The 200-page CIA official history of the 1953 coup in Iran, obtained recently by the New York Times, adds considerably to our understanding of the coup. The history, written strictly for the US intelligence community by the late Donald Wilber, a well-known scholar who wrote many books about Iran, chronicles the coup d’état in which a team of CIA officers overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Wilber worked on a part-time basis for the CIA and was deeply involved in planning the coup and overseeing the propaganda campaign that accompanied it. [1]

The history confirms much of what was already known about the coup. [2] Most importantly, it clearly shows that Mossadeq was overthrown in an operation planned and executed by the CIA, with some help from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — not in a “national uprising,” as some Iranians claim. CIA and SIS officers together developed a detailed plan for the coup (published as Appendix B of the history) and chose Fazlollah Zahedi as their candidate to replace Mossadeq. The CIA spent almost three weeks pressuring Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to support the coup and accept Zahedi, though the history says it would have carried out the coup without the Shah’s cooperation, if necessary (p. B10). At the same time, the CIA team began an “all-out” effort to destabilize Mossadeq’s government with propaganda and other covert political action (p. 92). When the initial coup attempt failed on the night of August 15-16, most of the Iranian participants gave up and went into hiding, and the Shah fled the country in panic. The CIA team, led by Kermit Roosevelt, improvised, using their Iranian agents to publicize the Shah’s opposition to Mossadeq and create fear that the communist Tudeh Party might seize power. The demonstrations that swept Mossadeq from office on August 19 were only “partially spontaneous” and were led and incited to violence by the CIA’s Iranian agents (pp. xii, 66-67). Zahedi was hiding in a CIA safehouse during the coup and played little part in it.

New Revelations

The history also contains a number of important new revelations. The CIA allocated $1 million to the Tehran CIA station in early April 1953 to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadeq” (p. 3). At least $60,000 of this money, and possibly much more, was given to Zahedi in the months before the coup “to win additional friends and to influence key people” (pp. B2, B15). Although the history denies that any Iranian military officers were bribed (p. E22), it is not clear how else Zahedi might have used this money. Zahedi had almost no organization of his own, knew none of the young officers recruited for the coup, and was “lacking in drive, energy, and concrete plans” (p. 27). The Shah’s long delay in deciding to support the coup was partly responsible for the betrayal that led the initial coup attempt to fail,  though it also gave the CIA team more time to recruit military officers into the plot. According to one key participant, it was Queen Soraya who finally persuaded the Shah to support the coup (pp. 39, D14).

The most important new revelation is that the coup plan called for the CIA team to enlist the support of prominent Iranian clerical figures to create a political crisis, after which members of parliament who had previously been “purchased” by the CIA team would vote Mossadeq out of office (pp. B18-B22). This plan began to unravel when Mossadeq closed down the parliament in late July, at least partly to thwart the oppositional activities of these “purchased” deputies (p. 31). The CIA team had “firm contacts” (p. B21) with the clerical figures, whose names are not available. One of these figures is described as the leader of a “terrorist gang” (p. B21) that is almost certainly the Fedayan-e Islam, which was headed by Navvab Safavi. However, when the coup was being implemented, these clerical figures “were not willing to make the commitments required of them” (p. 91), so this part of the plan was never carried out. Ironically, some of the covert political action the CIA team used to undermine Mossadeq before and during the coup consisted of “black” operations by agents provocateurs aimed at turning the clergy against Mossadeq. These operations included propaganda designed to portray Mossadeq as “anti-religious” and the “sham bombing” of a clergyman’s house (pp. 37, A7, B23-B24).

Destroyed CIA Files

Two important issues remain unclear in CIA history. First, the history does not explain how the plot was betrayed. While it says that the betrayal resulted from “the indiscretion of one of the Iranian Army officer participants” and that the Tudeh Party knew about the plot in advance (pp. 39, 47), it provides no further explanation. Second, it does not explain how the “partially spontaneous” demonstrations that swept Mossadeq from office on August 19 were organized, though it does say “[s]tation political action assets also contributed to the beginnings of [these] demonstrations” (p. xii). Other accounts have suggested that these demonstrations were at least partly organized by the CIA team, perhaps working through clerical figures like Ayatollahs Kashani and Behbehani; [3] and one eyewitness observer says that so much American money was used to organize these crowds that the exchange rate fell from 128 rials per dollar to less than 80. [4] Since the CIA has destroyed almost all of its files on the coup [5] and most of the participants have passed away, these issues may never be clarified.

Finally, the history provides insight into the motivations that led the United States to undertake the coup. It states clearly that the coup was carried out because US officials had concluded “Iran was in real danger of falling behind the Iron Curtain” (p. iii). Similar views are expressed in a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran prepared by the CIA in January 1953, which states that “if present trends in Iran continue unchecked beyond the end of 1953, 
rising internal tensions and continued [economic] deterioration…are likely to lead to a breakdown of governmental authority and open the way for at least a gradual assumption of control by [the Tudeh Party].” [6] The history asserts that the “oil question” was merely a “secondary” consideration (p. A2). Moreover, US officials were aware that Mossadeq had a “powerful popular following” and that the Iranian army was “very strongly led by pro-Mossadeq officers” (pp. B27, D1). These passages indicate that the US decision to undertake the coup was dictated by Cold War-related geostrategic considerations rather than the economic considerations cited by many scholars. This decision was taken with the full knowledge that the coup would bring down a popular government.

Author’s Note: The New York Times has published the history at, though it deleted the names of most of the Iranian participants in the coup. Another website managed to obtain most of those names, except the names of clerics approached by the CIA, and published them at


[1] See Donald N. Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1986).
[2] The most important previously published accounts are: Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979); C. M. Woodhouse, Something Ventured (London: Granada, 1982), chs. 8-9; and Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup d’État in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19/3 (August 1987).
[3] Gasiorowski, p. 274; Richard W. Cottam, Nationalism in Iran (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964), p. 226. A former CIA officer who read the CIA history and perhaps other CIA documents on the coup has recently claimed that Kashani and Behbehani “made the coup a reality” but acted without US help. See Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Blundering Through History with the CIA,” New York Times, April 23, 2000, p. 11.
[4] Kennett Love, “The American Role in the Pahlavi Restoration on 19 August 1953” (unpublished paper in the Allen Dulles Papers, Princeton University Library, 1960), pp. 40-41.
[5] New York Times, May 29, 1997, p. 19.
[6] Central Intelligence Agency, Probable Developments in Iran Through 1953, NIE-75/1 (unpublished paper in the President’s Secretary’s Files, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO), p. 1.

How to cite this article:

Mark J. Gasiorowski "The CIA Looks Back at the 1953 Coup in Iran," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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