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CIA admits 1953 Iranian coup it backed was undemocratic

The CIA has for the first time acknowledged that the 1953 coup it backed in Iran that overthrew its prime minister and cemented the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was undemocratic.

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The admission came in a new podcast revealing details about one of the most famed CIA operations of all times – the effort to spirit six American diplomats out of Iran under the guise of a Hollywood movie production.

The CIA in 2013 admitted its role in the coup that brought down Iran’s then prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, but until now has not publicly acknowledged that the move was undemocratic.

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Much of the agency’s official history of the coup remains classified, complicating the public’s understanding of an event that still resonates, as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington.

The “CIA’s leadership is committed to being as open with the public as possible”, the agency said in a statement responding to questions from the Associated Press. “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.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations described the 1953 coup as marking “the inception of relentless American meddling in Iran’s internal affairs” and dismissed the US acknowledgments.

“The US 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,” the mission said in a statement.

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The CIA’s podcast, The Langley Files, focused two recent episodes on the story of the six American diplomats’ escape. While hiding at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, a two-man CIA team entered Tehran and helped them fly out of the country while pretending to be members of a crew scouting for a made-up science-fiction film.

The operation was retold in the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo directed by and starring Ben Affleck, which offered a dramatized version of the operation, with Affleck playing the late CIA officer Antonio “Tony” Mendez. The podcast for the first time identified the second CIA officer who accompanied Mendez, naming him as agency linguist and exfiltration specialist Ed Johnson. He previously only had been known publicly by the pseudonym “Julio”.

In the podcast, CIA spokesperson Walter Trosin cites the claims of agency historians that the majority of the CIA’s clandestine activities in its history “bolstered” popularly elected governments.

“We should acknowledge, though, that this is, therefore, a really significant exception to that rule,” Trosin says of the 1953 coup.

CIA historian Brent Geary, appearing on the podcast, agrees.

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“This is one of the exceptions to that,” Geary says.

Seven decades later, the 1953 coup remains as hotly debated as ever in Iran, where many see a straight line leading from the coup to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ultimately toppled the shah.

The coup also prompted the CIA into a series of further actions in other countries, including Guatemala, where US clandestine operations in 1954 installed a military dictator and sparked a 40-year civil war that likely killed approximately 245,000 people.

But large portions of the CIA reappraisal of the coup remain heavily redacted, despite attempts to legally pry them loose by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive.

Further complicating any historical reckoning is the CIA’s own admission that many files related to the 1953 coup likely had been destroyed in the 1960s.

“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 mythmaking about the US role long after the fact.”