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The Battle for Iran, 1953: Re-Release of CIA Internal History Spotlights New Details about anti-Mosaddeq Coup

U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson and Some CIA Officials Initially Disagreed with Certain Premises of Coup Planners

Declassified History Implies British Ties to the Operation, Criticizes London's Policies in Period Leading up to the Overthrow

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 476

Posted June 27, 2014

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

For more information contact:
Malcolm Byrne 202/994-7043 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Related Links 

Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran
By Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, Syracuse University Press, May 1, 2004

Iran 1953: The Strange Odyssey of Kermit Roosevelt's Countercoup
May 12, 2014

CIA Confirms Role in 1953 Iran Coup
August 19, 2013

Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran
June 22, 2004

The Secret CIA History of the Iran Coup, 1953
November 29, 2000


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The Foreword to The Battle for Iran lists sources used, including the "enthusiastic cooperation" of the Near East operations staff. It reconfirms that CIA officials destroyed the "great bulk" of internal correspondence about the coup in 1962. The author of the 1954 history (name excised) was Donald Wilber. The identity of the author of this report is unknown.

Washington, DC, June 27, 2014 During early planning for the 1953 Iran coup, U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson warned not only that the Shah would not support the United States' chosen replacement for Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq but that the Army would not play its hoped-for leading role without the Shah's active cooperation, according to a newly released version of an internal CIA history of the operation posted today by the National Security Archive.

The Archive, based at The George Washington University, obtained the latest release of this history — The Battle for Iran, written in the mid-1970s — in response to a Mandatory Declassification Review request.

The document goes on to say that members of the CIA's station in Tehran and certain officials at agency headquarters sided with Henderson against some of the assumptions of American coup planners, who were working under "closely held" conditions in Washington during Spring and Summer 1953.

Mainly through interviews with coup participants, scholars have known generally that disagreements existed (and eventually Henderson went along with Mosaddeq's overthrow), but freshly declassified portions of the document posted today provide a few more specifics about the nature of the differences and who held to which views. (An earlier internal CIA account downplayed Henderson's dissenting views, choosing to emphasize that he was "always thoroughly cooperative" and "absorbed in a search for constructive suggestions.")[1]

A tank patrols a neighborhood in Tehran, soon after August 19, 1953. (National Security Archive collections)

The document also offers the most explicit declassified CIA references to-date to British participation in the operation. London's role — undoubtedly the worst-kept secret in Britain's relationship with Iran over the past 60 years — has never been formally acknowledged by either British or U.S. authorities. However, in this latest CIA release at least two references are tantamount to an official admission of the fact (see below).

Furthermore, the CIA study concludes that the British "misjudged their adversaries badly" in several respects, and that their actions effectively forced the Mosaddeq government to adopt untenable policies. London's rash approach also risked a war with the Soviets, according to the author (see below).

The Battle for Iran is one of three agency histories of the coup that are known to exist. Although heavily excised, it contains a number of interesting details as well as insights into U.S. thinking both in the 1950s and two decades later. It also contains evidence to support the conclusion that the participation of both outside intelligence agencies and Iranians themselves (from the Shah to Mosaddeq to his political opposition to the clerics, the military and finally members of the general population) contributed to the eventual outcome:[2]

  • The document's author does not view the coup as an undiluted success, noting that it left considerable "debris" in its wake (p. 71)
  • The history implies American coup plotters worked directly with certain Iranian clerics on the timing of the critical August 19 demonstration, noting "the mullahs wanted to hold it on Friday, 21 August, which was a religious festival day" but that this might be too late to stave off rumored plans by the authorities to hang a number of arrested officers on August 20 (p. 62). The previous and subsequent sections are excised, so it is not possible to tell how extensive the cooperation was or who the religious leaders were.
  • The document gives a less belittling portrait of the deposed prime minister than many Western accounts from the 1950s. It mentions his "often bizarre behavior" but concludes "most of his actions, even his most emotional and apparently irrational ones, were probably well calculated" (p. B-2).
  • The history repeats several of the generally negative characteristics of the Shah that many other U.S. and British accounts have noted. The author writes that "his indecision and susceptibility to bad advice were notorious," and he describes the monarch as a "mistrusting but gullible ruler" (pp. 47-48)
  • Fazlollah Zahedi, the general picked by the U.S. to replace Mosaddeq, had a "career balance sheet" with "nearly as many minuses as pluses" (p.32), according to the author. The document also highlights some of the personal and political conflicts between Zahedi and the Shah.
  • Contradicting published accounts that Mosaddeq was pinned down in his home on August 19, and that he was forced to escape over a garden wall, this version asserts, without sourcing, that the ousted prime minister "was not even in his house" but had gone next door and "taken temporary refuge" with none other than the head of the U.S. aid program Point Four - William Warne (p. 70). (The Wilber history speculates that Mosaddeq "had probably already left" his house by early afternoon [p. 70].)
  • The New York Times and other accounts "grossly exaggerated" the number of casualties during the coup, according to the history, which disparages Times reporter Kennett Love's descriptions of events, including his use of the phrase "torn to pieces" to describe the fates of Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi and Col. Ezatollah Momtaz, who led the defense of the prime minister's residence on August 19. (Love put the number of dead at over 300. By comparison, a British report in early September 1953, without attribution, gave an estimate of over 50 dead and 300 wounded.[3])

Shortly after the overthrow, Shaban Jafari, celebrated wrestler and political enforcer, leads a pro-Pahlavi procession through Tehran. Propped up in the backseat of the crowded Cadillac is a large portrait of the Shah. (National Security Archive collections)

The CIA had first reviewed The Battle for Iran for release in 1981, but riddled it with exceptionally heavy excisions. A re-review occurred in 2011, and again in 2013 as the result of a National Security Archive request, leading to release of the version posted today. (The posting includes all three versions.) As a rough approximation, about 40 of the 150 pages include some amount of newly released material, sometimes the better part of a page, at other times only a few words. Most of the released text is in Sections III, IV and V, with about two-and-a-half pages newly available in Appendix D. Unaccountably, Appendix E, a chronology of events, has been withheld in its entirety.

The remaining excisions are too extensive to allow a thorough evaluation of the document, but some additional, preliminary comments are possible.

The earliest of the CIA's three internal histories of the 1953 coup was a 1954 "Clandestine Services History" prepared by coup operative Donald Wilber. The Battle for Iran was produced some two decades later, followed by "Zendebad, Shah!": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in June 1998. Both Battle and Zendebad were written by historians at the CIA. The agency has released portions of the latter two documents, albeit with heavy excisions. Only one sentence of Wilber's account has been officially declassified (see Archive posting) — although in 2000 The New York Times posted virtually the entire document on its Web site after an unnamed former official leaked it to reporter James Risen.

It is important to note that this version of The Battle for Iran is a draft. Each page bears the stamp "Administrative — Working Paper," and typed and handwritten edits are visible throughout. There is nothing in the public record to indicate whether a final version ever appeared and, if so, what happened to it.

Another important point, and a difference between this and the earlier Wilber report — other than the amount of time that passed between their writing — is that the author of this document was a member of CIA's History Staff, not a direct participant in the operation. The current author therefore theoretically would have had less of a stake in portraying the coup in a positive light (one of the criticisms of skeptics of the Wilber history). Beyond that, it is unclear why the agency would have commissioned another internal history on the subject — much less seek a third account 20 years later.[4]

The Battle for Iran consists of five sections and six appendices. The 150-page document begins with a short introduction then 24 pages of background on Iran's history, population, economics, politics and government (reminiscent of the content of CIA's current "World Factbook"), more than half of which covers the Cold War period. After this section the agency, without identification or explanation, has inserted two pages of a handwritten outline of what may be the actual coup plan.

The third section is entitled "Covert Action" and over the course of 45 pages discusses the operation's various stages, including planning, involving the Shah, putting the operation into play, the failure of the first attempt, and the recovery that finally produced success. A 9-page description of the aftermath follows, then the main body of the document ends with a one-and-a-half-page assessment of the coup's long-term effects. Again, much of this remains classified, despite the wide public availability of corroborating material originating from other CIA sources.

Finally, seven appendices cover topics ranging from a history of the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, to biographic information about key participants, to a set of talking points used with the Shah (heavily excised), to details about operational plans (entirely excised), and the trial of Mosaddeq.

The document's overall perspective is interesting. On the one hand it accepts as given the standard precepts about the Cold War — primarily the threat of Soviet aggression, including the perception that Mosaddeq seriously intended to move closer to the Soviets. It also makes dubious assertions about the Iranian character — for example, "their tendency to be talkative was notorious" (p. 54) — that are of a piece with many Westerners' attitudes in the 1950s. On the other hand, 20 years after the fact, the author does not fall entirely in line with Eisenhower administration caricatures of Mosaddeq, pronouncing him "neither a madman nor an emotional bundle of senility" (p. 26; see also p. B-2).

The matter of identifying Britain's role in the coup has become something of a poor joke. While the deletion of several passages in the text is clearly aimed at concealing the British role, at least two declassified references spotlight the issue. The first characterizes the operation as an "official admission by both the United States and United Kingdom that normal, rational methods of international communication and commerce had failed." The second notes that a few weeks before the operation a State Department office insisted that, if a coup were to go forward, London would have to provide a "firm commitment" to be "flexible" on any future oil settlement with "the new government." Shortly thereafter, the British cabled their acceptance of the conditions (pp. 39-40).

In this connection, the State Department is reportedly close to publishing its long-awaited retrospective volume on the coup as part of its Foreign Relations of the United States series, which will apparently include much valuable new information. However, it seems unlikely Britain's role will be discussed.

As mentioned above, the author freely criticizes the British approach. London's main misjudgment was to assume that the loss of revenue from the oil crisis would "bring the Iranians to their knees." Instead, it "merely forced them to take the risky steps that increasingly endangered their country's future" (p. 27). Moreover, if the British had "sent in the paratroops and warships," as earlier envisioned, it was "almost certain" the Soviet Union would have invaded, making the "danger of a third world war" seem "very real" (p. 27-28).

As noted, the history does not see the overthrow as an unqualified good. It may have removed Mosaddeq and restored the Shah but "it left behind a good deal of debris [words excised] to clean up, plus not a few complications." (The next half page of detail is excised.) (p. 71) The coup changed Iranian history, but it "did not, as Churchill hoped, enable the West to turn things around in the Middle East" (p. 79).

The author's characterization of the Shah may raise some eyebrows. He was "by no means a dedicated Western ally" even though he served Western interests by being staunchly anti-Soviet. His reforms brought important changes, according to the author, and the White Revolution is credited with having "solidified the foundations of the throne that seemed so shaky and insecure in the violent days of 1952 and 1953." At the same time, the history acknowledges the obvious, that "the Shah has a monopoly of political power ... although parliamentary elections and procedures may furnish the window-dressing of democratic government" (p. 79-80).

In one particular respect, the document is a reflection of its time. Written in the mid or possibly late 1970s, it comes in the wake of the revelations of widespread CIA misconduct by journalists such as Seymour Hersh and official investigations, notably the Church and Pike congressional committees and the Rockefeller Commission on CIA abuses. This was the era when the agency was publicly pilloried as a "rogue elephant" operating without presidential authority or accountability.

That is the background for the opening comments in Part III, which have a distinctly defensive tone. "The many chroniclers of Central Intelligence Agency misdeeds ... have long placed the August 1953 coup ... near the top of their list of infamous Agency acts ... The point that the majority of these accounts miss is a key one: the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government" (p. 26).


THE DOCUMENT: The Battle for Iran, CIA History Staff, ca. mid-1970s

For purposes of comparison, this posting includes all three releases of the document — each of which has very different excisions.  Each version has been broken into segments for ease of viewing.

The Battle for Iran, 2014 release

A: Sections I and II (with attached handwritten outline of plans)

B: Section III, IV, and V

C: Appendixes


The Battle for Iran, 2011 release

A: Sections I and II

B: Section III

C: Appendixes


The Battle for Iran, 1981 release

A: Sections I and II

B: Appendixes



[1] Mark Gasiorowski of Tulane University has done the most extensive interviewing of former operatives. The leaked history is: Donald N. Wilber, CIA Clandestine Services History, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 - August 1953 , March 1954, especially p. 18. When Wilber wrote this document, Henderson was still an active diplomat, and in fact still posted to Iran, necessitating some significant diplomacy on this point on Wilber's part. (See Archive EBB No. 435.)

[2] This is the conclusion of the editors of the volume Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, edited by Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne (Syracuse University Press, 2004). In recent years a handful of analyses, downplaying or dismissing altogether the evidence in certain American and British sources, have claimed neither the CIA nor British intelligence contributed meaningfully to Mosaddeq's actual overthrow.

[3] "Persia: Political Review of the recent Crisis," origin unknown but likely Foreign Office or British Embassy in Washington, September 2, 1953. SeeForeign Relations of the United States, Vol. X, "Iran, 1951-1954," p. 786. Love evidently did not make up the phrase that Battle's author called "a favorite" of his. This same British document reports that pro-Shah forces announced from the radio station at 2:30 p.m. on August 19 that Fatemi had been "torn to pieces" (p. 785).

[4] An attempt in June 2014 to contact a member of the CIA History Staff familiar with the background of the 1998 history received no response.


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