Quasi-Legal Cover for a Quasi-Legitimate Coup: The Role of Firmans in Operation AJAX

A firman, or royal decree signed by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, naming General Fazlollah Zahedi the new Premier of Iran, replacing Mohammad Mossadeq. Courtesy of Ted Hotchkiss and the National Security Archive.
A firman, or royal decree signed by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, naming General Fazlollah Zahedi the new Premier of Iran, replacing Mohammad Mossadeq. Courtesy of Ted Hotchkiss and the National Security Archive.

Dr. Donald Wilber, chief CIA architect of propaganda and misinformation on Operation AJAX – the joint American and British plot to overthrow the oil-nationalist Premier Mohammed Mossadeq, wrote in his Clandestine Service History that “From the outset, the cooperation of the Shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] was considered to be an essential part of the plan. His cooperation was necessary to assure the action required of the Tehran military garrisons, and to legalize the succession of a new prime minister.”[1] These firmans, or royal orders, gave legitimacy to the coup attempt in that these Shah-signed documents rallied support in the Iranian military and populace to support his desired premier, General Fazlollah Zahedi; however, new evidence suggested that Wilber overstated the impact of these flyers.

Wilber wrote extensively on the elaborate courtship by pro-coup d’état elements to convince the Shah to sign the orders to overthrow Mossadeq and to replace him legitimately with Zahedi. According to a memorandum by Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA commander of Operation AJAX, Zahedi wanted to “gain legal status” for the coup to avoid “political suicide by an extra-legal move.”[2] The United States sent Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, the Shah’s “dynamic” sister to lobby the Shah to sign these subversive documents.[3] Later, the CIA sent General H. Norman Scharzkopf, who had previously deployed to Iran and had interacted amicably with the Shah.[4] Both of these visits produced “failing results.”[5] The next agent was Kermit Roosevelt, “representing the President of the United States, would urge the Shah to sign the above-mentioned firmans. (Wilber’s emphasis).”[6] Wilber concluded that “After considerable pressure from Princess Ashraf and General Schwarzkopf, and after several meetings with Mr. Roosevelt, the Shah finally signed the required firmans on 15 August 1953. Action was set for 16 August.”[7] These hotly debated documents signaled that the Shah gave his consent to change of power.

These documents were originally intended to give General Zahedi legal authority to take the premiership on August 16. On this day, the general, “armed with the royal firmans and with military support, could take over the government.”[8] While this plan seemed to be legitimate from the perspective of the Shah and General Zahedi’s advocates in the military, the convoy sent to incarcerate Mossadeq was intercepted by troops loyal to the nationalist premier.[9] Wilber noted that “the balance of the military plan was thus frustrated for that day. Upon hearing that the plan had misfired, (my emphasis) the Shah flew to Baghdad.”[10] The first attempt at the change of state, supported by the firmans had failed; Mossadeq was seen as the rightful premier by key power brokers and the Shah was off the peacock throne.

Recognizing this failure, the CIA switched tactics with using the firmans to a more grassroots approach in the following days. Wilber wrote that “CIA agents assets disseminated a large quantity of photographs of the firmans, appointing Zahedi prime minister and dismissing Mossadeq.”[11] These documents “shocked and angered” the people of Tehran “when they realized that the Shah had been forced to leave because of Mossadeq’s actions (my emphasis).”[12] This emotion, fueled by CIA bribes, inspired “pro-Shah street groups” to riot, and the Army units set to apprehend them on August 19 to join the royalist cause.[13] These two sources of power ousted Mossadeq from power, installed Zahedi, and welcomed back the Shah.[14] According to Wilson, the firmans, seen as legitimate in the eyes of street groups and royalists officers decisively tipped the balance in favor of General Zahedi and the Shah against Mossadeq.

In The Coup, Professor Ervand Abrahamian of the City University of New York challenged Wilber’s perspective of the importance of the firmans.[15] Abrahmian confirmed that foreign office conceptualized the need of quasi-legitimacy from the poignant quote from a British military attaché that “the coup would have to be in the name of the Shah.”[16] He also researched black propaganda documents, such as press releases forged by Donald Wilber, which stated that Mossadeq was in a league with the Tudeh communist party and was anti-religious. This information would have enflamed the conservative military and religious population in addition to the firmans.[17] But the most shocking piece of evidence Abrahamian produced were statements from the U.K. and the U.S. that if the Shah did not sign the documents, they would “cease backing the dynasty,” and without their support the Pahlavi regime “would cease to exist.”[18] He interpreted these statements as being “more like an ultimatum than a friendly nudge.”[19] Abrahamian confronted Wilber’s notions on the firmans noting the impact of other propaganda and the circumstances under which the Shah signed the documents.

Ultimately, the firmans, which may have be signed in less than ideal circumstances, gave General Zahedi the quasi-legal cover to launch the Western orchestrated coup. The firmans were not atypical, but a component of a broad propaganda front. Likewise, these documents also bound the Shah to his power base: the conservative Army and the volatile thugs of the street.

Bibliography

Abrahamian, Ervand. The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. New York: The New Press, 2013.

CIA. “Clandestine Services History.” Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 – August 1953. Edited by Dr. Donald N. Wilber. March 1954. National Security Archive. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/.

——. Memo from Kermit Roosevelt to [Excised]. July 16, 1953. National Security Archive. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/.

Firman. Circa 1953. Ted Hotchkiss and the National Security Archive. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/.

The Young Turks. “1953 Iran Coup – CIA Finally Admits Role.” Youtube. August 19, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgfsgiPMqRc.


[1] CIA, Clandestine Services History, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 – August 1953, Dr. Donald N. Wilber, March 1954. vii. National Security Archive. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/.

[2] CIA, memo from Kermit Roosevelt to [Excised], July 16, 1953. National Security Archive. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/.

[3] CIA, Clandestine Services History, viii.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] CIA, Clandestine Services History, x.

[8] Ibid., viii-iv.

[9] Ibid., x.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. xi.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., xii.

[14] CIA, Clandestine Services History, xii-xiii.

[15] Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations,  (New York: The New Press, 2013).

[16] Ibid., 147.

[17] Ibid., 178.

[18] Ibid., 181.

[19] Ibid.

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