Engrained in the legend of the CIA is that its officers, working with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) organized the 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and restored Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi to power. The CIA’s clandestine services took credit in a 1954 study by officer Donald Wilber that bore a secret classification when leaked in 2000.
Now comes forth a former Iranian diplomat from the pre-Khomeini government, Darioush Bayandor, who claims that the perceived story is wrong. To the contrary, he argues, the CIA operation failed in midcourse, and it was anti-Mosaddeq military officers who stepped in and brought the coup to fruition. The swashbuckling CIA officer on the ground, Kim Roosevelt, played only a bystander’s role, according to Mr. Bayandor.
A careful reading of Mr. Bayandor’s book, along with the CIA history and Mr. Roosevelt’s memoir, shows that there is a very thin element of truth in his revisionist theory. In fact, TPAJAX, the agency name for the operation, did suffer a blip when officers loyal to Mosaddeq arrested a group of dissident officers who stormed his house with the aim of forcing him to retire. A nervous shah, age 34, had been a reluctant plotter from the beginning; indeed, his twin sister shamed him into authorizing the operation. Now he fled to Baghdad and then London.
Fearing that total failure was imminent, CIA headquarters ordered Roosevelt to call things off and leave Iran. He refused, feeling that events he and the Brits had set into motion had created a momentum of their own. In a decision tantamount to insubordination, he stopped reporting or responding to cables. Instead, he busied himself urging Gen. Fazolla Zahedi, the agency’s choice to lead the coup, to continue.
Using Iranian newspapers that the CIA considered to be “assets,” the agency gave wide circulation to decrees signed by the shah before he fled, dismissing Mosaddeq, as he had the authority to do, and appointing Zahedi to head the armed forces.
After some indecision, and encouraged by swirling street mobs - the core of which was paid by the CIA but soon included thousands of people who detested Mosaddeq - Zahedi accepted the challenge. And it was CIA officer Howard “Rocky” Stone who helped Zahedi don his tunic as he set out to put the operation back on track. “In all my years with the agency,” Stone told me before his death, “that was my proudest moment. A roll of the dice for everyone, to be sure, and especially Zahedi. But he gutted up and did what was expected of him.”
The late John Waller, who coordinated the Washington end of the plan, remembered the dilemma facing the officers in Tehran: “Kim had a choice: either keep sending reports, or go ahead and do the job and pray for the best. Lucky for Kim - and for [the] CIA - he succeeded.” Another officer with long experience in covert operations - but not Iran - said AJAX went pretty much as planned and expected.
“We [CIA agents] were not about to do the deal on our own. Kim’s role was to get the Iranian military off its duff and depose Mosaddeq. In such a situation, what an on-the-ground officer can do - and should do - is limited. You are certainly not going to bring in the U.S. Marines!”
Mr. Bayandor contends that pro-shah elements of the Iranian military were already planning to move against Mosaddeq months before the CIA and SIS action. As his source, he cites a document in British Foreign Officer archives - of unknown provenance - dated several weeks after the coup. But he glides over the fact that the military did not stir until the CIA/SIS action.
Leftist critics, both in the United States and abroad, have long viewed the Iranian coup as one staged to protect British oil interests rather than the people. And, to be sure, a primary goal was to stop Mosaddeq from confiscating the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., which paid meager royalties. Months of negotiations were futile.
To American planners, however, the growing influence of the Soviets in Iran, fostered by Mosaddeq, was more important than oil. The Tudeh Party, initially hostile to Mosaddeq, began cozying up to domestic communists, and Moscow started a flow of funds to friendly politicians. So CIA and SIS officers convened in Nicosia, Cyprus, to draft an action plan relying heavily on subversion and propaganda. They set a budget of $285,000, with the United States contributing $147,000 and the Brits $137,000. President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill approved AJAX, which meant the CIA and SIS acted with authority from the highest levels of government.
With the Cold War at a frosty moment, neither nation was about to permit a Soviet inroad into Iran. In the view of the left-leaning journalist Stephen Kinzer, “it is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation AJAX through the shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.” More dispassionate historians dismiss such an analogy as strained.
Nonetheless, in 1980, Madeleine K. Albright, President Clinton’s secretary of state, came close to apologizing for AJAX, admitting that the United States “played a significant role” in the ouster of Mosaddeq and noting “that many Iranians continue to resent the intervention.”
But not Richard Helms, former director of central intelligence. I was once in a group when someone baited him about Iran. Eyes flashing, Helms shot back, “AJAX gave us 25 years in Iran, and in Cold War terms, that was an eternity!” And, in the meanwhile, the clandestine services continue to use the Wilber history in training courses.View Entire Story
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