Thursday, June 22, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 6)

This is part 6 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the problems I noticed when I was writing a term paper on Mossadeq and relations with the United States during my MA was how incomplete the record was. There were massive gaps at key moments, leaving so many questions unanswered. There were times when the FRUS collection skipped hundreds of cables, for example 3898 (April 4, 1953), to 4027 (April 15, 1953). It would be inconceivable for there to have been zero communications for 11 days, and the gap of 127 in the cable order seems to indicate that there were in fact a ton missing. 

When I visited the National Archives I was able to find a few important ones, yet still many gaps were left. The release fills more of the gaps, yet most of the relevant documents I found at the Archives are not included in the new release. There is one exception, cable #348, dated August 16. I wrote about it at the time, identifying it as the most interesting cable of those that I had found at Archives that weren't in FRUS. 

The number of documents withheld makes it nearly impossible to determine the precise nature of the events leading up to the coup. While we have a rough estimate, we do not know why the decision was made, how they did it, what else happened between the 16th and 19th of August, which third parties were involved and how involved they were.

The decision to overthrow Mossadeq appears to have been made April 2, 1953. Unfortunately there is no record of the meeting between Roosevelt and Dulles of this, yet an April 4th memo references the meeting. 

Moving forward, there are documents "released" yet entirely classified, namely those detailing the coup plans. The June 1st "Summary of Operational Plan" for example is completely classified, and no details are provided other than the date, location, classification, and where the copy of the file is located.

Other documents like monthly reports are also mostly redacted, 64 years after the fact.

Important files from the CIA have been published, yet we know there are also important pieces missing. The best example is as follows. Document 285, and 286, both dated 19 August, 1953. The file number for 285 is TEHE 737.1 and 286 is TEHE 742.1. The order again is sequential so TEHE 738-741 are not public. What is striking here is that the first one is almost despondent and scrambling to salvage the situation. The second is short and victorious. What happened between the two telegrams? 

Even the rundown of what happened after the coup is littered with classified material that hasn't been released. 

These details are vitally important, and yet still the full truth is withheld. The likelihood that the relevant parties are alive today is slim, why do they still wish to keep this information secret?

(I also highlighted the line about Communism. The Foreign Policy piece tried to make a big deal about the oil angle, yet as this document clearly shows, the Americans WERE interested in ideology. Whether what Roosevelt said is true or not, it is clear that Dulles/Roosevelt/etc wanted to hear about how this saved Iran from Communism.)

Part 7 will be about Kerry and Obama's decision to delay publication of this volume.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 5)

This is part 5 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

The role of clerics in the 1953 Iranian coup is both difficult to determine, and a sensitive topic. The regime has ties back to the Iranian clerics, and one of the myths they work to perpetuate is that foreigners meddled in Iranian affairs. This is helped by American (read CIA) incentives to claim omnipotence and competence in masterminding a coup. Both parties have reasons to minimize clerical involvement. While the events between 15 and 19 of August 1953 are difficult to determine for reasons I will discuss later, there are several important events involving clerics that bear mentioning.

Of the clerical elements, Ayatollah Kashani is the most relevant. He was the speaker of the Iranian Majles (parliament), and for a time an ally of Mohammad Mossadeq, before becoming a bitter enemy. His worldview bears striking similarities to Ayatollah Khomeini as I pointed out in part 3 of my series.

Behbehani. Boroujerdi was Ayatollah Khomeini's teacher, and forbade him or any others from political activities. This memo notes an "understanding" that they would "bolster the shah". While this sounds overtly political in nature, the difference is that historically the clergy had supported the monarchy, and in turn received protection. While it is a bit of a departure from the normal, it is more of an affirmation of the perceived threat to the Shah that Mossadeq posed.

Interestingly the documents leading up to the coup after April make less mention of Kashani. At the same time, key pieces are redacted or not included so there is no way to know how involved he would have been in the plans. It is entirely possible that he was a key piece, or that he was uninvolved.

Part 6 will be about the events leading up to the coup in August, and the problems resulting from incomplete records from both the State Department and CIA.

Monday, June 19, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 4)

This is part 4 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the most curious and difficult aspects of the Iran coup of 1953 is determining which parties were involved in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq, and to what extent they bear responsibility. The roles of the United States and Britain are undeniable, yet there are still inconsistencies and unknowns; primarily what happened between the first and second coup attempts, and when exactly they decided to try a coup. The following documents shed some light, but still many questions remain.

As I have previously noted (Myth 6), there were multiple contacts by IRANIANS in the months before the coup, trying to gauge the American interest in a coup. We know of at least two contacts made during March 1953, and perhaps as many as four. One referenced by Donald Wilber in his "Wilber Report" notes a General (name redacted), had contacted the "assistant military attache" and "requested Ambassador Henderson's views as to whether or nor the US government was interested in covertly supporting an Iranian military effort to oust Premier Mossadeq".
This is quite significant, as it establishes a precedent of Iranians approaching the United States to ask about a coup BEFORE the United States had decided to overthrow Mossadeq.

A previously released document (cable 3853 from Amb Henderson to Dulles dated March 31 and referring to a conversation from March 30th) has a record of former prime minister Hossein Ala' inquiring about the possibility of an American coup. Ala' was never a general so it is not possible that this request is from the same person. Henderson makes it quite clear to Ala' that the United States will not take a regime change policy, and will accept as head of the government whomever has the firman (edict) from the Shah establishing the individual as prime minister. 

A new CIA document dated March 31 indicates that Majles Deputy Haerizadeh, General Batmangelitch, and retired Generals Garzan, Bahadori, and Zahedi were planning a coup to take place within a few weeks. It also says that they claim that the US embassy approves (the footnote indicates that this appears to be "wishful thinking"). 

There may be overlap here, but it is quite clear that there were at least 3 instances in March 1953 of Iranians contacting United States officials about a coup. 

One of the next new documents is dated April 4th, and references an April 2nd conversation between Roosevelt and Dulles about initial plans to start TPAJAX (the code name of the coup attempt). It is unclear if these multiple attempts by Iranians to get the Americans on board for a coup had an effect, but given the proximity it seems as though there must be a connection of some sort. Also of note is the fact that TP AJAX was hand-written, as if it was either forgotten, or this is when they decided to name it. 

These documents are significant in establishing an Iranian interest in a coup before the United States had seriously considered regime change, and perhaps helps understand how the various American figures came to decide that a coup was worth exploring. Unfortunately there is not record of the April 2nd conversation, which would be much more useful in determining what motivated the change in policy. Kermit Roosevelt's "memoir" Countercoup—which is just as helpful as it is harmful—makes no note of this conversation, yet he mentions an additional meeting with an Iranian general who also wished to collaborate with the Americans on a coup. Again, because the name is redacted and other information is missing, we cannot be sure who exactly this was and if it was another Iranian who wished to overthrow Mossadeq, or the same one asking two different Americans the same thing.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 3)

This is part 3 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the most interesting and substantial documents newly released is an analysis of the nature of a potential Ayatollah Kashani run Iranian government by the Office of Intelligence and Research.

Kashani had been an ally of Mossadeq, before breaking with him and his National Front in early 1953. Kashani's role in Mossadeq's ouster has been downplayed in the traditional narrative of the events (which places most of the blame on the Americans), yet revisionists have noticed the extent of Kashani's influence, and how important he was in fomenting unrest against Mossadeq in the months leading up to the coup.

What is most striking about the document is how Kashani is described. If you took out his name, and other identifying information one might think that the authors are describing Ayatollah Khomeini or Khamenei. Kashani's sees "contemporary problems from a narrowly Moslem outlook, severely warped by many years of bitter conflict with British authority".

Mossadeq at the time had significant support and the authors deemed it unlikely that he would be replaced by Kashani, but they also note Kashani's influence, as the second largest bloc in the Majles (Iranian parliament). 
The authors point to a handful of negative characteristics of Kashani, ranging from conceit and ambition, to unscrupulousness and support of bigoted practices, and a lack of business and executive experience. 

Kashani was vehemently anti-British based upon his past experiences, he had experienced foreign meddling. This he shared with Mossadeq, though their motivations and approaches to addressing foreign interference was very different. 

The authors blame Kashani (like Mossadeq) for taking credit of others work to forward his own ambitions. He is likened to a "ward boss" and "gangster". His supporters are considered to be from a similar social class as Mossadeq (most appropriately described as middle-class), though with a distinct religious inclination.

Kashani, had disagreements with the Shah, the army, and starting in early 1953 Mossadeq as well. Shia clergy in Iran had historically been quietist, subservient to the monarchy. Kashani was outspoken, a break from tradition. He disapproved of the late Shah's work to sideline the clergy, and to uphold the mantle of Shiism, when the Shah wasn't even a theologian. This is virtually identical to Khomeini's approach years later. 

The authors noted that Kashani's relatively lower popularity and all of the enemies he had limited the prospects for a theocratic state. That they were considering it as a possibility is still quite telling.

Again the parallels to Khomeini, and even Khamenei here are striking. They believe that the West is engaging in plots to control weaker nations. He also is credited with having a disparaging attitude towards oil, and wanted to diversify the economy to create self-sufficiency and limit dependence.

The last section is also eerily reminiscent of Khomeini. It is acknowledged that Kashani wouldn't want to accept foreign funds because it would undermine him. The authors note that this makes cooperation with Kashani difficult, but they didn't rule it out. The last paragraph is also interesting as it directly points to a policy of neutrality from the Iranian government. The Dulles brothers in particular speak repetitively about the dangers of communism taking over, yet this memo, just months ahead of the coup explicitly notes neutrality as the Iranian government policy.

This analysis of Kashani is fascinating and apt and as I mentioned throughout, the similarities to Khomeini are significant.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

The third section of the new documents "Planning and Implementation of Operation TPAJAX, March–August 1953 (Documents 169-308)" and starts with a doozy; a CIA memo for the president dated March 1, 1953. While it is in fact an old document that was included in the 1989 original Iran FRUS, there are some additional sentences and clauses that are included as demonstrated in this screenshot of the two side by side.

Again as I've indicated in the past, the role of Ayatollah Kashani is dismissed by apologists and clerics alike. These documents make it quite clear that he had an immensely important role in the build up to the coup. 

The next document is also new to the FRUS collection and concerns the "Capabilities of the CIA Clandestine Services in Iran"
This is another very important document. It indicates that the propaganda outlets the CIA controlled were NOT capable of spreading anti-Mossadeq propaganda a mere five months before the coup.

Later parts of the memo include this damning passage: the CIA didn't have the capability of creating riots against Mossadeq.
Again there are still redactions in the new documents, a very frustrating reality for historians trying to better understand the events of and leading up to the coup.

Interestingly enough the Top Secret cable (2266, March 2, 1953) from John Foster Dulles to the Iran embassy is not included in the new FRUS, despite its undeniable relevance and importance. Perhaps they are only including ones with changes?

The next document is from the famous NSC 135. One can see the ellipses on the left document indicating a redaction, and the new version which has additional information. 

There is an editorial note following NSC 135 which discusses Foreign Minister Eden's trip to the United States from March 4-7, 1953. As I've previously noted, the CIA's chronology in Zendebad Shah! made a mistake in characterizing the nature of Eden's discussions, implying that negotiations broke down before the trip, when in fact they were, at the time, ongoing and were not dissolved until after Eden returned to the UK.

Three documents later, my work is confirmed. On March 10th, A memo from Byroade to JF Dulles references the potential breakdown of oil negotiations, and a recommendation (from Henderson) to not buy Iranian oil, to not encourage or discourage American firms from engaging in business, and to withhold some financial assistance from Iran. 

A March 11th CIA memo is helpful in outlining the situation as it was. It covers the various opposition groups, starting with Kashani. 

Even after big demonstrations in February and unrest, despite instability with the oil negotiations, the CIA thought Mossadeq had a lot going for him.

The analysis of what Mossadeq's choices were is very good and did a good job predicting what Mossadeq would do.

Friday, June 16, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 1)

This is Part 1. In Part 2 I will discuss a few of the more interesting documents

Finally, after years of delays, the State Department released an update to the 1951-1954 Iran FRUS (Foreign Relations of the United States). The purpose of the series is to provide a better record of diplomatic events in the past. The previous edition, released in 1989, was widely criticized for failing to note the depth of US involvement in the 1953 Iran coup, and for leaving many documents classified despite the decades that had past since this time.

Generally FRUS does not contain everything, and there are many documents, some historically pertinent, that are stored at the National Archives in Maryland. I have annotated a few from this time: Part 1 Part 2. I have noted in the past how the record is incomplete; in some instances there are hundreds of cables in a row that are not in FRUS, and in many places there are missing documents. They could be completely mundane (as so many are), or they could be very revealing.

The release was also interesting because of how hard President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had worked to keep them from being released. It was reported that up to the last hours of Obama's presidency they were trying to keep them secret.
“As it expressed in last year’s annual report, the HAC was repeatedly frustrated–and disappointed–by Secretary Kerry’s refusal to allow the volume’s publication,” Prof. Immerman said yesterday. “In this regard the change in State’s perspective from the Obama to Trump administration is dramatic.”
This bothered State Department officials as noted here:

I have speculated about the motivations for the two not wanting the documents to become public:

Obama and Kerry were worried about the reaction of the Iranians to the releases. I postulated that this would be due to revealing the nature of the participation of clerical elements. It is clear to the world that the United States and the UK tried to overthrow Mossadeq on the 16th of August 1953; no one denies this. What happened next, between then and the successful August 19th coup, and who was involved in addition to the United States is what could potentially be so inflammatory. Ayatollah Kashani, an inspiration for Ayatollah Khomeini and many other important clerics to come later, was a key player.

The release yesterday was particularly important because it also contains CIA documents. It was claimed that these documents were lost, yet they have reproduced some of them. There are also copies of old documents that have been public for over 25 years. They are mostly quite important, but their exact purpose in this collection is unclear. At the same time, many CIA documents are NOT included. The best example is here:

Sequentially there is document TEHE 737.1 and the next document is TEHE 742.1. Both have the same date, yet are clearly from different points in the day. In the first (737), there is almost a despair about the failure of the coup, and further efforts to commence damage control. In the second (742), there is a brief message of success. Did nothing happen in between these two moments? How did they go from potentially cancelling military aid, to a successful coup and an urgent need for 5 million dollars?! What do the four documents between 737 and 742 say?

While I have yet to read through the entire set of documents (there are over 500, and over 900 pages), I read the whole section on the coup (section 3, 272 pages), and the events leading up to the coup. My theories are almost uniformly supported, though there are still holes in the documentation.

  1.  CIA documentation is still contradictory (I've noted problems in the narrative and chronology
  2. Roosevelt is unreliable (A lot of what he's said reads as though he is covering for his mistakes)
  3. Religious elements were KEY to the coup (They make this quite clear throughout)
  4. The "spontaneity" of the events of August 19 is emphasized throughout

While none of this exonerates the United States and the UK of course, the documents make quite clear that domestic actors must accept a not insignificant share of the blame.

I have noted multiple Iranian officials approached the United States asking about a coup in the months prior (last paragraph in myth #6). It was evident that while Mossadeq was undoubtedly a noble, well-intentioned individual, he was not capable of bringing Iran out of the crisis alone, and he made too many enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Part 2 will have more on specific documents

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Iranian Military Spending

The relationship between Saudi Arabia's and Iran's military spending is interesting, often cited, yet almost always misrepresented. Lobbyists and pundits like to point to this as an indicator of foreign policy and aggression, but the reality is that it is far more complex.

Saudi Arabia spends a lot of money on conventional arms; President Trump during his trip to the kingdom sealed a massive $110 billion dollar arms deal. Iran on the other hand spends much less. This is taken by many to indicate that Saudi Arabia is the aggressor, while Iran is defensive or even docile in nature. This does not take into account strategies or the structure of the defense apparatuses or funding of terror groups, which both do, despite very different military spending numbers.

Saudi Arabia has emphasized conventional weapons and arms deals, buying the latest gadgets from the US. Iran, on the other hand, focuses on its missile program, and other asymmetrical aspects. It bombastically threatens to create a blue-water navy, but this is empty talk. Iran is restricted by geography, a smaller economy, and sanctions. Iran also has the experience of the Iran-Iraq War to draw upon; a bloody war where hundreds of thousands died.

After the revolution Iran was driven to export the revolution. Given Iran's weakness relative to the rest of the region—they are incapable of using force to conquer Iraq to Morocco and everywhere in between— they realized they needed to project soft power, and when using violence, to use it asymmetrically. Hezbollah, Amal, and various Palestinian groups benefited from this.

The most significant beneficiary of this approach is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). In 2016-17 only 5.3 MILLION was allocated to "refurbishing the fleet" of the regular Iranian Air Force. They operate what is essentially a parallel military (with some overlap) to the regulars (Artesh). This moves them into a grey area, with a completely different command structure (while still ultimately answering to the Supreme Leader).

Asymmetric warfare is by its very nature less cost-intensive. It isn't about overpowering the enemy, but about exploiting the stronger enemy's weak points and utilizing this to the advantage of the conventionally weaker party. Comparing the simple raw military spending numbers of Saudi Arabia and Iran does not fully capture the intricacies and nuances of strategically dissimilar entities.