The Truth Behind Those "Unseen" Iran Photos in The Guardian
1953 Coup Images Aren't All They're Claimed To Be
Perhaps you’ve viewed the new collection of “unseen” photos from Tehran circa August 1953 depicting various scenes from before, during and after the coup. On Dec. 16th, The Guardian suddenly posted the images online — purportedly snapped by an American witness — with virtually no explanation, and they circulated rapidly via social media.
While these 25 vintage black and white photographs, dated between August 2nd and September 8th, 1953, undoubtedly have historical value, they also raise many questions:
— When, why and how did The Guardian obtain these photos, and under what conditions?
— Why did they remain buried for over 62 years?
— What else is known about the photographer and his motivations for shooting them?
All we are told is that these “hitherto unseen” images were taken by the late William Arthur Cram, “a former education officer at the US embassy in Tehran”, and that he captioned the photos himself.
There’s got to be more to the story than that.
Looking over the photos, something didn’t quite make sense to me. Qualitatively, they appear basically on par with a professional. Was Cram an amateur or a skilled photographer? Why did he take it upon himself to shoot these photos, was it for any particular purpose? And why, after running all over chaotic Tehran to capture these images, would he choose not do anything at all with them afterwards?
Another thing that bothered me was the incredible access he enjoyed. While it is entirely possible that Cram could have found himself in close proximity to many of these events, the sheer number of them is highly questionable. Consider these examples:
• A rather intimate shot of Hossein Fatemi looking pensive—why was Cram, a mere U.S. embassy worker, sitting directly across the table from the Foreign Minister of the country?
• A smiling outdoor shot of Col. Nematollah Nassiri, one of the key players in the 1953 coup—why was this senior Iranian military official happily posing for him?
• Premier Mossadegh and the Soviet Ambassador in a meeting . . . how did Cram, who was not a newsman or a press photographer, manage to be front and center in all these varied situations?
But the picture that really stood out to me was the one showing the triumphant Shah (back in Iran after Mossadegh’s fall), in full military regalia, saluting with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi and Nassiri at his side. The Aug. 23rd photo appears to be within spitting distance from the King, the new Premier, and his men, at an incredibly critical moment in Iranian history. But there’s William Arthur Cram, a foreign aid worker of no particular distinction, supposedly situated squarely in front of the main concentration of power in the entire country. How to explain this?
Actually, there is an explanation for that particular image. I skipped mentioning the first thing that struck me when I saw it: that I’d seen it often before (it’s been on our own site for years). The photo ran in publications such as Newsweek at the time, and was even rendered as an illustration in an issue of Reader’s Digest. So I was rather surprised to learn that the original photographer was one “William Arthur Cram”, United States foreign services employee.
Well, it turns out that the person behind the lens for this image was not, in fact, Mr. Cram. It was, more appropriately, the famous LIFE magazine photographer Carl Mydans (1907-2004).
The photograph falsely attributed to Cram was just one of an entire set by Mydans and LIFE’s James Whitmore, on assignment in Tehran for the week, of the Shah arriving at Mehrabad airport from Rome, welcomed by royalists in his circle fervently kissing his hands and feet, along with congratulatory greetings from a roster of dignitaries.
Which brings me to my other chief suspicion: I am not necessarily convinced that Cram took all of these photos in the first place. It’s hard to believe, for example, that on the day of the violent coup, that this amateur shutterbug was able to be in so many places — among the frenzied mobs in Tehran’s streets, outside Mossadegh’s ruined home, inside Tehran’s seized central radio station...it’s certainly impressive, no?
So there are many open questions here. Seeking clarity, I contacted the Guardian’s Saeed Kamali Dehghan, whose name is on the article, for background information on the photographer, the photos themselves, and how exactly they were obtained. No reply.
Since The Guardian is trumpeting these photos as never-before-seen, it should be known that while many appear to be new, a number of them have, in fact, been ‘seen’ after all.
In addition to the post-coup Shah photo previously discussed, I’ve identified several others which have been out there for years. In fact, you can find some of them online!
This calls into question not only the journalistic diligence of The Guardian, but the credibility of the alleged photographer, who seems to have taken credit for others’ work. Given their studied silence, I’ve taken it upon myself to dig up a little more biographical data on the mysterious American teacher who decided to play photojournalist, and here is what I’ve gathered:
William Arthur Cram was born in Minnesota on October 2, 1901. He obtained his Bachelor of Sciences degree from South Dakota State College in 1924, and later attended Western Washington College of Education and the University of Oregon, earning a Master of Science degree in 1932.
Cram furthered his education at Stanford University, obtaining his Doctor of Education degree in 1942. Afterwards he became an administrator of elementary and secondary schools in Portland (His 1941 dissertation had been “A Study of Teacher Tenure In Oregon”). In 1946, he began working as field director for the American Red Cross in Hawaii.
U.S. State Department records indicate that between the years 1952-1955, he was stationed in Tehran (Jul. 24, 1952), Tabriz (Sept. 16, 1952), Mashad (Sept. 20, 1953) and Babolsar (Oct. 24, 1954 and Feb. 25, 1955) as a general educator, teacher educator and administrative advisor for the U.S. technical assistance program known as Point Four. He was married to Evelyn Cram.
While I prefer to avoid conspiracy theories, one has to ponder the possibility that Mr. Cram, who we now know was nearly 52 years old at the time, may have been more than just a simple foreign service worker. Many spies were just freelancers anyway, and their actual careers — journalists, academics, etc. — made them ideal candidates for espionage, giving them the perfect cover for their extracurricular shenanigans.
The two main factors that arouse my suspicion are the unusual up-close-and-personal access he seemed to have to these people and events, and the clear pro-Shah bias revealed in his written captions on the photos. The whole photo series strikes me as an attempt to visually document the 1953 coup as a purely popular uprising for some undetermined, and apparently unused, propaganda purpose, perhaps as a way of covering the CIA’s tracks.
Besides, there’s so much variation in the condition of the images themselves (Compare Col. Nassiri’s distressed, streaked portrait on Aug. 16th with the smooth, unblemished crowd scene dated the same day) that it’s extremely hard to believe that a single photographer was behind the camera.
In fact, it’s quite possible that Mr. Cram took none of these photos.
The entire premise as told by The Guardian is apocryphal. For example, they report that Cram was an embassy officer, which presumably is a diplomatic post. Why would an educationist work at the U.S. embassy? In all my research on his background, I found references to Point Four only, which is perfectly logical, but no mention of any embassy position. He also doesn’t seem to have been stationed in Tehran at the time, rather the northwestern Azerbaijani city of Tabriz, over 600 miles away.
Still, I don’t have any direct evidence that Cram may have been an agent of U.S. clandestine services, so this all just conjecture. And it’s probably just coincidence that CIA agent Cleveland C. Cram (1917-1999), who joined the agency in 1949 and remained until 1992, was also born in Minnesota and had an extensive education background.
What is certain is that Dr. William Arthur Cram was not the photographer of all these images as claimed, nor were they all hidden from the public (I can confirm that at least five had already circulated), as The Guardian incorrectly informs us. In short, there’s definitely more to all this than we’ve been told.
Analysis of the 25 Iran Photos
Below is the entire set of photos claimed to be taken by William Arthur Cram with his original captions, followed by analysis by Arash Norouzi. As The Guardian has unnecessarily Anglicized the spelling of Cram’s descriptions, they have been reverted back to their original American form for historical integrity.
A rare image of the freshly appointed Lavrentiev and Mossadegh together (I’ve only ever seen one other). Unfortunately, the nature of their discussions are not indicated. The dates given would be useful, if accurate, though I have yet to manage to corroborate them with any internal U.S. records. I have, however, found State Dept. documents referencing Lavrentiev’s meeting with the Shah on Sept. 8, 1955.
August 2: Russian ambassador, Anatoly Lavrentiev, arrived in Tehran on July 26 and met with Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, on July 28 and August 2. Lavrentiev was sent to replace Ivan Sadchikov as ambassador to Iran. Mossadegh’s last photo before the events of mid-August shows him conferring with the Red envoy.
Mr. Cram’s claim that this was the last photo of Premier Mossadegh prior to the coup, while possible, is both presumptuous and unlikely.
The purpose of the referendum was to dissolve the Majles (Parliament), it wasn’t about the Shah. At the time, the Majles was said to have become too corrupted by foreign elements and anti-government intrigues, hence the question of its dissolvement.
August 3: Mossadegh pushes ahead with his idea to call for a referendum in order to curb the power of the Shah. A huge meeting was arranged, but Mossadegh ordered soldiers to come in between his own men and the Reds (Iran’s communist Tudeh party).
I’m not currently familiar with, nor able to verify, the description of what this photo is allegedly depicting. That said, it’s curious that Cram seems here to portray Mossadegh as deliberately distancing himself from “the Reds”, yet immediately contradicts this with the next image and others that follow. His narrative simply doesn’t make much sense.
Vague, hazy innuendo, lacking specifics. Cram’s suggestion that Mossadegh called out the Communists to arrive in droves at the polls is unsupported by any known evidence, even after six decades of analysis by researchers and academics.
August 3: After this meeting, Mossadegh approached the Tudeh party still more closely. The Reds sent 50,000 to referendum polls.
The 50,000 figure Cram cites derived not from personal observation but U.S. media reports, which made no attempt to insinuate that Mossadegh had any role in the Tudeh arrival.
This photo had already been released before (not “unseen”).
Still more hard to verify allegations from a non-neutral source. How would Cram know if women were “sent” to the polls? Curiously, Cram fixated only on the Communist aspect, but made no mention of the non-secret ballot for which Mossadegh was roundly thrashed in the Western press.
August 4: While Mossadegh’s own men participated in the referendum, the Reds stole the show. Even women, who have no franchise, were sent to public squares to impress others.
Cram dates this photo August 16th, even though it could have only possibly been taken either before or after that date. That’s because, as Cram notes, Nassiri was promptly arrested after delivering the Shah’s farman to Mossadegh’s residence. So Nassiri would have been in jail and certainly not smiling at the time.
August 16: With spectacular results – 1 million votes for, 67 votes against the dissolution of the Majlis (the parliament) – the government sent a note to the Shah asking to dissolve it. But the Shah dismissed Mossadegh and sent his bodyguard, Col. Nematollah Nasiri (now a general), to deliver a letter to Mossadegh. Nasiri was taken prisoner by the prime minister’s bodyguards and the government announced early the next morning that a “coup d’état” by the royalists was now frustrated. In the letter, the Shah had appointed Gen Fazlollah Zahedi prime minister.
The missing detail here, of course, is that the decree dismissing Mossadegh formed the nucleus of an illegal CIA plot. Whether or not Cram had any inkling of this remains a mystery.
Another shot that doesn’t seem to correspond with the date, or in this case, even with the image itself. Nassiri wasn’t the only one abducted that evening. As part of the coup plot, Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi was dragged away in the middle of the night, wife and baby screaming, and reportedly told he would be executed by morning. After the scheme was busted, he was freed early that morning instead.
August 16: Next morning’s headlines read: “Coup d’etat failed... we want republic.” At 9am the Shah left in his own private plane for Baghdad. At 2pm Radio Tehran asked all parties for a meeting in Parliament Square. Everyone was certain the Shah would abdicate and a republic would be announced. Crowds shouted: “We want a republic...death to the Shah.” Of the huge crowd, 85% were of the Tudeh party.
While it is technically possible for this photo to have been taken on August 16th, there’s good reason for doubt. Dr. Fatemi was extremely busy on that day, writing an impassioned anti-Shah editorial in Bakhtar Emrouz and famously delivering an angry speech before thousands of people in Baharestan Square. He did give a press conference at around 2:00pm, but Cram’s candid photo appears to be of a fairly private moment.
Why would Cram display an up-close photo of Hossein Fatemi, renowned journalist and one of the top officials in the Iranian government, yet neglect to identify him? Where did his 85% crowd estimate come from? Available CIA records contain no reference to any Tudeh presence at the rally.
I’ve identified another photo from this scene, shown here, in which Fatemi is seated wearing the same clothes and holding his cane, while the same unidentified men stand against the wall (the mustached guy with the striped tie conspicuosly wearing sunglasses indoors is seen in the corner). Most likely the same person (doubtfully Cram) was behind the camera.
This photo shows throngs of Mossadegh supporters from various backgrounds out in force (a number of them are holding signs with his picture). Banners representing the Pan-Iranist Party, The Iranian People’s Freedom Party, and others are displayed, and I also spotted a large painting of Mossadegh’s portrait in the crowd, obscured way in the background.
August 16: Tehran rally with standards, flags and banners.
Judging by his bland description, Cram seemed to prefer to downplay the pro-Mossadegh contigent.
Cram labeled Iranians who attacked statues of the Pahlavis after the Shah’s treasonous coup attempt “hooligans”, but Iranians who behaved violently in the streets, burned down newspaper offices, or attacked, looted and ransacked Mossadegh’s home were christened “the people”.
August 18: Unhindered by the police or by soldiers, young hooligans began pulling down statues of the Shah from public squares. Men rode the 25-foot statue of the Shah’s father, Reza Shah, in Sepah Square, Tehran’s main square.
August 18: The solid statue defied efforts but was finally pulled down.
August 18: Even cranes could not pull it down – men brought hacksaws and sawed it down.
Mr. Cram seemed to derive some satisfaction from their difficulty.
August 18: Everybody tried to take a piece of the statue, but this bust of Reza Shah proved too heavy for these boys.
“The people” were sad. Cram had also just witnessed large numbers of Iranians desecrating anything to do with the Shah and his father, but, evidently, they didn’t count.
August 19, 9:00am: The previous day had been a sad one for the people, who had gone home with heavy hearts. On the following morning, pro-Shah sympathizers began gathering in the streets and riding comandeered buses.
Note: This image had already been released.
These royalists are parading a dead comrade on a board atop their vehicle — one wonders why Cram did not mention it. Did he really take this photo? If he were there, then he should have noticed this at the time.
August 19: 9:30am, August 19: With portraits of the Shah in their hands and anti-Mossadegh slogans filling the air, people on every corner jumped to action.
Another cause for doubt is this more posed frame of this scene I found in my collection, appearing to have occurred moments apart and from the same vantage point, published in U.S. media. Most likely it was the same photographer.
Are we to believe that Cram the educator was also freelancing, selling his pictures to press agencies on the side, or is he conning everyone?
August 19, 10:00am: At about 10am, tanks and soldiers appeared in the streets. But instead of preventing the riots, they gave free rides to rioters and headed for Mossadegh’s headquarters.
The sign on the building reads “Auto Service Reza Shah”, which might locate the scene at Khiaban-e Reza Shah (Reza Shah Street).
A rare image showing the burning offices of Bakhtar Emrouz, an incident described in the CIA’s 1954 internal report Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran by Donald Newtown Wilber.
August 19, 10:00am: People began their attacks on pro-government newspapers. The offices of Bakhtar, Hossein Fatemi’s newspaper, are on fire.
Note: This photo had already been released.
August 19, 11am: Communist papers and newsstands suffered in the same way.
The seizure of Radio Tehran was a key moment in the 28 Mordad coup. This is the first coup image I have encountered from inside the radio station during its takeover.
August 19, 1:00am: The people occupied the Tehran radio station. Here an army officer delivers speeches in the hall of the station.
This photo had already been released before (not “unseen”). Another frame of this precise scene was widely published after the coup, including in TIME magazine. I sincerely doubt that Cram was even the photographer here.
August 19, 2:30pm: The bloodiest spot in the town was in front of Mossadegh’s home. People circulated the corpses in the street and excited other inhabitants.
August 19, 4:00pm: This demonstration went on all day. At 4pm, a battle was joined in front of Mossadegh’s home between his guards and the attackers. It now became known that a military uprising was in full swing.
August 19, 7:30pm: Mossadegh’s house fell after five hours of fighting. This is all that is left of his famous living room where he received foreign diplomats.
Point Four, a U.S. technical assistance program, was the department Cram was recruited to work for as an educator. Another individual who worked there was Ardeshir Zahedi, a documented co-conspirator in the coup which replaced Mossadegh with his father as the new Premier of Iran.
August 19, 7:30pm: The Point 4 Tehran Regional Office, which was rented from Mossadegh and which was next to his house, suffered complete ravage. Cars were destroyed. Mossadegh’s house was looted, even to the last window frame, and burned.
This photo had already been released before (not “unseen”). It was immediately sent over the wire at the time (known as a wire photo or radio photo) and used in media reports on the coup, usually cropped to show only the Shah and Zahedi. Here is how this exact photo was captioned:
August 23, 10:30am: The coup d’état was now firmly established. The Shah took the first KLM plane back to Baghdad from Rome and flew in his own private plane from Baghdad. Here is the Shah (in the dark suit) photographed at the airport with Zahedi on his right and Nasiri on his left.
Shah Makes Triumphal Return To Iran
Tehran, Iran...The Shah of Iran (right) is shown as he steps from his plane at Tehran airport yesterday to receive a hero’s welcome from thousands of subjects just days after he fled to Rome in exile after a thwarted attempt to overthrow the government of ex-Premier Mossadegh. With him is Premier Zahedi, designated to the post just before the Shah left for Rome. Zahedi was the one who engineered the coup that overthrew Mossadegh’s government.
This image is actually one of a set of images from this scene from the same vantage point, suggesting they were all by the same photographer. Other very similar photos have also been out there. In this specific frame, Zahedi has his eyes closed.
Cram did not take this photo! The actual source is a rather famous LIFE magazine photographer named Carl Mydans, who took a significant number of photos in Iran during and after Mossadegh’s premiership.
William Warne was Ardeshir Zahedi’s boss — the son of Fazlollah Zahedi seated beside him. Loy Henderson, seated at Zahedi’s right, was a major figure in the operation to overthrow Mossadegh, CIA records have since revealed. “Stassen” refers to Harold Stassen, Director of the U.S. Foreign Operations Administration.
August 31: The new government needed financial help urgently. US ambassador Loy W. Henderson and Point 4 director William E. Warne saw Zahedi and promised $45m in aid. Left-to-right in this photo are: Norman Paul, a representative of Stassen; Henderson; Zahedi; Warne.
Court Minister Hossein Ala stands to the left of the Shah. One should not automatically assume, without verification, that these tribesman were ‘paying homage’ to the new all-powerful Shah simply out of conviction.
September 5: With the monarchy saved, chieftains from all over Iran came to Tehran to pay homage to the young Shah.
Very revealing comment by Cram, re: ‘defending the constitution’. What made him so sure what their ideology was?
September 8: While Russian ambassador Lavrentiev was rumoured to have tried to commit suicide or to have taken seriously ill, more chieftains, even from the Russian frontier zones of Turkmenistan, arrived in Tehran and supported the Shah in his defense of the constitution.
Compare the Sept. 5th photo with the image below from Getty Images. It looks like it was taken by the same photographer — and it is very unlikely that he was William Arthur Cram!
Operation Ajax Was Always An Open Secret | A Timeline
National Review Quietly Edits Embarrassing Iran Blunder
SENTENCED TO HANG: Mossadegh’s Media-Contrived Death Verdict
CNN’s Anthony Bourdain Left Certain “Parts Unknown” in Iran
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”