a false premise.
At this point, the CIA saw no prospect of any groups or factions having the ability to overcome Mossadegh, with his demonstrated “mastery” of all he surveyed. Yet on August 19, 1953, two days after their cynical appraisal of the disastrous results of their operation, the impossible occurred. Mossadegh was overthrown via a scenario they had
just ruled out — military coup.
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
OFFICE OF CURRENT INTELLIGENCE
17 August 1953
ASSESSMENT OF THE IRANIAN SITUATION
The failure of the Iranian coup attempted by retired General Zahedi and by Colonel Nasari of the imperial guards leaves Prime Minister Mossadeq in a strengthened position, discourages and weakens his divided opposition, and may lead him to attempt to abolish the monarchy. It will make Mossadeq more suspicious of his associates as well as of the Western powers and may make him more arbitrary and difficult to deal with as the internal situation continues to deteriorate.
Mossadeq who received advance notice of the plot now has military control and is in a position to exploit the situation thoroughly. The Tudeh party has already demonstrated in his support and he can generate considerable popular sympathy by presenting this latest maneuver against him as a foreign-inspired plot against the Iranian people. These circumstances may help Mossadeq secure the election of a new and more amenable Majlis.
The prime minister publicly announced on 16 August that new elections would be set after he had amended the electoral law. In view of his success in controlling the recent referendum on the abolition of the present Majlis he may also be successful in controlling the election of new Majlis deputies. It had been assumed in recent days that Mossadeq would have great difficulty in doing this since the conservatives largely control the countryside and Tudeh might elect some of its own representatives and give the prime minister only limited support.
The failure of the Zahedi-Nasari coup, the arrest of other opponents of the prime minister and the suggestion of more drastic action will have widespread repercussions among the various groups and individuals who would like to remove Mossadeq.
Mullah Kashani although a bitter opponent of the prime minister tends to withdraw quickly whenever Mossadeq is in the ascendancy. The small opposition groups of the now dismissed Majlis likewise lack courage. The disgruntled army officers are not in a position to act as long as the chief of staff and the chain of command remain in Mossadeq’s control.
At this point there appears to be no other group or combination which is ready to try to act against the prime minister or which if it did act could anticipate success.
The involvement of the shah, who signed two decrees to remove Mossadeq and to appoint General Zahedi as the next prime minister, poses a serious threat to the monarchy. The shah’s flight to Baghdad and the prominent position occupied in the coup by the commander of the Imperial guard is an open invitation to Mossadeq to take action against the monarchy. The prime minister has long wished to remove all power from the shah and on occasion has given indications of a desire to remove him. If he does not succeed in enforcing abdication he will manage to strip from him the remaining vestiges of power.
The prime minister who has long been fearful of assassination may now be expected to act more ruthlessly in maintaining himself. He has long been convinced that the British are plotting his removal. The leftish press in Tehran has begun a campaign accusing the United States of implication in the present coup. Mossadeq may come to view America and Britain as joint conspirators.
The prime minister, however, has consistently hoped for American aid and accordingly has not broken with the United States. His past policy may accordingly be continued. He may be expected to break with the United States only if he is convinced that he can get nothing or if he is in need of a new whipping boy in order to generate more popular support.
The Tudeh has already come out against the shah and is charging American involvement. They may be expected to give full support to Mossadeq in his drive to remove or weaken the shah.
Under these conditions the economic and political deterioration of Iran will continue. Mossadeq, forced to lean on the Tudeh, may be expected to retain political control but will probably assume a more dictatorial position and indulge in more chicanery to maintain himself.
13 August Shah signed decree dismissing Mossadeq and appointing General Zahedi prime minister.
(Tehran time, which is 8 ½ hours ahead of EST)
15 August 2300 Colonel Nasari of the Imperial guard arrests
Deputy Chief of Staff Kiani.
2330 Nasari imprisons Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatemi, Minister of Roads Haqshenas and Deputy Zirakzadeh. Fails to locate Chief of Staff Riahi.
16 August 0100 Nasari with armored car and soldiers attempts to seize Prime Minister Mossadeq. Nasari is arrested by Mossadeq’s guards.
0250 Chief of Staff Riahi orders imperial guards disarmed.
0345 Iranian home service announces attempted coup.
0500 Fatemi, Haqshenas and Kiani released by Mossadeq’s followers.
0545 Moscow Home Service, quoting an Iranian Communist newspaper, reports palace-inspired coup will be attempted in near future.
0600 Extraordinary meeting of the government council is held at Mossadeq’s home.
First government communique announces gnashing of plot.
Disarmament of imperial guard is completed.
Abol Qasem Amini, Minister of Court, is arrested by Mossadeq.
Fatemi holds press conference announcing failure of plot which he says has been suspected for some time.
(The shah and the queen arrive in Baghdad by air early on the morning of the 16th.)
COMMENT ON THE ATTEMPTED COUP IN IRAN
The failure of the military coup in Tehran and the flight of the shah to Baghdad emphasize Prime Minister Mossadeq’s continued mastery of the situation and foreshadow more drastic action on his part to eliminate all opposition. The prime minister can utilize the situation to generate more popular support for himself at a time when he is facing the problem of how to secure the election of a new and more amenable Majlis. While in the past Mossadeq had not been very aggressive in his efforts to remove his enemies, this incident will reinforce his recent tendency to proceed arbitrarily.
The shah’s flight, the involvement of the commander of the Imperial guards as leader of the coup, and the imperial decrees to remove Mossadeq and appoint General Zahedi prime minister present Mossadeq with the opportunity of reducing the shah’s position still further or attempting to eliminate the monarchy altogether.
Late reports state that army units stationed outside the capital are moving toward Tehran. Since the commander-in-chief of the army remains loyal to Mossadeq significant army support for the coup is not anticipated.
Note: Colonel Nematollah Nassiri’s name is incorrectly given here as "Nasari" — Arash Norouzi.