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'Regime change' led to hatred of U.S.

How CIA overthrew Iranian gov't in 1953

By Sako Sefiani
Los Angeles

It has now been 51 years since a U.S. coup on Aug. 19, 1953, overthrew a democratically elected prime minister in Iran and brought the despised dictator, the Shah, back to power to rule with absolute despotism for another 26 years.

Four years ago the New York Times obtained a copy of the still-classified CIA secret history of that coup. That history, according to a Times article by James Risen published on April 16, 2000, and available on the Web (search Google for New York Times Special Report: The C.I.A. in Iran), reveals the inner workings of a plot that set the stage for the Islamic Revolution 26 years later and for a generation of anti-U.S. hatred in one of the Middle East's most powerful countries.

The document discloses how the United States, in order to gain control over Iran's oil and expand its dominance in the region, plotted and executed the coup in collaboration with Britain. The CIA has refused to make some files public, claiming they were destroyed in early 1960s.

This was the first successful regime change by the United States. Washington was to carry out many more. The next one came the following year in Guatemala.

A short history

Restive under decades of British colonial domination, nationalism had grown among the Iranian people. In 1951, Iran's parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry. Legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Moham med Mossadegh, as prime minister.

Britain responded with threats and sanctions. Prime Minister Mossadegh refused to back down. So British intelligence officials proposed a joint plan to oust him to their U.S. counterparts.

The newly inaugurated Eisenhower administration became especially interested when it learned that the Iranian communist party--the Tudeh Party--was strong, active and growing in popularity.

CIA Director Allen W. Dulles approved $1 million to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh. The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement ... and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong communist party."

Within days, agency officials identified a high-ranking officer, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, as the person to spearhead a coup. Their plan called for the shah to play a leading role. But the young shah wanted to continue his kingdom and was afraid of losing his throne if he went against the wishes of the people and the parliament, so he was very reluctant to go along. He was to be pressured and threatened to participate in the coup.

According to the document obtained by the Times, CIA officials began planting anti-Mossadegh articles in the local press. The coup began on the night of Aug. 15. At first, it did not succeed and General Za hedi, who was to replace Dr. Mossadegh, fled.

But Kermit Roosevelt, the Middle East envoy at the time and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, tracked Zahedi down and convinced him that the coup could still succeed if they could persuade the public that he was the lawful prime minister. (Roosevelt, by the way, became a vice president of Gulf Oil after he retired from the CIA in 1958.)

To accomplish that, they had to get out the news that the shah had dismissed Mossadegh and appointed Zahedi. So the CIA station in Tehran sent a message to the Associated Press in New York, asserting that "unofficial reports are current to the effect that leaders of the plot are armed with two decrees of the Shah, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other appointing Zahedi to replace him." The CIA and its agents also arranged for the decrees to be mentioned in some Tehran papers.

On Aug. 16, prospects for reviving the operation were dealt a seemingly fatal blow when it was learned that the shah had fled to Baghdad--because people were pouring into the streets when they learned of the coup.

People rioted in the streets for three days. They dismantled the statues of the shah and his father.

The CIA gave up on the operation. But Roosevelt insisted that there was still a chance for success if the shah would broadcast an address on the Baghdad radio, and if Zahedi took an aggressive stand.

On the morning of Aug. 17, the shah finally announced from Baghdad that he had signed the decrees.

Believing that the shah's departure and the arrests of some officers involved in the coup had removed the danger, Dr. Mossadegh let his guard down. The government recalled most troops it had stationed around the city.

That night the CIA arranged for Zahedi and other army officers to be smuggled into the embassy compound for a "council of war."

They agreed to start a counterattack on Aug. 19. Using travel papers forged by the CIA, key army officers went to outlying army garrisons to persuade commanders to join the coup. But once again, the shah disappointed the CIA when he left Baghdad for Italy as his exile.

CIA forges 'iron hand'

On the morning of Aug. 19, several Tehran newspapers published the shah's decrees. Soon pro-shah crowds were building in the streets.

"They needed only leadership," the secret history says. And Iranian agents of the CIA provided it.

One of the agency's most important Iranian agents led a crowd toward Parlia ment, inciting people to set fire to the offices of a newspaper owned by Mossa degh's foreign minister.

Another Iranian CIA agent led a crowd to sack the offices of pro-Tudeh news papers.

Iranians working for the CIA and posing as communists harassed religious leaders and staged the bombing of one cleric's home in a campaign to turn the country's Islamic religious community against Mossadegh's government.

"By 10:15 there were pro-shah truckloads of military personnel at all the main squares," the secret history says.

By noon the crowds began to receive direct leadership from a few officers involved in the plot. Within an hour the central telegraph office fell. Telegrams were sent to the provinces urging a pro-shah uprising. After a brief shootout, police headquarters and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell as well.

The Tehran radio remained the biggest prize. Army officers and police overwhelmed the radio station. Pro-shah speakers went on the air, broadcasting the coup's success and reading the royal decrees.

At the embassy, CIA officers were elated. Kermit Roosevelt got Zahedi out of hiding and took him to the radio station, where he spoke to the nation.

Dr. Mossadegh and other government officials were rounded up. Officers supporting Zahedi placed "known supporters" of the coup in command of all units of the Tehran garrison.

The shah returned to rule with an iron hand, taking orders from his bosses in Washington.

CIA and the U.S. media

Western correspondents in Iran and Washington never reported that some of the unrest had been stage managed by CIA agents posing as communists. And they gave little emphasis to accurate contemporaneous reports in Iranian newspapers and on Moscow radio asserting that Western powers were secretly arranging the shah's return to power.

In one instance, the history indicates, the CIA was apparently able to use contacts at the Associated Press to put on the news wire a statement from Tehran about royal decrees that the CIA itself had written.

But mostly, the agency relied on less direct means to exploit the media.

The Iran desk of the State Department, the document says, was able to place a CIA study in Newsweek, "using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist." The article was one of several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran, fed the "war of nerves" against Moham med Mossadegh.

The history discloses that a CIA officer, working under cover as the embassy's press officer, drove two U.S. reporters to a house outside Tehran where they were shown the shah's decrees dismissing the prime minister.

Kennett Love, the New York Times reporter in Tehran during the coup, wrote about the royal decrees in the newspaper the next day, without mentioning how he had seen them. In an interview, he said he had agreed to the embassy official's ground rules that he not report the U.S. role in arranging the trip.

After the coup succeeded, Love did in one article briefly refer to Iranian press reports of U.S. involvement. And the New York Times also published an article from Moscow reporting Soviet charges that the United States was behind the coup. But neither the Times nor other U.S. news organizations appears to have examined such charges seriously.

Love said: "I wanted to let Freedman [his boss] know that I knew there had been U.S. involvement in the coup, but that I hadn't written about it. I expected him to say, 'Jump on that story.' But there was no response."

Long live solidarity!

Twenty-six years later, during the revolution of 1979, the Iranian people overthrew the shah and the Islamic Republic was born. When the students in Tehran overran the U.S. Embassy and took the staff hostage, demanding the return of the shah to face trial, this writer was in Illinois on a student visa. From many people's treatment of me and other Iranians, it was obvious that the people of the United States had been kept in the dark--either due to CIA and Pentagon manipulations of U.S. corporate media or the latter's complacency and collaboration.

Such anti-democratic and repressive policies, which at times have been outright war crimes and have cost the lives of untold numbers of innocent people in various countries, and which continue to this day, have been committed through the decades in all corners of the world by both Republican and Democratic administrations. And they have caused a tremendous level of ill will, mistrust and hatred toward the United States.

Only the people--not the Democrats, not the Congress and not the courts--can change the policies and priorities of this government, by organizing and building a movement to challenge the corporate government on the streets, just as was done during the civil-rights movement a few decades ago.

Only the people can stop this government in its tracks and redirect the billions of dollars spent every year to wage war on the poor of the world in the interest of trans national corporations, can force them to spend it instead on jobs, health care, edu cation, housing, retirement and other social programs that will benefit the people.

On Oct. 17, when workers from all over the country march on Washington in the Million Worker March, I will be thinking about the day when the CIA, unbeknownst to the people of the United States, overthrew our popular prime minister and imposed the will of the Empire on us.

I will view the march of the U.S. workers as the long-awaited answer to Washington: "We are the workers and we will not let you oppress our sisters and brothers overseas for the benefit of the corporations anymore!"

Long live solidarity among workers of all nations, that sends shivers down the spine of the Empire!

Reprinted from the Sept. 2, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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