Interrogation At Dawn

Loy Henderson’s Final Meeting With Mossadegh

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | November 1, 2023                     

U.S. Ambassador Loy W. Henderson with Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh

As U.S. Ambassador to Iran since Sept. 1951, Loy Henderson and Premier Mohammad Mossadegh had many remarkable conversations. Their meeting on the evening of August 18, 1953, however, was positively historic.

At this point in time, Iran was in severe political turmoil. Two days prior, the Shah dismissed Mossadegh and appointed a successor, Fazlollah Zahedi. Mossadegh did not accept this and instead immediately had the man who delivered the royal decree, Col. Nematollah Nassiri, arrested.

In reality, the Shah’s action was the induced centerpiece of a covert operation jointly conducted by America and Britain. As an active participant in the 1953 coup plot, Henderson was strategically absent from Iran during these events, only to return and feign ignorance as to what was going on.

Naturally, Henderson pressed Mossadegh to explain his reaction to the Shah’s bold move. Sensing the hidden hand of the foreigner, Mossadegh’s responses were peppered with sarcastic “jibes” which “hinted that [the] United States was conniving with [the] British in [an] effort remove him as Prime Minister.”

After their meeting, Henderson cabled back to Washington a 13-point summary, also copied to London. This telegram was included in the 1989 FRUS release on Iran, and then re-added decades later to the 2017 volume. Generally when this happens it is because the previous version had redactions that have since been deemed suitable for declassification. When posting these documents, I always compare both versions and then highlight the differences for emphasis.

Strangely, not only is there nothing new in the 2017 version, they actually removed the 12th and 13th lines for some reason, most likely by mistake. I have added them back and highlighted them. The only thing new in 2017 was a State Dept. memorandum summarizing Henderson’s report. This used complete sentences yet spelled Mossadegh’s name “Mossedeq”, as opposed to Henderson’s preferred misspelling “Mosadeq”.

Soon, TIME magazine published an extremely propagandistic report on the coup titled “IRAN: The People Take Over.” Under “The Ambassador’s Call”, it contained a rather detailed account of Henderson and Mossadegh’s final meeting, clearly leaked by the U.S. government. The irony was, Henderson closed his cable by saying he hoped none of it would be leaked!

According to TIME, Henderson pestering Mossadegh to do something to protect Americans from mob violence provoked the Premier to have troops crack down in the streets. This, they wrote, was his “fatal mistake”. Mossadegh was overthrown the next day, August 19, 1953.

U.S. State Department | IRAN 1951-1980

788.00/8–1853: Telegram

280. Telegram From the Embassy in Iran to the Department of State [Loy Henderson to State Dept.]

NIACT [night action, requiring immediate attention no matter the time of day]

Tehran, August 18, 1953, 10 p.m

Ambassador Loy W. Henderson

384. 1. My talk with Mosadeq this evening lasted one hour. He received me fully dressed (not pajama clad) as though for ceremonial occasion. He was as usual courteous but I could detect in attitude certain amount smoldering resentment. Usual exchange amenities after which I expressed sorrow at chain events since my departure over two months ago, adding I sorry see Iran apparently even worse off politically and economically than it was then. He acknowledged my statement with sarcastic smile and there lull in conversation.

2. I remarked I particularly concerned increasing number attacks on American citizens. After Shiraz incident he had issued instructions to law enforcement agencies which had afforded high degree protection to American nationals. Unfortunately law enforcement agencies appeared again to be becoming lax. Every hour or two I receiving additional reports attacks on American citizens not only in Tehran but also other localities.

3. He said these attacks almost inevitable. Iranian people thought Americans were disagreeing with them and, therefore, were attacking Americans. I said disagreements no reason for attacks. He replied Iran in throes revolution and in revolutionary stress and strain it would require three times as many police as exist to afford full protection to American citizens. I should remember that in American Revolutionary times when Americans wanted British out, many Britishers in US were attacked. I said if Iranians wanted Americans out individual attacks not necessary. We would go en masse. He said Iranian Government did not want Americans leave but some individual Iranians did and, therefore, were attacking them. I replied Chiefs of American military mission, American gendarmérie mission, and TCI had informed me today that Iranian officials with whom they dealt had assured them they were anxious that these missions continue to function in Iran. [Technical Cooperation, Iran] These missions could be assured of maximum cooperation from Iranian authorities. These chiefs had also told me that at no time had they been receiving more full and effective cooperation from Iranian authorities than at present. I had refrained from informing Washington of this situation until I could talk with him. I wanted to know what his present attitude was re these American aid missions and also re giving adequate protection to members these missions. It did not make sense for certain Iranian authorities to insist that these missions remain in Iran while members of these missions were subject to insults and attacks from gangs of hoodlums.

4. Prime Minister said he sure law enforcement agencies doing all possible give protection. I disagreed and read to him excerpts various memoranda which I had received from members American aid missions during course of day, some of which indicated that police were passive while they were being attacked. He said he wished assure me that he desired aid missions to stay. He thought they were performing valuable services and would look further into matter protection of their members.

5. After another lull I told him I would be grateful if he would tell me confidentially for use my government, just what had happened during recent days. US Government interested with respect both events and legal situation. He chose interpret my remarks as reference to President’s letter to him last July. [Eisenhower’s final letter to Mossadegh was dated June 28th] He reminded me that we had had agreement to effect existence these letters would be confidential and exchange would not be published unless US reply would be favorable. He maintained American officials either in Washington or in Tehran had directly or indirectly deliberately leaked information to pro-British Iranian press re this exchange and against his will US had insisted on publishing notes. He said he had actually never consented to their publication and was astonished receive letter from Embassy expressing appreciation his willingness that exchange be published. When he saw US Government was determined to publish, he had finally insisted previous messages exchanged last January between him and President-elect be also published. I told him it had been my understanding leak had occurred in his office and in view distorted public version of President’s letter unfavorable to US, US Government had thereupon insisted exchange be published. He denied heatedly Iranians had been guilty of leaks. No Iranian except himself and Saleh, US Embassy Iranian assistant and interpretor, had been aware of existence these letters. [Ali Pasha Saleh] He had kept them among his own private papers, not in office files. I intimated I not sure his private papers were kept in manner which would prevent clever agents having access to them. I also pointed out there were certain modern hearing devices which might result in knowledge this kind falling into possession of agents parties hostile both to Iran and US. He continued insist certain Americans had deliberately leaked in order that public knowledge of contents of President’s letter might weaken his government. I told him that I knew that exchange had been handled in US and Tehran in most discreet manner by trusted officials and I sure no US leak.

6. Mosadeq then outlined events which led to dissolution Majlis. His narrative in general in line with information already furnished Department by Embassy. He maintained however that 30 members Majlis had been bought outright by British. Only 40 votes had not been bought. Ten of these 40 votes could easily have been purchased for 100,000 tomans and when he learned that negotiations were in progress to complete such purchasing operation he decided that British purchased Majlis was unworthy of Iranian people and should be eliminated. He asked me if I had any comments to make regarding his dissolution Majlis.

7. I reminded him he inviting me comment on Iran internal affairs. I realized it not usual for comments of this kind to be offered by foreign diplomat. Nevertheless he would recall that during some of our past conversations I had overcome my scruples in this respect. I said only comment which I wished to offer at this point was that it seemed to me unfortunate for Iran and no compliment Iranian people that government of Iran apparently could not be based on a Parliament. Iran was in most dangerous international position and I thought it would be more secure if all organs provided for in Iranian constitution could be functioning with at least certain degree of harmony.

8. I told him I particularly interested in events recent days. I would like to know more about effort replace him by General Zahedi. [Fazlollah Zahedi] He said on evening of 15th Col. Nasiri had approached his house apparently to arrest him. Col. Nasiri himself, however, had been arrested and number other arrests followed. [Nematollah Nassiri] He had taken oath not try to oust Shah and would have lived up this oath if Shah had not engaged in venture this kind. Clear Nasiri had been sent by Shah arrest him and Shah had been prompted by British.

9. I asked Mosadeq if he had reason believe it true Shah had issued firman (decree) removing him as Prime Minister and appointing Zahedi in his place. Mosadeq said he had never seen such decree and if he had it would have made no (repeat no) difference. His position for some time had been that Shah’s powers were only of ceremonial character; that Shah had no (repeat no) right on his personal responsibility issue firman calling for change in government. I said I particularly interested in this point, and I would like to report it carefully to United States Government. Was I to understand (a) he had no (repeat no) official knowledge that Shah had issued firman removing him as Prime Minister, and (b) even if he should find that Shah had issued such firman in present circumstances he would consider it to be invalid? He replied “precisely”.

10. Before departing I told Mosadeq that during 24 hours since my return Tehran, members American official family here had received intimations from various Iranian authorities which caused me believe some Iranian officials suspected Embassy harboring Iranian political refugees. I would like tell him point blank this untrue. My present policy in this respect was as follows: (a) if political refugees should endeavor to enter Embassy, efforts would be made to stop them; (b) if they should succeed in entering compound, efforts would be made to persuade them to leave voluntarily; (c) if they should refuse to leave voluntarily, it my intention to notify Iranian authorities that persons had taken refuge in Embassy and that I was telegraphing my government for instructions.

11. Mosadeq thanked me for my statement and said he would like add statement of his own. In case any Iranian political fugitives would take refuge in Embassy, he would like Embassy keep them there. I asked if in such event Iranian Government prepared defray expenses for lodging and food or whether he would expect this to come out of Point IV funds. He said Iranian Government would be glad, despite limited budget, pay expenses those refugees.

12. Mosadeq seemed to be in much better frame of mind when I left him. Nevertheless, from his unusual reserve I inclined believe that he suspicious United States Government or at least United States officials either implicated in effort oust him or sympathetically aware of such effort in advance. His remarks to me were interspersed with number little jibes which, although semi-jocular in character, were, nevertheless, barbed. These jibes in general hinted that United States was conniving with British in effort remove him as Prime Minister. For instance, he remarked at one point national movement was determined remain in power in Iran and it would continue to hold on to last man, even though all its members would be run over by British and American tanks. When I raised my eyebrows at this remark, he laughed heartily.

13. Hope special care be taken prevent leaks contents this message.


[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

• Note that Henderson did not record the time of their meeting, although TIME magazine reported that they met “precisely at 6pm”. TIME also said the meeting lasted one hour, which corroborates with this telegram.

• Ardeshir Zahedi, a notorious liar who participated in the coup, once claimed in a preposterous essay that during their Aug. 18th meeting, Henderson offered Mossadegh “an emergency loan of $10 million dollars on behalf of the Eisenhower Administration.” Obviously, Henderson would have probably mentioned this in his report!

“Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 788.00/8–1853. Secret; Security Information; NIACT. Repeated to London. Received at 6:57 p.m. Also printed in Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. X, Iran, 1951–1954, pp. 752–755 (Document 347).” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

“Transmitted in three sections; repeated to London. Ambassador Henderson returned to Tehran on Aug. 17.” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian (1989)

281. Memorandum for the Record [uncredited]

Tehran, August 19, 1953.

Ambassador Henderson saw Prime Minister Mossedeq by appointment for an hour yesterday evening. He reported that Mossedeq was as usual courteous but the Ambassador detected in his attitude a certain amount of smoldering resentment.

The Ambassador told Mossedeq that he was particularly concerned at the laxity of the Iranian law enforcement agencies in permitting the increasing number of attacks on American citizens both in Tehran and other localities. Dr. Mossedeq replied that these attacks were almost inevitable as the Iranian people thought the Americans were disagreeing with them. The Ambassador replied that disagreements were no reason for attacks, and that if the Iranians really wanted the Americans out individual attacks were not necessary, as the Americans would go en masse. After stating that the law enforcement agencies were doing everything possible to give Americans protection, the Prime Minister assured Ambassador Henderson that he wanted the Aid Missions to remain in Iran. He thought they were performing valuable services and said he would look further into the matter of the protection of members of the Missions.

Mossedeq then outlined events which led to the departure of the Majlis along much the same lines as reported in previous telegrams. He did maintain, however, that certain members of the Majlis had been bought outright by the British. He said only 40 votes had not been bought and that 10 of these 40 could have been purchased by 100,000 tomans. When he learned that the negotiations were progressing to complete the purchasing operation, he decided that a British-purchased Majlis was unworthy of the Iranian people and should be eliminated. Mossedeq then asked for Henderson’s comments concerning the dissolution of the Majlis. Henderson replied that although he was reluctant as a foreign diplomat to comment on Iranian internal affaires, it did seem to him unfortunate for Iran and no [comfort(?)]1 [compliment] to the Iranian people that the Government of Iran apparently could not be based on a Parliament. Iran was in a most dangerous international position and Ambassador Henderson thought that it would be much more secure if all organs provided for in the Iranian constitution functions with at least a certain degree of harmony.

As to the events of recent days, Mossedeq explained that on the evening of August 15, Colonel Nasiri had approached his house with the apparent intention of arresting him. Colonel Nasiri himself, however, had been arrested and a number of other arrests followed. The Prime Minister said he had sworn not to try to oust the Shah and that he would have honored this oath had the Shah not engaged in a venture of this kind. It was clear that Colonel Nasiri had been sent by the Shah to arrest him and that the Shah had been prompted by the British.

In reply to a question by Ambassador Henderson as to whether he had reason to believe that it is true that the Shah had expected a firman removing Mossedeq and appointing General Zahedi as Prime Minister, Dr. Mossedeq said that he had never seen such a firman and that if he had, it would have made no difference. His position for some time had been that the Shah’s powers were of a ceremonial nature and that the Shah had no right on his personal responsibility to issue a firman calling for a change in government. When Ambassador Henderson pointed out that he was particularly interested in this point and that he would like to report it carefully to the United States Government, Mossedeq affirmed that: (a) he had no official knowledge that the Shah had issued a firman removing him as Prime Minister, and (b) even if he should find that the Shah had issued such a firman, he would consider it invalid in present circumstances.

Ambassador Henderson reported that Mossedeq appeared in a much better frame of mind at the end of the talk but that nevertheless, from his unusual reserve, the Ambassador was inclined to believe that Mossedeq was suspicious that the United States Government or at least United States officials were either implicated in the effort to oust him or were sympathetically aware of such an effort in advance. His remarks were interspersed with a number of little jibes which although semi-jocular in character were nonetheless barbed. In general the jibes hinted that the United States was conniving with the British to remove him as Prime Minister.

Ambassador Henderson requested that the above be treated as highly classified information.

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

“Source: British National Archives, FO 371/104570. Secret; Security Information. The memorandum is attached to a covering note from R.J. Bowker, a Foreign Office official, indicating that the memorandum was handed to him by Joseph Palmer of the U.S. Embassy in London.” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

1 “Brackets are in the original. The word in telegram 384 (Document 280) reporting the conversation is “compliment.” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

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Mossadegh & Arbenz & Lumumba & Sukarno & Allende... t-shirts

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Related links:

“What the U.S. Has Always Wished For Iran” | CIA Drafts Statement For After 1953 Coup

Our National Character | Anti-Mossadegh CIA Propaganda (1953)

Army Morale: Loy Henderson Counsels Iran's Shah After 1953 Coup

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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