The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

While perusing "Blogs by Google Employees" I came across this entry criticizing the US for deposing Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh 50 years ago:

We have other hamfisted interventions in our history. In the 1950s, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh attempted to negotiate higher royalties for Iranian oil, but British oil companies drilling and exporting the oil since WWII refused. Mossadegh took over the refineries, and Britain began a blockade in the gulf, preventing Iran from exporting the newly nationalized oil. While the stand off took an economic toll, Mossadegh was considered a hero by his people. Acting on British-inculcated fears that Mossadegh was a communist, the Cold War CIA began sabotauging Iran's process of working out its ecnonomic and post-coloinial issues. Ultimately, the CIA was successful, and the Shah's monarchial powers (weakened during Mossadegh's rise) were restored. To many Iranians, Mossadegh's downfall remained a lasting symbol of American aggression and during the 1979 revolution, the sabotage served as a rallying point, fueling anti-American sentiments. In 2004, Madeline Albright admitted, "The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America."

I know little about the downfall of Mossadegh, but this post prompted me to think, and do some research. Criticisms of America's interventions into other governments are good arguments for liberals, because their opponents do not make effective counter-arguments. Conservatives will say "Well, you know, the Cold War, greater evil, and all that. Tough luck for the Iranians." Libertarians will say "See? This is why we hate government. Now why don't you abolish the FDA, hypocrite?"

Here is a sharper riposte: There is as much evidence that the US overthrew Mossadegh as there is evidence of the existence of UFOs.

Consider the exposition of the coup in the Wikipedia Mohammed Mossadegh article. (The tone of the article is about as unbiased as Hawk Harrelson, so you figure this is the best the anti-American crowd can bring to bear.)

On April 4, 1953, US Central Intelligence Agency director Allen W. Dulles approved $1 million to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh". Soon the CIA's Tehran station started to launch a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh. Finally, according to The New York Times, in early June, American and British intelligence officials met again, this time in Beirut, and put the finishing touches on the strategy. Soon afterward, according to his later published accounts, the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, arrived in Tehran to direct it.

The plot, known as Operation Ajax, centered around convincing Iran's monarch to use his constitutional authority to dismiss Mossadegh from office, as he had attempted some months earlier. But the Shah was uncooperative, and it would take much persuasion and many meetings to successfully execute the plan. Meanwhile, the CIA stepped up its operations. According to Dr. Donald N. Wilber, who was involved in the plot to remove Mossadegh from power, in early August, Iranian CIA operatives pretending to be socialists and nationalists threatened Muslim leaders with "savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh," thereby giving the impression that Mossadegh was cracking down on dissent, and stirring anti-Mossadegh sentiments within the religious community.

Mossadegh became aware of the plots against him and grew increasingly wary of conspirators acting within his government. He set up a national referendum to dissolve parliament. Some purport that the vote was rigged, with Mossadegh claiming a 99.9 percent victory for the "yes" side. Allegations that Mossadegh was resorting to dictatorial tactics to stay in power were in turn cited by US- and British-supported opposition press as a reason to remove Mossadegh from power. Parliament was suspended indefinitely, and Mossadegh's emergency powers were extended.


To remain in power Mossadegh knew he would have to continue consolidating his power. Since Iran's monarch was the only person who constitutionally outranked him, he perceived Iran's 33-year-old king to be his biggest threat. In August of 1953 Mossadegh attempted to convince the Shah to leave the country. The Shah refused, and formally dismissed the Prime Minister, in accordance with the foreign intelligence plan. Mossadegh refused to leave, however, and when it became apparent that he was going to fight, the Shah, as a precautionary measure foreseen by the British/American plan, flew to Baghdad and on from there to Rome, Italy.

Commentators assumed it was only a matter of time before Mossadegh declared Iran a republic and made himself president.


Once again, massive protests broke out across the nation. Anti- and pro-monarchy protestors violently clashed in the streets, leaving almost 300 dead. Funded with money from the U.S. CIA and the British MI6, the pro-monarchy forces quickly gained the upper hand. The military intervened as the pro-Shah tank regiments stormed the capital and bombarded the prime minister's official residence. Mossadegh surrendered, and was arrested on August 19, 1953.

One of the military leaders that arrested Mossadegh, General Fazlollah Zahedi, was proclaimed Prime Minister. The Shah himself, after a brief exile in Italy, was rushed back to Iran and returned to the throne. His attempted overthrow and subsequent restoration to power had all occurred within a week.

So ... there's an awful lot of "authorizing" and "directing" and "funding" and "pretending" going on by the CIA. Oh, and a meeting in Beirut -- which is like within a thousand miles of Persia. But what concrete actions did the Agency take to dump Mossadegh? Precious little as far as I can tell. Let's try a more sober-eyed summary (using advanced unordered list technology!):

  • Mossadegh was involved in a power struggle with the Shah, hence
  • Various factions within Iran took sides, and
  • The Shah's faction was more powerful than Mossadegh's, therefore
  • Mossadegh lost and the Shah won

Was all that really so surprising?

Still not convinced that Mossadegh's downfall had little to do with an operative in Dulles turning a knob? Very well, put yourself in the place of the Shah as members of the CIA and MI6 explain their intricate plan:

Shah: Very well, what plans to you have to remove Mossadegh and put me in power?
Spook: Well first, O Monarch, we need to convince you to use your powers to remove Mossadegh from office. You see, in our opinion ...
Shah: Yeah, yeah, like I would be the first person in the history of mankind to be seduced by power. Consider me convinced. What is your plan?

Spook: Our Iranian operatives pretending to be socialists and nationalists will threaten Muslim leaders with savage punishment if they oppose Mossadegh.
Shah: And this helps me how?
Spook: It will convince the Muslim leaders that Mossadegh is cracking down on them.
Shah: What do you expect, that they will then donate to the Iranian Civil Liberties Union? What if they stay cracked down, then where am I? And do you think Persians are deaf and dumb? What do you think would happen if I sent operatives to dress up like the FBI and tell American clergymen that the government would crack down on them?
Spook: Did I mention that this effort is being led by the grandson of President Roosevelt?

Shah: Okay, what next?
Spook: Mossadegh will then get paranoid and will dissolve parliament.
Shah: Good, less trouble for me.
Spook: And then he will call for a referendum and get a 99.9% yes vote.
Shah: Agh! You're killing me!
Spook: At this point we forsee that you will have to flee to Europe.
Shah: You "foresee" that, huh? I am in danger of losing so I run. You really have to have the mental acuity of, say, a squirrel to get that one right.

Spook: But there will be protests, and we'll fund the pro-Shah forces that will emerge victorious
Shah: Glad to hear it. Leave the funding in small bills on my desk, I'll take care of the rest.


The tales that the United States toppled the government of Iran -- or Guatemala, or Chile -- are supposedly motivated by concern for the inhabitants of less powerful nations. But it is only a small distance from concern to condescencion; when we say that a functionary of the American government was able to overthrow a government with trifling effort, it is implied that only America's actions matter, and that the factions which exist in Iran, or any other nation, may as well do nothing. Yet governments have fallen before the US existed and they will fall after America is a distant memory.

I remember debating two leftists in a coffee shop in downtown Palo Alto about the fall of Salvator Allende. They claimed that the US had done him in, and when I asked how they said by supplying Pinochet with arms and money. When I pointed out that arms were probably not difficult for a general to come by, the duo was utterly nonplussed. They appeared to conceive of Chile as a featureless plain with no money, no weapons, and containing only bland people with no interest in the future of their home country.



Yes, unlikely series of events, seemingly overcomplex, but I find it more unlikely that the New York times is making this up when it doesn't make the US government look good.

The problem with many republicans is that they counter assertions of honest attempts at fact with mere uncertainty that justifies the status quo. I say when in doubt, consider that the uncomfortable possibilities may be true.

And liberals can suck too, no doubt. But I am unable to find primary research every single issue I read up on, so I have to do the best I can with what is is published. And the other side can say "well, we can't trust that!" Frustrating!!!

By Blogger Lilly, at 9:25 AM  

I did not say that the accounts of CIA plotting, from either the Wikipedia article I quoted or the Times article you quoted, are made up. I said that the CIA did not overthrow Mossadegh. Iranians overthrew Mossadegh, and would have done so whether or not "the agency's Tehran station began disseminating "gray propaganda," passing out anti-Mossadegh cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering articles in the local press."

The fact that the Times' articles were written by an ex-CIA man is not a confession of CIA complicity. It indicates that the CIA would rather be thought of as sinister than impotent.

When Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996, some millions spent on his campaign came from the Chinese government. Yet no one would say that Clinton was a Chinese puppet, no matter how many ominous memoirs were published by former members of Chinese intelligence.

Skepticism is a virtue, and I'd hate to think it is the sole property of Republicans (I am not a Republican).

By Blogger Floyd, at 8:41 AM  

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