H-Diplo Article Review 927
12 February 2020
Mark J. Gasiorowski. “U.S. Perceptions of the Communist Threat in Iran during the Mossadegh Era.” Journal of Cold War Studies 21:3 (Summer 2019): 1-37.
Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii
Operation TPAJAX, the covert action conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency to remove the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in August 1953, ranks among the most infamous chapters in modern U.S. history. The Mordad Coup, as it became known in Iran, constituted the first substantive U.S. intervention in Middle East politics, as well as an early instance of the CIA being used as a tool for statecraft, rather than as an intelligence-gathering organization. In terms of U.S.-Iranian relations, TPAJAX is a key turning point, an event frequently referenced in contemporary Iranian politics, though one which remains fairly obscure in American discourse.
The coup’s profile has risen somewhat in recent years, with the long-awaited publication of a new retrospective volume in the Office of the Historian’s venerable Foreign Relations of the United States series [hereafter FRUS]. The retrospective volume contains 375 de-classified documents related to U.S.-Iranian relations during the 1951-1954 period, mostly drawn from CIA records, with many relating directly to the planning and execution of TPAJAX.
The new FRUS has breathed fresh air into the decades-long discussion surrounding the coup, and no one is better qualified to resume this debate than Mark J. Gasiorowski of Tulane University, a distinguished scholar of U.S.-Iranian relations who has been studying TPAJAX for the better part of three decades. Gasiorowski’s new article shines light on a particularly vexing question: how did the United States perceive the Communist threat in Iran, and how did that perception impact the decision to remove Mossadegh from power in August 1953?
In scholarship on the coup, the looming threat of Communism is among the most oft-cited justifications for U.S. covert action—a decision that could not have been taken lightly, given its fairly unprecedented nature in the history of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and Iran, where the U.S. had frequently acted more as an interested bystander than as a direct participant. According to one narrative, Iran in the summer of 1953 stood on the brink of collapse, with Communist rule a distinct possibility. As Gasiorowski rightly points out, this view dominates official histories of the coup, which emphasize the threat of Iran’s Communist Tudeh Party and the inability of the nationalist Mossadegh government to hold back the Tudeh menace. His article is a studious and deliberate examination of the documents in both FRUS volumes, combined with de-classified State Department and CIA records, and focuses on how U.S. officials perceived the Tudeh Party in the years before Mossadegh assumed power and during his tenure leading up to the August 1953 coup.
His findings are intriguing, though he shies away from a sweeping re-evaluation of the coup. Before 1951, U.S. policy-makers and analysts saw the Tudeh as a major threat to Iran’s internal stability and the most likely conduit for Soviet influence inside the country (3-9). Yet, as Gasiorowski illustrates, the Party was progressively weakened after 1946, when it reached its apex of influence. State action to repress the Party, including a major crackdown following an assassination attempt on the Shah in February 1949, reduced the Party’s effectiveness, though U.S. analysts continued to regard it as a well-organized and disciplined political force “not presently capable of seizing power” (9).
It was clear to the United States that Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist who became prime minister in Iran in April 1951, was not a Communist. The mutual hostility between his political coalition, the National Front, and the Tudeh Party was in evidence throughout 1951 and the first-half of 1952. The key turning point is the July Uprising of 1952, an event which saw Mossadegh and the Tudeh reach a ‘tacit understanding,’ in order to form a united front against the conservative forces attempting to oust Mossadegh from power.
The U.S. believed that Mossadegh would come to rely on the Tudeh for support within Iran, though Gasiorowski shows that such a sentiment was never universally held: in the Spring of 1953, as the CIA began making plans to remove Mossadegh, the prime minister adopted an ambivalent policy towards the Tudeh, liberalizing his approach to the Party one moment and cracking down the next.
Gasiorowski also notes that the Tudeh’s attempts to infiltrate Iran’s armed forces were minimal: military units which might have proven decisive in the event of a major internal disruption were loyal to either Mossadegh or the Shah. Furthermore, Iran’s economy—though shaken by a years-long oil embargo caused by Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s British-owned oil industry—was weak but never on the point of ‘collapse.’ Lacking military power, the Tudeh would probably have tried to take over through a popular front strategy, à la Czechoslovakia in 1948. Yet even in early August 1953, just weeks before the TPAJAX coup took place, analysis confirmed that the Tudeh lacked popular appeal: “the party was not likely to win many seats in the next parliamentary election” (35).
Why then was the coup deemed necessary, if the Communist threat was so vague? Unfortunately, Gasiorowski does not attempt to tackle this question, though he does conclude that TPAJAX was “premature” (3) as an effort to forestall a communist takeover. What other motivations lay behind the coup decision do not form part of Gasiorowski’s analysis.
What the article does illustrate quite clearly is that the Communist threat was never sufficient to justify the coup operation in 1953. Analysts repeatedly stressed the Party’s relative weakness, Mossadegh’s enduring strength, and his willingness to maintain a distance between himself and the Communists, part of his strategy to win support from the United States. There were individuals within the Eisenhower Administration—most notably CIA Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—who favored a covert action. But Gasiorowski notes that the shift towards supporting the coup, which occurred in early March 1953, “did not occur as a result of new information about the Communist threat in Iran” (28).
This new article provides an excellent roadmap on U.S. perceptions, intelligence-gathering, and official estimates surrounding the fateful decision to topple Mossadegh. Any explanation as to why the United States chose to intervene in Iran’s internal politics in 1953 must move beyond a simple analysis of the Communist threat: “the evidence available to U.S. officials,” concludes Gasiorowski, “does not seem to have warranted such dramatic intervention” (37).
Gregory Brew is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. His work focuses on U.S.-Iranian relations and the international political economy of energy, and he has published articles in Texas National Security Review, Iranian Studies, International History Review, Passport, The Oxford Research Encyclopedia, and Mediterranean Quarterly.
 James C. Van Hook, ed., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2018).
 Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup D’Etat in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19:3 (August 1987): 261-286.