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U.S. Comes Clean About The Coup In Iran

Aired April 19, 2000 - 0:30 a.m. ET


JONATHAN MANN, INSIGHT (voice-over): Reconsidering a coup. Washington has been warming up to Iran, apologizing, too. Now a long- secret account of U.S. espionage there emerges. Maybe honesty is the new policy?

(on camera): Hello, and welcome.

There are two stories to tell on our program today - intertwined tales of diplomacy and intrigue and the United States and Iran. The first story is an old one. The second story is what makes the first story new.

Back in 1953, Washington and London organized a coup to oust Iran's government and establish a military regime under the shah, Reza Pahlavi. The New York Times has published a lengthy report based on a long-secret CIA account of the operation. The context, though, is as interesting as the content.

The front-page story in the USA's most important newspaper came just a month after U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright made an apology to the people of Iran. On our program today - coming clean about the coup.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Iranian oil may again flow westward.


MANN (voice-over): Iran in the `50s was as important for its oil as it is now, and it was the oil that set off the chain of events. Iran's petroleum was, for years, under British, not Iranian, control.

When Iran nationalized the industry, the British government, under Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was furious. London set out to topple the man it blamed - the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

The British government enlisted the help of the Eisenhower administration in the United States, which was drawn in by a very different concern - the spread of Soviet influence.

MARK GASIOROWSKY, AUTHOR: They felt that in Iran, while Mossadegh was certainly not a Communist, that the things that he was doing might give the Communist Party of Iran an opportunity to strengthen itself and perhaps eventually take over.

MANN: So Britain and the United States stepped in to prevent it. They chose a general to lead the coup and worked hard to convince the reluctant and vacillating shah to take part. The U.S. even paid for violence and demonstrations to sow confusion.

GASIOROWSKY: The CIA drew up a plan to overthrow Mossadegh. It involved, first of all, using covert propaganda methods to destabilize the Mossadegh government and create unrest in Iran. And then secondly, organizing elements of the Iranian armed forces and large crowds which the CIA hired to create a big commotion, and then these armed forces units would seize the radio station and various government buildings and take over.

So the CIA organized this, put this plan, you know, down on paper and got it approved and everything.

MANN: The plan immediately ran into trouble, but eventually it did succeed. It succeeded in giving Iran a weak and indecisive man as an authoritarian ruler and it change the course of the country's history. It took the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to finally undo the West's work, and it took nearly half a century for the United States to offer even last month's tepid apology.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development, and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.


MANN (on camera): The new account of the coup, published by the New York Times, suggest even those most closely involved felt they were close to failure. And one central figure ultimately regretted that they succeeded.

Joining us now to talk about that is New York Times reporter James Risen, author of the paper's page-one article on the coup. Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you, first of all, about the remarkable document that you had access to. What was it, and who put it together?

JAMES RISEN, NEW YORK TIMES: It was essentially an inside secret history written by the CIA's chief planner for the coup, a man named Donald Wilber, who had been brought into the operation early on and was sent out to the region to begin the planning process for the coup, which was code named "TP-Ajax" within the CIA.

And then six months after the coup, he was asked to write a history, a narrative history for use within the CIA of what had happened in this operation. You've got to remember this is the first time the CIA ever overthrew a foreign government. And so, it was kind of an important point for them, I think, to begin to think about how they did this and what lessons they might learn for future operations.

And so, Wilber really looked at writing this history with that in mind. He has a whole section attached to the history called "Lessons Learned For Future Operations." And so, it was really - in many ways, he wrote it for use as a blueprint for future coup d'etats to be orchestrated by the CIA.

MANN: Now, you make it sound like they did it. They wrote about it. They learned about it later. What about the Iranians themselves? What did the shah do? What did the general that they chose do?

RISEN: Well, this history is really a look at the operation from the CIA's perspective, and so it's a very - it doesn't give you as much of a sense of the Iranians' involvement as you might like. But what it does show is that from the CIA's perspective that the CIA themselves - CIA officials involved themselves realized that in the end it was the Iranians who had done this, not the CIA. The CIA was really not successful in the operation that they had put together and, in fact, the chief CIA officer on the ground was very close to calling it quits the night before the coup finally succeeded.

And CIA headquarters was cabling to Tehran to the CIA station there, basically suggesting that they pull out, that the operation had failed. And so, what it shows is that the Iranian people in the street, really, you know, with some CIA - clearly some CIA encouragement and with some CIA paid agents involved, really - but it was really the street demonstrations on the final day that kind of grew far beyond anything the CIA could have managed that in the end led to Mossadegh's overthrow.

And so, I think what it shows is that the CIA had tried to set the stage for this, but that they would never have succeeded without some critical mass within the Iranian people and kind of a mass sudden, very surprising movement in the streets of Tehran on the final day.

MANN: Let me jump in again only because the portions of this that I have read seem very contemptuous of the shah himself. So you've mentioned what the CIA did and what the people of Iran, the people in the streets did. How about the shah himself?

RISEN: The CIA - I think that's one of the most surprising aspects that I found in this history is the contempt that the CIA held for the shah, and the degree to which they saw him as a vacillating coward who had to be constantly bucked up to do what the CIA wanted him to do.

The CIA really didn't ask him to do very much. All they wanted him to do was to sign a couple of royal decrees, one dismissing Mr. Mossadegh and the second appointing General Zahedi, who was a retired Iranian general who the CIA and British intelligence had handpicked to be Mr. Mossadegh's successor as prime minister. And they couldn't get the shah to even do that for weeks.

And General Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Persian Gulf commander, who is an old friend of the shah, was sent by the CIA to Tehran to try and persuade him to sign these documents. They also - the CIA and British also arranged for the shah's sister to return from France to persuade him to do this. And yet, even with all that, he continued to delay and try and find ways out of the situation.

Ultimately, it was really only until the last minute, when he signed the documents, the CIA for a long time wasn't sure he would do it and wasn't sure they could go ahead with the coup.

MANN: I don't want to characterize what you're saying, but to put it briefly, it sounds like the CIA did not do a terrifically competent job of this coup, and they didn't choose a terrifically competent man as the country's new leader. When it was all done and it had succeeded, was the CIA glad of this, or were they embarrassed by it?

RISEN: Well, I think they got out of this by the skin of their teeth from their point of view. I think - you've got to remember the context was this is only six years after the CIA had been founded in 1947. And really, it wasn't until World War II that the United States had any kind of a spy agency at all, which was the Office of Strategic Services.

And so, the United States was not - didn't really have much experience at this kind of thing, and this was the first time they'd ever tried a peace-time coup d'etat. And so, there were a lot of amateurish mistakes they made. It was kind of - there was an element of Keystone Kops involved, and there was a lot of trial by error.

And I think they did regret - in fact, there's some evidence in the history that they thought about trying to find somebody else besides the shah to be in charge in Iran. They weren't happy with the fact that he was the guy that they were backing up, and yet they didn't see an alternative.

And as you pointed out earlier, they really were - there did seem to be a genuine concern by the Eisenhower administration about the Soviet threat in Iran. And while the British seemed overly concerned about oil and their access to Iranian oil, the Eisenhower administration really did seem to be worried that the Soviet influence would increase as the instability - political instability in Iran increased under Mossadegh.

And that seemed to be their - the motivating factor behind the decision to overthrow Mossadegh.

MANN: James Risen, I'm going to ask you to stay with us. We have to take a break. But when we come back - a history lesson's link to today. Stay with us for that.


MANN (voice-over): A landslide win for the reformers of Iran. The country elects a new parliament in February, lawmakers more closely aligned than ever before with President Mohammad Khatami. Washington cited the victory as a symbol of Iran's new priorities, a country eager for closer integration with the outside world.

(on camera): Welcome back.

Over the years, the United States-Iran policy has evolved glacially until a series of more dramatic moves in recent months. Washington has lifted sanctions on select Iranian products like carpets and pistachios. And last month, Madeleine Albright made her guarded apology to the Iranian people.

We spoke to CNN's Kasra Naji about the reaction her statement is having in Iran.


KASRA NAJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Reform movement here, which is backing the president - President Khatami - here, they've been more sort of warm toward that statement by Madeleine Albright and - but they say that they want more action from the United States rather than words. On the hard-liners' side, they were angry. They saw the statement as a sign of continued American interference in Iranian affairs.

MANN: So people took notice of the secretary of state's statement. They took different positions on what it really means. What about the new details that have also emerged about the U.S. role in the 1953 coup?

NAJI: The reaction to that has been very low key indeed. The newspapers have carried news agency reports of the New York Times article in their inside pages. No comment at all, just the straight news agency report. There has been no editorial in any of the newspapers that I've seen here on the issue. And there has been no official statement or reaction to the whole thing, to the New York Times expose, if you like.

The reason for that is probably because there's not a lot that is new in what the New York Times has printed because the Iranians knew much of it over the last 40, 50 years.

MANN: So broadly speaking, what is it to Iranian eyes that Washington is up to? Do you get a sense there that Iranians believe these are signals of some kind?

NAJI: Absolutely. There is no doubt about that. The New York Times expose basically, in my view, reminds Iranians of what Madeleine Albright said a month ago about the fact that Americans did lift some sanctions against Iran, and also Mrs. Albright basically came very close to apologizing, at least acknowledging the U.S. role in 1952 coup d'etat.

By doing so, she has removed one of the irritants in the relations between Iran and the U.S.

MANN: Kasra Naji in Tehran, thanks so much for that.


Joining us now once again, James Risen of the New York Times. Thanks for being with us once again. Let me ask you how you got the document that was the basis for your report.

RISEN: It's a classified document, and so I'd rather not discuss how I got it, if that's all right?

MANN: Does it occur to you that it may have been sent by the administration, the same way the apology was, as a signal to Tehran?

RISEN: Well, I can say I don't believe that's the case. But the Iranians, I'm sure, are going to believe that, and I recognized before I wrote the story that they would probably believe that.

MANN: Is there any evidence that you can tell us about that suggests it is the case or it isn't the case? Do you know, for example, whether the State Department welcomed the publication of your story or opposed it?

RISEN: I really don't know what their response has been, actually, in the last day or two. But I can just say that I really can't discuss how I got it.

MANN: I don't want to make you uncomfortable, but the clear impression, as we've heard from Kasra Naji and I think as you can assume most of us are wondering, is whether the New York Times has been used to send a message to Tehran and whether you were the conduit. You have no thoughts that you really could share? No suspicions either way?

RISEN: I can say, as I said before, I don't believe that's the case. But I also know that the Iranians are probably going to believe that, whatever I say about it. So.

MANN: Let me ask you then one last question, which is, to your mind, what's the most important thing that emerges from that document? Some of the details are startling and very human aspects of a distant historical event. But when you look at the papers that you've seen, what most strikes you?

RISEN: Well, I think, as I said earlier, it's the - this is really, as your colleague in Tehran said, a lot of this has been known over the years. What I think this document provides is some interesting detail, fleshes out what was - what we didn't know about the actual steps that the CIA took and kind of the sequence of events that led the CIA to move in certain ways.

And I think what you really get from this reading the history is really kind of a more - much fuller picture of how the CIA was operating early in its life as a spy agency and really kind of how almost amateurish it was in many ways in trying to operate in the Third World at a time when they were really very concerned about Soviet expansionism, and they had a very - I mean, from our point of view, 50 years later, it looks like a very quaint fear of the Soviet menace, now that the Soviet Union has collapsed.

But you have to try and get back into their mindset. And what I think this document really does is it help you get back into their mindset of the fear of Soviet expansionism right on the - right after the Korean War, and it's right about the time that the McCarthy era is beginning. And so, you have a very different culture, or different mindset, and that's really what comes through in these documents, I think.

MANN: James Risen of the New York Times. Thanks so much for talking with us.

RISEN: Sure.

MANN: Once again, we take a break. And then, an Iranian scholar offers his read of The Times and the timing. Stay with us.


MANN: Welcome back.

In the years since the Islamic Revolution, the United States has tried working against Iran and with it in a variety of ways. As we've heard from Kasra Naji, Iranians are wondering what Washington is up to now.

Joining us now to talk about that is Amir Taheri, an author and scholar of Iranian affairs, a familiar face on our air. Thanks so much for being with us once again. What do you make of this? Kasra Naji says he suspects it's all very calculated. It's a leak to try and win influence in Iran.

The author of the story says he doesn't think that's the case. We don't know. What are your thoughts?

AMIR TAHERI, JOURNALIST: Well, first of all, the story doesn't have much that is new. You know, it has been covered in many books, including one that I, myself, wrote after interviewing Mr. Wilber, who is the author of the report that New York Times has just published. But the timing is, of course, strange. I don't know if there is a conspiracy behind it or not. But look at Iran now.

We have three men who have dominated the Iranian history in the past 50 years - the shah, Mossadegh and Khomeini (ph). The shah is gone. Khomeini is discredited, and there is an attempt now to create a reform movement. And that reform movement could use the image of Mossadegh, the prime minister who was overthrown in the so-called CIA coup d'etat, to turn him into an icon of this reform movement.

The reformers in Iran have stopped talking about Khomeini. They have stopped talking about his revolution in the 22nd of the months of Baatman (ph), and they are looking for other historic figures, other historic icons, and there Mossadegh could play that role.

And the United States will find it easier to support a movement that traces its roots back to Mossadegh and Iranian nationalism. So this could be one possibility by Iranians at the moment.

MANN: Would it help the administration, would it help reformers in Iran if, for some reason, the State Department decided to give Iran this kind of gift, if indeed it was an intentional policy to leak this out?

TAHERI: Well, it would help in the sense that the reformist movement is searching for some historical figurehead and some context. I think the whole movement.

MANN: Let me jump in just to make my point clear. Do they want those kinds of presents from the United States?

TAHERI: Well, I think all the signaling is that they do. Don't forget that one of the first moves made by President Khatami after his election was to appear on CNN and offer also a near apology about the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. So you know Mrs. Albright has replied to that three years later.

So right from the start of the Khatami presidency, rapprochement with the United States has been an important objective of his administration. He hasn't had the means to do it because he didn't control the parliament. Now that his supporters have won, of course, the subject will be raised in the new parliament meeting in a few weeks' time, and this is a very important issue that no one can ignore.

MANN: So far, the steps, though, have been small. There were some sanctions lifted. There is, if it is that, the release of this document. There has been, in a more official way, the semi-apology from Madeleine Albright. Are these the appropriate steps, do you think, for the administration to take? Are these the things that Iran is waiting for, or are there more important things?

TAHERI: Well, I think there are more important things. First of all, lifting the sanctions as far as investment in Iranian energy resources are concerned. Iran is desperately short of money. It needs foreign investment. It hasn't had this normal access to international capital. It can't borrow on the world market because of the U.S. opposition, and this has meant a terrible economic situation in Iran with very high unemployment, inflation and nobody knows where this economy is going.

So if the U.S. means business in normalizing relations with Iran, should look at the possibility of lifting some of those sanctions.

MANN: On that note, Amir Taheri, thank you so much for being with us.


MANN: That is INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. Stay with us. The news continues.




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