Gregory Brew is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, where he studies the history of U.S.-Iranian relations and international energy.
On May 8, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) invited U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook to an event commemorating one year of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
During the event, Hook briefly touched on the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in the infamous coup of August 1953. “Mossadegh was overthrown by the religious establishment, the military, and the political leaders,” said Hook. “We have declassified a range of materials that speak to this,” referring to the retrospective volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) released in 2017.
Hook’s comment, though brief, is quite revealing. It references a position recently taken by a number of revisionists, who argue that the U.S. role in the downfall of Mossadegh was insignificant, and that the clerical class, the very same faction that would take over Iran after the 1979 revolution, was ultimately responsible for the coup of 1953.
Revisionists have gone so far as to label most of what is known about the coup as “myths,” ultimately disproven by a closer examination of the historical record, including the new FRUS volume.
This interpretation flies in the face of decades of scholarship. It represents an overt attempt to mislead, confuse, and misdirect people regarding the contents of the 2017 FRUS volume, which Hook either hasn’t read or is deliberately twisting to fit current U.S. policy.
There is considerable evidence that key clerical figures were involved in the plot against Mossadegh. But it’s misleading to argue that they played a preponderant role in a way that somehow links to the current politics and policies of the Islamic Republic.
Mossadegh had become quite unpopular with various sections of Iranian society by August 1953. His most important rival was Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, a popular cleric who had a considerable street following. Other figures, such as Ayatollah Mohammed Behbehani, also conspired against Mossadegh.
Kashani was a powerful figure chiefly due to his involvement in the campaign to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which had been led by Mossadegh’s political coalition, the National Front. Kashani broke with Mossadegh for a variety of reasons, but few of them related directly to the former’s stature as a religious leader. More important clerical figures, particularly Ayatollah Hossein /Borujerdi/, the county’s most senior Shi’a cleric, took no part in the coup.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest that both Kashani and Behbehani received money from either the British or U.S. governments in order to secure their support in the campaign to oust Mossadegh.
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