Monday, October 17, 2016

No, FRUS doesn't have all the answers

A recent article in Politico on the 1953 Iran Coup, while well intentioned, is unfortunately fundamentally flawed. Malcolm Byrne, who collaborated with Mark Gasiorowski to provide one of the most important academic books on the coup, writes in support of releasing the updated FRUS (Foreign Relations of the US). I too have argued for the same thing, but our reasons are very different.

Mr. Byrne makes a variety of mistakes in his assessment of the situation, ones that someone with his experience with archival documents, and with this episode in history should not make.

First he neglects to mention that the first coup attempt failed miserably, leading to the arrest of dozens of high-ranking officers and conspirators. There was no backup plan. Mr. Byrne does not state how one man, with zero knowledge of Persian managed to create a 2nd coup a mere three days later after his entire plan collapsed.

He also fails to account for competing interests, including Iranians who despised the Iranian Prime Minister, who wished to remove Mr. Mossadeq from power. He ends his introductory paragraph blaming the coup for feelings of anti-Americanism that endure to this day, ignoring once again, that clerics, including the direct spiritual predecessor of Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah Kashani), was key in the attempts to remove Mossadeq from power.

His argument is based upon the core principle that the US, and the US alone (well including the UK), is guilty of overthrowing Mossadeq, rejecting the possibility of domestic (or other foreign) collaboration.

Mr. Byrne goes on to claim that the American public does not have full-access to the full historical record. This is partially true, as the CIA "lost" all of its files from the time in a suspicious fire, and some of the documents from the State Department remain classified. At the same time, the vast majority of these documents ARE available at the National Archives in Maryland.

Mr. Byrne also seems to not understand the point of the FRUS system. These are not complete records containing every single cable to and from an embassy or consulate. There are a small fraction that are included in FRUS collections. They are selected to be pertinent, not a complete data dump. There are many more documents from and to Tehran and other places that are in the National Archives, I have seen them myself. Most of them are mundane, but some are quite interesting. It would be nice to include these in a massive digital archive including every single document, but this is not how the FRUS system is set up.

Mr. Byrne claims that the US and UK role in the coup is covered up, and the documents the State Department refuses to release will prove the two parties guilty. In the Archives, the additional documents I have read myself, indicate otherwise as I have demonstrated here and here.

Mr. Byrne believes that US and UK guilt over the coup is the major reason to not release the documents, but his analysis falls far short. He does not account for the local efforts to remove the Shah, and their ties to the current regime. He additionally fails to mention the saga (covered by David Ignatius of the Washington Post), where BP (formerly AIOC) forced Kermit Roosevelt and his publishing company to pull the entire run, though he has written about it in the past.

What would be more infuriating for the regime, to show that the US was involved (which is what they are already furious about), or that major regime figures, or their direct influences played a role in fomenting the coup?

Given the sensitivity of the Iran nuclear talks which have been ongoing, this delay makes sense in that they do not want to upset the Iranians so that they completely withdraw, and years of diplomatic efforts are lost.

While I agree with Mr. Byrne that the updated FRUS should be released, I strongly disagree with his analysis and I am very disappointed with his failure to mention the most likely scenario: that documents will show involvement from the Iranian clergy.

There are classified documents out there, documents which have not undergone their 50 year declassification review. Why hasn't Mr. Byrne filed MDRs (Mandatory Declassification Review) for these documents? He spends his time working on archives, yet in his article he ignores this potentiality.

His argument does not stand up. It does not make any sense for him to claim that the documents are not available when they mostly are. For the few that are classified, he simply has to go to the Archives and find the sheet that says how there is a classified document missing and then file an MDR. Yet he refuses to mention this aspect in his article, instead making it about some conspiracy to hide the truth from the American people.

It is also quite disheartening that he is convinced that there are going to be documents giving us a definitive answer as to what happened, and who the guilty parties are. I have demonstrated how even the CIA's latest (known) internal history has at least one glaring mistake (see #5). If the CIA doesn't have the story straight, how would the State Department?

There may be documents proving Mr. Byrne right, yet his shoddy work, and misleading, baseless claims do not help shed a light on a complicated historical event.

In conclusion, this quote from Donald Wilber, the author of the CIA's first internal history of the coup sums up the entire situation: "The early accounts of various participants differed widely enough to make it impossible to follow the slender thread of truth through the dark night"


  1. Hey man, big fan of your work, it's so detailed! I did have one question though, regarding the phrase: "Mr. Byrne does not state how one man, with zero knowledge of Persian managed to create a 2nd coup a mere three days later after his entire plan collapsed."

    Which one man are you referring to? Would this not be something the CIA would have multiple backup plans for? (I know there's no evidence of this, I'm simply speculating)

    1. Thanks

      Kermit Roosevelt who was the point man for the CIA (and MI6 by default). We have the documents on the original planning, and theres nothing about a second attempt in there. Roosevelt himself talks about how they had no idea what to do because it looked like it failed. As does Donald Wilber, in his report. The other major inconsistency that goes along these lines is that if the coup is military, and they arrested the coup plotters, how was there another military coup just 3 days later? They couldn't possibly have established an entire new network in this time. Adding to this is the fact that at LEAST two parties contacted US officials (1 each according to Wilber and FRUS) about a possible coup.

      It is possible that it happened, and Roosevelt pulled this magic coup out of thin air, but given other information we have, it seems unlikely.