The Central Intelligence Agency recently said in a podcast episode that a CIA-backed coup in Iran during the 1950’s was “undemocratic,” a first for the agency.
According to an article by the Associated Press, the 1953 Iranian military coup that removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power gave control of Iran to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who served until his own overthrow in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
During the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. embassy in Iran was seized by a group of Iranian students who took American citizens and others hostage for 444 days in a row. The CIA sent agents in to recover six American diplomats in one of the agency’s most famous missions which served as inspiration for the movie Argo.
The CIA discussed these events and the 1953 coup in a recent episode of the CIA podcast “The Langley Files,” named after Langley Virginia where CIA headquarters is located. The podcast was started in late 2022 to publicly dispel some of the more negative rumors circulating about the nation’s most secretive arm of government (a substantial percentage of which do involve military coups, to be perfectly fair).
CIA historian and Langley Files host Walter Trosin said on the episode that much of the agency’s activities were focused on “bolstering” democratically elected governments but that this particular action did not meet that criteria.
“We should acknowledge, though, that this is, therefore, a really significant exception to that rule,” Trosin said.
“This is one of the exceptions to that,” said CIA historian Brett Geary in response.
The CIA gave a statement to the AP after the episode was released, essentially saying that if they were going to tell the story of the CIA’s 1979 extraction mission, it would only be right under the context of all the events that led to that day.
“CIA’s leadership is committed to being as open with the public as possible,” the agency said in a statement to the AP. “The agency’s podcast is part of that effort — and we knew that if we wanted to tell this incredible story, it was important to be transparent about the historical context surrounding these events, and CIA’s role in it.”
The CIA has kept most of if not all information about the coup classified for the last 70 years. But despite these recent developments and despite other members of government publicly offering similar sentiments in the past, almost all the CIA’s information about the coup remains classified to this day. The CIA actually admitted at one point that most of the files related to the 1953 coup were likely destroyed in the 1960’s, according to the AP.
“It’s wrong to suggest that the coup operation itself has been fully declassified. Far from it,” said Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive. “Important parts of the record are still being withheld, which only contributes to public confusion and encourages myth-making about the U.S. role long after the fact.”
Iran dismissed the steps taken by the CIA to shed some light on the situation, calling it “the inception of relentless American meddling in Iran’s internal affairs” in a statement to the AP.
“The U.S. admission never translated into compensatory action or a genuine commitment to refrain from future interference, nor did it change its subversive policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iran’s mission to the United Nations said.
These developments come at a time where tensions between the United States and Iran are high, even by historical comparison, due to U.S. pressure on Iran to halt progress on its nuclear program. President Biden also just reached a deal with Qatar to prevent Iran from accessing $6 billon in assets that were unfrozen as part of a prisoner swap deal in response to Iran’s longtime support of Hamas, a militant group which led a bloody and unprecedented assault on Israel over the weekend that killed hundreds of civilians.
Another first for the agency came on the same podcast episode – a previously unnamed CIA operative who took part in the 1979 extraction had his identity revealed as agency linguist and exfiltration specialist Ed Johnson, who was previously only known as “Julio.”
Johnson recounted his experience on the mission to the hosts of the podcast, saying it was especially challenging because the diplomats they had to rescue were not spies and had no formal training for anything resembling the situation they found themselves in.
“Working with the six — these are rookies,” Johnson recounts in an interview aired by the podcast. “They were people who were not trained to lie to authorities. They weren’t trained to be clandestine, elusive.”