In a recent episode of “The Langley Files,” the CIA admitted that it overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 for the first time in 80 years.
Although it has long been known that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was instrumental in planning the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in August 1953, the spy agency has only lately acknowledged that its actions were contrary to democratic principles.
The confession was made during a current episode of “The Langley Files,” a podcast created by the CIA and named after its headquarters in Virginia.
The first of two episodes that explored how the CIA helped save six American diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 US embassy siege were released last month. It also offers perspective on the 1953 events, which in many respects served as the catalyst for the 1979 Islamic Revolution that led to the siege.
We should acknowledge, though, that this is, therefore, a really significant exception to that rule, “we should acknowledge, that this is, therefore, a really significant exception to that rule,” he continued, referring to the August 1953 coup. CIA spokesperson and podcast host Walter Trosin once asserted that most of the CIA’s covert operations have “bolstered” popularly elected governments.
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Agreeing, CIA historian Brent Geary replies: “This is one of the exceptions to that.”
Geary suddenly reverses course after admitting the truth, claiming that “in the macro sense, the argument it wasn’t about democracy in Iran from Eisenhower’s perspective, it was about defending democracy worldwide in that case because the Soviet Union bordered Iran.”
In response to questions on the disclosure, the CIA told US media that “CIA’s leadership is committed to being as open with the public as possible.”
“The agency’s podcast is part of that effort – and we knew that if we wanted to tell this incredible story, it was important to be transparent about the historical context surrounding these events, and CIA’s role in it,” the statement continued.
Oil or Democracy?
Iran, then known as Persia and ruled by the Qajar family, had been largely under the control of the British Empire since the late 19th century, with both London and St. Petersburg wielding significant influence over events in the defunct Qajar Empire. In 1906, a constitutional monarchy and Majlis were established thanks to a liberal movement, but as British interests in Persian oil resources grew, London began to support the Shah’s authority, especially after the Pahlavi family came to power in 1921.
Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi attempted to take his own life in 1949, but the assassin was unable to do so. As a result, the king renewed his attempt to seize control by assembling the Senate and filling it with his own loyalists.
The National Front and Mohammed Mossadeq were able to control the uprising, and Mossadeq went on to become prime minister in 1951 when the electoral coalition gained a majority in the Majlis. Mossadeq worked to strengthen Iran’s democratic institutions and curtail the Shah’s authority. Most controversially, he pushed to nationalize American and British oil assets in London and Washington because he believed that doing so would give the two countries disproportionate influence over Iranian affairs.
The UK and US reacted harshly to Mossadeq’s moves, with the Truman and Eisenhower administrations characterizing Mossadeq as a communist who would turn a key Middle Eastern nation into a Soviet ally at a time the US was trying to encircle the USSR with anti-communist military alliances such as NATO.
Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who wrote that he had personally directed the coup on the CIA’s behalf from inside, revealed Washington’s involvement in Operation Ajax, the 1953 scheme to stage a false “revolution” that would topple Mossadeq and restore the Shah to power, in 1979.
Ironically, the acknowledgment was made as Iran’s most obvious fallout from the operation—the 1979 revolution that toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi and established a republic—was already taking place.
Following his return to power in 1953, the Shah established himself as a crucial US partner in the war against the USSR, obtaining state-of-the-art weapons and employing his secret police, the SAVAK, to crush any attempts to reform his undemocratic, secular, right-wing administration. Mass civil protests against his reign started in 1977 as the urban intelligentsia and increasing working class became too strong for him to manage, and he left the country in January 1979.
After students occupied the US embassy in Tehran and the US attempted to mount a rescue operation, which was unsuccessful, Washington was seen as a threat to the revolution and brought to mind the events of 1953, which Khomeini vowed to avoid happening again. This is when the Shiite Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the leader of the revolution.