Washington, D.C., August 8, 2017 – The British Foreign Office approached the Truman administration on more than one occasion in late 1952 to propose a coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, according to freshly declassified State Department documents. Posted today for the first time, two previously Top-Secret memoranda from senior officials at State refer to a series of communications and meetings beginning in October 1952 in which British officials tried to win U.S. approval of Mosaddeq’s ouster.
The British government has steadfastly refused to release any materials that directly refer to its role in the operation that eventually took place in August 1953, and has consistently pressed the United States not to reveal any substantiation from American files. In fact, evidence has existed for years that the British were intimately involved in promoting and then planning the overthrow of Mosaddeq. The most compelling sources include a leaked CIA after-action report written in 1954 and memoir accounts by various coup participants.
Today’s posting consists of the most explicit, officially declassified records on the subject released to date by any government.
The two documents were originally considered for inclusion in the latest official U.S. publication on the coup period. In June 2017, the State Department published a 1,007-page compilation of declassified State, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council documents as part of its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. But while both records are mentioned in the volume by title and date, their content was withheld in its entirety.
The first memo in the posting is entitled “Proposal to Organize a Coup d’etat in Iran,” and is dated November 26, 1952. In it, Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade informs his superior, Deputy Under Secretary of State H. Freeman Matthews, that Britain’s Minister in Washington, Sir Christopher Steel, has requested a meeting to discuss a possible coup. He reminds Matthews that the British Embassy first raised the idea on paper on October 8, 1952. He goes on to give his own views about the concept, which are generally negative, yet recommends that Matthews take the meeting.
The second memo, similarly entitled “British Proposal to Organize a Coup d’etat in Iran,” and dated December 3, 1952, is the State Department’s record of the meeting with Steel (date unclear). Other officials from both governments attended the session, notably Paul Nitze, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.
The authors of today’s posting filed separate Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for the two memoranda following the June 2017 publication of the new FRUS volume. That compilation was originally commissioned in the early 1990s as a supplement to a previous iteration that covered the same time period but, on political and intelligence grounds, omitted all references to the American and British roles in the coup. The 2017 volume contains rich detail about American perspectives on Iran along with records describing the planning and execution of the operation, but it barely mentions Great Britain's contributions – undoubtedly because of specific British requests not to do so. (For a document-based account of this issue, see the National Security Archive’s posting of August 19, 2013.) A number of other records that have been withheld from the volume – and are currently the subject of MDR requests by the National Security Archive – presumably contain more detail about London’s activities.
To their credit, NARA responded immediately and positively to the MDRs. However, even before the official replies arrived, Tulane University Professor Mark Gasiorowski had located the original records while conducting research at NARA in College Park, Maryland, in July 2017. The November 26 document was marked declassified on May 17, 2017, just a month before the FRUS volume appeared. An earlier State Department declassification review stamp indicated a downgrade in classification to Secret in 1999, and authorization to declassify “with concurrence of CIA after STATE approves release or 2025.” In other words, release might not have occurred until the year 2025 (though even that cannot be taken as a given). The December 3 document has similar markings, except the 1999 stamp notes that full declassification would have to follow “release [of] info by GBR or 2025.” GBR refers to the British government – further confirmation that London was – at least originally – deemed to have authority over when, or whether, U.S. archival documents (not British records) would be allowed to be seen by the American public. However, it is not clear whether British officials were ultimately consulted about the release of these particular documents in 2017.
The documents are of great interest on several levels. As indicated, they are the first officially released confirmation of Britain’s expressed aim in late 1952 to persuade Washington to help oust Mosaddeq. They also provide insights into how the British conceived of the political scene inside Iran and why a coup was called for, in their view. At the early December meeting, Sir Christopher Steel laid out what the memo describes as the "only three possible lines which events in Iran might take." In essence, Steel commented, Mossadeq could either stay in power and take action against the Communist (or Tudeh) party, or he would leave office and be replaced by someone who would do so, or there would be no change and "the Communists would gradually take control." Steel declared that the Iranian prime minister was highly unlikely to act firmly against the Communists but he professed to be uncommitted for the time being toward actually mounting a coup. His only purpose at the meeting with Mathews and Nitze, he claimed, was to propose the idea and suggest that the British and American governments should seriously consider taking action along those lines.
This scrupulously mild approach reflects another interesting aspect of the memoranda – what they reveal about British tactics in their appeal to the Americans. Scholars of the coup generally agree that London’s overriding objective in the Iran crisis was to restore their stake in Iran's petroleum industry by virtually any available means, including military action. But ever since Mosaddeq nationalized the industry in Spring 1951 (then expelled British diplomats and intelligence officials from the country the following October – incidentally, not long after the first British-U.S. coup discussions mentioned in the Byroade memo), the Truman administration had balked at Britain’s persistent prodding for radical action – beyond the substantial step Washington had already taken of supporting an economic boycott against Iran. President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson repeatedly insisted that their priority was to keep the Soviet Union and its Communist allies in Iran from gaining any advantage from the crisis. For Truman and Acheson, overtly protecting Britain's colonial interests was a non-starter because they believed it would play into Communist hands.
By late 1952, the British had adapted their methods and, as the new records confirm, couched the subject in terms that would be more appealing to the Americans – not to ask for their help in reclaiming control of Iranian oil but to assist in "combating Communism in Iran." Steel's claim that "the British government had not yet come to any definite conclusions" about how exactly to accomplish the goal seems clearly aimed at not putting off the American side any further, after months of London's steady, militant drumbeat.
The Truman administration never agreed to the idea of Mosaddeq’s overthrow. To the end of his term in January 1953, the president believed that the West’s best hope for an exit strategy to the crisis lay in working with the Iranian prime minister, not against him. The November 26 memo, in fact, importantly confirms that the administration was still planning to side with Mosaddeq’s government against what they evidently saw as Britain’s lack of cooperation in coming to an equitable oil agreement. “One element which must be taken into consideration in making our decision" about a coup, wrote Byroade, "is that we are presently thinking of unilateral action to assist the Mosadeq Government in the event that the British do not agree to an oil settlement acceptable to Mosadeq." Presumably struggling to suppress any expression of irony, Byroade continued, "It would be virtually impossible to proceed with plans to overthrow Dr. Mosadeq while at the same time giving him open assistance."
Byroade went on to assess Britain’s motives in revisiting their proposal and to predict the ramifications of each possible U.S. response. "[I]t is not inconceivable that one reason for the British suggestion is a desire to forestall unilateral American assistance to Mosadeq." If the U.S. were to back the overthrow it "might lead them to be less flexible with regard to new oil settlement proposals," whereas "our refusal to consider the new plan for a coup might induce them to make more determined efforts to reach an agreement with Mosadeq."
Matthews backed Byroade’s position in his conversation with Steel. The Americans specifically did not rule out a coup even though they were clearly not enthusiastic about it. At this point in the December 3 memo, Matthews alluded to another dimension of the British approach. Other records now available, including a leaked internal CIA history of the coup, indicate that members of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service were also meeting with their counterparts in the United States in November 1952. Those officials are not named here (they were Christopher Montague Woodhouse and Sam Falle) but Matthews pointedly ruled out any further contacts “between CIA and the British intelligence representatives on the subject until further notice.” In addition, the American side pointed out that President Truman was about to leave office. Steel politely acknowledged this but, reflecting a sense of urgency – and subtle pressure – remarked that “it would probably be necessary to take a decision by the end of January, since the best time for the coup would be in the Spring.” The memo does not explain why this would be the case.
Two other intriguing points about the memos are worth noting. One is the comment at the December 3 meeting by John Jernegan, Byroade’s deputy, that Loy Henderson, the U.S. Ambassador to Tehran, “believed Mosadeq was sincerely anti-communist.” Jernegan was responding to the British conclusion that the prime minister “was by nature too vacillating to take a strong stand” against the Tudeh. According to Jernegan, Henderson would have argued that if Mosaddeq could only get an oil settlement or “otherwise strengthen the financial position of his Government,” he would be tougher on the Tudeh. This reading of Henderson goes sharply against many other accounts of his views, which as the crisis unfolded increasingly dismissed the Iranian prime minister as a lunatic. Henderson’s actual opinions about and influence on U.S. policy are one of many elements of the 1953 narrative that are still subject to lively debate.
Finally, Paul Nitze’s role in the coup saga has generally received scant attention, although he appears several times in the new FRUS volume published in 2017. In the December 3 memo printed here, he spoke up on the question of how likely the theoretical operation was to be successful. The celebrated Cold War strategist showed his penchant for bare-knuckle tactics by asking if the unnamed group the British proposed to work with inside Iran might not agree to undertake a trial run targeting the politically active Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani along with the Tudeh. If that operation succeeded, Nitze said, it would bode well for an actual coup d’etat. The memo records a respectful but unanimous rejection of the scheme.
Other fascinating insights appear in the new memos relating to American and British perspectives on the Iran crisis and how to cope with it. Along the way, they raise a number of larger themes relevant to the coup, not least the nuanced question of how closely the two allies’ interests in Iran actually intersected.