- The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian
Ervand Abrahamian is one of the leading historians of modern Iran, having produced a series of excellent studies covering [End Page 315] both the pre-revolution era and the Islamic regime. He has now turned his attention to the CIA-engineered coup d'état that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and the events that precipitated the coup — topics that have been covered extensively elsewhere. Abrahamian's account is based mainly on British government archives, Persian-language sources, and the US government documents published in the Foreign Relations of the United States series; he does not appear to have interviewed any of the participants or examined the vast collection of relevant material available in the US National Archives. Partly as a result, his account provides no major new revelations or insights and is misleading in several ways.
Despite its title, most of Abrahamian's book focuses on the events surrounding Iran's nationalization of its British-owned oil industry in 1951, which ultimately led to the coup. The author gives a good account of how the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) exploited Iran for decades and resisted revision of its contract to produce and market Iranian oil. He then covers the efforts of the AIOC and British government to reverse or minimize the impact of nationalization by organizing a global embargo of Iranian oil, covertly undermining Mosaddeq's government, and encouraging US officials to take a hard line with Mosaddeq. Although these events have been covered exhaustively elsewhere, Abrahamian offers a few new details and gives good accounts of most of the key events. He emphasizes that British and US officials were, in varying degrees, willing to accept "nationalization" of the oil industry but wanted Western oil companies to retain "control," though he often confuses these two terms (e.g., pp. 82-85, 113) and employs a monolithic, all-or-nothing notion of "control." He mentions several major disagreements between US and British officials, but underemphasizes them, implying that US officials strongly supported the British position and opposed Mosaddeq's position. In fact, the US position was far more nuanced.
Abrahamian finally turns to the coup in the last third of the book. He provides some interesting new details, notably about how Mosaddeq was warned of the coup (pp. 184, 251) and was planning to stage a referendum on the future of the monarchy at the time (pp. 191-192). However, Abrahamian's account is incomplete in several ways. He incorrectly implies that US officials worked to undermine Mosaddeq under the Truman Administration (e.g., p. 150) and fails to mention that US officials flatly rejected a British coup proposal in late 1952. He does not mention the central theme of the coup plan: a "quasi-legal" effort to secure a parliamentary vote against Mosaddeq by bribing deputies and persuading clerics to foment a crisis. Although he provides some new details on the military units and civilian crowds that rose up against Mosaddeq, he does not mention the US role in organizing these military units and does not clarify who organized the crowds and the relative importance of US, British, and Iranian actors in engineering the coup. After the coup, he states incorrectly that the CIA helped uncover the communist Tudeh Party's military network, underemphasizes the size of this network, and downplays the huge revenue stream Iran received under the new oil agreement.
The book's biggest flaw is its narrow, economic determinist explanation of US policy toward Iran in this period. Abrahamian argues that US officials carried out the coup not because they feared the Tudeh Party might soon seize power but rather to prevent "the dangerous repercussions that oil nationalization could have throughout the world" (pp. 4-5). However, he does not present any evidence that top US officials were concerned about the spread of oil nationalization and ignores a wealth of evidence — much of...