The State Department released a “retrospective” volume of declassified documents on Thursday on the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and reinstated the rule of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, what constitutes one of the first true official acknowledgments of the clandestine American and British participation in the event.
“For decades, neither the U.S. nor the British governments would acknowledge their part in Mosaddeq’s overthrow, even though a detailed account appeared as early as 1954 in the Saturday Evening Post, and since then CIA and MI6 veterans of the coup have published memoirs detailing their activities,” read a National Security Archive press release.
In 1989, the State Department published an official record of the coup period, but failed to make a single reference to covert American and British involvement. This prompted the resignation of a chief adviser on the State Department’s Office of the Historian, the office responsible for cataloging official histories, as well as a legislative effort in Congress to mandate the production of “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record” of U.S. foreign policy. That legislation was formalized into law in 1991 (see p. 39).
After the Cold War, the CIA vowed to open its agency files on the Iranian coup, and the State Department committed to correcting the omissions in the earlier history. By 2013, the National Security Archive published the CIA’s first official admission of involvement in what it terms operation “TJAJAX.”
Finally, on Thursday, the State Department’s comprehensive 950-page study of the Iranian coup is available to the public.
The preface of the document describes its scope and purpose:
This Foreign Relations retrospective volume focuses on the use of covert operations by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations as an adjunct to their respective policies toward Iran, culminating in the overthrow of the Mosadeq government in August 1953. Moreover, the volume documents the involvement of the U.S. intelligence community in the policy formulation process and places it within the broader Cold War context. For a full appreciation of U.S. relations with Iran between 1951 and 1954, this volume should be read in conjunction with the volume published in 1989.
The Shah Reza Pahalavi presided over a harsh regime, whose SAVAK (Farsi acronym for “Organization of Intelligence and National Security”) secret police used brutal methods of repression, including what the the Federation of American Scientists described as the “torture and execution of thousands of political prisoners.”
American involvement didn’t end with the overthrow of Mosaddegh, however; the CIA continued to assist the Shah for years after the 1953 coup.
An official study published by the Library of Congress shows that Pahlavi’s secret police force was established with the help of Israeli and American intelligence.
“Formed under the guidance of U.S. and Israeli intelligence ofﬁcers in 1957, SAVAK developed into an effective secret agency whose goal was to sustain the government of Iran as a monarchy,” the document reads. “At its height, SAVAK was a full-scale intelligence agency with more than 15,000 full-time personnel and thousands of part-time informants.”
The volume published Thursday is part of the State Department’s “Foreign Relations of the United States” series, which began in 1861 and now comprises over 450 volumes.
“This is going to be an important source for anyone interested in the tortured relationship between Washington and Tehran,” said Malcolm Byrne, who presides over the National Security Archive’s Iran-U.S. Relations Project. “But the fact that it has taken over six decades to declassify and release these records about such a pivotal historical event is mind-boggling.”
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