Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which was instigated by British SIS (better known as MI6) and the American CIA. Over the weekend, as today's anniversary approached, the CIA finally publicly acknowledged their role in the coup. They released 35 documents, published by the National Security Archive, that show the planning, execution, aftermath, and agency reflections on the results of the coup.
Iranians have always known about America's involvement in the coup, and it has been widely accepted in the media and academic institutions throughout the world that the overthrow was conducted under U.S. direction. It was only the American government that did not accept that they carried out the coup. 60 years of secrecy has damaged Iranian-American relations as much as the coup itself.
Those 60 years of blanket denial are bizarre when you consider that a number of ex-CIA and MI6 operatives have published books about their involvement in the coup, including Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Roosevelt and the CIA's main coup operative. The CIA gave partial acknowledgment when the National Security Archive lobbied under the Freedom of Information Act to get an in-house CIA report called The Battle for Iran partly released to the public in 1981.
The coup was a landmark moment in Iranian history, and memories of it still haunt Iranians today. It is also the main justification the Iranian government gives for mistrusting American intentions. Mohammed Mossadegh was a secular liberal who was democratically elected by the Iranian people and he became prime minister on a reformist mandate. He sought to create a constitutional monarchy and to nationalize Iranian oil fields. Iran's oil fields were under British control, and most of the profits went to the British government. The British, fearing loss of control over Iranian oil, placed the country under sanctions, although this did not stop the fields from being nationalized.
When sanctions did not work, Winston Churchill's government sought to convince the American people that Mossadegh was a communist. America had adopted the Truman doctrine a few years earlier, which called for the containment of the spread of communism by any means necessary. The Americans decided to work with the British to overthrow Mossadegh, and they dispatched Kermit Roosevelt to instigate the coup. Roosevelt brought Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in on the coup. The shah was afraid that Mossadegh wanted to remove him, and so he willingly worked with the Americans. The August 19 coup initially failed and the shah fled the country, but his supporters managed to take over the streets and remove Mossadegh a few weeks later. The shah returned and he became an even more powerful autocrat than he was before.
The great irony for the Americans is that Iranians prior to the coup were fervently pro-American. They identified with American values of freedom and democracy, as well as America's anti-imperialist stance. The coup transformed the image of America for most Iranians, they were now as complicit in imperialism as the British were. This and subsequent years of support for Mohammad Reza led to the vehement anti-Americanism of the Iranian revolution and the current ayatollah-dominated Iranian government. The Americans are often accused of being behind any anti-government activity because of it.
Worst of all, while Iranians still remember the 1953 coup, Americans are blissfully unaware of it. The American government to this day funds opposition and anti-Islamic republic groups within Iran without acknowledging widespread deep-seated paranoia about American involvement. If there is to be a rapprochement between Iranians and the U.S., the Americans must come to terms with what they have done to their country.