Maziar Bahari’s Negligent Coup Narrative

An Iranian Odyssey: Mossadegh, Oil and the 1953 CIA Coup

Ebrahim Norouzi, MD & Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | June 1, 2010                       

“In a country that has had very few honest and patriotic leaders, Mossadegh may be among two or three leaders who are deified by young and old alike. The current government has tried to erase him from historical memory, so many young Iranians are turning to him for inspiration. He was a patriot, a nationalist, and a religious man who didn’t emphasize religion in politics.” — Maziar Bahari 1

Maziar Bahari

Maziar Bahari, a London based, Iranian-Canadian journalist, received full funding from the BBC to make his documentary An Iranian Odyssey: Mossadegh, Oil, and the 1953 CIA Coup, and claims to have culled material from “about 100 different sources” and “at least 10 different countries”.

This wasn’t readily apparent to us, yet we did notice various inaccuracies and omissions, some of which we will address here.

“The British government’s revenue from Iranian oil was double the amount of the Iranian government’s.”
Actually, the imbalance was significantly more pronounced. Available documents show that, for example, in 1948 the British government received about £28,310,000 in taxes from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), while the government of Iran received £1,369,000 in taxes, a ratio of about 20 to 1.2 As Mossadegh himself explained in his 1951 UN testimony, the company paid 2% of the profit to Iran for tax, while it paid 45% to the British treasury.

The total royalty received by Iran in 1947 constituted only 9% of the total price of oil extracted for the year. Mostafa Fateh, who rose to the highest position in AIOC for any Iranian, writes in his highly regarded book 50 years of Iranian Oil that in 1950, the AIOC’s net profits reached £151 million. From this amount, the company paid £16 million to Iran for both royalty and tax, while it paid more than £50 million to the British Treasury for taxes only!3

“Despite his popularity, one question puzzled Iranians and foreigners alike. Why did Mossadegh receive dignitaries in his pajamas?”
Among many other distractions and derogatory characterizations, ill-intended “foreigners”, namely the Americans and British, did indeed make an issue of this in order to diminish Dr. Mossadegh as a serious political figure. Yet if Bahari had bothered to do some research into the medical history of Mossadegh, he would have discovered that since his youth—and frequently as Prime Minister—Mossadegh experienced severe bouts of fatigue. At times, this condition became so debilitating that he would become completely housebound, or sometimes even hospitalized.4

Thus, Mossadegh found working from bed to be a method which helped conserve his strength and cope with the stress of his job on his aging body.

On Averell Harriman’s (U.S. special envoy under Truman) visit to Iran in July 1951: “Harriman’s visit worked against Mossadegh. After returning to Washington, Harriman’s main concern was that Mossadegh could not withstand a Soviet takeover.”
This description leaves out a key factor—the role the CIA played in the anti-Harriman demonstration. The CIA wanted to give Harriman and others the impression that the Communists were strong in Iran, and only an intervention would prevent the loss of Iran and its oil to the Soviets.

According to many scholars, including American political science professor Mark J. Gasiorowski (also interviewed in Bahari’s documentary), the CIA hired two Iranians, Ali Jalali and Faruq Kayvani, with intelligence expertise and a network of their own. Kermit Roosevelt, who later headed the CIA coup plot “Operation Ajax” that overthrew Mossadegh, had met these two Iranian agents in the U.S. and approved their hire. Dr. Gasiorowski writes: “They [Jalali and Kayvani] demonstrated their effectiveness in July 1951 by having agents provocateurs organize a “black” demonstration ostensibly by the Tudeh against U.S. envoy Averell Harriman.”5

Also noteworthy was the discovery in June 1951 of documents belonging to the AIOC’s information office by members of Mossadegh’s government. According to University of Oxford Professor Homa Katouzian, the AIOC documents “revealed that the company was aiding the Tudeh press explicitly to render their opposition more effective. They were also using the Peace Club, a Tudeh front organization.”6 Meanwhile, the Communist press intensified their opposition to Mossadegh, saying that Harriman’s visit represented a complete sell-out to the United States by Mossadegh.

On Mossadegh’s trip to America in October 1951: “In Washington, Mossadegh received a warm welcome from Truman (Truman and Mossadegh are shown smiling and shaking hands). The Americans showered him with praise as a genuine nationalist politician. But while the Americans supported Mossadegh publicly, in private they called his stance against the British stubborn and inflexible.”
Mossadegh’s alleged intransigence is a theme of the film. This canard was formulated by the coup-plotters themselves to place the blame for the failure of oil negotiations primarily on the shoulders of Mossadegh and not on British intransigence. While Mossadegh was certainly unwilling to compromise on the principles of Iran’s sovereignty and was determined to abolish the era of British influence in Iranian affairs, it was he who remained flexible in negotiations over the oil stalemate while Britain stonewalled.

In fact, Bahari’s documentary itself states that “The company’s uncompromising stance even angered some British diplomats” and “American President Harry S. Truman had openly criticized the British colonialist’s policies.”

In the film, even British Foreign Service officer Sam Falle places the blame on the AIOC for not accepting the initial offer of a 50/50 deal with Iran. It was “so obvious to anyone but the bloody stupid idiots who ran the Anglo-Iranian [Oil Company]”, emphasizes Falle.

The stubbornness of Britain and the AIOC was also acknowledged and criticized by high-ranking American officials. Averell Harriman, despite being a pro-British diplomat, disliked the heavy-handed British approach and was “appalled by the history of this Anglo-Iranian Concession”. On his return to the U.S. from Tehran, he commented that he had never known a company where absentee management was so malignant. Dean Acheson, the U.S. Secretary of State, and George McGhee, the Assistant Secretary of State and an admitted Anglophile, both criticized the British for their rigidness in the dispute.

In reality, the British never intended to reach a negotiated settlement with Mossadegh and pursued a policy of ‘regime change’ to regain their lost position. During Mossadegh’s trip to America in late 1951, McGhee and his team, in discussion with Mossadegh, formulated a proposal that they felt was reasonable, and were hopeful it would be accepted by the new Churchill government. The British, through their Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, flatly rejected the proposal and even refused Acheson’s suggestion of using the proposal as a basis for further negotiation. Eden was curt, having Acheson tell Mossadegh that “It’s all off” and they did not want to negotiate further.7

“Mossadegh never understood that Truman was not really able to help him. Truman, who was a Democrat, was being challenged by the Republicans, who had not been in the White House for 20 years. [Footage of Harry Truman and Joseph McCarthy is shown] The Republicans’ main line of attack was that Truman’s government was too soft on Communists in America and worldwide.”
Bahari echoes this sentiment in his interviews, saying that Mossadegh was “naive” and “knew little about the Cold War.” Yet Mossadegh was quite cognizant of America’s obsession with Communism and their “Cold War” policies.

After attending the UN Security Council sessions in New York, Mossadegh issued a statement saying he was “aware of the enormity of America’s fear of Communism which has made anti-communism the foundation of its foreign and financial policy.” He criticized America’s policy of “setting up dictatorships in other countries for the purpose of defeating Communism”, arguing that “these measures not only fail to destroy Communism, they create resentment in their populations and actually increase the appeal of Communism, something the West will live to rue its irreparable consequences.”8

Even prior, Mossadegh had expressed his general mistrust of the great powers (US, UK and USSR), but believed in maintaining relationships with them when needed, and negotiating with vigilance.

While lingering on images of the Russian leader’s corpse: “After the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, the Soviet Union foreign policy was in disarray. While the Iranian Communists were in mourning at the Russian Embassy, the Americans intensified their anti-communist and anti-Mossadegh campaign.”
The movie portrays the Communists as a strong force implying that they were able to take power in Iran, though most analysts view it differently.

According to scholar Mark Gasiorowski, “the Tudeh really was not very powerful” and “higher-level U.S. officials routinely exaggerated its strength and Mossadegh’s reliance on it”.

In “The Legacy of the Tudeh” chapter in Gasiorowski’s book on the coup, Dr. Maziar Behrooz writes that “Clearly there is no evidence that party had a plan for securing political power” and “It is difficult to imagine how the party could have ousted Mosaddeq...”

Farhad Diba in Mossadegh, a Political Biography writes: In a [May 1952] ‘secret’ Intelligence Report, the U.S. State Department confidently wrote “while Mossadegh remains in power, it is safe to rule out a Communist coup.’ This was again the conclusion of a January 1953 State Department Report which concluded, as Diba explains, that “as long as Mossadegh and the National Front were in power, there was no danger of a Tudeh takeover.”

Interestingly, Bahari’s previous BBC documentary, The Fall of a Shah, refers only to a “small but burgeoning Communist movement” while covering Mossadegh’s era in the early 50’s (and makes no mention of the oil nationalization topic). In this film, Bahari depicts the Communist element to be large in number and in influence.

In addition to its factual shortcomings (Nosratollah Khazeni is misidentified as Nasrollah, for example), the movie’s rather lackluster production values were surprising considering Bahari’s access to the vast resources of the BBC. For example, towards the end, while the narrator explains the formation of the 1954 oil consortium in Iran, a smiling Mossadegh is shown holding a maquette of an oil derrick, a careless editing choice and a misleading juxtaposition.

Maziar Bahari I attended a screening of this film on January 27th, 2010 at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Afterwards, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a short interview with Mr. Bahari. In the exchange, each revealed their father’s political leanings—Sadjadpour’s father was a supporter of Mossadegh, while Bahari’s father was a member of the Communist Tudeh Party and had been imprisoned during the Shah’s regime (his family opposed the Shah before and after the 1953 coup).

During the Q&A session, I asked Mr. Bahari why the film makes no mention of the moral and legal aspects of the U.S. coup in Iran and its long term disastrous consequences. His answer was unexpected. He said the movie was meant to concentrate on Mossadegh and Iran, and not the U.S.! The film is titled An Iranian Odyssey: Mossadegh, Oil, and the 1953 CIA Coup. How can one talk about the CIA and the significance of oil without even questioning the wisdom or morality of America’s role in the coup, leading to decades of calamities for the people of Iran?

Maziar Bahari’s interviews reveal a confused man, highly reluctant to take a position in the hope of appearing “objective”. In a radio interview with PRI’s The World (a BBC affiliate) earlier that month, Mr. Bahari was ambivalent. He says Mossadegh was a nationalist, a patriot, and “a great man”, but also assigns attributes to Mossadegh such as “naive”, “weak” and “dishonest”.

Unedited audio interview with Bahari [27 minutes]   

At the outset, host Jeb Sharp tells her audience that the film “punctures the notion of Mossadegh as some sort of perfect leader”, and “Bahari describes Mossadegh as naive about Cold War politics and a populist rather than a man of pure principle.” Bahari offers no objection to Sharp’s characterization, and, encouraged by her prompting, adds emphatically, “...he was very populist! He basically gauged the public mood, and he adapted to that. And sometimes that meant that he was dishonest. He was basically playing to the people. The fact that, you know, he was in bed all the time...he pretended to be ill... I think that he was resorting to histrionics in order to...gain the support of people.”

Bahari’s cavalier labeling of Mossadegh as “dishonest” is contrary to most descriptions of his character, even among his harshest critics. Some supporters actually fault him for being too honest. The British scholar L.P. Elwell-Sutton writes in his book Persian Oil that, “Enemies and friends alike have confirmed that Mosaddeq was completely unusual characteristic in politicians anywhere.”9 Others, including some in the American government, have likened him to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, two figures not exactly known for their unscrupulousness.

Bahari’s comfort in directly accusing Mossadegh of faking illness without proof stands in marked contrast to his open praise for interviewee Sam Falle, a British conspirator in the coup atrocity, whom he calls “so honest”. (After the coup succeeded, Falle explicitly advocated for the murder of Mossadegh’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Hossein Fatemi). And when Sharp calls Dr. Mossadegh, one of Iran’s most revered icons, “a bizarre character,” Bahari again remains silent.

Maziar Bahari also has an unusual take on the aftermath of the 1953 coup. Bahari actually says he is not sure whether or not the coup was a mistake, since the Soviets may have taken control, and seems unduly influenced by the opinion of British official Sam Falle. “He thinks that the overthrow of Mossadegh was the right thing to do”, explains Bahari sympathetically. “As an Iranian, as a patriotic Iranian, I...don’t know. I don’t know.”

In his PRI interview, Bahari makes several more factual mistakes. For example, he says wrongly that “In July 1952, the Shah forced Mossadegh to resign...”. It is well known history that Mossadegh resigned voluntarily after his request for control of the military was refused by the Shah.

Maziar Bahari states proudly that his film will, in his words, “alienate” nationalists, monarchists, communists and imperialists alike, seeming to conclude that as long as it manages to irritate everyone, he must be doing something right. “It’s not going to present a heroic picture of Mossadegh”, adds Bahari, as if this were a demonstration of objectivity.

“What the film is trying to do is that, it’s trying to blame what happened in Iran on Iranians, rather than foreigners”, Bahari says. “Because it’s true that the Americans and the British, they helped the coup, but they helped the coup to happen by supporting Iranians who carried out the coup. [sounding pleased with himself] The people, yeah... The people who carried out the coup were not British or Americans, they were Iranians. It’s just the British and American support expedited that process.”

So Bahari deems the climactic events of August 19, 1953 in Iran to be of greater significance than the extended Western campaign to undermine, subvert and ultimately destroy Mossadegh’s popular elected government. Yet the title of his film still includes the phrase “CIA Coup”.

Maziar Bahari calls Mossadegh “a great actor”, engaged in ‘political theater’ to remain popular, “but he outsmarted himself”. His main mistake, Bahari argues, is that he tried to “play the Americans and the British against each other”. In reality, Mossadegh had actually placed hope in the United States, yet his appeal for aid was rejected outright.

In the end, Bahari acknowledges that his 51 minute film is basically a personal exercise rather than a definitive historical document. “This just an attempt by an individual to understand what happened in 1953”, rationalizes Bahari. “I may have failed. I may have...done something. This is just my attempt.”


1 Interview with Maziar Bahari in The Boston Globe by Mark Feeney (January 8, 2010)
2 Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics (1955) — L.P. Elwell-Sutton
3 50 Years of Iranian Oil (2005) — Mostafa Fateh
4 Mossadegh — A Medical Biography — Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
5 Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (2004) — Mark J. Gasiorowski, etc.
6 Mussaddiq and the Struggle for Power In Iran (1990) — Homa Katouzian
7 Envoy to the Middle World (1983) — George C. McGhee
8 42 days with Dr. Mossadegh in the U.N. (2000) — Fazlollah Noureddin Kia
9 Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics (1955) — L.P. Elwell-Sutton

Divvying Up the Loot: The Iran Oil Consortium Agreement of 1954
Divvying Up the Loot: The Iran Oil Consortium Agreement of 1954


Related links:

Their Myths—And Ours: A Response to Abbas Milani’s “The Great Satan Myth”

MOSSADEGH, Islam and Ayatollahs: The Rise of Fundamentalism in Iran

All the Sham’s Men: How the CIA used “anti-Communism” to kill democracy in Iran

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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