On  June 7-8, 2000, the Center for Documents and Diplomatic History of the Iranian Foreign Ministry hosted an international conference in Tehran on the subject of “Iran and the Great Powers, 1950-1953,” with the participation of scholars and archivists from several countries.

The conference focused mainly on the 1953 coup d’état — the first such open official forum on the topic, at least since the early days of the 1979 revolution. The public discussion was surprisingly unrestrained, yet civil and virtually devoid of polemics. Pro-Mossadeq speakers demanded acknowledgement of his role as an Iranian “hero” after almost half a century of marginalization by the Shah and the Islamic regime. Mahmud Kashani, son of the prominent clergyman who first allied with Mossadeq, then split with him before the coup, led the counter-argument, criticizing the former prime minister for acting against the constitution and the interests of the Iranian people.

The fact that public debates over Mossadeq could take place without, as one observer put it, “degenerating into fistfights” was a sign that political discourse about this highly controversial figure and period of Iranian history has reached a new level of maturity in Iran. In a dramatic moment, a leading figure from Ansar-e Hezbollah, the extremist organization that has disrupted events honoring Mossadeq in the past, approached a prominent Mossadeq supporter during a break and declared, according to witnesses, “I disagree with everything you have to say, but I am ready to be killed to defend your right to say it.”

Another sensitive question raised at the conference was what role certain clerics played in the coup d’état. Much as the current regime has minimized Mossadeq’s significance, the idea that senior clerics supported the Shah against him — and may have cooperated with the CIA in the process — is hard to swallow. The CIA’s secret history, published by the New York Times, has given fresh evidence that important clergymen such as Ayatollahs Behbehani, Borujerdi and probably Kashani himself, were enlisted by the CIA to facilitate Mossadeq’s overthrow, although they did not come through in the end. Even though the Times has blacked out most of these names, it is possible to deduce with some confidence who is being discussed based on interviews with former CIA operatives. The Iranian audience was most interested in who may have helped the CIA, and not apparently concerned by the possible embarrassment of contemporary icons.

As for clerical support for the Shah, a highly respected clergyman in the audience raised the point in the form of a question. He asked the audience why it was that Ayatollah Borujerdi, the marja-e taqlid of the day, would send a telegram of congratulations to the Shah after the coup. The answer, he said, was that the alternative to the coup that took place would have been far worse — a seizure of power by the Soviet-backed Tudeh Party.

While new Russian documentation and Tudeh leaders’ memoirs cast doubt on the readiness of either Moscow or the Tudeh to swoop in, many Iranians — and also Americans — feared this possibility at the time. It was just one of the unlikely (and until this conference, unmentionable) points of common cause in 1953 between the forebears of today’s Islamic regime and their erstwhile adversaries from the United States.

How to cite this article:

Malcolm Byrne "Iranians Debate the 1953 Coup," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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