The 1953 CIA-assisted overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh is getting new attention with the release of more US government documents about the coup and calls for changing the current Iranian regime by some members and supporters of the Trump administration. 

At an event July 13 at the Atlantic Council, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini said the coup – which restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne until the 1979 Islamic revolution – is one reason why “the vast majority of Iranians would never support a foreign regime change” now. “If there’s a change to be had, they want it to be done … with their own hands and feet as a domestic process,” said Anderlini, who was born in Iran and is co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network. “Iranians are nationalistic,” she said. “They don’t want outside interference.”

Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who has advised several US presidents about the Middle East, said “there is a legitimate reason to be concerned” about the current Iranian government, including its support for groups such as Hezbollah, which the US State Department considers terrorist. But a war Iran would be a very bad idea, incurring three times the casualties of the Iraq war and ten times the cost, he said.

Riedel, who directs the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, also warned the Trump administration not to “sublet our foreign policy to the Saudis” and others who blame Iran for all the troubles in the Middle East.

We “shouldn’t buy into a simplistic vision of who’s good and who’s bad” in the region, Riedel said. “In the Middle East, it’s mostly gray…. If you don’t understand the complexities, you can wind up in a very dangerous place.”

Malcolm Byrne, deputy director and director of research for the National Security Archive, said the new documents released by the State Department contain no bombshells but add nuance about the events leading up to the coup and its aftermath. While the CIA gave money to numerous Iranian political figures, clerics and others to encourage them to overthrow Mossadegh, who had nationalized Iran’s then British-owned oil company, “that doesn’t mean they were complicit,” Byrne said.

Some of those who took money didn’t know they were part of the plot and there were many Iranians who tried to overthrow Mossadegh without direct support from the CIA or its British counterpart, Byrne said. Many of the documents about the coup are still missing and we may never know the full story about those tumultuous events, he said.

Both Byrne and Riedel agreed that concern that nationalization of oil companies would spread to US-owned companies in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region was the main reason for CIA involvement in the coup, not fear of a Soviet takeover of Iran.

Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, who led the US efforts in what was known as “Operation Ajax,” did not even mention the Communist Tudeh party as a reason for overturning Mossadegh, Riedel said. The new documents do show the extensive use of US diplomatic facilities and residences as safe houses for the coup plotters. Riedel said this helps to explain why Iranian students occupied the US Embassy after the 1979 revolution – an occupation that many Americans remember even if they fail to connect it to the 1953 coup.

According to Riedel, successive US administrations have “talked about regime change on and off since 1979” but not really pursued it, despite Iranian fears and claims to the contrary. He warned the Trump administration, however, not to “flirt” with this notion or fully embrace the vision of Iran’s regional foes, which want to see sanctions restored and Iran relegated again to pariah status. He said he agreed with Congressional efforts to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia while it pursues a war in Yemen that is risking mass starvation for Yemenis and draining the Saudi budget by $700 million a month.

The Trump administration is still reviewing its Iran policy. It has continued to abide by a landmark nuclear deal with Iran reached two years ago, while criticizing Tehran’s intervention in regional conflicts.

Iranian officials have bristled at comments by administration officials, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that US policy includes working “towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”

More recently, Secretary of State James Mattis, in an interview with a high school reporter, said, “Until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy…it’s going to be very, very difficult” to improve US-Iran relations.

In addition, a stream of former US officials close to the Trump administration, including former UN ambassador John Bolton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, participated in a conference in Paris in June in support of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK). The Iranian dissident group, which many regard as a cult, was on the State Department terrorism list for more than a decade in part because of its assassination of US officials in Iran during the 1970s and subsequent attacks in Iran after the revolution.

Anderlini noted that the MEK lacks support within Iran. She accused US groups such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has advocated regime change in Iran, of “calculated cruelty.” Foreign calls to overturn the government in Iran — with US help — give “an excuse to the hardest hardliners to throw people in jail,” Anderlini said. Such groups “want voices of moderation to disappear” in Iran to make it easier to justify outside intervention, she said.

Related Experts: Barbara Slavin