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The Craziest Detail About the CIA's 1953 Coup in Iran

For most people, the name "Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf" evokes the image of "Stormin'  Norman," the U.S. Army general who oversaw Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as commander of the military's Central Command from 1988 through the effort to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991. The Desert Storm general, though, was the son of Maj. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose varied and colorful career took him from being the founder and commander of the New Jersey State Police (where he led the investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby), to serving as a general in World War II, training Iran's national police, and advising Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1953, he was the CIA's asset in Tehran when the country was convulsed by a coup.

Schwarzkopf's role has been the subject of speculation since the day after Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's arrest on Aug. 19, 1953. On Aug. 20, the New York Times reported on Schwarzkopf's visit to Tehran and noted an editorial in the Soviet newspaper Pravda accusing Schwarzkopf of delivering the orders for the coup. Now, 60 years later, the CIA has confirmed his role in declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive.

The six years of tensions preceding the coup began with Iranian nationalist efforts to retain more profits from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which changed its name in 1953 to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and later to British Petroleum and now just BP), and continued with Mossadegh's rise to prime minister and his efforts to whittle away the Shah's political authority. In 1953, CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the planning of TPAJAX, the CIA's plan for the "quasi-legal overthrow" (the CIA's euphemistic term of art) of Mossadegh. A CIA history describes Schwarzkopf's role:

Arrangements were made for a visit to Iran by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, former head of the US Gendarme Mission, whom the Shah liked and respected. Schwarzkopf was to explain the proposed project and get from the Shah signed firmans (royal decrees) dismissing Mossadeq, appointing [retired Iranian army general Fazlollah] Zahedi, and calling on the Army to remain loyal to the crown.

Schwartzkopf was given a cover -- a tour of the Middle East, including destinations in Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan, with a stop in Iran. He met with the Shah on Aug. 1; Pahlavi took Schwartzkopf to a large ballroom where they sat at a small table in the center of the room because of the Shah's worries about microphones being placed in the walls. The Shah refused to sign the orders in their first meeting, citing concerns over the army's loyalty. Over the next two weeks, the Shah met with Roosevelt, who assured him of President Dwight Eisenhower's support for the plan.

After the initial stage of the coup, it became clear that the Mossadegh government had been aware of the plot, and Iranian nationalist papers reported that the decision to proceed with the coup was made on Aug. 9 in a meeting between Schwarzkopf and the Shah; a post-operational CIA report on the coup also cites an Aug. 9 meeting with the Shah, "which later proved vital to the success of the military phase of TPAJAX," though it does not mention Schwarzkopf. On Aug. 13, the CIA received two signed orders, the first dismissing Mossadegh, the second appointing Zahedi. The courier told Zahedi that the queen had ultimately swayed the Shah's decision. The next day, the CIA's office in Tehran requested $5 million to support the new government.

The CIA history incredulously notes several popular accounts of the coup that were written "[p]roceeding on the theory that their readers will believe anything dealing with 'spies,' 'agents,' and 'the secret world of espionage.'" The report calls out Andrew Tully's CIA: The Inside Story for "the purple of its flamboyant prose." In Tully's apparently hyperbolic account, when the coup stalled, "the word later was that in a period of a few days Schwartzkopf supervised the careful spending of more than ten million of CIA's dollars. Mossadegh suddenly lost a great many supporters." This is probably fictitious -- the CIA's official account does not mention Schwartzkopf again after his initial meeting with the Shah. It appears he departed Tehran quietly shortly before the coup. By Aug. 19, he was home in Trenton, N.J., where the New York Times found him and asked him about his trip. "I went there to call on some friends whom I had struck up an acquaintance with during the years I was in Iran reorganizing the National Gendarmerie," he told the reporter. "I was not there this time in an official capacity and I conducted no business there."

When the Times pressed him about the coup, he demurred, feigning ignorance of the political situation. The Times notes, "he explained that he preferred not to [discuss Iranian politics] since he had been out of touch 'for too long a period.'" It had been 18 days since his first meeting with the Shah to discuss the coup.

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