State Dept. files show London made repeated requests to remove Mossadeq in a coup d'etat
The British government repeatedly sought Washington's participation in its attempts to oust a former Iranian leader from power, according to recently declassified documents published Tuesday.
The State Department memos published by George Washington University's National Security Archive confirm long-held speculation that London, not Washington, was the lead instigator in plots to oust Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq from power nearly 65 years ago.
The plot, commonly referred to by its CIA codename -- 'Project Ajax' -- has fostered lingering Iranian suspicion of U.S. and western activities in the Middle East.
London made repeated requests to remove Mossadeq in a coup d'etat, according to the documents. But Washington initially declined to participate, in part, because it hoped to strike an oil deal with the Iranian leader after he nationalized the country's petroleum industry.
The British first proposed removing Mossadeq in written form on Oct. 8, 1952, according to a memo issued two months later. In the interim, the British held three meetings with their American counterparts about the subject that did not appear to sway American officials.
"While we do not dismiss it entirely, we would prefer not to enter into Combined planning on this course of action at this time," Henry Byroade, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East wrote to his superior, stressing Washington's emphasis should be on brokering a deal with Mossadeq.
A second document dated Dec. 3, 1952 recounts a meeting between Byroade's boss, Deputy Under Secretary of State H. Freeman Matthews, and British Minister Sir Christopher Steel that Steel had requested.
Matthews led a trio of American officials who voiced unanimous skepticism over the British plan, telling Steel the U.S. was "working on a new line of approach" with Mossadeq.
"I said we would not want to dismiss the idea of a coup, but we did feel that at least one more effort should be made to arrive at an oil settlement with Mossadeq," Matthews recounted.
"It was agreed that no action would be taken at the present time but that we would keep the suggestion in mind. It was also agreed that there should be no further discussion between CIA and the British intelligence representatives on the subject until further notice," he added.
The CIA would eventually participate in efforts to remove Mossadeq, which resulted in his August 1953 ouster in favor of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The western intervention was a rally point for anti-Pahlavi demonstrations that led to his ouster during Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.