Spook Story: What Really Happened to Mossadeq?

Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited
Darioush Bayandor (New York: Palgrave, 2010)

Few signs are more telling about the impasse in Iran between the people and the regime than the names of the country’s streets. Most blocks were renamed after the 1979 revolution. Yet, oblivious to the signs, the people continue to call certain streets by the old names, another small but significant indication of the depth of the tensions between the citizens and the rulers, and the persistence of unsettled scores from thirty-one years ago. Still, one particular street tells an even more complex story, dating back more than half a century. It is the capital’s main artery and it bears three names: Pahlavi, for the Shah; Valiasr, its official post-revolutionary name; and a name that the euphoric demonstrators first gave it in the feverish days of 1978: Mossadeq. In the throes of a revolution, it was logical that the city’s most important road should be named in homage to the man-hero who had led another revolution of his own two and a half decades earlier. Yet, when it came time for a decision, the new officials turned their backs on the national hero.

The irony is particularly palpable since the memory of Mossadeq was essential to the victory of the 1979 revolution. As the leader who in the early 1950s had wrested Iran’s main source of wealth, the oil industry, from foreign powers in the hopes of building a sovereign and democratic nation, Mossadeq unified the poor with the rich and the religious with the secular, against the Shah. The story of the CIA coup that deposed him came to have the status of a foundation myth for the 1979 generation, for whom 1953 appeared as only yesterday. Ayatollah Khomeini’s coterie circulated the narrative as a warning that the CIA could reinstall the Shah just as it had once before. It was by invoking Mossadeq’s name that a group of radical Islamists seized the American embassy in November of 1979. It was in Mossadeq’s name that they justified their act, which the Ayatollah anointed as a victory equal to the fall of monarchy. Citing the fear of another coup, the regime rounded up droves of the opposition, charging them with espionage for the United States and thus obliterating its rivals. Still, in the last analysis, the city’s main street was not in fact named after the man who had been the ghost behind the 1979 revolution.


I n his book, Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited , Darioush Bayandor gives a reason for this ambivalence, the constant invocation of Mossadeq’s betrayal on one hand and the refusal to memorialize him on the other. The CIA may have tipped the balance, but the history Bayandor unveils suggests that it was the hostility harbored by influential clergy against Mossadeq that was the main force behind his downfall.

Most, if not all, of the pieces of this book already existed in previous scholarly publications or leaked documents. But Bayandor has connected the dots to compose the first fully focused and complete historical picture. On August 15, 1953, the CIA did, indeed, stage a coup to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq. But that coup failed. By August 16, the agency had acknowledged its failure and the State Department had already ordered rapprochement with Mossadeq. Three days later, however, a few powerful clerics led by Ayatollah Borujerdi, among whose disciples was a junior cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini, orchestrated major unrest. This unrest, spurred by the clergy who felt threatened by Mossadeq’s promise of a secular democracy, facilitated the coup for which the CIA has been credited, and vilified, all these years.

Bayandor does not exonerate the CIA. Nor does he rule out the possibility that the failed first coup contributed to the instability that ultimately brought about the success of the subsequent one. But the irony of Iran and the CIA is that it shows, among other things, both the agency’s incompetence and, to a large degree, its irrelevance to the events of 1953. Indeed, Fazlollah Zahedi, the purged army general with whom the CIA had been dealing, proves to play only a marginal role in the ordeal. It is ultimately a handful of clergy—awakened from years of dormancy imposed by the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905—who make history for Iran, and who step into the political limelight once more after the coup they themselves helped foment.


O vertly, it is the Shah that the coup restores to power. However, in the long run, the coup also returns Iran’s clergy to its old influence. It will take years to ripen to the point where it can make a serious bid for a theocratic government. And this process is never terminated by the Shah, who is clearly aware of his debt to the clergy and never deploys his full repertoire of force against the figure who, by the early 1960s, has morphed into the furious and defiant Khomeini.

Bayandor’s thesis runs against the tides of a narrative—American meddling in sovereign Iran—whose power is growing precisely because it seems to offer the West an easy explanation for the regional wrath of the Middle East. In his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama struck an apologetic tone when alluding to the role of the United States in the overthrow of Mossadeq. Even a former American hostage from the 1979 embassy takeover, Barry Rosen, apologized to his former Iranian captors, in a 1999 meeting in France, for the CIA role in destroying the hope of an Iranian democracy embodied in Mossadeq.

Both sides in the current equation—one invested in postcolonial self-flagellation and the other lost to the allure of victimhood—are bound to resist Bayandor and the myth he debunks. And it is also true that if Washington had managed to forge an effective policy toward Iran in the intervening years, the shock generated by this revisionist revisit to 1953 would seem less severe. But given a policy whose only virtue has been its reliable failing—despite three decades and several administrations—it is only logical to begin to question the fundamental understandings upon which that policy has been built. In that light, Bayandor’s Iran and the CIA proves an essential read along the path toward a new diplomatic future.

Roya Hakakian is a fellow at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center and a contributor to All Things Considered and the Persian Literary Review.

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