The United Kingdom sought to expunge “very embarrassing” information about its role in the 1953 coup in Iran from the official U.S. history of the period, British documents confirm. The Foreign Office feared that a planned State Department publication would undermine U.K. standing in Iran, according to declassified records posted on the National Security Archive’s Web site today.
The British censorship attempt happened in 1978, but London’s concerns may play a role even today in holding up the State Department’s long-awaited history – even though U.S. law required its publication years ago.
The declassified documents, from the Foreign Office (Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1968), shed light on a protracted controversy over crucial gaps in the State Department’s authoritative Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. The blank spots on Iran involve the CIA- and MI6-backed plot to overthrow the country’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Six decades after his ouster, some signs point to the CIA as the culprit for refusing to allow basic details about the event to be incorporated into the FRUS compilation.
Recently, the CIA has declassified a number of records relating to the 1953 coup, including a version of an internal history that specifically states the agency planned and helped implement the coup. (The National Security Archive obtained the documents through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.) This suggests that ongoing CIA inflexibility over the FRUS volume is not so much a function of the agency’s worries about its own role being exposed as a function of its desire to protect lingering British sensitivities about 1953 – especially regarding the activities of U.K. intelligence services. There is also evidence that State Department officials have been just as anxious to shield British interests over the years.
Regardless of the reasons for this continued secrecy, an unfortunate consequence of withholding these materials is to guarantee that American (and world) public understanding of this pivotal episode will remain distorted. Another effect is to keep the issue alive in the political arena, where it is regularly exploited by circles in Iran opposed to constructive ties with the United States.
Background on FRUS and the Mosaddeq Period
By statute, the FRUS series is required to present “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record” of American foreign policy. That law came about partly as a consequence of the failure of the original volume covering the Mosaddeq period (published in 1989) to mention the U.S. role in his overthrow. The reaction of the scholarly community and interested public was outrage. Prominent historian Bruce Kuniholm, a former member of State’s Policy Planning Staff, called the volume “a fraud.”
The full story of the scandal has been detailed elsewhere, but most observers blamed the omission on the intelligence community (IC) for refusing to open its relevant files. In fact, the IC was not alone. Senior Department officials joined in opposing requests for access to particular classified records by the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC), the group of independent scholars charged with advising the Department’s own Office of the Historian. The head of the HAC, Warren Cohen, resigned in protest in 1990 citing his inability to ensure the integrity of the FRUS series. Congress became involved and, in a display of bipartisanship that would be stunning today (Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan getting Republican Jesse Helms to collaborate), lawmakers passed a bill to prevent similar historical distortions. As Cohen and others pointed out, while Moscow was disgorging its scandalous Cold War secrets, Washington was taking a distinctly Soviet approach to its own history.
By 1998, State’s historians and the HAC had decided to produce a “retrospective” volume on the Iran coup that would help to correct the record. They planned other volumes to cover additional previously airbrushed covert activities (in Guatemala, the Congo, etc.). It was a promising step, yet 15 years later, while a couple of publications have materialized, several others have not – including the Iran volume.
A review of the available minutes of HAC meetings makes it apparent that over the past decade multiple policy, bureaucratic, and logistical hurdles have interfered with progress. Some of these are routine, even inevitable – from the complications of multi-agency coordination to frequent personnel changes. Others are more specific to the realm of intelligence, notably a deep-seated uneasiness in parts of the CIA over the notion of unveiling putative secrets.
In the Fall of 2001, an ominous development for the HO gave a sense of where much of the power lay in its relationship with the CIA. According to notes of a public HAC meeting in October 2001, the CIA, on instructions from the Director of Central Intelligence, decided unilaterally “that there could be no new business” regarding FRUS until the two sides signed an MOU. Agency officials said the document would address legitimate IC concerns; HAC members worried it would mainly boost CIA control over the series. The agency specifically held up action on four volumes to make its point, while HAC historians countered that the volumes were being “held hostage” and the HO was being forced to work “under the threat of ‘blackmail’.”
The CIA held firm and an agreement emerged in May 2002 that, at least from available information, appears to bend over backwards to give the IC extraordinary safeguards without offering much reassurance about key HO interests. For instance, the MOU states that the CIA must “meet HO’s statutory requirement” – hardly something that seems necessary to spell out. At the same time, it allows the CIA to review materials not once, but again even after a manuscript has passed through formal declassification, and once more after it is otherwise in final form and ready for printing. In the context of the disputed Iran volume, HAC members worried about the “random” nature of these provisions which gave the agency “a second bite at the apple.” The implication is that the CIA will feel little obligation to help meet the HO’s legal requirement if it believes its own “equities” are at stake. (This of course may still affect the Iran volume, currently scheduled for 2014 publication.)
Is It the British?
As mentioned, the CIA has begun to release documentation in recent years making explicit its connection to the Mosaddeq overthrow. Even earlier, by 2002, the State Department and CIA jointly began compiling an Iran retrospective volume. These are not signs of a fundamental institutional unwillingness to publish American materials on the coup (although parts of the CIA continued to resist the notion). The HO even tried at least twice previously to organize a joint project with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Iran, but the idea evidently went nowhere.
In 2004, two years later, the State Department’s designated historian finished compiling the volume. According to that historian, he included a number of records obtained from research at the then-Public Record Office in London. Among his findings was “material that documents the British role.” He added that he had also located State Department records “that illustrate the British role.” By no later than June 2006, the Iran volume had entered the declassification queue. At the June 2006 HAC session, CIA representatives said “they believed the committee would be satisfied with the [declassification]reviews.”
Up to that point, the agency’s signals seemed generally positive about the prospects of making public previously closed materials. But in the six years since, no Iran volume has emerged. Even State’s committee of historians apparently has never gotten a satisfactory explanation as to why.
When the IC withholds records, “sources and methods” are often the excuse. The CIA is loath to release anything it believes would reveal how the agency conducts its activities. (For many years, the CIA kept secret the fact that it used balloons to drop leaflets over Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and would not confirm or deny whether it compiled biographical sketches of Communist leaders.) On the other hand, clandestine operations have been named in more than 20 other FRUS publications. One of these was the retrospective volume on PBSUCCESS, the controversial overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Furthermore, the agency has released troubling materials such as assassination manuals that demonstrate how to murder political opponents using anything from “edge weapons” to “bare hands.” In 2007, in response to a 15-year-old National Security Archive FOIA request, the CIA finally released its file of “family jewels” detailing an assortment of infamous activities. from planning to poison foreign leaders to conducting illegal surveillance on American journalists.
If the agency felt it could part with such high-profile sources and methods information, along with deeply embarrassing revelations about itself, why not in the Iran case? Perhaps the British are just saying no, and their American counterparts are quietly going along.
State Department Early Warning – 1978
The FCO documents in this posting (Documents 22-35) strongly support this conclusion. Theytell a fascinating story of transatlantic cooperation and diplomatic concern at a turbulent time. It was a State Department official who first alerted the FCO to plans by the Department’s historians to publish an official account of the 1953 coup period. The Department’s Iran expert warned that the records could have “possibly damaging consequences” not only for London but for the Shah of Iran, who was fighting for survival as he had 25 years earlier (Document 22). Two days later, FCO officials began to pass the message up the line that “very embarrassing things about the British” were likely to be in the upcoming FRUS compilation (Document 23). FCO officials reported that officers on both the Iran and Britain desks at State were prepared to help keep those materials out of the public domain, at least for the time being (Document 33). Almost 35 years later, those records are still inaccessible.
The British government’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what the world already knows is difficult for most outsiders to understand. It becomes positively baffling when senior public figures who are fully aware of the history have already acknowledged London’s role. In 2009, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw publicly remarked on Britain’s part in toppling Mosaddeq, which he categorized as one of many outside “interferences” in Iranian affairs in the last century. Yet, present indications are that the U.K. government is not prepared to release either its own files or evidently to approve the opening of American records that might help bring some degree of closure to this protracted historic – and historiographical – episode.
 A recent article drawing attention to the controversy is Stephen R. Weissman, “Why is U.S. Withholding Old Documents on Covert Ops in Congo, Iran?” The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 2011. (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/0325/Why-is-US-withholding-old-documents-on-covert-ops-in-Congo-Iran )
 Section 198, Public Law 102-138.
 Bruce Kuniholm, “Foreign Relations, Public Relations, Accountability, and Understanding,” American Historical Association, Perspectives, May-June 1990.
 In addition to the Kuniholm and Weissman items cited above, see also Stephen R. Weissman, “Censoring American Diplomatic History,” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History, September 2011.
 Joshua Botts, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “‘A Burden for the Department’?: To The 1991 FRUSStatute,” February 6, 2012,http://history.state.gov/frus150/research/to-the-1991-frus-statute.
 Editorial, “History Bleached at State,” The New York Times, May 16, 1990.
 Retrospective compilations on Guatemala (2003) and the intelligence community (2007) during the 1950s have appeared; collections on the Congo and Chile are among those that have not.
 See HAC minutes for July 12-13, 2004,http://history.state.gov/about/hac/july-2004; September 20-21, 2004, http://history.state.gov/about/hac/september-2004; September 8-9, 2008,http://history.state.gov/about/hac/september-2008; for example.
 Quoted in Souren Melikian, “Show Ignores Essential Questions about Iranian King’s Role,” The International Herald Tribune, February 21, 2009.